Confronting the Past: A Story of Two Families

01 Bac Thu
The past has a way of catching up to us.

No matter how fast you run, no matter where you try to hide, it inevitably finds you, for better or worse.

I was born in Vietnam, a child of the war. Here, it’s referred to as the American War while everywhere else in the world, it’s known as the Vietnam War.

Growing up in the US since the age of 2, I was blissfully unaware of the world I was born into, a country which no longer exists. In fact, I was perfectly happy being a “banana”, yellowy Asian on the outside, more White than anything else on the inside, living in suburban Virginia, going to the best, predominantly White schools. There’s even a newspaper article of me at the age of 6, dutifully translating for my fellow “boat people” schoolmates.

01b newspaper
But the story of my childhood is a tale of two families. Two histories. Two fates.

My father’s family came from Thai Binh, 100km south of Hanoi, in the north of Vietnam. Part of the Bac 54 movement, the Northerners who moved to the South in 1954 as France lost its grip on Vietnam, they settled in Saigon. My grandfather was a civil servant and old family photos tell a tale of carefree children with good teeth, fashionably dressed posing in front of a landscaped garden with an automobile in the background, servants to help around the house.

02 Well dressed
Even then, my father’s family was open-minded, sophisticated, well-traveled. My own parents got married in Germany, while away on scholarship, my father also studying in France and Morocco. One uncle met his Australian wife on a cruise. Another aunt met her Swiss husband while hanging out in a kibbutz in Israel. Yet another uncle was stationed as a diplomat in Paris, London and New York. Photos show graduations all around the US.

03 Traveling

To this day, it’s kind of surreal to me that I have sets of cousins who look nothing like me, including a second cousin with the blondest of hair.

04 Cousins

My baby book is full of photos of a comfortable life. A happy family of four, perched on a shiny new Vespa which I’m told was quite the status symbol in the day.

05 Vespa

Perhaps my love of beaches was kindled by early visits to Cap Saint Jacques, the French coastal playground now known as Vung Tau. One of my favorite photos is of my mom wiping sand off my one-year-old feet, as moms do.

06 Beach

While the country was at war, my privileged family felt little of it, insulated in Saigon. We experienced no deprivations, no shortages to speak of. Those with money could still find whatever they wanted. Of course, by then, the war had been going on for nearly 20 years. People kept up with it in the newspapers, but there was little panic. It kindly left our family alone. Sure, my father witnessed the aftermath of battles as a teacher in the southern provinces of Vietnam. And my parents carefully monitored the news of the 1968 Tet Offensive from far away Germany, worried for the newborn daughter they had sent back to live with my grandparents in Saigon.

In fact, the only person in my family to go to war was my uncle, Giap. He came home uninjured but no longer whole. A few years later, and three years before I was born, Giap took his own life.

I still hear the heartbreaking wistfulness in my father’s voice on the rare occasion he speaks of his brother, younger by four years, the one uncle I never knew. In old photos, I see kind eyes looking back at me. How much did his suicide have to do with the things he experienced as a soldier?

1956 (?) my brother Giap in Paris

By the early 70’s, most of my father’s surviving six brothers and sisters were already living abroad. Our little family remained in our tenuous bubble of security. Things came to a head, though, in the early part of 1975. Now the war was no longer just on the fringes of consciousness. It was inexorably moving towards Saigon. In those final moments, my parents spent every waking minute listening to the radio in a torturous, helpless exercise of tracking exactly how close the front lines had become. The end of life as they knew it was measured in days and hours, not weeks and years.

One of my aunts, who had by then returned from a study tour in the US and gained citizenship, went to the US Embassy in Saigon to arrange evacuation. She was told there was no space. So she went directly to the airport and was able to sign herself up along with our family and two of my mother’s brothers and sisters for evacuation. My mother recalls that they had less than one day’s notice. What do you take when you have just a few hours to liquidate your entire life? Packing what little you could bring, giving away what you couldn’t. Even though my maternal grandparents lived only 15 minutes away, there was not even time enough for good-byes. We left five days before what is now called the “Liberation” of Vietnam, before the infamous scenes of people desperately clinging to the last few helicopters. My mom tells me that the night we left, I asked my parents why we were still outside at night despite the curfew.

The word “curfew” should not be in any 2 year old child’s vocabulary.

Safely in the US, our family photo albums depict a happy kid who rode ponies and hugged Disney characters, as always, shielded from the past. But over the years, small chinks appeared in the armor.

08 USA

I vividly recall one late afternoon in 1977. I would’ve been four. My mom was drying her hair with one of those old fashioned contraptions that included a light green bonnet, a hose and a very loud fan. The phone rang. And in an instant, my mother was doubled over, sobbing inconsolably over the news that my grandmother had died in a land far away. The one there was no time to say good-bye to. A kind woman who I had no memory of. The family left behind.

Other than that, I cannot recall one instance where we talked about the war growing up. I think my parents were just happy to be living abroad, especially as we started meeting “boat people” who in most cases paid a terrible price to get to where we were.

Then came the war on Iraq during my teen years. Again, there was 24/7 coverage of war, but this time with live images. My father was transfixed. Not only did he watch the news when he was home, he taped it when he wasn’t. Even after all those years, he had an intense visceral reaction to what he was seeing, the final crack in the floodgates of his memory, a trigger which led to more serious issues that carry on until this day. I have never asked him what terrible things he must have seen in those country provinces long before I was born. I’m not sure I want to know.

The young are rarely burdened by the weight of history. It’s usually when we see our lives as history mostly written that we start looking back. My parents have since come back to Vietnam on many occasions. They marvel at how much everything has changed. I tell them of new 50 story buildings going up and mega cities being planned.

This is actually one of the reasons I’ve decided to come back to the land of my birth. I’m no longer happy being a “banana”. I want to know the country that shaped my parents, even though that country, on paper at least, does not exist anymore. I want to confront the past and allow it to speak to me. While I straddle both worlds, I’m not sure I can say I truly belong in either.

Even if I wanted to forget my childhood connection to this country, I can’t. It’s everywhere I turn, even now, almost 40 years later. It’s in the mural that I pass by three times a week on the way to my tennis courts, defiant faces ripping an American flag as fires rage in the distance.

War Mural

It’s in the landscape of the city, previously known as the Pearl of the Far East. Where are the slick monorails like Bangkok or the impressive skylines like Hong Kong?

It’s in my childhood home that I drive past, strangers now living in it, squatters who had their pick of homes abandoned by the fortunate / desperate. I wonder whether it looks anything like the neat, cheerful home in my baby photos, filled with toys and books?

It’s in the missing tip of the right forefinger of the security guard who scans my parking pass, an all too common sign among men of a certain age who voluntarily amputated their trigger finger to avoid a soldier’s life.

It’s in the gaunt face of a woman I randomly met who happened to have been in the same graduating class as my mother and taught at the same all girls’ school as she did. I came back to show her a recent photo of our family and she stared at my mother’s now aged face for a long time. “I hardly recognize her,” she told me quietly. “I remember your mother as a very pretty girl with a round face.” I don’t know if the years have been kind to her either. Or whether this was the life she envisioned for herself.

015 (1)

All I know is that our past undeniably shapes who we are. It’s nothing we can change or should be fearful of, but it is something we can choose to embrace or choose to let go.

I for one choose to embrace.


This blog post has been a long time in coming. I thought more and more about it when I recently interviewed Nick Ut, the Pulitzer prize winning photographer who captured the image of the “Napalm Girl”, that has been called the photo that ended the war. Click on the image to read the article in Oi Vietnam.

From Napalm to Palm Trees - Nick Ut - 2013-05 Oi Vietnam

Then, fortuitously this month, both my uncle (the former diplomat, now in Canada) and my aunt (now in Virginia, pictured at the very top of the post) came for a visit. It was a serendipitous chance for me to fill in some of the gaps in our family’s history. And very special thanks to Foodpanda for our reunion dinner. If spending time with family was awesome, being able to do so in my own home over a dinner of Vietnamese comfort food without having to cook was priceless.

09 Family Dinner

Now since I’ve overshared, it’s your turn! What challenge have you embraced or are struggling to overcome? Tell your story in the comments. Or if it’s too personal, email me with it.

The story that resonates most with me will receive a free copy of the newly launched, Love with a Chance of Drowning, by fellow blogger turned novelist Torre DeRoche.


Love with a Chance of Drowning – A Memoir by Torre DeRocheThis post is part of the My Fearful Adventure series, which is celebrating the launch of Torre DeRoche’s debut book Love with a Chance of Drowning, a true adventure story about one girl’s leap into the deep end of her fears.

“Wow, what a book. Exciting. Dramatic. Honest. Torre DeRoche is an author to follow.” Australian Associated Press

“… a story about conquering the fears that keep you from living your dreams.” Nomadicmatt.com

“In her debut, DeRoche has penned such a beautiful, thrilling story you’ll have to remind yourself it’s not fiction.” Courier Mail

Find out more…


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38 thoughts on “Confronting the Past: A Story of Two Families

  1. Maria

    Jimmy, hopefully we all learn from our past to make a better future for all. Lovely picture of your family…like father, like son…like mother, like daughter.

    Reply
  2. Ryan

    Wow! Such a touching story. Very interesting to learn about your past! You have a wonderful family, very fortunate

    Reply
  3. Heather

    Beautiful post, James. I’m so sorry about your uncle, that must have been devastating for your family. My dad and uncle both fought in the war but we haven’t talked much about their experiences. Love the photo of you and your mom at the beach!
    Heather recently posted..The Three Pagodas of Dali, ChinaMy Profile

    Reply
    1. James Post author

      Thanks, Heather! My family says his death shocked everyone. A lesson that we need to treat everyone with kindness because you never know what’s going on in someone’s life and you may be the only bright spot in it! (I definitely need to apply my own advice!)

      Reply
  4. [email protected]

    Just… the.BEST.

    I feel privileged to have read it, James – and even more to call you a friend.
    [email protected] recently posted..Last of Laos: Moseying in Luang PrabangMy Profile

    Reply
  5. nancy schwankhaus

    I am so glad you are such a good writer to write about your family so eloquently.your story can be duplicate 100,000 times for all the VN boatpeople with very little variations sometimes much more tragic. I met a woman on my cruise last month whose family tragically perished when the Malaysian gvt turned away their boat.I can imagine how that would feel but she survived and made a happy for herself in Fla.she made a journey to Malaysia to pay respect to her mother and family who were buried in a mass grave in Malaysia….love your blog.keep it coming. Nancy

    Reply
    1. James Post author

      Thanks, Nancy! It is tragic what many people went through for a shot at a better life. I’m seeing more and more coming back to enjoy the relative prosperity in Vietnam nowadays, though. With perhaps USD 1,000 a month, you can live pretty well here.

      Reply
  6. Uncle LINH

    Dear Cường,
    As a former Professor of Journalism and teacher of English I would like to recognize your talents as a writer and your perceptive observations of life and people. I love your story, it is so real and moving ! I suggest that you develop this story of our families combined with your experiences as a missionary into a book that I am sure many publishing companies would love to distribute.
    Good luck, Bác LINH

    Reply
  7. Scott

    I was a little disappointed with this article. It was SO interesting, I could have kept reading more and more. I really enjoy your writing style!

    Reply
      1. JR Riel

        Wow, no ways! That’s awesome! Are you gonna be just on Oahu? Or you plan on checking out the other islands? I’m from Moloka’i originaly, it’s a very small island. I’ll be visiting family and friends in July, Molokai, Maui, Lanai and Oahu. I’ve been in Taiwan for over three years now, so it’s been a long time coming. Have fun on your trip to the aloha islands!
        JR Riel recently posted..[Travel Question] In a New Place, Would You Rather Spend a Full Day With a Thief OR With a Beggar?My Profile

        Reply
  8. Fran

    Hi
    I know this is no way whatsoever the same thing as what you are talking about… but I have been to Vietnam and I was really struck by how the people there didn´t seem to be angry or hate me because I was from the U.S. It really was a mystery to me (were they faking it? where they too young to care? did they really forgive America(ns)?) This is the first piece I have read since my trip there 7 years ago that really gave an honest insight — from someone my age who was born too young to have any first hand experience into the event – but whose family was still impacted despite being (mostly) removed from the actual fighting. I loved your piece, your writing style and how forthright you were. It´s not easy to be so open in prose 🙂 I also love Vietnam. It remains my favorite country of all I have visited and reading your piece really makes me want to return.

    Reply
    1. James Post author

      Thanks, Fran! Intriguing question you bring up. I asked around a few people today and the consensus is that no one knew of anyone who was still harboring animosity towards Americans. I think it’s different in the US where prejudice flares up then and again, perhaps thru the use of terms like “Commie”. Here, while I don’t doubt that a few of the older generation may have bad feelings, I honestly don’t think they’re directed at individual travelers. Some of the reasons I heard were: the US has made amends by investing in Vietnam; Vietnamese Buddhists believe in karma, so they don’t tend to hold on to the past; it’s been long enough to move on and forgive which leads to peace.

      Reply
      1. Fran

        Perhaps this sounds corny, but when I was traveling through Vietnam, I felt there was a calmness that permeated the country and the people… which I gathered came in large part from the Buddhist beliefs, etc. (Even in the more bustling cities!) It was a vibe that stood in stark difference to the western countries and cities I have lived in and traveled to. In any case, I love Vietnam and can´t wait to return!
        Fran recently posted..Learning To BluffMy Profile

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  9. Yves Icardo

    Very touching history of your family.
    and amazingly, I saw some of my swiss friends in pictures of your cousins, T.-M. H. , S. & R. H., friends I saw last week!!!
    Y.I.

    Reply
  10. Erin in Costa Rica

    Wow that was a beautiful post and interview. Thanks for sharing, James. I think you are pretty courageous for going back to explore your roots.
    My Uncle went to the Vietnam (American) war and came home with mental problems and cancer. My Grandad went to World War 2 and came home speechless and unable to leave his house. War sucks. I’m sorry that happened to your family.
    Erin in Costa Rica recently posted..Surprised by a Thief in a Tropical ThunderstormMy Profile

    Reply
    1. James Post author

      Thanks, Erin! No question about it, war stinks. The Vietnamese are doing a very good job of moving past that dark period in their history, I’ve got to say. The odd moment, I think to myself, “What am I doing here?” but for the most part, I’m loving the journey!

      Reply

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