Sunday, December 26, 2010

What's Left for Me in Vietnam?

People inevitably ask me if I have been to Vietnam, assuming that a) I actually have the intention to visit the country of my ethnic roots and b) it is only a matter of time before I get there, being an avid traveler of the world.

Words of wisdom: never assume. I was born in America, during a tumultuous snowstorm in the very heart of the Big Apple. The city that never sleeps, with its brusque honesty, flurries of diversion and distraction, art and money, dizzily fast-changing attitudes, is more my homeland than Vietnam will ever be.

I confess that I have never felt completely comfortable in the States, that there is some flavor or spice in me that is different. Perhaps all immigrants feel this way. I do gravitate towards Asians, even though I was raised in a Caucasian neighborhood. There is an altar dedicated to my ancestors, embellished with photographs of my grandparents and reeking of incense. Yes, I have the dull ache, the yearning to belong to a people who look like me and to immerse in a language that is uniquely our own, the sounds my tongue was shaped to pronounce.

But Vietnam is not the way. Simply put, I reject Vietnam because Vietnam has already rejected me. After 1975, the citizenship of all those who emigrated abroad was effectively nullified. Property was confiscated by cadres of the Communist Party. Tombs were overthrown and remains scattered to the four winds. Those who dissented were imprisoned and re-educated. According to Doan Van Toai's memoir, the Vietnamese Gulag, political prisons that housed 300 under the South Vietnamese Thieu administration held over 3,000 after 1975.

Over time, emigrants were valued because they provided a consistent source of income, as the local, state, and national levels of the Vietnamese government took generous cuts of money before it went to feeding the impoverished families left behind.

Circa 2010, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam has officially re-categorized us. There are native Vietnamese, there are foreigners, and then there is us: Viet Kieu (Vietnamese From Abroad). We are the new minority: successful, worldly, educated, and "different." It is as if we are no longer ethnically Vietnamese, and the government has somehow bastardized us, particularly those who were born on that soil and now no longer have any claim to be there.

Despite our understanding of the language and tradition, we Viet Kieu are grouped with foreigners and expected to pay over-priced rates (triple the accepted amount), even though we are aware of being ripped off. The Vietnamese natives appeal to our sense of commonality only to ingratiate themselves to our wallets, or even better, to find a ticket out of there. Marriage is typically the path of survival for many young girls blessed with beauty, sexual prowess, and a whole lot of ambition. And no, they don't mind if the man is already married.

This brings me to culture. The Socialist Republic of Vietnam and the Republic of South Vietnam is not the same nation, despite the immutable physical land many of the estranged Viet Kieu still call home. Politics define freedom (or lack of it), freedom provides a framework to make choices, and choices are the living fiber of our lives. The culture of a democratic state versus a communist state don't even fit on the same page. (Think West v. East Germany. Or the Ukraine, Lithuania, and Latvia v. USSR.)

So I wonder if the culture of my mother's country (which no longer exists) is embodied in the earth of Indochina, or if it is embodied within my mother herself, her values, her teachings, and her spirit. Our culture dwells within us, within the stories that continue to be told.

Many raise the development of Vietnam to quell my views on the regime. It is a booming economy, they say, and it is getting better. I would agree that constant construction of hotels, and an influx of industry are definite pluses for the country. Money is definitely pouring in. Yet, it is getting better for whom?

Developing countries disseminate resources into education, building roads and infrastructure, and improving agriculture. In Vietnam, the transportation system is comparable to what was prior to the war, agriculture still relies primarily on human labor and beasts of burden like oxen or buffalo, and public schools are in shambles. Compare Saigon (oops, I mean Ho Chi Minh City) to Beijing, where the 3 ring highway system became an 8 ring highway system in 10 years, or the multitudes of foreign students who travel to Chinese universities. Who travels abroad to Vietnamese universities to study? So who is benefitting from the newly acquired wealth of Vietnam? Certainly not the people.

It pains me when travelers intimate the beauty of Vietnam, the diamond sand beaches of the south, the melancholy shrines of Hue, and tiny romantic islands of the north. I long to breathe in the air of the earth that once, long ago, was my motherland.

But I won't. Non-Vietnamese friends don't understand the sensation of being cast off by a nation, a government that severed the bonds of commonality, and now only wants you back because of the benefits you can offer: resources. Vietnam is now inviting all Viet Kieu back because the intelligentsia fled long ago.

I won't go.

You see, Vietnamese Communists are like sweet-talking men, promising something they never intend to deliver.

I would rather stay home.

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