My most cherished childhood memories of Việt Nam was the daily ritual of waking up to face the tough decision of which breakfast dish to eat and from which vendor. Born in Nha Trang and raised by my paternal grandparents in Sài Gòn, my childhood was filled with family gatherings and playing in front of our Hai Bà Trưng storefront home. This sheltered life was abruptly interrupted in 1975 when Sài Gòn fell.
Even though I safely resettled in Oakland, California. I recall an awful case of homesickness. Reunited with my mother, who was already living in the U.S., I nevertheless longed for my life with my grandparents, including the sights, sounds, tastes, and smells of home. Like so many immigrants and refugees that lost our country of South Việt Nam, and then eventually reconnecting with a reunified nation, my identity and history are closely tied to my country of origin (quê hương).
Initially, I had little hope of ever returning, because as part of a newly formed exiled population, the Socialist Republic of Việt Nam viewed us as traitors. Despite this, I still had a strong desire to maintain a connection with Việt Nam. It was no accident that I gravitated towards learning about international relations and then area studies, especially Việt Nam, beginning my undergraduate years.
It was through academia as a M.A. student-researcher that I first reconnected with Việt Nam back in 1993. This was a year before the U.S. lifted its economic embargo and two years before the U.S and Việt Nam established formal diplomatic ties. Flying above Hà Nội during that first research trip was surreal. Below me was the capital city of a communist state, a place I was taught to both fear and hate. With mixed emotions, I peaked out to see rows of craters left over from the war, filled with water resembling lakes. This view allowed me to grasp how war devastated lives and lands from all sides.
Even with my history, as woman in my early 20s then, I had very little expectations of how long term residency and fieldwork should look. So, I easily adapted to the living conditions in Hà Nội, while staying with a local Vietnamese family, for nearly a year to research and relearn Vietnamese. This living arrangement required special government permission since most all “foreign” researchers at the time stayed in only one dorm area at the Polytechnic University (Trường Đại học Tổng hợp Bách khoa). In retrospect, living away from English speakers, and forced to acclimate to Việt Nam, allowed for rapid language acquisition and easier access to the local communities.
Because this was the first time Việt Nam allowed researchers from the U.S. to enter the country since the war, Vietnamese officials were cautious of our presence and closely monitored our movements and contacts. For instance they kept my passport the entire time except on occasion when, with special permission, I travelled to outside of Hà Nội. Sometimes, officials even questioned those that I came in contact with. But, in spite of these obstacles, I managed to connect with Hà Nội residents and build lasting friendships.
In particular, I gravitated towards the artists. Aside from living in a society where art was censored, artists could not make a living selling their works to an impoverished population. Many artists were just happy to find quality paint in order to continue their craft. We found commonality because of the passion we had for the arts. I appreciated their warmth and openness as we shared our thoughts about the future of Việt Nam and Vietnamese culture. I am happy to report these artists are doing well now. Many found a niche in commercial arts as Việt Nam’s moved to a more market driven economy.
Aside from my work, the most memorable aspect of this visit was when I was able to reunite with the remaining members of my family in Sài Gòn. We had a tearful first meeting and I felt transported back to my childhood. My two aunts and uncle and two cousins would also later immigrate to the U.S. In general, my large family consisting of over a dozen aunts and uncles and too many cousins to count, came to the U.S. in every way imaginable. They came: as foreign students before the war ended; as immigrants with French citizenship; by battle ship in 1975 and rickety fishing boats in the late 1980s; by the Amerasian Homecoming Act; through family reunification; by the Humanitarian Operation (HO) program; immigrating through another country outside of Viet Nam; due to amnesty for escapees from Filipino refugee camps; and as elderly tourists visiting relatives. My family represents a nice cross section of the diverse groups within the Vietnamese diasporic population.
In 1996, I returned to Hà Nội for my Ph.D. research. Whereas my first trip involved studying the relationship between Việt Nam and Cambodia, this trip focused primarily on my work on Việt Nam’s relations with the diaspora. At this point, researchers could travel out of Hà Nội, and so I also spent a good deal of time in Sài Gòn. Unlike my previous trips, I found myself in the company of many moreViệt Kiều, or other overseas Vietnamese. They came from countries such as Australia, Canada, Germany, and of course, the U.S. Many lived in and visited Việt Nam for varying reasons, including: studies, business, journalism, fashion, and so on. These Việt Kiều armed with a western education and bilingual, bicultural skills, quickly found employment in the various western companies looking to break into the Vietnamese market. This trend of Việt Kiều finding opportunities in Việt Nam, when certain avenues for employment are not available or difficult to get in their host countries, continues to this day.
I had many indelible experiences in 1996. One of the most poignant one happened during a holiday break in Tam Đảo. This hill town is known for its relatively large ‘Black’ Hmong population. In fact, they served as tourist attractions for well-to-do Vietnamese and curious foreign travelers. At one point I was sitting at the town center next to a Hmong girl, possibly about 14-years-old. When I began a conversation with her, she explained that her family was pushed out of the area by the kinh people (the majority ethnic group in Việt Nam), and that she had to travel back from far away to peddle Hmong souvenirs. To add insult to injury, she had to pay the kinh high lodging fees. I was appalled, and in solidarity, chimed in about the oppressive kinh. At that moment, I reminded myself that I too was kinh, and that for the first time in my adult life, I belonged to the oppressive group. I was not accustomed to this affiliation. That incident confirmed for me that I would always identify with the oppressed, and work toward equal rights for all.
I returned again in 1999, this time on a Fulbright research grant and lived in Sài Gòn. Researching on the issues of remittances, popular music, and virtual communities, I had to work very hard to make connections with people such as bankers, ministers, and popular divas. I managed in part through carefully cultivated connections over the years that eventually led to important introductions. Though I took special care to ensure the safety of my informants, they and I knew explicitly that our actions could be misconstrued as treacherous to our governments and my ethnic community in the U.S. I chose to live and work in Việt Nam as a Việt Kiều during a time when our relationship with those in our home and host countries were still tenuous. But, for many Việt Kiều, like myself, that had opportunities to connect with Việt Nam over the years, our relationship with the country and its people has evolved in interesting and more positive ways.
My research on the impact of the diaspora on Việt Nam and their transnational connections in general, resulted in my first book, Transnationalizing Viet Nam: Community, Culture, and Politics in the Diaspora. This year-long research residence lasted until 2000. During that time, I was also conducting preliminary work on gender representations. The continued research in this area will result in my second book, offering interesting implications toward addressing the subversive systems that undermine women’s liberation in Việt Nam and in the diaspora. I analyze the cultural systems that perpetuate the glorification of female warriors in Vietnamese history while simultaneously imposing expectations that force women to put all other needs above their own – making sacrifices for their families, nation, and culture. I argue that these standards have enormous influences on how both Vietnamese men and women view gender roles, which continue to provide a cover for a cultural system that covertly and tacitly subordinates women throughout the entire process.
Since the new millennium, I have returned to Việt Nam approximately every other year to conduct research and other projects, such as the study and collecting of áo dài (Vietnamese national dress) for my 2006 curated exhibit, “Áo Dài: A Modern Design Coming of Age.” With these numerous visits, my relationship with those still at home solidifies my place there. Like many immigrants and refugees from Việt Nam, I have a complicated relationship with this country. But, whatever evolving feelings I have about my home, it remains exactly that, my quê hương.
ADD 2008 (VK group research), 2010 (Viet Kieu group research), 2015 (Part of Delegation for Sacramento) , 2016 (Sai Gon and Ha Noi Nom Lam Conference, Viet Kieu Conference, Viet Nam Studies Conference, Da Nang exploratory), 2018 (Organizing Da Nang Conference)