[Editor’s Note: An individual who can witness, nay live through, decades on the battlements of hell and emerge with wisdom and beauty are to be welcomed. Those who speak with clarion voice allowing others to learn from that experience are to be celebrated. Thank you Kim Roberts.]
April 30, 1975—April 30, 2017. Then and Now. Photos of him the day we met, and of us
more than four decades ago when he was alive, then my current picture taken two weeks ago with friends from the Sadec Flower Village in Vietnam to America. Love and War. Destiny and the magic of life. Over four decades have gone by the window of my life, literally as swiftly as whiffs of fragrance in the whirlwind breeze–from the fresh scent of Spring essence to the intense, spicy, and aromatic Summer heat then transitioned to the soft, intimate touch of flurry Autumn leaves dispersing in the air, and ending it all with a silky, tendered scent of Winter rain drips. Life has been both a curse and a blessing, nonetheless, no regrets.
We met in April 1968 at a Military Chapel in Dong Tam, Vietnam, one year short of five decades ago, while taking communion. On April 30, 1975, he frantically tried to get me out of Vietnam to no avail. Taking a leap of faith, I planned an escape from Vietnam and succeeded. Months later, I was a tattered refugee in America beginning to build a new life. Survival, Love, and War. And hundreds, if not thousands, of other events in between. Oh, what a life!
In remembrance of April 30, 1975, a day of peace, I am reprinting a piece I wrote on April 30, 2000, “Peace at Any Price,” which was published in the San Francisco Chronicle. I am reposting it as I hope that this reminder helps the next generations of people from Vietnam and all Americans how precious peace is. We need to acknowledge the past, appreciate the peaceful present, and move toward the future with our faith in each other and I pray that our government and leaders will do the same. I also hope that the healing process extended over the past four decades has brought back the spirit of Vietnam, the country I love, and the beauty and uniqueness it once manifested itself. May we all remember this day–a day to celebrate LIFE, PEACE, and LOVE.
*****Peace at Any Price/Her countrymen who survived the carnage of Vietnam seem to have put the war behind them. Why can’t she?
by Kim N Roberts Published 4:00 am, Sunday, April 30, 2000. The San Francisco Chronicle ©SFGate.org (Reposting on April 30, 2017)
When I began writing down memories of my escape from Vietnam, I had no idea it would dredge up so much pain. Often during the three years I’ve worked on the project, I wake up in the morning weeping.
“What’s wrong?” my husband asks.
“It’s Vietnam,” I say. “I get upset whenever I remember the war.
“Can’t you just forget about it?” he asks.
But I can’t forget.
I left Vietnam for America after the war — the war that took away the loved ones I cherished, the war that deprived me of my personal possessions, the war that forced me to flee the country I loved so much. I was 24 years old.
I was one of the lucky ones. For years I felt guilty for having escaped from Vietnam, for surviving. I wished no one would ask me about my national origin. I wished my husband would not tell people where I came from when he introduced me. I wished that others would mistake me for a Korean or Filipino. It took me a long time to realize I was a victim of the Vietnam War — not the maker of it.
Most Americans — even the most caring, the most sensitive — have no idea what it was like to live through the war. For them, it is over, done with, history. I can’t look to an American and see understanding in their eyes when I talk about the war. They can’t understand why, after 25 years, I cannot forget.
But to my shock, when I turn to my compatriots, I see that the majority of the Vietnamese I know — many who suffered greater losses than I did — act as if they have managed to erase the war that tore so many of our lives to shreds.
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I went back to Vietnam four years ago, hoping to find a sense of kinship I’d been missing for so many years. My countrymen welcomed me with cheerful, smiling faces as they told me they had forgotten about the war. But have they really?
My 23-year-old relative Tan Tran was born soon after his father, a South Vietnamese army officer, was killed. “I don’t know anything about the war,” he said. “I am now married and we have a thriving seafood business. Life is good here. So I don’t think about war.”
“Bring your husband back with you next time you return,” the young town chief told me when I went to Sadec, my hometown in the Mekong Delta. He knew that my husband served in Vietnam. “We have forgotten about the war. Americans are our friends now.”
My driver, Luu Nguyen, in his mid-40s, asked, “Why didn’t you bring your husband? The Vietnamese are happy to see Americans — no more governmental restriction or resentment, no more hatred and retaliation.” While I was talking to Luu, his daughter asked me about Michael Jackson, her American idol.
The Vietnamese have learned to live like Americans, too. At the Hotel Sadec, for $25 a night, I got an air-conditioned room with breakfast and packages of luxury items: toothbrush, toothpaste, comb, shampoo, and soap. I was given postcards, maps and information in English about the local tourist attractions — including the monument to Ho Chi Minh’s father and the Xeo Quyt Canal, a former Viet Cong hideout and fire-base. I later visited the Cu Chi tunnels in Phuoc Long, built by the Viet Cong underneath the military base of the American First Air Cavalry Division.
“Why do the Americans want to remember those bad old days?” asked the tour guide. “They give me my job. I feel like a winner. I make money and I don’t have to remember the war.”
Vietnam isn’t the only place where newfound prosperity seemed to wipe out for others what for me are horrors imprinted forever upon my heart. The Vietnamese I know in California all tell me how they also have forgotten the war.
Today marks the 25th anniversary of the war’s end. Not long ago, I called my childhood friend, My Nguyen, to ask her about the commemoration plans in San Jose, where she now lives.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I have forgotten all about it. Since 1989, I have been working 70 hours a week so I can send money home regularly. You should see the videotape my brother made of our new house in Vietnam, built with the money I sent.”
One evening at 10 p.m. I called Hang Doan, a sister-in-law in her early 60s who escaped Vietnam with me, to ask for information about our camp in Thailand. Hang and her husband own 15 rental houses. They both work full-time for Sacramento County, and Hang also teaches at night.
“I have almost forgotten these things,” Hang said. “I’m too busy to look back. I just got home from my second job. I often have dinner around 10. Sweetie, haven’t you forgotten about the war?”
Other Vietnamese tell me the same thing: They have forgotten the war, its aftermath, and the mistakes, heartache, atrocities and misery that came with it. Everyone thinks that making money, a lot of it, is the best remedy.
When I visited the War Crimes Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, I wondered how the Vietnamese could look at the photo display of corpses strewn on the ground, the napalm victims’ burned bodies, and the planes spraying clouds of Agent Orange and say they have forgotten the war.
When I saw streets that bear such names as Dien Bien Phu, or Cach Mang Thang Tam (August Revolution), Dong Khoi (Simultaneous Uprising), Nam Ky Khoi Nghia (Southern Revolt), I wondered how my countrymen could walk these avenues and say they’ve forgotten. Is it only their memories that have died, or have they paid for the act of “forgetting” with a piece of their hearts as well?
Linh Tran, who works for me, brought me the March 19 newspaper showing the
Vietnamese protesting in Oakland over the lithograph exhibition of Ho Chi Minh. “These Vietnamese protesters probably don’t want to be reminded of the war,” she said. “But they show that they still hold on to memories of the past. I personally wish I can forget the war.” Linh, in her mid-50s, came to America in 1986. Her husband, a former South Vietnamese soldier, was in a forced labor camp for seven years. She remembers feeding her baby thin rice soup flavored with salt because after the war, there was no milk or sugar, even in the black market.
When her oldest son, Tuan, was drafted to fight in Cambodia in 1979, she peeled off her tin roof and sold the tin piece by piece to pay for his escape. Tuan’s boat was pirated four times. He ended up as a refugee in Italy. He is now a manager in an Italian bakery, working 60 hours per week. Linh, her husband and her daughter each work two jobs. “So we can afford the things we lost to the war,” she says.
But for me, there isn’t enough money in the world to make up for what I lost.
For Americans, the war ended when the fighting stopped 25 years ago. But for the Vietnamese, the end of the conventional war was the beginning of millions of private wars.
I, along with my sister and her family, escaped persecution by the victorious North Vietnamese by fleeing Vietnam in an old leaking fishing boat with a broken-down engine. I still recall the horror I felt one day at the sight of three bright red Khmer Rouge boats surrounding our boat. Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge killed thousands of escapees — including their own — but for some reason that day the Khmer Rouge decided not to investigate us, 26 escapees, including children, as our boat ran adrift along the Cambodian shore. It was a miracle that we safely reached Thailand.
I wish I could forget the miserable days in the refugee camps when we were homeless and destitute. At one point, my sister-in-law Hang literally fought the camp attendant for a piece of plastic to hang around our mosquito net to give us some privacy. She lost.
And I can’t forget the small fire that destroyed all the personal belongings I brought in a small overnighter and left me with only one burned silver dollar.
In California, I look at my countrymen and divide them into three groups. Some are what I call the “drifters,” those too young to know the war or too indifferent to want to know. Some are the “vanquished,” those who survived the war bitter, poor, underprivileged and lost. The third group, the “victors,” triumphed over the past through personal success — accumulated wealth, a brilliant career, social status or an education.
But while they seem to have forgotten about the war, their obsession with success tells me otherwise. They work as if they are racing against the ghost of the past — a ghost that may catch up with them and devour them if they slow down.
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