One Struggle, Many Fronts

May 1, 2024

May, 2024

Today is the second day of APAHM, and as my father’s daughter, a Vietnamese boat person resettled in Australia, I’ve been thinking a lot about collective cycles of memory, and attention. 

My boyfriend Cody, who is 43, often gripes to me about the resurgence of wide legged pants today. He was in his teens at the time that big pants and JNCOs were popular, and one of his signature gripes to me is his sense that today’s youth act as though they discovered big pants, rather than the reality of these pants circling back through time to re-emerge again in a new context. 

Another example: I recently watched Ripley on Netflix, starring Andrew Scott and based on the Patricia Highsmith novels about a New York-based low level grifter called Thomas Ripley who ingratiates himself with a wealthy roaming wannabe painter in Italy under the guise of helping his father convince him to return home. Towards the end of this series (spoiler alert ahead), the show splices footage of an imagined Caravaggio sometime in the 1500s mirroring the exact movements of our modern day Ripley in the exact same surreal tree-lined abandoned boulevard on the outskirts of Rome. Clips of murder weapons are hard cut next to each other: for Caravaggio, it’s a knife; for Ripley, a heavy glass ashtray. History repeats itself in the actions of these two men, unlikely kin across centuries. 

What is old always seems to bide its time before returning to take its place in the light again. History marches forward in relentless cycles and patterns, swirling mosaics repeating indefinitely, everything made from the shards of the things that came before. 

I read somewhere recently that to be human is to forget, that the forgetting is an important part of being able to move forward. The weight of all that happened before us would be too big to carry, too complex to resolve. 

Viet Than Nguyen’s book, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the War of Memory, begins like this: “This is a book on war, memory, and identity. It proceeds from the idea that all wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.” 

He says that America may have lost the ‘Vietnam War’ (which is called The American War to the Vietnamese), but they have won the memory war, because of the cultural hegemony of Hollywood and the English language, the muscle and heft of it that body checks the voices of anyone else present into obscurity.

My dad was part of the wave of Southern Vietnamese people who fled by boat following the fall of Saigon, and the withdrawal of the American troops. My maternal grandfather was absent from his own home for many years because he was hiding in a temple on the outskirts of Saigon to avoid conscription in the army fighting against communism. 

I am a direct descendent of these real lived experiences, and even I didn’t quite understand the nuance of what the war did to South Vietnam vs North Vietnam, of how some South Vietnamese felt angry and resentful that the American withdrew their help, abandoned them to the communists. I didn’t even know that my grandfather was gone for so long because he didn’t want to fight. I had never heard of any of these stories outside of the mainstream cultural war knowledge I absorbed through American movies like Apocalypse Now, or The American by Graham Greene. I knew that there were lots of Vietnamese people slaughtered, there was a girl that ran away from a burning village, her clothes disintegrated, that they dropped chemicals from the air, that there were many American soldiers who died. It’s broad and sweeping strokes of my own legacy that were obscured from my own understanding for a very long time, until I actively started to look for the nuance in what happened. 

I’m currently writing a fictional novel loosely based on my family, and I found out that detail about my grandfather’s draft-dodging during an informal interview with my mum, who was barely able to even explain it to me. I wanted to understand it better to potentially write about it, but when I Googled variations of the search: “Southern Vietnamese men who avoided conscription in the Vietnam War”, I only found results focused on the American POV, about anti-conscription protests at universities in the US. I went through dozens of pages of search results and could not find one single result about people like my grandfather. I could barely find anything from the perspective of the Vietnamese when I look for information about the war, only that of America. There are barely any photos taken by Vietnamese war photographers. I read about the protests in the 60s, which were described as especially galvanizing because of the death count of American soldiers, not necessarily always because of the Vietnamese civilians who were being bombed into oblivion.

I think this is what Viet Thanh Nguyen means. There is a soft power in moulding memory, one that the American war machine excels at. It’s the power of being able to dominate a narrative so that you are at its center, to reduce millions of people to a historical detail, even to the kin of those people. It’s the power to control what is said and reported, to re-package information for your advantage, like Columbia and its suppression of anti-war student protests in the 1960s, only to then use it as a lionized example of the university’s commitment to student liberty and dissent.

Today, the war machine walks hand in hand with the attention economy. It rides on the backs of the systems behind our screens that leads our attention beyond our grasp, like a herd of wild horses galloping away from us.

I am a victim to it. My attention is pulled into fifty million places at once everyday. I am chronically online. I read about The Cut’s essay boom, about girl dinners and trad wives, hate reads and performative hydration. I sit in bed and scroll through Twitter trying to learn about Jojo Siwa for no discernible reason other than my curiosity demands it. I follow these crumbs of online discourse as though they will lead me to a better understanding of the contemporary environment that I live, work, and write within, but I am convinced that it is all designed to distract me from really seeing what is happening. I am a participant in the mechanism that keeps the war machine going, one that demands my attention be led elsewhere, that it is used to make money rather than demand peace and a different way of doing things. It demands I forget everything as soon as I see it. 

Recently, Instagram announced that it will hide “political” content in people’s feed sunless they pro-actively un-toggle that setting. The word “political” here suggests that the political is ephemeral, of no consequence, something to opt out of. That somehow politics is not woven into the fabric of all our lives, no matter who we are. That it doesn’t impact what we do when we get sick, the way we eat, the things we buy that we have the privilege of accessing—assembled and built off the misfortune of a secret, murky Other. I see this as part of the war machine’s effort at hijacking our attention, of making it effortless to turn the other way.

The space between ourselves and the Other seems to have expanded into an uncrossable horizon, a journey so large that you can hardly be expected to take it on your own accord. After all, there’s so much else to pay attention to—internet essays, cultural fads, entertainment spectacles, our own increasingly expensive and fraught lives in the shadow of problems that feel too big. I understand why so many of us to look away at a time when so much is going on. Our individual power seems so puny that to consider it feels humiliating sometimes. I am speaking as someone who has not been able to vote the entire decade I’ve lived in the US as a non-immigrant visa holder. I have very little rights here, as a non-resident immigrant. I am familiar with how it feels to be helpless.

It has been more than six months of the Palestinian genocide. I waver between paying too much attention, and too little. Lately, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about small details I come across that feel strange, surreal: 15 people drowned trying to reach aid dropped into the ocean in Gaza, there will be a humanitarian pier built there now. Images of more cops I have ever seen using vehicles that look like small boulders to beat and arrest students who have not been able to look away, who refuse to capitulate to the machine that demands that we forget. The strange irony of a paramedic yelling at a police man pointing a gun at Aaron Bushnell engulfed in flames - “we need a fire extinguisher, not a gun.” 

I think about Hind’s Hall (f.k.a. Hamilton Hall) at Columbia, which was renamed to honor the six year old Palestinian girl who died the worst way I can imagine a child to die, surrounded by her dead family as strange men move in to murder her, the name pulled down from the hall by armed police just as quickly as it was put up. I missed the original story of Hind during March, a month of fog when I was at an artist residency in Italy, where I paid very little attention, an opposite reaction to the nightmares and sleeplessness from paying too much attention during the first few months of it all. When I read about Hind, I felt ashamed that it was the first time I had heard of her story.

I am grateful that we will remember Hind, that we will remember Aaron Bushnell, Dr. Hammam Alloh at Al-Shifa who refused to evacuate in order to keep attending to his patients. But who else will be remembered in the aftermath of this genocide, when Columbia asks for permission to use the same images of them calling the police on their own students as a point of pride, of their participation in history? Will we remember the faceless babies I scroll past, covered in blood, tenderly held by the arms of bereft parents? The man I saw in a striking photograph, his mouth and eyes wide with anger, screaming against a backdrop of rubble and dust, a lone grey foot poking out a collapsed building next to a floral rug covered in debris. Will we remember the people like my grandfather, and my father, the ones that hid, the ones that stayed, the ones who were related and had to witness their family, their sacred ancestral lands, their culture be dismantled brick by brick in the most violent way possible, sanctioned by the state? Will these stories be lost even to the descendants of these people?

When I first started to travel widely in my early twenties, I was so transfixed by the Vietnamese diaspora I’d find in Paris, in Berlin, in America. It felt incredibly novel to see faces that looked exactly like mine (we call this sprawling diaspora Viet Kieu), but who would open their mouth and out would tumble an entirely different language. It felt as though I was seeing infinite versions of myself fragmented throughout the world. I could have been French, I could have been German, I could have been American. The strangeness of the vibrant Vietnamese community in Houston, or the solitary Vietnamese restaurant in Peru is a product of war, the dispersal of seeds across the entire planet after a place is laid to waste through napalm bombs and violence.

This APAHM, I am going to practice paying attention. I want to pay attention keenly, no matter how painful it is, to what is happening to our Palestinian brothers and sisters, to their stories and their humanity. My generation is one of the last to deal with the generational impact of the Vietnam War, and I feel crazy watching it all happen again in real-time. Indiscriminate bombing, hateful rhetoric and propaganda, violent suppression of anti-war protestors. We are doomed to repeat our mistakes when we fail to fully reckon with our complicity in war, when we paint over the reality in favor of a distorted one, when we look away. When we forget.

Carl Jung said, “If the path before you is clear, you’re probably on someone else’s.” All oppression is connected. The liberties we have, the comfort I have as a second-generation Asian woman living in safety and with what feels like infinite choice for my life, is built on the backs of the work of others who fought for liberation and justice long before I was born. What is any of this worth - the representation, the opportunities, the celebration - if we choose to ignore those who are targets in the merciless crossfire of history repeating itself? Individual people may fade from memory, but collectively, movements and ideas do not. Solidarity to Palestinians and all anti-war protestors throwing their bodies into the machinery of war. Grind it to a fucking halt. Ceasefire now.