Editorial Note: This is the never-before-published English version of the essay “Chuyện, Đi Về” by Đinh Từ Thức, as translated and edited by Đinh Từ Bích Thúy and Elyse Dinh in September 2005. While “On Visiting, on Returning” reviews and critiques the 2003 essay collection Beyond The Sea… by the Hanoi-based film-maker Trần văn Thủy, the issues it raises below encapsulates many of the conflicts in the current Art versus Politics debate surrounding the FOB II controversy. While the views expressed in Mr. Đinh Từ Thức’s essay may not necessarily reflect those of Damau’s diverse editorial board, they nevertheless indicate a reasoned approach to the seemingly intractable schism between overseas Vietnamese intellectuals and the “victimized and beleaguered” members of their community. In publishing the English translation, we hope to further engender fruitful discussions between second-generation members of the diaspora and their forebears.
I had heard the small essay collection If You Go Beyond the Sea . . . described as an objectionable effort, with unstated implications. I decided to guard myself so I would not be biased against it when I read it. Upon finishing the book, my impression is that it is not as bad as what I had heard.
The author’s name, Tran Van Thuy, appears more prominently on the cover than the title, in the manner of great authors wanting readers to recognize their names prior to knowing the contents of the work. From his first essay,” A Few Words of Caution,” however, the author speaks about himself “as if [he] knows [himself] to be a coward.” Perhaps the author has to be defensive since Beyond the Sea is not completely his own offspring. Mr. Tran Van Thuy is only a “surrogate parent,” with means provided by the University of Massachusetts–Boston to plant the seeds produced by Vietnamese writers currently living in the U.S. The book’s contents exude a pervasive whiff of desire for the reconciliation between Vietnamese living outside and inside Vietnam and implicitly criticize the overseas community’s continuing allegiance to oppose the Vietnamese Communist regime.
Aside from the introduction in both Vietnamese and English by Mr. Kevin Bowen, Director of the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences at the University of Massachusetts—Boston, the book consists of four essays by Mr. Tran Van Thuy followed by seven essays, each based on an interview with a different writer (six Vietnamese, one American). The last piece is about a Vietnamese woman who has lived in the U.S. since 1968, recording her life on the margin of the Vietnam War.
Perhaps due to his position as a “surrogate parent,” Mr. Tran Van Thuy does not seem to cherish his offspring. In “A Few Words of Caution,” he writes, “If anyone wishes to find loftiness in ideas or literature, or examine weakness in opinions or positions, please disregard and stop reading this book.” Writing a book and then advising the reader not to read it is a rare thing indeed. The author continues, “In here I simply recorded what I thought, saw, and experienced, along with my conversations with intellectuals and overseas writers.” It is this very sentence that made me unable to disregard Beyond the Sea, for I also need to record my thoughts after reading someone else’s impression of a community of which I am a member.
In the second essay, bearing the same title as the book, the author writes, “Now in the U.S., meeting the overseas Vietnamese community, I cannot help but think back to those heartfelt words I spoke beside my aunt’s tomb, ‘If you go beyond the sea, beyond all the oceans and continents, keep going all the way until in the end you come home to your country, your village . . .’ In the ups and downs of our country’s history I do not know if there had ever been a time, a situation leading to such deep chasm in the human soul, with millions of people running to the sea and leaving their country without the least regard for their lives. But I know for a fact there are not a few Vietnamese exiles who ‘had gone beyond many oceans and continents, and kept going’ but in the end cannot come home to their country or their village.”
The author is being very clever. Instead of admitting that in Vietnamese history, there had never been such a horrific regime that caused millions of people to leave their country without the least regard for their lives, he pretends to be completely ignorant of history to lessen the weight of his observation. We blame those who know, not those who plead ignorance. The author goes on to assert that he knows for a fact there are not a few Vietnamese exiles who cannot go home. His statement raises two issues: the number of people who visit Vietnam and why there are those who will not go home.
Based on statistics, there are three-to-four hundred thousand overseas Vietnamese (Viet Kieu) going to Vietnam annually. According to the Vietnamese government, the number of Viet Kieu “scattered around the world” is 2.7 million. Since the number of those who visit annually is more than 10 percent of the total number of overseas Vietnamese, it would take only ten years to have every Viet Kieu visit their homeland, if the majority of people have only visited a few times. The number of visitors to Vietnam is high, but Mr. Tran Van Thuy is correct about one thing: Many of them have not been able to go home and only a handful have indeed returned. Those who travel to Vietnam the same way they travel to Europe or Asia and return to their home in America, France, Australia or elsewhere are defined as those who visit Vietnam, not those who return to Vietnam. To “visit” Vietnam and to “return” to Vietnam are two entirely different matters not to be confused with one another.
More than two million Vietnamese have left Vietnam for political reasons, making it difficult for them to return. They braved life-and-death decisions and prepared to die in the hope that they can live. When the reason for their leaving still exists, they cannot return. Moreover, a Vietnamese living in the U.S. can travel at any time to many countries in the world without having to obtain an entrance permit. In order to enter Vietnam, one must apply, and at times must bribe, to be granted entry. For those Vietnamese whose names appear on the “black list,” not only can they not return, they have lost their right to visit Vietnam as well. Is there anyone else in the world who has to apply for permission to go home? In this instance, not returning is the right choice.
Acknowledging the idea that many Vietnamese cannot return to Vietnam, Mr. Tran Van Thuy helps the reader find out why through his third essay, “A Letter.” He includes in the essay a letter from an old friend from whom he had been separated for exactly half a century. His “puppet” friend, despite having been a low-ranking South Vietnamese officer who “hardly fought at all,” endured three years of “reeducation,” two suicide attempts, and finally a stint as a pedicab driver. “I never forget those sidewalk meals with nothing more than a plate of rice and a bit of dried fish. The rain fell from my hat flooding my rice like soup. Neither will I forget those days driving my pedicab in tattered clothes. My clients sometimes were my old friends, sometimes my students or old girlfriends.”
Mr. Tran Van Thuy’s friend shared with him all the misery of his “puppet” days, but “everything that happened in the reeducation camp I’d rather not go into.” While he could share his sadness, the friend left unmentioned his pain, something like an open wound that still bleeds at the slightest touch. It is this unmentionable fact, together with these calm, detached words–“My brother died in reeducation camp”–that speak volumes.
In the fourth essay, “A Blind Man Feels An Elephant,” Mr. Tran Van Thuy narrates several interviews that took place in Europe with Vietnamese exiles, such as the chat with the elderly Nguyen Van Quy. “For the first question, I asked him how he came to settle in West Germany. He told me in no uncertain terms that he was a high-ranking officer of the old regime, so he was reeducated under terrible conditions. After his release as a ‘secondary citizen,’ he had to report to the local authorities on a weekly basis, this was very hard on him, and thus he could not stay.”
Mr. Tran Van Thuy continues, “As to the second question, I asked him, ‘I heard that you were in Hanoi during August or September 1945, do you still have any memorable impression?’ It was rare for me to meet someone who could recount the August Revolution which took place on September 2, 1945 with such excitement, emotion, vigor, and details as he. . . . But on the third question, when I asked if he could tell me any of his recent dreams . . . the oddest thing, while he has lived outside of Vietnam for many years, every night, if he dreams, he only dreams about the umpteenth time he has to go back to reeducation camp. Terrified, he stammers, he screams in his dream, ‘Wait . . . wait . . . I served my time in reeducation camp already! These are my release papers. Comrade, why are you taking me back?’
Then onto the fourth question, ‘As to those who enjoy fighting Communism in extreme fashion, what do you think?’ . . . Mr. Quy once again showed an admirable and forthright attitude, ‘I don’t like aggression or politics played in judgmental or grandstanding manner, or people who fight Communism from their armchair. Worse, someone who chants slogans and collects money for their own pocket under the pretext of fighting Communism . . . .”
Mr. Tran Van Thuy’s fourth question is unsettling in its characterization: “those who enjoy fighting Communism in extreme fashion.” Through Mr. Tran Van Thuy’s frame of reference, the regime which continues to oppress Vietnam has many citizens, from young to old, from low-ranking to high-ranking. A regime that corrals and harnesses its citizens who, since childhood, “have never learned to tell the truth” (according to a reply by Mrs. Phung Hong Thuy, a boat person from Hanoi now settled in Germany). Some of these citizens have undergone reeducation but are not left alone after being released so that, after many years of living abroad, they still have nightmares about the terror of reeducation. Fighting such an oppressive regime is a natural reflex, an obligation, a necessity–not an enjoyment. Opposing Communism is not a hobby; there is nothing joyful in it. The people who fight Communism don’t all do it in an aggressive, judgmental, and grandstanding manner. Similarly, those who use the anti-Communism platform to earn pocket money are bandits, not anti-Communists.
Following are more significant excerpts from “A Blind Man Feels An Elephant”:
I want to speak without mincing words–when I was still in Vietnam, I thought our society’s bad habits, such as red tape, abuse of power, forcing others to think like yourself, and the imposition of ideology are all generated by the socialist governing system. But now that I am abroad, I have visited many places, I have met many people, I have read quite a bit, especially those extreme anti-Communist newspapers, I have witnessed quite a few horrific stories. Who doesn’t agree with [the predominant] view will be threatened, beaten, or shot to death. I am wondering if perhaps the bullying habit, stepping all over each other, forcing other to follow your view represents the collective Vietnamese sickness? If it were the sickness of a governing body then you can treat it, since such a political system can strive to change its bad habits. But if it is indeed the collective sickness of an entire people then it becomes a very painful thing.
I am deeply burdened by the notion that our people cannot advance, that we have a hard time catching up with other countries, even if those countries are considered average by the world’s standard. That is the truth. The more you love our country, the more you will grieve for it!
At that time, a reporter of the Duc Viet newspaper in Frankfurt had asked me, “Try to think more broadly, if this is the country’s current state, what is the cause of this problem?” Instead of answering, I recounted a short conversation that I had with a journalist from a French Communist newspaper.
During a reception for journalists that took place in Hanoi at the end of 1987, this journalist raised his glass to congratulate the opening of my films (Hanoi, A Certain Regard and How to Behave). Then he shrugged, saying, “To be fair, you blame your government, your system too much. I asked, “You are from the outside, perhaps you have a sharper insight?” He again shrugged, “I wouldn’t say sharper. We have a French saying, To each people its own government. You rightly deserve the government that you have.” (The emphasis is Mr. Tran Van Thuy’s).
From the above paragraphs, the author contends that the corruptions within Vietnam are not entirely responsible for the fact “the people cannot advance;” the extreme anti-Communist ways of the overseas Vietnamese are equally at fault. In finding the cause for our lack of advancement, Mr. Tran Van Thuy cleverly uses the words of a French journalist to cover up for the Vietnamese government and instead accuse the people of blaming the government and the system too much. To each people its own government, the saying goes, suggesting that it may be more appropriate to criticize the people before questioning the governing body.
If Mr. Tran Van Thuy was forced to write what he has written, we can understand that he is simply doing his duty. If these words represent his sincere thoughts, as he asserts, then we are deeply saddened because he has committed a grave sin against his people. The Vietnamese also have a saying, “To each vegetable its own worm” which is an equivalent of “To each people its own government.” Applying this saying to the current Vietnamese situation, however, is misguided. We can apply this saying to France, or to the U.S., where people can elect their own government. In Vietnam, for half a century in the North and for the past thirty years in the South, one has not been able to choose his or her own government. How can anyone apply the saying “To each people its own government”?
Furthermore, if one looks at Hitler’s Nazi government and Japan’s militarist government during the Second World War, is it true that the people under those governments deserved their evil leaders? I am showing Mr. Tran Van Thuy a corollary he may not want to face: How did Germany and Japan flourish after their totalitarian systems collapsed? What about Vietnam? Since Mr. Tran Van Thuy has visited many places outside of Vietnam, he has surely realized that millions of overseas Vietnamese, once they escaped the current regime’s oppression—the regime that is currently controlling more than 80 million Vietnamese within its borders—have been able to flourish and catch up with everyone else within only a few decades. I conclude that the lack of advancement is not our people’s sickness; the author has already learned the true cause of that sickness.
Perhaps both the French Communist journalist and the Vietnamese Communist filmmaker have applied a subtle interpretation to the saying, “To each people its own government.” Perhaps both of them wish to say: Given such an evil government, the people have acquiesced and endured instead of rallying for its destruction. For that, the people are entirely to blame. Within this construction, perhaps both of them are correct.
Mr. Tran Van Thuy writes that, due to his many visits, encounters, and reading “especially those extreme anti-Communist newspapers, [he] has witnessed quite a few horrific stories.” Unfortunately, he did not meet, investigate, or record any conversation with those he characterizes as “anti-Communists with extreme tendencies.” While he criticizes the extremists, he seems to interview only moderate individuals, causing his criticism to lack specificity and undermining the scope of his research. On the other hand, the moderate position of those he interviews is worth discussing.
Pain and sorrow are evident in the story of Mr. Cao Xuan Huy’s family. Although Mr. Cao Xuan Huy’s father joined the resistance movement against the French, his grandfather was denounced by the Viet Minh because he was a teacher fluent in French. His father returned to Hanoi to tend to his family but could not ensure his mother’s safety because he had bourgeoisie roots. The family separated; some remained in the North, some went South. After 1975, Mr. Cao Xuan Huy attended reeducation camp. Then came the issue of Paracels Island: After 1,000 years of Chinese colonization, Paracels Island was still part of Vietnam; after 100 years of French colonization, Paracels Island remained intact. But after thirty years of “independence,” Vietnam loses Paracels Island to the Chinese. During this period of “freedom,” a father cannot see his son. During this time of “happiness,” gifts sent from father to son are stolen by Communist cadres. If the dry corpse of Ho Chi Minh still has any self-respect, it would probably turn over in its grave, hiding its face in shame.
The interview between Mr. Tran Van Thuy and the writer Nhat Tien shows that, besides very well-articulated views, the latter has chosen not to speak explicitly about certain matters. Mr. Nhat Tien speaks bluntly about his return to Vietnam, “the feeling of estrangement, the inability to blend in with the crowd and the cultural ambience in general. [It seems] that literature, the arts, and journalism in particular are still permeated with this pride, that ‘our people are heroic, who fought to kick out the Americans, to topple the South Vietnamese puppets.’ As a person formerly from the South, how can I possibly fit in?”
Mr. Nhat Tien’s view regarding the South Vietnamese soldiers is equally clear: “During those long endless years of war, I know with certainty that there had been many who died on the battle front with the ideal of protecting their villages and neighborhoods, protecting the home front from the advance of the Northern troops. The people of the South were grateful for their sacrifices, this is a fact in our lives, easily supported with proof . . .”
Mr. Nhat Tien does not hesitate to criticize the leaders of both North and South. “During the period of land reform, [the Northern] leaders started these denouncement sessions, sons denouncing fathers, wives denouncing husbands, was this a product of those who truly care for their people? Did the plan to annihilate the entire Truong Son Cordillera to unite the country, regardless of millions of lives on both sides, originate from the love for one’s people? Or was this no different from the words of a certain president, who publicly announced on TV that if he received 700 million dollars in aid, he would fight ‘in the style of 700 million dollars,’ and if received 300 million dollars he would fight ‘in the style of 300 million dollars’–weren’t those words simply the words of a pawn, a foreign power’s puppet?”
Although acknowledging that he is a person “formerly from the South,” Mr. Nhat Tien avoids taking sides by opting for a balanced view from the point of the nation as a whole to reflect upon the war. “Reconciliation is the most viable option to save the country from its undemocratic state, its current poverty, stagnation, corruption and inequality,” he says. Mr. Nhat Tien has the courage to suggest reconciliation—a taboo subject that many people avoid for fear of being misunderstood.
Why has reconciliation–a desired outcome–become such a taboo subject? Because Mr. Nhat Tien is not the only one who supports it. The Vietnamese Communist has also alluded to this subject, making one feel as if Mr. Nhat Tien’s suggestion is an echo from Hanoi. The difference is that a writer uses language to express its true meaning. For Communists, however, language is a trap used mainly to deceive. A writer writes “one month” to mean “30 days.” In the Communist language, “one month” can mean ten years in the case of reeducation.
Mr. Nhat Tien considers reconciliation as a cure-all solution. Perhaps he has high hopes, but that is another matter. The issue here is: Why should we have reconciliation? Are our people so divided, so full of hatred for each other that we must consider reconciliation as the solution of the highest order? There are divided opinions everywhere: people within the same family, one family against another, organization vs. organization. Even within the Communist Party there have been factions and feuds, such as Le Duc Anh’s faction using malicious means to destroy Vo Nguyen Giap’s faction. One can say, however, there is no evidence that the Vietnamese people hate themselves to the point of genocide.
Even if we go back several hundred years, the Trinh-Nguyen Civil War was caused by the struggle of power between the Trinh dynasty and the Nguyen dynasty, not by the hatred between Northern and Southern people. Similarly, during the period when the Tay Son troop was feuding with the Southern Nguyen dynasty, it was the leaders who killed each other, not the people who engineered this division. Even when the French divided the country into three regions, the people of the North, Central and South did not hate each other. If anything, it was mostly harmless heckling about regional differences. This was not hatred, but commonplace prejudices. After the Geneva Treaty of 1954, almost one million citizens from the North joined 14 million citizens in the South below the 17th parallel–a fairly high ratio of assimilation–but the people managed to live harmoniously.
Then Civil War erupted between the Nationalists and the Communists—it is Mr. Nhat Tien who accuses leaders of both North and South of being puppets of foreign powers. If he is correct, then it was these leaders who played principal roles during this 30-year war. The people of both sides have been merely victims and they did not kill each other out of hatred. To cure hatred, we must cure it at its roots, which did not originate with the people but with the governing systems of North and South. The Southern government crumbled in 1975; the Northern government is the sole remaining power. This government represents the roots of hatred.
Hatred is born from injustice. Any individual or collective that creates injustice will engender discord. In theory, the Vietnamese Communist Party currently in control should be responsible for every injustice that has been inflicted upon the Vietnamese people during the last sixty years. In reality, these two million members of the Communist Party are merely instruments of the group actually in power–the Politburo. Even if the Politburo tries to hide its true nature under a fancy title or political banner, it is still a gang of bandits. We should not hesitate to call it by its true name.
This Politburo robbed the fruits of the revolution from Nationalist factions. It usurped power supposedly belonging to the masses. It seized the people’s goods and assets to bribe the Chinese. It robbed the people of their lives during the Land Reform Movement. It destroyed artistic freedom of writers and artists during the Nhan Van Giai Pham affair. It invaded South Vietnam from the 17th parallel to the Cape of Ca Mau, claiming that the North had to fight the South to gain independence from the U.S. (Based on documents available to the public, wasn’t it North Vietnam that seemed to be more dependent on foreign influence? The South did not follow American order to kill its people as the North obeyed the Chinese order during the Land Reform Movement. The South also did not yield any of its land to the Americans as the North had yielded to China.) This Politburo sacrificed the lives of millions of Northern and Southern Vietnamese soldiers in the name of the war of Southern liberation. It took away happiness from millions of families with relatives forced to attend reeducation camps. It plundered assets of those forced to go to the New Economic Zone. Ultimately, it has denied its own people half a century of progress.
The Vietnamese people do not harbor hatred for each other so we don’t need to raise the issue of reconciliation among the people. Nowadays, there is only animosity between the gang of governing bandits and the masses being governed. Those who create injustice are the cause of discord and must initiate the reconciliation process. It should not be the people who must reconcile with the government but the other way around. Yet, instead of initiating reconciliation through action–admitting its errors and correcting past misdeeds, making restitution to the people for damages inflicted, etc.–the Vietnamese government has coerced the people, especially those who have been its victims, to make amends. This form of mass coercion is tantamount to the enabling of its injustice and hatred. This is wrong and completely absurd.
There are several examples of reconciliation throughout history. During the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic committed several wrongs, such as the Grand Inquisition during the reign of Pope Urban VIII and the trial of the astronomer Galileo in 1632, forcing him to denounce his discovery that the earth revolves around the sun. A few years ago, Pope John Paul II acknowledged the Church’s past misconduct with a public apology.
During World War II, Japanese-Americans living in states along the Pacific Coast were forced by the Roosevelt Administration to abandon their homes for the internment camps located deep in the desert of the continental U.S. to avoid serving as “spies” for the Japanese Imperial Army. This harsh policy, while was not as inhuman as the reeducation camps in Vietnam after 1975, caused serious rifts, not just among the victims but also among American citizens concerned with basic human rights. During the Reagan Administration, the American government publicly acknowledged this mistake and agreed to make restitution to the families of internment victims. A memorial was also built in Washington D.C. to commemorate those who had been treated unjustly and to remind the federal government of an abuse of power that should not be repeated. This is reconciliation.
Also during World War II, the Japanese Imperial Army forced many Korean women to serve as its “comfort women.” Half a century later, the Korean people could not forget this atrocity. The Japanese prime minister finally had to make a public apology and compensate the victims. This is another example of reconciliation.
Up until now, what has the Politburo done toward reconciliation? Recently, the Vietnamese government issued a policy statement concerning “a number of cases” allowing those who lost assets during the Land Reform Movement to apply for “subsidies” to the maximum of three million Vietnamese piastres (roughly equivalent of $200 US). The guidelines, however, are so complicated that only a few manage to complete the application. Compensation “charity style” is not a true gesture of reconciliation, which requires a public acknowledgement of past wrongs and subsequent restitution.
The writer Nhat Tien asserts, “I have not and will never support reconciliation with tyranny and violence.” Yet, when talking about those who propose a firm stance against tyranny and violence, Mr. Nhat Tien maintains, “their patriotism is a dead-end road,” arguing that such firmness is not only useless but also impeding the country’s progress. He supports “stabilization and development” but adds, “Of course, stabilization does not mean becoming slaves of the ruling class. . . .” If the ruling class continues to sit still, tyrannize, corrupt and treat its citizens as slaves, should one try to eliminate such a ruling class? And by doing so, would one violate the policy of stabilization?
In the interview with Mr. Tran Van Thuy, the writer Nguyen Thi Hoang Bac, besides commenting on “the bad habits” of the overseas Vietnamese community–“accusing, slandering, grouping the innocent in the same class with the guilty”–also compares it to the Czech community described in Milan Kundera’s novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being. In making this comparison, she implies that the overseas Vietnamese community is no different than the Czech version, which, in the words of Kundera, “once or twice has to read this announcement, that announcement denouncing the Communists within [Czechoslovakia] and their accomplices from without. . . . One or twice [this community] happens to see demonstrations scattered here and there with a handful of people. . . .” Ms. Nguyen Thi Hoang Bac also objects to those “who chant political slogans, inside and outside of Vietnam.” She does not seem to realize that not everyone is a writer or journalist who can express his or her views at any given moment. An ordinary person naturally resorts to issuing announcements, attending demonstrations and chanting political slogans. In addition, any “demonstration with a handful of people” can only be done in a true democracy. This activity should be considered sacrosanct rather than criticized. As for those who chant political slogans, if they had not existed, Communism would certainly still reign in Russia and Eastern Europe today.
Ms. Nguyen Thi Hoang Bac also relies on the book Van Hoc Hien Dai va Hau Hien Dai (Modern and Postmodern Literature) by Mr. Hoang Ngoc Tuan to psychoanalyze immigrant males coming from a developing country. “To build self-esteem in a new society, instead of focusing on assimilation and self-improvement step-by-step, these males spend a considerable amount of time investing their efforts in the creation of false identities…” Three pages later, however, Ms. Hoang Bac concludes, “The overseas Vietnamese community is considered quite successful in assimilating into their new environment.” If the overseas Vietnamese community is full of men investing in “false identities,” how has this community achieved such success?
Ms. Hoang Bac also claims there is “the phenomenon of exile governments sprouting like mushrooms” in California. This is an exaggeration ridiculing the laudable efforts of the Vietnamese immigrant community in general. Through the Humanitarian Operation (HO) program, thousands of people have escaped imprisonment in Vietnam to settle in the U.S. The American government and other countries would not have received these HO refugees with open arms if it had not been for the rallying efforts of the overseas Vietnamese community. Ms. Hoang Bac has been fair in criticizing both the overseas Vietnamese community and Vietnam itself, but while the imperfections of Vietnam has forced Ms. Hoang Bac to leave the country, she decides to attack the overseas community—the very one of which she has chosen to be a part. If doing so means showing her fairness, then such attitude is entirely unjust.
The writer Nguyen Mong Giac describes the generation of refugees who left Vietnam in 1975 as follows: “The Vietnamese belonging to this generation still dream of restoring a Republic of [South] Vietnam with its governing system intact, so they can resume their roles of generals, senators, congressmen. . . .” I also left Vietnam in 1975 and have many friends “belonging to this generation” but have not seen anyone harboring such a dream. If in fact there are those who fit Mr. Nguyen Mong Giac’s description, they not only harbor a piper’s dream, they are also living in a dream. It is wrong to use the wishful thinking of a few to analyze the goals of a community of several hundred thousand. Mr. Nguyen Mong Giac adds, “The manifest political activities of the overseas Vietnamese community in the U.S., Canada, and Australia all have similar characteristics, creating an illusory atmosphere as if one still lives under the former Republic of [South] Vietnam, an indestructible, continuous republic with its flag salutation ceremony, its chanting of the national anthem, its observation of silence in someone’s memory, its respect of the old ranking order. . . . This generation of refugees does not wish that its image of the homeland be altered by time. This generation is afraid of returning to Vietnam because they know with certainty that in returning, their image of the homeland will be replaced by another image. To support this decision of not returning–a decision based more on feelings than on political convictions–this generation often gives a very politically correct explanation—that they will return only when the homeland has ridded itself entirely of the shadow of Communism.”
Mr. Nguyen Mong Giac indicates that he left Vietnam in 1981, therefore he is not part of the generation of refugees who left Vietnam in 1975. He does not base his findings on any factual evidence or reliable research but instead appoints himself as the collective psychoanalyst of an entire group of people, imposing upon this community all sorts of foreign characteristics. This is something a cautious person should not do. Saluting the flag, singing the national anthem—these are spiritual gestures to honor a country, not empty measures to preserve a regime no longer in existence. Similarly, rice and fruits are offered on ancestors’ altars to honor the dead, not to “prolong” the lives of persons no longer living. As for the custom of greeting one another by old titles, such custom is commonplace in the U.S. Only on official papers would one see the word “former” next to old titles, such as “the former president,” or the word “retired” next to military ranks, as in “the General X, retired” Thus, when an American greets an old colleague, he would still address this colleague by his or her former title or military ranking.
If Mr. Nguyen Mong Giac does even minor research, he would discover there have been many ranked officers who have traveled back to Vietnam, not just once but several times. Furthermore, those who have maintained their conviction to this day and refused to go back are admirable, not deserving of criticism. Communism was the reason for their–and Mr. Nguyen Mong Giac’s–leaving. Today, that very reason still exists. Even Mr. Nguyen Mong Giac is not willing to go back to live under Communist reign. If an individual cannot return to Vietnam, except for special circumstances such as visiting his parents, wife and children, why would he want to go back, simply to face the dirty truth of Communism?
Mr. Nguyen Mong Giac’s characterization of the generation that left Vietnam in 1975, based entirely on his imagination, is probably in accordance with his admission relating to his analysis of overseas Vietnamese literature. “My optimistic predictions [about overseas Vietnamese literature], as time has shown, all turn out to be wrong. [These predictions are] wildly optimistic. Ultimately, both myself and MN [name abbreviated by reviewer] did not rely on any accurate fact, but merely projected our wistful thinking.” At the very least, Mr. Nguyen Mong Giac has enough self-awareness to admit his flawed analysis of overseas Vietnamese literature. I hope that with respect to the overseas Vietnamese community, time will also disavow Mr. Nguyen Mong Giac’s opinion because it is not based on any fact.
Mr. Nguyen Mong Giac criticizes those who refuse to return to Vietnam even when conditions have improved but then mentions negative aspects of repatriation that make him feel uncomfortable. “[R]eading a newspaper [published within Vietnam] (especially during an occasion commemorating this victory or that victory), I don’t feel comfortable (just like how a young reader feels having grown up in North Vietnam and now living in Eastern Europe reading a Vietnamese community newspaper published here). The choice of words, especially when referring to South Vietnamese soldiers who were adversaries in the war long past, is still full of disparaging implication, full of a bloody accusatory tone that should not have come from the mouths of victors. Novels, memoirs, essays, are all still full of these ‘puppet pimps,’ those ‘puppet whores.’” Although not entirely comfortable, Mr. Nguyen Mong Giac still travels back to Vietnam and that is his personal choice. For many people, however, this “uncomfortable feeling” has perhaps prevented them from returning, not the fear that their cherished image of the homeland no longer exists.
Perhaps from Mr. Nguyen Mong Giac’s perspective, there is only one kind of “victors.” In reality, there are many. Winning a righteous war, like the Allied Forces during World War II, means you are the victor. Winning a war of invasion, like Stalin troops invading Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, also means you are the victor. The Vietnamese Politburo represents the victors in the tradition of Stalin and Mao Tse Tung. Expecting them to behave like victors in a righteous war is unimaginable. It is even more unimaginable when Mr. Nguyen Mong Giac has seen with his own eyes that this governing body has never changed yet still deceives himself by believing it has changed for the better.
Continuing the interview with Mr. Tran Van Thuy, Mr. Nguyen Mong Giac again mentions his discomfort during his visit back to Vietnam. “I feel insulted when I read memoirs or short stories written by Northern writers. Still drunk with victory, they mention heroic feats, past military achievements, but I am not talking about that. What bothers me is when they refer to their Southern adversaries, they still use derogative, depersonalized terms like ‘this puppet pimp,’ ‘that clique of puppets,’ etc., just like during the war.”
Mr. Nguyen Mong Giac’s reaction resembles the writer Nhat Tien’s opinion about literature and newspapers published in Vietnam, that “literature, the arts, and journalism in particular are still permeated with this pride, that ‘our people are heroic, who fought to kick out the Americans, to topple the South Vietnamese puppets.’” The wordsmiths and literary journeymen of Vietnam continue to “disparage, accuse in a bloody, vengeful tone,” continue to refer to “this puppet pimp” and “that puppet whore” because they are not writers blessed with freedom of expression. They are merely Communist cadres who write in conformance with the Party’s guidelines. As long as the Party persists in its unmovable, immutable ways, these cadres cannot write in any other fashion. This hegemony of thoughts proves that the Vietnamese Politburo does not change, does not want to initiate reconciliation. The changes that are currently taking place in Vietnam are merely external, cosmetic changes, with the value of money replacing the value of virtue. As for its policies, the Politburo remains as before—holding its monopoly on power and expression, placidly sending its dissidents to prison.
While responding to Mr. Tran Van Thuy’s interview questions, Mr. Hoang Khoi Phong compares the overseas Vietnamese community to the Jewish-American community and the Chinese-American community. According to him, “[the Jewish-American and the Chinese American] communities are very influential, but externally they never seem to be as voluble as the Vietnamese community. They do not hold demonstrations, they do not rally or denounce noisily like the Vietnamese community. Instead they choose to exert their influence quietly, shrewdly weaving their tactics in the dark, indirectly controlling American politics.”
The above comparison makes the reader feel as if the act of holding political demonstrations is shameful and that the Vietnamese community does not know how to do anything besides repeating this shameful act. Mr. Hoang Khoi Phong even adds, “In my opinion we have not had any experience with exile.” This statement can be taken as a reproach, as in the overseas Vietnamese community not knowing how to live the life of exile with dignity (being too noisy, holding too many demonstrations, etc.). It can also be interpreted—as the phrase “have not had any experience” implies—that the Vietnamese community is still too young.
Indeed, compared with the Jewish and Chinese communities, the Vietnamese community is still in its infancy. The Jewish population arrived in America as early as 1492, when this continent was discovered. Among the ninety-man crew in the three ships that Christopher Columbus commanded, there were five Jewish sailors. The Chinese came to America in the 19th century to build the transcontinental railroad and to search for gold in California. The Vietnamese community has only been here roughly three decades. Because the Jewish and Chinese communities have been in this country for a long time, they have strength and do not need to be noisy. The Vietnamese community is still a fledgling so we need to raise our voices to gain attention. When grownups need something, they use money to buy what they need. Children, on the other hand, have no other means to express their wants and needs besides using their mouths to scream and their arms to thrash about. One should not reproach a child who only knows how to make demands like a child.
In the beginning, the Jewish came to America due to racial prejudice, the Chinese due to economic reasons, while the Vietnamese fled here for political reasons. In the new country, those who were prejudiced against only wish to live in peace, those who came for economic reasons only wish to get on with business, but those who came for political reasons still need to maintain their struggle or else their leaving the homeland will become meaningless. People caught in political struggles must demonstrate, rally, and denounce. One who struggles without demonstrating, or without the ability to find supporters for his or her political cause, would be ridiculed for being an “armchair politician.”
Mr. Hoang Khoi Phong continues to praise the behavior of other immigrant communities while criticizing the Vietnamese community. “I notice an interesting phenomenon while visiting San Francisco Chinatown and Los Angeles Chinatown. At both locations there are shops that sell books, magazines, paintings right next to each other. One would display a portrait of Mao Tse-tung, the other would display a picture of Chiang Kai-shek, but they have good commercial relations with each other, not beating each other’s skull open or competing illegally. At these Chinatowns, October 1 is the PRC holiday. All the stores that are affiliated with the PRC would get festive with their lanterns, flowers, lion dance and firecrackers, while the Taiwanese shops would act like nothing is going on. Ten days later, on October 10 (‘Double Ten Celebration’), it’s the Taiwanese’s turn to celebrate their national holiday, and all the Taiwanese shops put out their lanterns, flowers, their lion dance and firecrackers while the Chinese shops calmly look on. These shops sell two newspapers reflecting two separate governments, they may argue on paper but rarely do they engage in direct physical assault. [But] we haven’t had any experience living the life of exile in the host country.”
Perhaps Mr. Tran Van Thuy feels vindicated while entertaining this vision of peace as described by Mr. Hoang Khoi Phong. We can add to this vision other compelling details, such as the harmonious relations among the Pakistani, the Bangladeshi, and the Indian communities abroad, or the image of North and South Korean athletes walking side by side in the Olympics. I am afraid, however, that Mr. Hoang Khoi Phong suffers from a grave misconception when comparing the relations between the PRC and the Taiwanese with the standoff between the overseas Vietnamese community and the Vietnamese Communist Government’s overseas agents or supporters.
Although there have been several political conflicts between the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan during the last half-century, until now these are still two separate countries. Among the immigrant population, it is perfectly natural for the people from one country to respect the rituals observed by members of their “neighboring” state. Suppose the Northern Communist government did not invade South Vietnam (just as the PRC has not invaded Taiwan) and today immigrants from both North and South Vietnam happen to live in the same American city, it is likely they will treat each other with respect just like the immigrants from the PRC and Taiwan. But the Northern Communist government did in fact invade South Vietnam and has continued to oppress the South Vietnamese (this is something Mr. Hoang Khoi Phong and the writers interviewed by Mr. Tran Van Thuy know far better than I so no further elaboration is needed). Furthermore, the Vietnamese Communist government has not allowed those who risked their lives and possessions in the quest for freedom any measure of peace in their new environment. The most obvious example is Resolution 36, in which the Communist government offers to reward its supporters and threatens to punish those who oppose or denounce its policy.
Within the overseas Vietnamese community, there are no individuals closely associated with two separate governing systems, i.e., the Republic of [South] Vietnam and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, that can be compared to Taiwan and the PRC. There are only the victims of Communism and those who act as Communist collaborators. Therefore, this community of Vietnamese refugees cannot maintain a respectful distance normally reserved for immigrants from a neighboring country. In order to live in peace, this community has to confront unlawful activities originated from within Vietnam. It must be vigilant, using the means available to victims of thugs to protect itself. If not, it will be harassed like the Vietnamese community currently settled in Eastern Europe.
Mr. Hoang Khoi Phong praises the good behavior of the Jewish community and holds it up as a positive example. If he pays closer attention, however, he will clearly see the measures by which the Jewish community has treated anyone with connections to Nazi Germany, even though the Holocaust happened more than half a century ago. And suppose Communist China had invaded and mistreated Taiwan–would Mr. Hoang Khoi Phong still have the quaint opportunity to observe such politeness between Taiwanese and Chinese immigrants?
I initially believed that Mr. Tran Van Thuy’s views, as reflected in his four essays, have been thoroughly commented on, but there is one remaining issue that merits discussion. This lies in the question he poses to the writer Truong Vu: “Before traveling abroad, I had thought, while living in a society with freedom and democracy, with a high standard of living, people will be more tolerant of each other. Faced with reality, I realize this is not entirely the case. Why must there be occasions when members of the overseas community protest so vehemently against any singer from Vietnam who goes on tour abroad, even if such singer is very young and born after 1975? I am extremely sad when I read stories in the overseas newspapers twisting facts and showing very little compassion when writing about misfortunes that occur in Vietnam. Like the fire that occurred in the Tam Da Commercial Center, these newspapers rejoiced in sorrowful news, blaming the Vietnamese government. But just recently, with the horrendous fire that happened in the Station Night Club in Rhode Island, with hundreds of people dead, the fire completely destroying an entire neighborhood, involving so many government officials and causing damages in the millions, I have not seen any local Viet paper using this piece of news to blame the American government. I would think a person may hate a regime, dislike a governing system, but how can he be so ruthless toward his own countrymen?”
I have thought in the past that while living in a country deprived of freedom and democracy, with a low standard of living, a person might grow confused and muddled. When reading the above question posed by Mr. Tran Van Thuy, I realize this is absolutely true. First, the reason that the overseas community reacts vehemently against young Vietnamese singers coming abroad, even those singers who were born after 1975, is not because this community mistrusts any individual singer but only those singers believed to have been set up and sent abroad by the Communist government as propaganda tools. Whether a singer was born before or after 1975 makes no difference if such singer is used as political bait. While Mr. Tran Van Thuy has closely followed the overseas media, he apparently does not know or recall the statement made by the poet Nguyen Chi Thien at the Festival of Overseas Vietnamese Media in Spring 2003. “To cool down anti-Communist sentiments, to lessen tensions, the Communist Party has sent forth entertainment troops, operas, classical music, puppet shows, fine arts exhibits, perhaps even a three-ring circus, to create an illusion of a peaceful, happy regime.”
Regarding the protocol of disseminating news related to accidents, the free press and the totalitarian press are entirely different. Under a dictatorship, like the former Soviet Union or Cuba and Vietnam today, only news related to “victory” deserve to be printed prominently. News related to accidents is usually suppressed or, if it has to be disseminated at all, abbreviated to the maximum to avoid embarrassment to the government, with the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear incident being a prime example. When it comes to the free press, however, the bigger the accident, the bigger the news. Since such an accident involves a great number of people, its extensive coverage would generate attention and more effective public assistance to the victims. Perhaps because of this, when observing that the overseas media made big news of the Tam Da fire, Mr. Tran Van Thuy believes that the press “rejoiced in sorrowful news, blaming the Vietnamese government.”
Mr. Tran Van Thuy also wonders why the overseas Vietnamese papers did not blame the American government for the Station Nightclub fire in Rhode Island. Asking this is akin to pondering why overseas Vietnamese send billions of dollars to Vietnam every year but not a penny to help the Laotians and the Cambodians. And how does making big news of a tragic accident and denouncing the irresponsibility of the officials involved equal “being ruthless to one’s countrymen?”
Mr. Tran Van Thuy’s long-winded question is given an equally long response by Mr. Truong Vu. His conclusion: “In my opinion, all the hatred and misunderstandings between brothers should have ended on April 30, 1975. But instead, we had prisons called reeducation camps. Then the exchange rate, the ‘new economic zone,’ then eating rice mixed with manioc in a country known for exporting rice, then the unjust treatment, then millions of people jumping into the sea not heeding sharks or pirates. I don’t see a lot of tears shed for these people. But I only read pages and pages accusing the ‘traitors,’ ‘the ones forsaking their country.’ After the end of every war, the victor is in a better position to extend reconciliation to the defeated. The victor, and I mean the one in power, has not shown mercy but the opposite.”
After reading Mr. Truong Vu’s observation, then reading the end of Mr. Tran Van Thuy’s long question, I am struck by the latter’s penetrating question: “I would think a person may hate a regime, dislike a governing system, but how can he be so ruthless toward his own countrymen?” By now, Mr. Tran Van Thuy may have already discovered who the truly ruthless one is.
Mr. Truong Vu recalls his own homecoming thusly: “All my teacher friends were those who had been very well trained in the South. There were several who did better than me in school but no one was promoted to the rank of principal of a high school, even a small high school, except for one or two, while those who weren’t that accomplished had relatives who went North in 1954. When I came back, the war had been over for 26 years. Around that time, during the April 30th commemoration, the TV station showed a lot of films on ‘puppet soldiers;’ the puppet soldiers looked really mean! Me, a ‘puppet soldier’ returning after 26 years, seeing ‘myself’ on TV, not knowing if I should laugh or cry. But anyway, I was really glad I came back.”
Mr. Truong Vu did not come home to Vietnam. He had “traveled” to Vietnam like other tourists then returned to America. He was happy to see his old friends and revisit old scenes. His happiness was not complete, however, for ‘the things that refuse to change’–the reason for his exile–still exist.
When asked by Mr. Tran Van Thuy about reconciliation, Mr. Truong Vu replies, “The Vietnamese people do not hold grudges; there is no culture or religion that encourages people to hold grudges.” It is hard to fathom how Mr. Truong Vu can say this when he himself has noted that thirty years after the war, Communist Vietnam still treats former South Vietnamese soldiers like second- and third-class citizens. Either Mr. Truong Vu is wrong or the Politburo is no longer Vietnamese. Furthermore, while being derogative towards South Vietnamese veterans, the Communist media display a warm, friendly attitude towards South Korea and the U.S. “Today, Vietnamese leaders no longer consider the Koreans as ‘Park Chung Hy’s mercenaries but good friends; this change in attitude is officially recognized and encouraged. The same with the Americans . . . . There is an irony here since Vietnamese newspapers will print a picture of a former North Vietnamese soldier wearing his uniform hugging an American veteran in his U.S. military uniform, but when will we see such a picture between a veteran of the Northern Army and one from the Southern Army?”
Mr. Truong Vu’s question can be easily answered. The current Vietnamese regime is only interested in perks. Americans and South Koreans were once deadly enemies, but they are rich in cash so they get the red carpet treatment. South Vietnamese soldiers and citizens, on the other hand, have been robbed clean of cash many times over by the Communist government so there is nothing left for civility. Mr. Truong Vu says frankly, “It’s clear that the leaders in Vietnam have not shown any real effort toward reconciliation. It’s still a concept based on slogan and legalese.” His conclusion is correct but his premises are wrong when he maintains that “the only remaining issue is the effort to mend wounds among all Vietnamese civilians.” But among Vietnamese civilians, there is no animosity, no misunderstanding, so there is nothing broken and nothing to mend. The Vietnamese Politburo, the collective that has engendered hatred and inequality, must take the first step toward true reconciliation. It has been thirty years but this Politburo is still too brazen and obstinate to take this first step so the only thing for any civilian to do is discard this dinosaur.
Besides a number of overseas Vietnamese writers, Mr. Tran Van Thuy also interviews Mr. Wayne Karlin, a Jewish-American writer and professor of literature at an American university. Mr. Karlin once fought in Vietnam as a helicopter gunner. He speaks of compassion and is sincerely enthusiastic about reconciliation. His words are quite moving, as if he himself is Vietnamese-born: “[E]veryone, from whichever side, has already lost quite a bit during the Vietnam War. Our pain will only be prolonged if we continue our search for absolute justice. We cannot wait for justice in the political arena, but need to find love and understanding among our fellow men. I remember hearing something during the protest against the mistreatment of Rodney King–‘there will be no peace if there is no justice.’ But if everyone demands absolute justice, then I don’t think we will have peace. We have suffered for so long, now is the time for reconciliation.”
In the section on the writer Nhat Tien, I have already mentioned that hatred is born from injustice. Now Mr. Karlin says we only prolong our suffering if we continue our search for absolute justice. If injustice is the root of hatred–the cause of suffering—obtaining justice would be the cure for suffering. Yet, Mr. Karlin advises that we must stop finding the cure so we can put an end to our suffering. This is strange, if not paradoxical, advice. Perhaps he supports the search for justice but only for “moderate” rather than “absolute” justice. But what is absolute justice? We either have it or none at all. There is no such thing as halfway justice.
Expecting those who have been mistreated to give up their chance to heal is absurd and creates even more injustice. Take another example from Beyond the Sea, in which the main complainant is Mr. Tran Van Thuy himself. When a three-volume oeuvre on the late scholar Hoang Xuan Han was being assembled for publication in Hanoi, Mr. Tran Van Thuy, who had opportunity to be acquainted with the scholar, was asked to contribute an article, being promised that it “will be printed in its entirety, with no abridgement or major edits.” During a reception for the tome once it was published, the organizers noted, “This is the first book by an intellectual who was not a Party member that is treated as a major publication event, with several volumes issued in a solemn, painstaking manner.”
The Vietnamese Communist government often proclaims that it offers all kinds of freedom, including that of speech and publication. Yet, this government acknowledged that the three-volume series on Mr. Hoang Xuan Han was the first work by a non-Party intellectual treated as a major publication event. This is a minor matter; the main issue here is that Mr. Tran Van Thuy’s article was cut by 267 words without anyone informing him of this fact before or after the book’s publication. The author feels he was mistreated and that the promise of the article being printed in its entirety was not honored.
While being an active proponent of reconciliation, Mr. Tran Van Thuy cannot overlook this small matter of censorship. He cannot forget the fact he had been robbed of 267 words. He finds the means to compensate himself for this loss by printing his article, including the portions that had been cut, in Beyond the Sea. I must thank Mr. Tran Van Thuy for this. Having had the opportunity to read the censored portions, I realize my assessment of the Vietnamese government is not far from the truth. I would then like to ask Mr. Karlin: If a favored individual such as Mr. Tran Van Thuy is still mistreated by the government, as evidenced by the fact that his article was rudely censored, then how will expatriate writers who return to Vietnam be treated? And if a cultural cadre like Mr. Tran Van Thuy cannot forget a minor issue of having 267 words censored, how can individuals who lost their careers, assets, loved ones, their future and their entire reason for living forget or forgive the evil deeds of those who are still in power?
Mr. Karlin has mentioned there are similarities between the overseas Vietnamese community and the Jewish-American community, of which he belongs. Perhaps it has not escaped Mr. Karlin that, up until recently, the Jewish community has been hunting all over the world and bringing to trial those connected with Nazi Germany. Is this a search for absolute justice, or relative justice? Having suffered for a long time, with so many dead, why are the Israelites still unable to reconcile with their Arab brothers? At any rate, Mr. Karlin still makes a lot of sense when he states, “We cannot wait for justice in the political arena.” That’s right–we cannot wait. We must change the political system to achieve justice.
As a Jewish-born writer, no doubt Mr. Wayne Karlin has heard of this famous and respected man, not the current war-mongering leader of Israel, but the one who won the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize, also a writer–Mr. Elie Wiesel–a Holocaust survivor. Mr. Wiesel does not advise people to forget their traumatic past in order to reconcile with their oppressors, but asks that everyone remembers, because “to forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.” Mr. Wiesel has written Night, a witness account of the horrors during Hitler’s reign, to remind the world that while the past has receded, he cannot let his past become the future of today’s youth, or of tomorrow’s generation.
The last essay in Beyond the Sea is a Vietnamese-American love story between Tuyet and Chris, narrated by Tuyet. The love story is quite beautiful but full of hardships. Tuyet had engaged in anti-war activities as a university student, even displaying the flag of the National Liberation Front at her wedding, but somehow got on the Communist blacklist during peacetime and was closely watched by the Communists. After thirty years of close companionship, Chris passed away due to a serious illness. This reviewer does not feel he has the right to comment on this love story which has taken on mythic proportions.
Mr. Kevin Bowen writes in the last paragraph of the book’s introduction, “These essays and dialogues are essential reading for anyone who would understand Vietnam or understand the toll ideologies have taken in the last century.” Reading Beyond the Sea, one is clearly aware of the efforts toward friendship and reconciliation. The book’s contents show that these efforts are difficult to achieve, however, since the materials have either intentionally or unintentionally misled the reader on the issue of reconciliation.
During the thirty-year period since the end of the war, we have seen and still see people leaving Vietnam but have not seen many actually coming home. People did not leave because of the war, but because of evil actions committed after the war ended. People have not returned, not because they don’t want to go home or because they hold grudges or lack compassion, but because their reason for leaving still exists. A hospitable place will attract people; a hostile terrain will drive people away. You cannot go home when your homeland is still under siege.
Messrs. Nhat Tien, Nguyen Mong Giac, and Truong Vu all wish for reconciliation, but with whom? Relations between Vietnamese civilians are not the issue. None of the above writers can prove the Vietnamese people are feuding among themselves. People inside Vietnam do not oppose each other or those who have left Vietnam. Indeed, they have shown a very loving attitude toward their overseas brothers. Likewise, those who left do not oppose those still living in Vietnam. Nearly three million overseas Vietnamese have sent home three billion dollars to Vietnam annually, or roughly one thousand dollars per individual. If they hate each other, they would not send home that much money or perhaps any money at all. If the people outside Vietnam and those within oppose anyone, it would be the Vietnamese Politburo.
If these writers are proposing reconciliation with the ruling collective, such a proposal is untenable for two reasons. First of all, Vietnamese living inside Vietnam, just like those who have left, have committed no wrong so it would not make sense for them to reconcile with the people at fault. Secondly, even if we wish to reconcile with the government, this cannot be done if such government is unwilling. Mr. Truong Vu admits, “It’s clear that the leaders in Vietnam have not shown any real effort toward reconciliation. It’s still a concept based on slogan and legalese.” These writers have all acknowledged that literature and the media in Vietnam continue to disparage soldiers and citizens of the former South Vietnamese government. The Vietnamese media reflect the views of the Communist government, not those of the people. Encouraging “reconciliation among the people” when there is no animosity among them is skewering the issue. Asking the people to make peace with the government, while the majority of them remain victims and the government their oppressor, is a backward proposal. Doing so is not reconciliation; it’s a surrender of the truth and a collaboration with falsehood.
The last sentence of Mr. Bowen’s introduction reads, “[T]heir dialogues help shrink the span of the river which has come to divide the Vietnamese people, and make the truth, though no less painful, a bit more comprehensive from side to side.” This reviewer needs to repeat once more: There is no “span of river” that divides the Vietnamese people, only the chasm between the ruling collective and the people governed.
The dialogues of intellectuals presented here can only serve as a bridge of understanding if they are heard on both sides. This book has been published abroad; if it is banned in Vietnam, it will only be half a bridge, a trap for the unwary who are deceived into thinking that their “puppet” way of thinking is the true bridge. Whoever takes this bridge will fall into the river and drown, while those on the other side remain unaffected. The writers interviewed have shown their impartiality by criticizing both sides. If only one party can hear their voices, these views may be construed as cause for discord within their own community rather than a wish for reconciliation with the other side. How can they “shrink the span of the river” as Mr. Bowen proposes if theirs is a one-sided conversation? In the end, it is possible that their attempt at reconciliation will merely create more discord.