By Anh-Huong thi Tu
MY HUSBAND, AN all-American type of guy who loves the sea, the sun and anything bursting with life, gets slightly annoyed at the mild state of depression he finds me in around this time when March is gone and the promise of spring fills the air. Once, without realizing the edge of bitterness, I told him how someone who had had to endure Saigon's relentless sun as I had no longer knows how to appreciate, enjoy, savor the delicateness, the subtleness, the etherealness that are the marks of spring in Washington. Once you live in and survive a war, peace takes on a maddening elusiveness.
Though I didn't fully comprehend it at the time, spring as a season of hope probably lost its meaning for me 10 years ago when I stepped from an evacuation plane to begin life as a Vietnamese refugee in America. I don't mean to imply that there have not been sweet moments of triumph in the intervening time. There have been -- many. I am also still filled with a sense of gratitude for the opportunity to rebuild my life here. Yet a dull ache, a low-grade kind of depression like a low-grade fever has persisted -- grown sharper, in fact, as the years have gone by, as I have slowly become more American than Vietnamese.
While other people go through the ritual of spring cleaning or planting, I often find myself taking inventory of the years that have passed since 1975. I desperately rake my memory to retain some images that are increasingly receding -- of a Vietnam, of a city that has changed its name, of a home that has long since been abandoned, and of my older brother's eternal youth, because he did not live beyond his 22nd year.
As the daffodils, the cherry blossoms and the azaleas brighten and splash Washington with their glorious colors, I withdraw further into the darkened room of my memory to play over and over the lyrics of a Vietnamese song that confirms my worst fear: "I'm looking for a spring in my youth but nothing, not even a faded image is retained."
I was born in Hanoi in 1950. My father, an officer in the Vietnamese army under French command, was killed when I was 6 months old by the Vietminh insurgents. My mother moved all three of her children to the south after Vietnam was divided as part of the Geneva accord in 1954.
My mother, a Buddhist as was my father, was a nurse and supported us until her death in 1958. Her unmarried sister, who was also a nurse, raised my brother, my sister and me. I was educated in Vietnamese public schools. I won a U.S. government scholarship to California State University in Fullerton and later transferred to the University of Wisconsin in Madison. I was graduated in 1973 from Wisconsin with a bachelor's degree in journalism.
While I was in college in the States my brother, Diep Xuan, who flew an observation plane for the Vietnamese Air Force, was killed in a ground ambush.
I returned to Vietnam after college and worked for the Vietnamese foreign service until I left on April 24, 1975 on a U.S. Air Force C130.
I've always found irony that my life as a refugee has had the same juxtaposition of emotions experienced by many Americans in Vietnam: hope and despair, triumph and defeat, sweetness and bitterness, friendship and hostility, promise and betrayal and a persistent feeling of confusion, bafflement and non-resolution.
In retrospect, both beginnings were achingly naive. Americans went to Vietnam in the early 1960s bulging with good will and steeled with a determination to preserve democracy in a slightly exotic, distant Asian country. Success in that mission was never a question in those early days. I landed in California on April 29, 1975, a bit frazzled but overwhelmed at my good fortune to be alive and safe in America. Undaunted by my newfound poverty and uprooted status, I plunged into making a new life.
The task did not seem inordinately formidable, at first. I was young -- in my mid- 20s -- well-educated, possessed of an easy- going Americanized attitude picked up from my college years in Madison. Although I had returned to America as a refugee, in the beginning it felt as though I had only left my nest in Vietnam for one in the United States.
I had the same optimistic "can-do" attitude that pervaded the early American involvement in Vietnam. I was single and living alone, gratefully accepting clerical jobs that paid very little. Mercifully, I was spared the agony of longing for news of the fate of loved ones still left in Vietnam because all of my immediate family had also escaped, and beavers that they are, quickly established themselves in Canada.
There was talk of possible resentment against the heavy flow of refugees at the time when America was slowly emerging from the mid-1970's economic recession, but this pessimism turned out to have no basis. America was generous and I set about finding gainful employment.
When I read books written by former American soldiers in Vietnam talking about their first moment of facing the stark reality of being "in-country," of the realization of how far from home they were, of a creeping sadness and self-pity, I know exactly what they mean. That moment came for me in 1977 when, in planning an overseas trip, I asked the Immigration and Naturalization Service for a "Refugee Travel Document."
Among the many questions one had to answer on the form was "Citizen of -- ." Without even thinking about it, I simply put down "Vietnam." When I submitted the form, the clerk glanced quickly at it and to this day I still don't know the precise reason for her action. She casually crossed out "Vietnam" and wrote instead "Stateless."
Talk about reeling with pain. With one swipe of her pen, a bureaucrat had wiped out my lifetime identity, the very root of my being without so much as asking me a question. Stunned by the sudden realization of having become a "nationality" orphan, I went home and began taking inventory of my life as a refugee.
After more than two years of hand-to- mouth existence, my American dream started to take shape and I began making progress in my career as a professional coordinating the Washington office of an association. Ironically enough, all of a sudden, the success that I had striven for so arduously somehow became more of a mockery than an achievement. My self-confidence -- critical in getting me through the first few years -- quickly began to erode. The immense drive, which I must have developed in order to survive the war and which I had put to use in rebuilding my life in America, lost its steam.
I began to have nightmares in which I was locked up somewhere in Vietnam along with friends and relatives and we were all trying desperately to escape not only out of prison but out of Vietnam. I would wake up in a cold sweat and find immense comfort in the humming of the air-conditioner in my tiny apartment. But, the nightmares kept returning, and invariably they would involve a prison scene where people were crying and suffering, and I was the only one who made it to safety.
I started to feel guilty, and slowly began reviewing my life in America, and looking back at the life, the people and the country I left behind. I also went through bouts of depression and crying fits. I got terribly homesick. I missed the harsh sun, the torrential rain, the sleepiness and listlesness that enveloped wary Saigon at mid-day; I missed the peaceful shade of the pagoda grounds where I often waited to pick up my mother after her prayers. I missed walking the streets of downtown Saigon.
Curiously enough, in those longing moments, I blacked out the changed political landscape of Vietnam. In a way it was like a dream -- a dream I created to refill myself with a sense of Vietnameseness because deep down, I must have recognized that I was quickly and irreversibly, though never completely and resolutely, becoming more American. I was married to an American, had become a citizen, but I secretly envied my niece and nephews who were young enough to make their adjustment to Western life with seeming ease and grace. I also resented the inner calm projected by my aunt, who never failed to remind me that although our side in the conflict had lost the war, we didn't lose Vietnam. Vietnam is still there to be loved and to belong to.
During this time, when I felt most shaken by my rootlessness and intimidated by a profoundly vague future, two events took place that compounded my confusion and immobilized the effort to reenergize my life. First, the "boat people" arrived, thousands upon hundreds of thousands of them. As pitifully dreamy as my longing for Vietnam had been, it was immediately shattered. I remembered a colorful, owded, chaotic but lively Saigon. New arrivals described a soulless, antiseptic, deserted Ho Chi Minh City. I detested the name change and began to understand how Soviet exiles and artists loathed calling St. Petersburg "Leningrad."
I could neither indulge myself in thinking of Vietnam nor could I exorcise it. A cousin of mine who narrowly escaped pirates and death told me she realized she would risk the dangerous run in the high seas when she noticed she was increasingly thinking, acting and behaving like her communist "liberators." She told me, "Forget Vietnam; the Vietnam you know no longer exists. You do not want to go back. Ever. Forget it."
The second event made forgetting Vietnam a difficult task. After the initial period of sheepishly turning its back on the turbulent and non-victorious chapter called Vietnam, America displayed its insatiable appetite for analysis by rolling up its sleeves to do a post- mortem on Vietnam. Books, TV programs and newspaper articles flooded the market.
I wanted to shrink smaller and smaller as the post-Vietnam debate expanded wider and wider. The retrospective soul- searching, although not as noisy as the anti- war demonstrations, was just as heart rending. I couldn't help but feel the uneasiness of being a live reminder of the painful period.
In general, Americans did not confuse their continuing questioning of the war and the defeat dealt them with its remnants -- Vietnamese refugees. That spoke a lot for their big-heartedness and fair-mindedness. But it did precious little to lessen the interior collapse of refugees like myself.
For many of us, being in the United States during this post-mortem provided us with our first opportunity to look at the entire conflict in an objective way and to try to view the war from the American side. I still wondered if I could ever do that.
We might have removed ourselves from the battlefield, but many brought with us shrapnel of the war -- a dead brother in my case -- and that made it very difficult to join the chorus singing the tune that the war was a wasted effort, and that the American involvement in Vietnam was a grave mistake from the very beginning.
Living in the land of the free and home of the brave, I find myself possessing neither freedom nor bravery. That might be the root of my depression. Deep in my heart, almost every day of the past 10 years, I have had moments when I have realized not just the limits of freedom, but worse, the dimensions of my cowardice -- a burden of guilt borne by the newly-emerged surviving "Jews from the Orient," the wandering Vietnamese. The spectacular success, the heartbreaking resigned attitude; the resilient fighter, the defeated worker. A split life, in short.
Time does not heal the pain of an exile's life for Vietnamese refugees because America, by and large, is still deep in a needed soul searching regarding her involvement in the war. And the answer may be a long time coming. Having left my country to find safety and refuge with the former ally, though I was too young to participate in any war effort, I nonetheless feel that I am not at liberty to ask the whys and hows of the American departure from Vietnam, much less criticize it.
And although I cringe and feel the stab of pain every time I read an assessment that talks about the corrupt and inefficient South Vietnamese government and army, I let it go unchallenged. Thus my cowardice. There are so many times when it is on the tip of my tongue to burst out, to tell people, "Look, out of the more than 1 million Vietnamese dead throughout the war, half of those could be South Vietnamese soldiers. Why don't you pause and give these people the recognition they deserve? If they committed any sin, it was that they happened to live in a country with a corrupt leadership. But this should not negate the sacrifices that they made, the youth that they lost, the belief that they held and fought for -- a non-communist Vietnam." Why is it that Americans have such an infatuation with the North Vietnamese whose fearlessness in battle should be viewed as fanatical rather than heroic?
But I never say any such things to anybody. Sometimes when I walk home in the darkness of winter, I feel that I can see my brother's eyes gazing at me sadly, disappointedly. I'm too far away to burn some incense on his grave, and even if I were still in Vietnam, I could not stop by to repaint his grave marker with the metallic green color of the plane he once flew. The "northern liberators" -- those who preached brotherhood among Vietnamese against outside imperialists throughout the war -- have ruthlessly ordered the removal of most of the graves of the war dead. The struggle I face as a confused refugee no longer matters because my brother's sadness and loneliness seem so overpowering, so immense, and so eternal.
He was in my thoughts at the dedication of the Vietnam Memorial in November 1982. Prior to that, reflecting the divisiveness the war had wrought, there were bitter controversy and emotional exchanges between people who had different ideas about how the memorial should be designed and whom it should commemorate. Under the golden November sun, the black granite V-shaped memorial with some 58,000 names of Americans who died in Vietnam inscribed on it glowed, gallantly, movingly.
It was a windy day and people were drawing closer to each other for warmth. I liked to think I was also bridging the gap between my Vietnam war memories and those of the Americans. Groups of veterans were gathering but I diverted my eyes every time I happened to look at any of them, which was a shame. I wanted to approach them and tell them how grateful I am for their service in my former country. I wanted to tell them that they didn't lose the war. I wanted to say I'm terribly sorry that so much of their lives have been bottled up and affected simply because of their onetime presence in my country. I wanted to tell them that I genuinely feel their pains and their sorrows. Most of all, I wanted to tell them that 58,000 of their friends did not die in vain, because freedom and democracy are still hallowed in many places in Vietnam and in the hearts of many Vietnamese who are still there, and many more who are dead.
Contrary to the many propagandistic statements of the current government in Vietnam, like people everywhere else in the world, it was more the war that Vietnamese abhorred than the American soldiers who came with it.
Soldiers of war -- whether trusting innocents or committed professionals, North Vietnamese, South Vietnamese or American -- may you all rest in peace and find friendship, understanding and forgiveness and help the living learn to love and live with each other.
But, milling among the crowds of veterans and seeing the slightly older faces of men whom I had seen so often in Vietnam, I never worked up the nerve to speak to any of them. America was going through her healing process and my presence might be an unwelcome intrusion. And that feeling, to this day, I still carry with me. That is why for the Vietnamese refugees -- the truly defeated regiment of a lost war -- spring doesn't come anymore.