On Memories of War and Transnational Perspectives of Life
by Nguyen Kieu An
Vietnam embodied the battleground for one of the most brutal and destructive wars between Western imperial powers and the people of Asia, Africa, and Latin America (Espiritu, 2014). Yet, “so much is told about Vietnam, and so little is understood” (Nguyen, 2016) amid a “skipping over” of the Vietnam War through an organized and strategic forgetting of a war that “went wrong” by America’s self-appointed role as liberators. In the picture of silent war memories, thousands of hidden figures from South Vietnam, who fled their homeland in hopes of survival due to the effects of war and the drastic regime change of communism, have never been placed into full view. On a cozy morning in November, I had the opportunity to engage in a brief conversation with Mr. Minh Nguyen and Mrs. Thien-Ngoc Ly, the 1.5 generations Vietnamese and Laotian husband and wife who migrated to the United States and Switzerland, respectively, after the fall of Saigon in 1975. They are currently settling in Las Vegas after moving from California. Tracing back to lingering memories of the war, they unwrapped the past that has been buried deep while also sharing their novel insights that emerged from their life experiences as ‘refugees.’
Mr. Minh Nguyen, originally from a relatively well-off family in Southern Vietnam, fled the country when he was nine years old with his family. Dressing down like “country people ” so as not to stand out, they got on a little boat of 25 people at the river before boarding a bigger boat on the ocean. Their seven days of hardship on the over-crowded boat countered hunger, storms and savage waves that almost drowned them on top of an unexpected change of direction that brought them to the Philippines instead of Thailand. Among thousands of “boat people” who failed to survive the passage and perished in the sea, Mr. Nguyen was one of the more fortunate ones to reach the destination.
Born into a Laotian-Vietnamese family, Mrs. Thien-Ngoc Ly, at the age of four, and her family fled Laos with a fear of communist influence reaching the borders and relocated to a Thai refugee camp for two years before being sponsored to emigrate to Switzerland. In her vivid memory of war escape as a child, the journey was days of seemingly endless walking from Laos to Thailand under the heavy rains and muddy rice fields with her mother, two uncles, and her aunt. Swallowed by emotions in speaking of her mother, she stumbled over her words and started sobbing:
“I couldn’t walk much and my relatives were rotating to carry me on their back. Two or three days, we had nothing, I got sick, I was on the verge of not breathing and I almost died. My mom … she eventually tried to get me some water, mud water, the only thing she can give to me, but I was being picky and refused to drink that dirty water. Can you imagine?”
“War was a world with no home, no roof, no comforts, a miserable journey, of endless drifting. War was a world without real men, without real women, without feeling” (Ha, 2016). War is indeed not over and the memories continue to linger and haunt the lives of those who once inhabited that space and time (Espiritu, 2010, p.204). Especially “…”, the silent pause in between Mrs. Ly’s narrative, echoes the ‘noisy silence’ well articulated in Raymond Williams’s concept of “structure of feelings” (Espiritu, 2010, p.209) in which emotional suffocation from the traumatic hardships weighing on her and her family even as time passed by that can always be felt but no words can ever convey. It is the loudness of things unsaid, the lived social experiences, consciousness, and the suffering that is unable, and perhaps will never be able to be captured or dictated by any existing official and defined terms. Furthermore, the war is not only about how the United States remembers Vietnam through its national memorials while forgetting the Vietnamese, but also how Vietnam remembers its dead while forgetting the South Vietnamese; and both nations fail to mourn so many of the victims displaced and dead from the surrounding countries, such as Laos and Cambodia (Stanley, 2020). The suffering, pain, and hardship Mr. Nguyen and Mrs. Ly – a South Vietnamese and a Laotian – experienced, was among the various voices that were dismissed and forgotten in the nations’ ways of remembrance that demonize or forget others. It exceeds the national boundaries and defies the war’s official dates into the living effects, seething and lingering, of what seems over and done with, but “the endings that are not over” (Espiritu, 2010, p.212).
When life becomes untenable and people make the decision to move to new places, they often experience a sense of being in-between, where they do not fully belong to either their old or new home. This feeling of ‘in-betweenness’ is commonly incorporated into their personal story, helping them make sense of the broader arc of their life experiences (Crawley & Jones, 2021). Considering that migrants’ experiences of mobility and settlement are often accompanied with feelings of ambiguity about being simultaneously here and there, it is inarguably causing complex emotional entanglements in relation to places, people, objects and relationships. Touching upon the concepts of “home” and “home-making”, Mr. Nguyen advocated:
“It’s been 40 years since I fled Vietnam and I never went back even once. Throughout the time, the feelings for Vietnam in me faded. With that dwindling attachments, I created my own idea of home – the home is the people, my wife and my sons. You can adapt to more homes, I don’t have to stay at the place I was born with the people that look like me, speaking the same language as me, in order to feel like home. Why do humans have to separate into borders and race? Why do we set up a system where certain kids have certain privileges and rights while others suffer so much? This might be a bit of utopia but the world is my home and I believe you can adapt the whole world to your home.”
As Les Back describes, the notion of ‘home’ connects us to place and people as well as the sense of being in the social world (Boccagni, 2022, p.2). The question of ‘home’ is also at the heart of migrants similar to Mr. Nguyen – migrants who are under conditions of displacement and extended mobility but still stretching to create a sense of belonging and a space to refuge within the vulnerabilities of their lives. “Home,” despite its apparent familiarity, is also a slippery and elusive notion in which its paradox is located in the fact that ‘home is a place to celebrate and escape from at the same time’ (Boccagni, 2022, p.4) – it is a comfort refuge for some, but within the context of the migrants’ life, home is constantly negotiated, unacted, and fought for. For Mr. Nguyen, it was initially the escape from ‘home’ in the horror of war to the challenged time of resettlement until the stage when he was able to create his own idea of ‘home’ that is associated with the dearest feelings towards his family. The richness in the idea of home is therefore, reflected in its representational, narrative and material all at the same time since ‘building home’ involves work and materials – both symbolic and physical – and also the forging of social relationships (Boccagni, 2022, p.2). Mr Nguyen’s sense of home is built through a dynamic process of localising particular sets of relationships that do not necessarily depend on the essential qualities of a particular place. In other words, home is a process not only curtailed by the material objects therein but also involving the people in which we share a home with.
Additionally, home can also be a place that is remade, reclaimed, reopened, reassembled, and represented differently (Boccagni, 2022, p.2). Mr. Nguyen’s sense of home also reflects Massey’s ‘global sense of place’ characterized by relationships and networks that expand outward, but are rooted in and without being limited to specific places (Ralph & Staeheli, 2011). As Mr. Nguyen questioned about reasons why people have to separate into borders and races, it shows how homemaking is a profoundly multi-sensory experience wherein our sense of being in the world is not just a story that lives in language or in a visual representation, but also involves the tangle of the senses and how ideas of home are registered in our senses (Boccagni, 2022, p.4). Following Mr. Nguyen’s ideas of multiple “homes” and “the home is the people,” the construction of home is thus not necessarily tied to a fixed locale but emerges out of the regular, localising reiteration of social processes and sets of relationships with both humans and non-humans (Ralph & Staeheli, 2011); it is sedentary and mobile. Just as Boccagni (2017) avoids using the loss of a home in transnational migration, Mr. Nguyen’s answer calls for attention to the dynamic interaction between home and migration contexts.
Notably, “our home and our identity are tightly wrapped” in which what we call ‘home’ defines us to the world (Kelley, 2013, p.90). Blunt & Varley (2004) argues that just as home should not be presumed to be singular, migrant identity also should not be deemed singular or fixed to a singular home. It is therefore important to consider the ways in which a loosening of identity moorings and markers allows for a fluid model of identification with various places, various homes, whereby many migrants articulate a multilayered, ‘hybrid’ identity that reflects, and perhaps shapes their experience of home, self, and belonging (Brubaker & Cooper, 2000). Mr. Nguyen’s story reveals how displacement may produce alienation, but it also facilitates new ways of thinking and new ways of envisioning one’s life (Kelley, 2013, p.117) – the open-mindedness and a transnational identity that is not necessarily tied to a unique home. Rather than movement from one place to another uprooting or deterritorialising migrants’ identities, contemporary migrants is a strengthening and deepening of ties to multiple places.
The novel ways of thinking emerging from the experience of being a migrant is also well-reflected in Ms. Ly’s sharings of her mothering practices as a mother raising two sons in the U.S. Talking of her sons, Mrs. Ly was enlightened with pride:
“I raised them the way I wanted to be raised. I want them to have choices and freedom, I give them the respect they deserve because they are wonderful and unique in their own ways. My main language is Swiss so I don’t speak Vietnamese that well, but I’d love them to learn Vietnamese and learn about the culture, that’s also part of the reasons why I love to cook Vietnamese dishes. But at the end of day, it’s their choice and I am proud of them.”
According to Kackute (2016), the maternal space that is originally dominated and regulated by the mother is no longer suffocated by maternal authority but an open space to the “endless subtle re-inventions and adaptations” (p.7). Mrs. Ly’s perspective on mothering portrays the emergence of a new subjectivity, which in this case, is maternal subjectivity in a dynamic and novel form rather than the one-way reinforcement of identity that the mother imposes on her children without any creativity and difference. As she places importance on freedom and respect towards the differences between her and her sons, it opens an insight into an alternative model of motherhood – the development of their respective identities that would be familiarly common and respectful of each other’s cultural and value differences. Transnational mobility shapes practices of nurturing that zoom into the production of identity rather than the dominant emphasis on reproduction, it is the development of the maternal self, the maternal agency, and power (Rye, 2009).
In conclusion, as Espiritu (2010) described the Vietnamese as “people larger than their situation” (p.212), refugees and migrants on their extended mobility are also individuals with their own personal histories of movement and displacement. The stories of Mr. Nguyen and Mrs. Ly, among thousands of narratives yet to be known in the line of suffering as the result of war, shed light on how “refugee” should be critically examined as an analytic rather than a subject made legible through state policy and dominant media configurations, given how experiences such as the loss of one’s homeland, historical erasure, and dismembered lives are lived and reckoned with on the ground (Dang, 2008). Furthermore, drawing from Mr. Nguyen and Mrs. Ly’s “new ways of thinking and new ways of envisioning one’s life” embedded in their perspective of home and way of mothering, the concept of refugees and migrants are no longer passive, static “endurers” and “victims” of their situations, but an active and empowered agency contributing to diverse ways of life in the context of ever-changing globalized world (Peisker & Tilbury, 2003).
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This paper was written for a Sociology course on migration (Sociology of Migration II)