Held on March 14, 2016 at the Vivian and David Campbell Conference Facility, this year marks the fourth installment of the annual Dr. David Chu Distinguished Visitor Lecture, a talk hosted by the Dr. David Chu Program in Asia-Pacific Studies. The speaker for the Distinguished Visitor Lecture symposium was Professor Yen Le Espiritu, a sociologist at the University of California San Diego’s Department of Ethnic Studies. Professor Espiritu’s presentation examined the ways in which the processes of remembering and forgetting work in the production of official discourses on empire, war, and violence, and in the construction of refugee subjectivities. Through an analysis of the production of “postmemories” of young Vietnamese born after the end of the Vietnam War, Professor Espiritu’s talk challenged the conventional ideas about memory as recuperation.
Following opening remarks made by Professor Takashi Fujitani, the Asian Institute’s Director of the Dr. David Chu Program in Asia-Pacific Studies, he introduced Professor Espiritu and praised her commitment to serving as a mentor for students engaged in Asian-American projects, and the many book awards she has received. He said of Professor Espiritu that “unlike for most of us [in academia], it is a rare occurrence for her to not win an award for her books.” After Professor Fujitani’s introduction, Professor Espiritu began her talk by first discussing her own experience as a Vietnamese refugee in 1975. Her personal experience as a refugee was but one of the motivations which led her to eventually write about the Vietnam War and militarized refugees. Other motivations included the fact that she did not want to re-narrate the mainstream story of refugees being mere homeless victims. Espiritu also found herself unable to process what was going on during the 2003 Iraq War, a period of time in history when the United States made constant reference to the Vietnam War in justifying the U.S. invasion in Iraq. As such, the Iraq War was also a factor that prompted her to write on the Vietnam War and militarized refugees.
Professor Espiritu’s talk centered on chapter six of her 2014 book entitled, “Body Counts,” where she wrote about individuals of the post-Vietnam War generation and how they think about the Vietnam War. In particular, she was interested in finding out more on how the “Generation After” imagined the war. The “Generation After” refers to the children of individuals that went through the Vietnam War, whom never experienced the war. She was also interested in seeing if and how the Vietnam War had an impact on the children of the Vietnam War generation’s everyday lives.
Besides challenging humanitarian ideas of refugees, another purpose of Professor Espiritu’s book was to expose militarized violence conducted by the United States with regards to the Vietnam War. Her first slide featured a photo of an Air America helicopter rescuing Vietnamese refugees from the rooftop of 22 Gia Long Street in Saigon, following the fall of Saigon in April 1975. This photo became iconic and ideological because on one hand, it featured Vietnamese scrambling to go to the United States at any cost and on another, it changed the U.S. image from an aggressor to benevolent. Through “Body Counts,” Professor Espiritu exposed the fact that American aid was often militarized in nature, contrary to what the aforementioned photo suggested. She showed the militarized nature of American aid to the Vietnamese by tracing the route that they took to the United States, demonstrating that their path went through military bases in Philippines and Guam before reaching the coast of California. To describe the phenomenon of Vietnamese refugees taking refuge at military bases that doubled up as militarized spaces and refugee centers, she coined the term “militarized refuge.” She dismisses the American ideology of the time that the evacuation out of Vietnam was “a slap and dash response” where Americans simply “threw everything together”, on the grounds of the Americans using the military bases in Philippines and Guam to evacuate the refugees. As such, she argues that if one was to follow the Vietnamese body from its displacement to the West, one was also following the path of the United States’ empire.
Throughout her book, Professor Espiritu mentions that following the numerous interviews she conducted with Vietnamese families currently living in the United States, she found a constant interplay between the two concepts of “silences” and “silencing”. Professor Espiritu then discussed the silences that prevail in Vietnamese families, with children often left only with bits and pieces of the story. This was due to silences that pervade these families, as a result of some of their parents saying, “What is there to talk about?” Some of this silences are the result of “dangerous stories”, which include family secrets and transgression. An interviewee responded to one of Professor Espiritu’s interview questions by remarking that, “My father could not talk to us too much about the war, lest these dangerous stories accidentally spill from his liquoured lips.” The interviewee’s father feared that if he began talking about one war story, he might spill other “dangerous stories.” Professor Espiritu gave an example of such a story, which involved a married Vietnamese man found to be entangled in a relationship with another woman who cared for him while he was at a hospital in Vietnam.
Women were not exempt from the chaos of the Vietnam War either. Since the war in Vietnam led to mass, widespread confusion where “people were running around,” Professor Espiritu found that women were freed from family expectations and often had affairs. In an interview Professor Espiritu conducted, a Vietnamese mother living in the United States refused to share the details of her affair that she had while in Vietnam, because she felt it was a personal transgression. Interestingly, stories about Vietnamese men and women who took refuge in the United States following the fall of Saigon who had extramarital relations are not uncommon. Talking about the Vietnam War to their children then, ultimately meant talking about personal transgressions and “dangerous stories” as well, which would hurt loved ones. As a result, the Vietnam War generation often avoids talking about the war in this way. However, Professor Espiritu states that extramarital relations are just one instance that goes to show that even amidst the horrors of war, people continued to live their lives. Besides that, however, people still played soccer, read poetry and went to the movies. As such, she made the argument that even in the midst of war, civilians still made efforts to fulfill their needs and wants, adapting themselves to the circumstances that they were living in.
On another note, however, Espiritu notes that some of the silences in Vietnamese families are the result of a combination of private grief and public achievements. Arguing against the model minority myth, Professor Espiritu stated that the reason why some Asian-Americans usually do well is because of the circumstances that they were brought up in. An interviewee was quoted by Professor Espiritu saying that, “Father gets so emotional and he starts [talking] about his life… Mostly what we hear is that he feels like he works so hard but he gets nowhere. He compares us to… people who have houses and everything and we don’t have anything and we live paycheck by paycheck.” This interviewee went further and explained that the father’s insurance policy was telling his wife, “You can’t get sick.” Many Vietnamese parents’ jobs are labour intensive, which is why economic insecurity was a theme consistently brought up by many of Espiritu’s interviewees. Through this quote, many Vietnamese young people, the “Generation After,” feel that their need to succeed in school is not an individual achievement, but rather a family affair, or in other words, done for the family.
Evidently, the “Generation After” continue to live in a world where the Vietnam War never really ended. For these individuals, the war continues to live on through the experiences shared by their parents, and through the silences that exist. These second generation Vietnamese mitigate the war by committing everything that they do for their families, even in the face of potential adversity. Professor Espiritu ultimately concluded that knowing the chronology of the Vietnam War is not as important for the “Generation After,” for their lives continue to be impacted and shaped by the memories communicated to them by their parents. It is in the bits and pieces that the “Generation After” gathers, where the story of the Vietnam War speaks the loudest, and it is there in which one must realize that no matter what one does to try and close up what happened in the past, it will continue to be in the domains of everyday life.
Stanley Chia is a second year student studying International Relations and History. He currently serves as an event reporter and copy editor for the Southeast Asia section of Synergy: The Journal of Contemporary Asian Studies.