45 Years After the Fall of Saigon: A Coming of Age

On this 45th anniversary of the twelve-year war waged in Vietnam, we’re presenting voices from those belonging to the community most impacted by the war, and who remain an integral part of our city — Vietnamese Americans. Locally, the Vietnamese community has created a thriving Little Saigon in what were once abandoned and dilapidated buildings around Seattle’s 12th and Jackson. 

They have also built businesses and homes that helped revive the White Center neighborhood. Because of the generous sharing of their culture and cuisine, every high school student knows that a banh mi is a great after-school snack, and pho has become a household word. 

The Vietnamese community continues to touch every aspect of our society, from artists, composers and writers to doctors, nurses and other health care workers on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic and all walks of life. In the past few days, the War has been mentioned only in the context of the deaths from the coronavirus surpassing the number of American deaths in Vietnam.
To reflect upon the past and contemplate the future, we share two voices from local second-generation Vietnamese Americans who have distinguished themselves in their work and community volunteer efforts — and who bring their unique perspectives on a war with ongoing repercussions: State Senator of the 34th District, Joe Nguyen, and longtime journalist and Vice President of Community Engagement & Marketing for the Washington Technology Industry Association, Julie Pham.

by Joe Nguyen

In the past week the Vietnam War has been making headlines here in the United States, but not because it is the 45th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon. In just a few short months, the American death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic has now surpassed that of a war that spanned nearly two decades.

However, largely absent from remembrance of the 58,318 fallen Americans soldiers who served during the war, is the estimated millions of Vietnamese lives, most of whom were civilians, who also perished in the bloodshed, a conflict that most in Vietnam refer to as the “American War.” Their omission from these comparisons is not surprising, as it reflects the ethnocentrism that Vietnamese Americans have endured throughout our entire lives. 

Although these millions may be missing from the public narrative, their pain is seared within the memories of our own communities. This is especially true for our elders, who risked life and limb to get here, and who’ve passed their trauma down to their children. I’ve had friends and family talk of their parents’ bullet wounds and scars, of family members left behind, of crowded boats and refugee camps. 

Having fled tragedy, the main goal for refugees was survival, which resulted in assimilation and an urgent need to “prove our Americanness.”  Former presidential candidate Andrew Yang evoked this concept again recently, suggesting Asians employ it to combat increased discrimination and hate crimes in light of COVID-19. So I grew up being discouraged from speaking Vietnamese at school because it was viewed as inadequate. This was reinforced for a brief time when I was placed in ESL classes despite being born in the United States and being able to speak English just fine. My siblings and I changed our names and traded them in for proper American versions like “Joe,” and accepted a bastardized pronunciation of our family name “New Win” to reduce confusion for those who couldn’t pronounce it. We laughed along to jokes at our own expense — better to be in on the joke than not, even if you are the punchline. 

We rejected ourselves in the hopes of blending in and through our submission we hoped we would one day be accepted by our white saviors.

The ideology of cultural rejection is still prevalent today, but is slowly shifting as the next generation of Vietnamese Americans are coming of age. The shift has caused friction inside the community and outside. On the one hand, Americans uphold us as a “model minority,” ignoring inequities we still face in favor of assuaging their own guilt; sure, the American War was devastating, but the people seem to be doing fine now, so we can collectively move on and ignore the devastation and trauma that still haunts them. On the other hand, more conservative elders who fought for survival worry for their avant-garde children whose identities are purely their own — a mixture of Americanness and Vietnamese, rather than one or the other. 

More and more of us are forging new paths and creating space where none existed before. We have a Pulitzer Prize winner in Viet Thanh Nguyen or authors like Thi Bui and Ocean Vuong, whose best-selling works have resonated with other children of the diaspora trying to bridge the gap between the past and present. Or Amanda Ngoc Nguyen, a civil-rights advocate, protecting sexual assault surviors, and Nobel Peace Prize nominee in 2019.

Locally we have an emerging class of political leaders like Representative My-Linh Thai, Federal Way Councilmember Hoang Tran, Renton Councilmember Kim-Khanh Van, and Mercer Island Schoolboard member Tam Dinh, who are forging paths for future generations of Vietnamese leaders.

We also see an uplifting of the community and reclamation of our cultural identity through food. Where we had children mocked for bringing home lunches to school, we now have leaders uplifting Vietnamese food and culture as marks of pride. The Pham Family who own the beloved Pho Bac chain and Tam Nguyen (Tamarind Tree/Long Provincial) and Uyen Nguyen (Nue) have all shifted the perception of and elevated the appreciation for our culture, not only for other Americans, but especially — and most importantly — amongst Vietnamese Americans in our own identity.

Where we were initially indoctrinated to feel shame about ourselves, we are now seeing greatness.

Too many have singularly defined our existence by one war, but 45 years later we’re now seeing glimpses of what our identity could look like outside of tragedy. Under tremendous trauma and pressure, we’ve forged our cultural identity in a society that has tried to erase it. We’ve shouted the stories of our families and taken control of our own narratives when we are left out of headlines. We’ve fought, and survived, and thrived.

We are the manifestation of our ancestors’ wildest dreams.

Joe Nguyen is the Washington State Senator for the 34th district. He is the first Vietnamese American to serve in the State Senate, and was raised with his three siblings in White Center, Washington, by his mother.

Featured image: courtesy of the Seattle City Council.