Panelists Share Experiences from the Vietnam War

In commemoration of what is now known as Black April in the Southeast Asian community, the Vietnamese Student Union held a series of events last week highlighted by a commemoration event Thursday.

By Alex Chen for The Daily Bruin

It was the middle of the night, 35 years ago, when 10-year-old Quan Pham and his family raced through the dark streets of Saigon toward the airfield where a plane was waiting.

The South Vietnamese president had resigned from his position the previous day and the North Vietnamese army was slowly approaching the southern capital. As a result Pham's father had arranged for his family to leave the country.

Friday marked the 35th anniversary of the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War. But while many in the U.S. view the day as an admirable evacuation of thousands of refugees, to the Southeast Asian community, it marks a dark commemoration of the war's lasting effects on the Vietnamese people.

In commemoration of what is now known as Black April in the Southeast Asian community, the Vietnamese Student Union held a series of events last week highlighted by a commemoration event Thursday.

"Black April, especially on April 30, is a very dark time in the Vietnamese community because it marks an event which symbolizes the whole diaspora of the Vietnamese," said Dieu Huynh, political advocacy coordinator for VSU and coordinator of the Black April event.

With the theme of "War Changes Lives," Thursday's event brought together members of the UCLA Southeast Asian community with four panelists, including Pham, each with a unique identity shaped by the war.

As a high-ranking South Vietnamese Air Force pilot, Pham's father was able to guarantee that his family was one of the first to leave Vietnam. But as a member of the losing side of the war, he refused to accompany them as they fled the country, spending 12 years in a Vietnamese re-education camp.

"It was his duty to stay," said Pham, now a decorated U.S. veteran and author of the memoir "A Sense of Duty: Our Journey from Vietnam to America."

For others on the panel, the war is just now influencing their individual characters.

As an infant in April 1975, Vu Tien Kinh was airlifted out of Vietnam on a journey to the U.S. that took him through UCLA's medical center and concluded with his adoption by a family near Williamsport, Pa.

Growing up in a predominantly white community, Vu knew little of his culture or his past, or even his own birthday.

"I was very far removed from the Vietnamese community," said Vu, now a musical education teacher in Connecticut.

But one month ago, with the desire to learn of his past and reconnect with his lost culture, Vu found himself in Los Angeles meeting with the doctor who had treated him during his layover in the UCLA medical center 35 years ago. On Thursday, Vu was back again, partaking in his first-ever Black April commemoration.

"This is my first look at Black April. I'm not an authority on the subject, I'm just someone who has a unique experience," Vu said.

While the panelists each recounted how the war shaped their own individual characters, they also discussed how the war shaped the identities of the Vietnamese and Southeast Asian communities.

"The U.S. ... has really rewritten that history to talk about themselves not as losers but as moral victors, so (they) ultimately won because you have all these refugees escaping parts of the world that were under communism," said Thuy Vo Dang, a postdoctoral fellow at the UCLA Asian American Studies Center.

"I think that has been very problematic for us to reconcile with Vietnam, to teach the next generations what it means to be Vietnamese Americans without bitterness, without anger and hostility," she added.

In addition, the panel addressed the fact that the war not only affected the lives of the Vietnamese but all Southeast Asians. Highlighting this was panelist Suza Khy, a fourth-year environmental science student whose family came from Cambodia as refugees from the war.

Targeted by the Khmer Rouge, the revolutionary guerrilla group that overthrew the Cambodian government, Khy's story is just one of many other Southeast Asian narratives that have been forgotten or ignored.

"When we talk about the Vietnam War we always talk about Vietnamese Americans, agent orange and defoliation, which happened to Vietnamese," Dang said.

But 2.5 million tons of bombs were dropped in Laos with 32 percent of those unexploded, a major hazard still today, she added.

"I think that we don't galvanize those issues enough because we're so fixated on this narrative that's rehearsed of, 'Thank you, America. Thank you for letting us come here, and we're anti-communists,'" Dang said.

Published: Monday, May 03, 2010