Nguyễn Thành Việt is an associate professor of English and American Studies & Ethnicity at the University of Southern California, and the author of Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America (Oxford University Press, 2002). (Read more about him at his USC website.)
I’m proud to be a Vietnamese American, but on some days I’m sad to be one. This is one of those days, in the aftermath of the forced, premature closure of “FOB II: Art Speaks,” the show of fifty-plus art works by Vietnamese American artists organized by Orange County’s Vietnamese American Arts and Letters Association (VAALA). One work, by Brian Doan, is a photograph featuring a young woman wearing a red T-shirt with a yellow star—the national flag of Communist-controlled Viet Nam—with a bust of Ho Chi Minh on the table next to her. A vocal faction of the Vietnamese American community decided that this one work, whose meanings in my eyes are ambiguous, advocated Communism and that the entire show should be shut down. During a press conference at which VAALA argued for using art to open dialogues and represent many voices, some members of the community vandalized the work in question.
This is but the latest incident in a passionate history of Vietnamese American anti-Communism. There has been much discussion about this show regarding free speech, artistic expression, Communism, the suffering of Vietnamese refugees, and whether art should mix with politics. Those are too many issues for me to discuss here. What I want to talk about is “community,” the most important word used in the controversy over the show. Community is crucial to everyone, but Vietnamese Americans feel the idea particularly strongly. All minority groups feel the pressure to bond together in the face of a larger American society, and American society feels the same when faced with external threats, like 9/11. When someone’s assaulting us, it’s comforting to fall back upon being us versus them, and my country, right or wrong, or it’s black and white. For some Vietnamese Americans, this either-or thinking revolves around Communism: if you’re not against Communism, you must be a Communist, or if you show a picture of Ho Chi Minh, you’re a Communist. Never mind the shades of gray that complicate most of our lives, and never mind that art should force us to confront the uncomfortable questions of being in between right or wrong, black and white, us and them that all of us must answer at some point.
Some Vietnamese Americans turn to the idea of “community” to avoid dealing with these uncomfortable questions. For them, anything that harms the community is bad and must be suppressed. Of course, that leaves open this question: who is the community? I refuse to believe that the Vietnamese American community is composed of the people who shout the loudest and who demand everyone acknowledge that their pain is the pain that matters the most. These people are a part of the Vietnamese American community, but there are so many more people with so many more ideas, feelings, and ways of seeing the world. What are these ways? I’m not sure, because all those voices are not being heard. Vietnamese Americans are afraid to speak out and be shouted down by the one group that claims for itself the name of the community. So let’s forget the word “community” and replace it with “communities.” There isn’t one Vietnamese American community, there are many Vietnamese American communities, just as their isn’t one America, but fifty United States and multitudes upon multitudes of American communities whose stories need to be told. This is ultimately the point of VAALA’s art show.
Lastly, some younger Vietnamese Americans say that we shouldn’t go against the “community,” because that would mean contradicting our elders, who have sacrificed so much for us. I love and honor my parents, but does that mean I think they’re right all the time? My parents are opposed to abortion; I support a woman’s right to choose. My parents voted for John McCain; I voted for Barack Obama. These important differences came up over Christmas dinner. Did we shout and curse and call each other names? No. We talked.