Tam Hoang. Some of you probably had that one friend in school who was really, really into Asian stuff. I want to be the reverse of that dude.
  • Tam Hoang. Some of you probably had that one friend in school who was really, really into Asian stuff. I want to be the reverse of that dude.
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If you grew up speaking Vietnamese, like I did, there was probably a moment in your life when you realized the limitations of your vocabulary. So, a conversation with your mom went something like this:

“Vietnamese Vietnamese registration Vietnamese units Vietnamese Vietnamese credentialing.”

Release papers for Tam’s father. My dad spent five and a half years in the “re-education camps” of post-war Vietnam, and that is why we were able to be here.

The word that comes to mind is “static.” Or maybe even “arrested.” So, as your life moved on to more complex topics such as Roth IRAs and escrow accounts, the conversations you had with your parents revolved around what you ate last, which of your cousins got pregnant recently, and how soon after they got married they got pregnant.

Tam’s dad as military police lieutenant in Vietnam. I remember once when I was 12 or 13 in the U.S. hearing my dad leave his boss a voice message asking if he could take the next day off. The servility in his voice, the pleading, the struggling to get out words, was painful to hear.

Look no further than a Vietnamese for Native Speakers class to see this in effect. I took one in college and the same kids who spent their days discussing molecular synthesis or Kristeva would patter about sounding like ten-year-olds at a backyard gathering.

Tam is on the left, with his mother and father. I grew up in a village in Vietnam called Lam Son, a small backwater south of Saigon (if you’re speaking to a Vietnamese-American, don’t even think about calling it Ho Chi Minh City. Because communism. Because, sore losers.)

I remember coming back home from college and being told by a family member that I sounded ngọng, which meant it sounded like I was speaking like a deaf person. For some older Viet folks, not being able to speak well is tantamount to having a disability.

Tam with his older brother in their village. After my brother died, my mom received offers from people offering their children to pretend to be him so that their child can come to America with us.

Perhaps I should back up. I am a first-generation Vietnamese immigrant. My dad spent five and a half years in the “re-education camps” of post-war Vietnam, and that is why we were able to be here. I teach high school English. I sometimes get asked about why and how I became a teacher — and an English teacher, of all things. I suppose the answer can be found in a spot where history, family, and personal temperament intersect.

Tam at his brother’s funeral

My students and community don’t often give me this impression, but occasionally there is a sense of novelty surrounding what I do in light of where I’ve come from. I was born nine years after the Vietnam War ended, but we know that the legacies of wars don’t end with the last chopper out of the country. But the Vietnamese person as victim of history is a tired trope sometimes. The question of why and how I came to do what I do, though, does tie itself to this trope, as common as it is.

When my family came to the U.S. in 1991, I was in the second grade. I knew three sentences that I strung together as a stock response: “How are you? I’m fine. I’m from Vietnam.”

I think I pursued English because of an arrested sense of cultural and political identity.

It’s not that I don’t have a connection to my Vietnamese-ness or that I’m some sort of self-hater in the Amy Tan sense. It’s that the Vietnam War kind of screwed everything up. It deprived us first-generation immigrants of a holistic awareness of our identities by denying us of historical continuity. There’s a line from the film Magnolia that goes something like, “We might be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.” It sounds kind of cheesy, but it’s true. It ain’t through with us, so it prevents us from having a streamlined sense of self.

Tam and his family with his uncle Frank (second from right). I saw just how much of a difference knowing English made. My uncle was comfortable, in control, conversing with his hands. My dad stood to the side, hands still, smiling a sheepish grin.

I’m also an educator, and I don’t particularly agree that teaching is a noble profession. The phrase is used in a lot of tired ways: as a backhanded compliment, as a way to silence demands for better working conditions, as a pointless bromide. I don’t like the phrase because teaching for a lot of teachers is incredibly rewarding in a selfish way: you learn so much more than you think you can learn by watching young people think. And having a background in literature is handy because you get to be there to help them connect the dots from past to present to future.

Video:

Tam Hoang translates his father's release papers

Tam translates the documents for his father's release from a reeducation camp in Vietnam.

Tam translates the documents for his father's release from a reeducation camp in Vietnam.

There are not a lot of current problems that can’t be held up to the light of a text from the past. In my classes, we read Art of War to appreciate the Spurs’ beautiful offense against the Heat in the NBA finals, discuss Snow White’s themes on love in relation to Taming of the Shrew, make Lena Dunham and Mindy Kaling argue with Christopher Hitchens on whether or not women are funny. I suppose I try to offer my students a sense of what I lack: continuity and meaning.

Video:

Tam Hoang discusses his childhood in Vietnam

Tam Hoang shares memories, good and bad, from his impoverished youth in Communist-run Vietnam.

Tam Hoang shares memories, good and bad, from his impoverished youth in Communist-run Vietnam.

We have the luxury of living in a country that is not regularly confronted by history on a massive scale. We live in a nation of such diversity of experience that we can sometimes be selective about the historical happenings that matter to us. What’s more, we do history to other people. And I say this not in an accusatory way, but it is something I still deeply feel as a Vietnamese-American. Talk to Vietnamese people and you won’t often find a sense of grievance or of being victimized because of the war. But what you will sometimes find is a sense of loss not different from the Lost Generation of the First World War. The only difference is we don’t have a Hemingway to dramatize and explain this feeling to others.

In teaching, my students and I get to engage and unpack ideas, make sense of things. We ask questions and defend claims. We draw lines between things, or make them more visible. Teaching gives me continuity. Teaching makes things make sense. The same can’t really be said for the history of Vietnam, or in my family history.

I grew up in a village in Vietnam called Lam Son, a small backwater south of Saigon (if you’re speaking to a Vietnamese-American, don’t even think about calling it Ho Chi Minh City. Because communism. Because, sore losers.) It had no running water or electricity, and separating the village from the market was a two-lane freeway that people crossed at their peril every day.

Church was a big part of our lives. We went to mass at least five days a week, more if there were special masses like the one celebrating the Assumption of Mary or if it was a family member’s patron saint’s mass. I didn’t really mind it, and neither did the people in the village. There was, after all, only one TV. Also, the masses let me keep track of where we were in the year. Free popcorn and Ben-Hur projected onto a blanket meant that it must be Christmas. Wake up all alone in the morning and it’s probably Easter because your parents went to early mass.

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Comments

anniej March 13, 2015 @ 7:48 a.m.

Coffee and reading this personal story - what a great way to start my day. THANK YOU!!!

2

Javajoe25 March 15, 2015 @ 1:18 p.m.

One of the best pieces of writing I have seen in The Reader in a long, long time. There are so many things I can say about the issues you raise here, Mr. Hoang. I live on a different facet of the same stone. I was in Vietnam many years ago, as an American soldier in the war. I left and returned to my culture as changed as you were by your relocation. The foreign language, the exposure to a new culture, all clearly made us feel we had we had entered altered universes. But it was the war, doing what all wars do; taking people who are at home in their world and causing them to feel their lives have been fractured, never to be the same again. Our war left us all wondering what was lost and what was gained and was any of it worth it? Your views and experiences are beautifully captured here in your story. The journey you have been and still are on, will hopefully result in some additional writing at some point soon. I look forward to it.

1

jun3rd March 15, 2015 @ 1:41 p.m.

Tam, thank you for reminding me that I do enjoy reading "in-between" my moments for colonial sacrifice and visiting immigrant lands to celebrate my origin.

1

mtakahara March 18, 2015 @ 1:07 p.m.

The writing is mesmerizing. The spirit who pours out this language is humble, transparent and refreshingly pure.

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Alchemist March 26, 2015 @ 11:54 a.m.

Thank you for sharing your (obviously) genuine thoughts about your life and blended cultural experiences. All of the comments previous to mine are perfect- describe your essay beautifully. As someone who researches the Vietnam war, has daily interactions with Vietnamese Americans of all persuasions, and struggles to make sense of our shared histories- which, let's face it, are mostly grounded in pain, loss, abandonment and separation- your mindset is simply wonderful. Many thanks to the editor of this newsletter for having the good sense to publish and share this with all of us. Thank you Tam.

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