Viet Nam: More Than A “Footnote” In History Books Or A War

Nam. South. Annam. Đại Việt. Viet Nam. A name believed a compilation of Đại Việt and Annam and made mainstream in the 19th century of the Nguyễn Dynasty. This name has as Dr. Việt Thanh Nguyễn eloquently said more than once in his discussions, talks, and writings regarding Southeast Asia, the diasporas, and all entailed, been reduced to a War.

I saw this multiple times in the gaming community that I had chosen to rejoin. A rejoining with an improved understanding of the trenches I would ultimately be walking through, subsumed in, and even complicit in creating regardless of wanting to pave better roads for people at the margins of our society. When people have a battle in the roleplaying setting they remember vividly and describe being traumatized by or ‘scarred’ by, they name the battle with a “–nam” suffix added.  If they even speak of anything scarring or traumatic at all, they in an attempt to be humorous add a “– nam” to extrapolate on the difficulties and struggle of something. As if Viet Nam is only that when they have not even any experience with the place or at the very least the peoples from there.

When I hear something with the -nam suffix added to make light of a difficult experience, only a few might notice I am not laughing. Today, I feel the time to speak out and, hopefully, turn it into a learning moment. I did such last week when I heard a broken record of this equating (one of) my ancestral land(s) to a war.

When conversations, stories, and the overall pop culture reinforce that Viet Nam has been reduced to just war, trauma, and scars repeatedly – ceaselessly – and proliferating, it is hard to find amusement. There are even memes equating jungle warzones within game, science-fiction, or fantasy settings to “Viet Nam.” I know I am not unique in saying any of this and I will not claim credit for this sentiment. I have read the stories of multiple Southeast Asians from the Vietnamese communities who feel the same. Dr. Nguyễn has reiterated the saying, “We are not a war.” The first time I heard this, I felt the power in feeling that there is a part of myself that could be recognized as a person.

And that I had nothing to apologize over. My ethnic ambiguity affords me some privilege for people to see at least some aspects of me so long as I ‘play nice,’ depending on who I speak with and whether I allow myself a summer glow. Most of the year, I am assumed Hispanic, which affords me some privileges in the region I currently live in New Mexico, only once in a while having that reminder of my Whiteness (or lack thereof).

Still, I notice the shift when I discuss the experiences of my family or even some of my own. Neither side of my family is “just a war.” That is neither the side of the Viet Nam War veteran who lived with the experiences of a war perpetrated by western imperialism. Nor most importantly, my grandmother who has found joy in her life despite having to flee her home twice because of Euro-American dominance and hegemony in Southeast Asia.

The “war” is not one I even had the chance to learn about in high school beyond a footnote of a history textbook until I insisted on doing a research project on it. When doing the research, and later even going deeper into my own family history – both the good and the bad – I discovered Viet Nam was and is more than what Euro-American narratives have appropriated to the name.

Vietnamese woman in colorful garments picking fruits in a field. Photo by Quang Nguyễn Vinh. Display photo above by
Q. Hưng Phạm.

Another quality people seem to compare Viet Nam to is something “undesirable.” I have more than once had to call in conversations I heard when living in Tennessee, when a native to the town I lived in might, say, insist that a neighbor’s backyard is “Viet Nam.” When asked what that means? They described “drugs,” “dirt,” and “smell” all in one sentence. That is not the Viet Nam that my aunties and uncles describe to me.

Do not get me wrong: I am the first to say any country is far from perfect, and I am the first to say Vietnamese history has very complicated social and political elements that had (and has) made it both complicit and victim to imperialism, both pre-European and European. For myself, I am definitely someone who has been complicit in that history even after the time Euro-American entities have “physically” left the country. Euro-American imperialism is still alive and well there today, though, albeit taking form in different manifestations as white supremacy deigns to hold firmly.

There is a time and place for that part of the conversation, though, and that is not now. Some can see hints of this conversation in previous blog posts, where I direct people to resources on the Kingdom of Champa or discuss how I had taken for granted my ethnic ambiguity and complicated identity until the past several years.

When I hear people equate derogatory qualities to Viet Nam, I call them into a conversation the many beautiful qualities of land I understood through the memories of my family from there. I emphasize that it is not “one backyard” or “just one war.” There are people, people representing over 50 ethnicities and their own indigenous peoples ( Chăm, Rade, to name a few). My ancestral land has a rich, long history where myriad Indian and Chinese influences have woven into the culture before the name “French Indochina” became known.

I am here again to call in anyone who finds themselves defaulting to the same, simplistic, stereotypical, and/or even racialized thinking regarding Viet Nam and what it means to be Viet Nam. As a multiracial White-Vietnamese American, my experiences certainly will not reflect someone who is only known as Kinh, Chăm, Rade, Tamil, or also Chinese-Vietnamese or Dai/Tai-Vietnamese like some of my family and relations are. We are not a monolith, we are not a geographical expression, we are not drugs and crime, and we are certainly not a Euro-American instigated war.

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