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An Approaching Anniversary – Guest post on Vietnam and April 30th

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Whether termed the fall or liberation of Saigon, April 30th is certainly garnering a high level of attention this year. It’s probably to be expected, just like last week’s announcement that Vietnam’s Internet connection would be limited for a while because an undersea cable had been severed by accident.

To oversimplify the situation, one side is waiting to be heard, while the other is hoping they won’t. Those who left Vietnam will generally denounce the current Vietnamese government and concurrently share their pre- and post-1975 stories of fear, loss, and betrayal. Those who stayed in Vietnam, despite being on the losing side, will hang the red flags outside their home (a requirement for certain perks that come with being a “good” cultural neighborhood), but won’t do too much celebrating. The winners will mark the occasion, just as they would any other holiday. Vets will attend ceremonies, government officials will shake hands at photo ops, and offices and schools will close for the day.

Yes, you nod impatiently, but what about the young people – the new generation in Vietnam? Most would reply that they like having a day off. Do in-country Vietnamese youngsters “get” the holiday? About as much as any American or Australian youth would. In other words, video games, texting, and Facebook will rule the holiday for those under a certain age. As one now-departed veteran liked to remark, “and so it goes.”

No side, in my opinion, has an overwhelmingly impressive claim on something they call the truth. When I’ve spoken with South Vietnamese vets, I’ve been shocked by their stories of hell, weeping with them for the pain their families endured. I believe them. Yet, when I’ve shared tea with North Vietnamese vets and civilians, I’ve been just as pained, profoundly touched by their hardships, losses, and deprivations. I believe them, too.

So, when some of my friends call to lament the anniversary, I’m ready to be sad with them and offer support. When others call, I’m just as prepared to share their jubilation and pride.

Were someone overhear these conversations, they’d be shocked at the different words I use to discuss the same event.  Am I a hypocrite? It’s a moot question.

See, I’m an outsider. None of this happened to me or my family. I have no strong personal stake in how this narrative will be told; I possess only the luxury to stand on the periphery.  Often, I wonder whether it might be time to stop capriciously balancing myself on a tiny pinpoint where the various viewpoints overlap.

Long ago I decided to listen to all sides, hoping to analyze the information and evaluate who was telling the “truth.” Decades later, and I haven’t made much headway. I still stand on the outskirts, bearing witness to curses and cries, cheers and exaltations. I also note the quiet, the empty spaces and untold stories, which exemplify the idea of “deafening silence” better than any other I know.

Anniversaries, as with all rituals, are critical to identity. Most people of Vietnamese heritage are preparing to confirm their sense of belonging and place on April 30. Even the uprooted, those who cannot completely identify with their country of origin nor residence, will take part, if only as part of their journey of self-actualization.

In the April 30th discussions, expressed with sorrow or joy, the love will be there, a viscerally compelling facet of all narratives inspired by that date. Those of all political persuasions will post or perform a que huong song, guaranteed to make listeners pause, and fall into a wistful, reverential trance.

If I’ve learned anything, it’s that Vietnam inspires a deep, devotion – from all sides and in whatever manifestation of nation-state that is sought. This love powerfully illustrates Anderson’s “imagined community” through expressions of belonging to (and longing for) the country that is more than a war, more than a bowl of pho, and more than any side could ever claim to define or encapsulate.