(Just for a change of pace, some modern history and my recollections of it.)
On an April day, thirty-eight years ago, Mom and I were in the supermarket. In the aisle with the flour and sugar and baking supplies and spices, I took a bottle off the shelf of Schilling brand spices, a cylindrical glass bottle with the light green plastic cap and green and gold label.
“I wonder how much longer we are going to see this?” I showed it to Mom. The label said ‘Cinnamon’ and in smaller letters “Saigon.” Mom looked at it thoughtfully and said, “Get three. We’d better stock up.”
Cinnamon was the only consumer good that we knew of that came out of South Vietnam; as of the cruel month of April, 1975, there would probably be no more of it.
The North Vietnamese had overrun and taken all of the South. The last helicopter had taken off from the room of the American Embassy, and the newspaper was full of pictures, pictures of frantic people mobbing the gates, crammed into boats, thousands, hundreds of thousands of desperate people, pleading for rescue, for shelter, for succor. Their city was gone, their country was gone. There would be no more jars of “Cinnamon-Saigon” on the grocery store shelves. The war was over, but not the memories — or the responsibility that seemed to hang, for some people like an albatross around our necks.
I got involved in refugee resettlement shortly after this conversation. For the following two years, I got used to taking off my shoes upon entering a home and the arrhythmical sound of English as spoken by Vietnamese, with no ‘f’ or ‘th’ sound and a ‘p’ roughly inserted instead, and a dash of pungent fish sauce on rice and into practically everything else, small children forgetting that I did not understand Vietnamese and jabbering away at me anyway, and the crackly-crisp texture of spring rolls – a crust like deep-fried tissue paper, but not a drop of oil in the inside, vegetables and bean threads and little bits of pork sausage, and Grandmothers’ vegetable pickles – oh, yes, I didn’t know Vietnam first-hand, but I knew the Vietnamese Diaspora. That Diaspora that hardly ever merits mention in the mainstream media, even on anniversaries. Sometimes, news reports mention that that 2 million Vietnamese decamped in 1975 and the years following, but I hardly ever hear any of the stories I heard thirty-eight years ago, or any hint of the terror that impelled people like my parent’s foster-son, or my friends Xuan-an and Hai Tran to leave everything – and run.
Over the years since, I hardly ever heard accounts of the last commercial flight out of Danang, a flight which was mobbed by Vietnamese so desperate that they clawed and trampled each other for a chance to climb onto the rear air-stair of an airliner that didn’t even dare stop, but taxied up and down the ramp with a mob stampeding after it… I almost never heard accounts of the USS Hancock, where helicopters were landing so thick and fast it was all they could do to empty out refugees and shove the helicopter overboard because there were two – three – four more helicopters hovering and desperate to land, each crammed full of desperate people. What of the cargo ship, the Pioneer Contender, where Hai and Xuan-An, and her brother and all their families, and the families of the crew of a coastal patrol launch found brief refuge, at the edge of international waters? What of Hau, the Vietnamese AF mechanic- on a cargo plane which took refuge in Thailand, crammed with Viet Air Force personnel, or Bien, the youngest son of a well-to-do family, who somehow wrangled a visa and way out for him and him alone, so at least one of their blood could be safe, somewhere in the world?
Why are there no stories on NPR about how there was hardly a Vietnamese-American community before 1975, only a scattering of Vietnamese women who had married American men? At a community resettlement committee picnic, to which all the local committees had brought together all the refugees they had taken on responsibility for – and any other resident Vietnamese, as advertised in the local paper – the wife of an American contractor confessed to Xuan-an that she had been reticent to get in touch with any of the refugees until then. She was afraid she would be stigmatized as a former b-girl or a whore; in fact, she had been a perfectly respectable secretary of a contracting firm in Saigon and married her husband with the blessings of her family. Xuan-an teared up and hugged her and said that there was no more any of that, they were now all the same; hopeful refugees in a new land.
I think it was this woman’s husband, who was legendary in the refugee community; he had gone back to Saigon in that cruel April, to bring out her mother and father. If they had a sponsor, they could get a visa, they could leave, so he went personally to fetch them away. He did get the parents out, but he also pledged to sponsor all of her sisters and brothers – and their families – and the families of his in-laws – immediate neighbors – and six or seven strangers whom he took on in passing, to the tune of eighty-plus individuals, brands spared from the expected holocaust. The only individual to equal that was the Baptist Vietnamese minister, proprietor of the only Vietnamese restaurant in the San Fernando Valley, and possibly the whole Los Angeles area at that time. It was in a bare-bones and otherwise undistinguishable strip-mall, but it was a restaurant six days of the week, and on the seventh, a church – the cash register perched awkwardly on top of the piano, but Xuan-An’s mother, Grandmother respected him enormously, because he was truly a good and devout man— he was sponsoring other refugees right and left, giving them jobs in the restaurant and setting up dorms in the rooms above. Grandmother was herself a devout Buddhist, and a highly respected arbiter of such matters; as an elder whose immediate family had all managed to escape, she was rather envied by the other elders, many of whom had been carried away because their adult children insisted on it.
Yes, the Vietnamese community in Los Angeles — and a good few other places — sprung into existence almost instantly as these things go, after 1975. This is the story I hardly ever hear on NPR or in other mainstream news venues, a story I know happened because I was there. I wonder why? The thought occurs to me that it may be that the exodus of all those thousands might be seen as a reproach. All those people on crowded boats and helicopters, all those people mobbing the Embassy, passing their children over the bars, or getting them onto the orphan flights. It is a reproach, a criticism – even a condemnation of all of those who urged the abandonment of a bad war in a bad place. Every Chablis-and-Brie anti-war intellectual, every campus protestor, every Chomsky-fellow-traveler, every fading movie star or rising politician glomming on to the trendy political position, every bureaucrat with second thoughts about actions they had themselves urged on – they had a hand in pulling the plug on South Vietnam. They have no interest in the stories of people like Xuan-an, and Hai, and Kiet and Bien, and Grandmother, the guy who went to get his in-laws and returned with eighty other people, and those thousands of other Vietnamese in the great Diaspora? Oh, no, taking account of the stories would mean accepting the responsibility for putting them into the boats and sending them into exile. We can’t have that, can we?