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Madeline Felix: Where the Past is Just the Past

October 28, 2013

To my parents, Vietnam was a war; to me, it was a country. Reflections on conflict and memory following the death of General Vo Nguyen Giap.

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Image from Flickr via trungthaiha

By Madeline Felix

General Vo Nguyen Giap died on October 4. Believed to be 102, he was among the last of the old revolutionary guard who brought communism to Vietnam. A history teacher turned military mastermind, he’s best known for the guerilla war tactics he employed and the immense casualties to which he was willing to expose his own troops in order to drive out the more technologically advanced French and Americans.

I heard about his passing the same way I get most of my information from Vietnam these days: from my Vietnamese friends on Facebook. Some of them told me that when they heard the news, they burst into tears. Thousands of mourners had lined up outside the general’s house in Hanoi. “In our mind, Uncle Ho and Uncle Giap are forever the Great Leaders of the nation,” my friend Thanh wrote.

To my parents and their generation, Vietnam was a war. To me, it was a country. In 2009, on a whim, I applied for a U.S. Fulbright Grant to teach English, choosing Vietnam randomly from a list of countries on the State Department’s website. I was twenty-three. I knew little about the war and even less about the land, culture, or people.

I received an assignment to teach at a college in the northern city of Hai Duong, a small black dot on the map between Hanoi and the port of Hai Phong. Months later, I found myself driving toward Hai Duong in a van with the dean of the English department, a thick sea of motorbikes surging alongside us on Highway 5. Off the slim highway shoulder, women wearing conical hats and kerchiefs tied bandit-style over their mouths and noses scuttled around selling baguettes. They were joined by overloaded bicycles and donkey-drawn carts. Beyond, red flags with yellow stars were hung proudly in front of homes clustered along the road. The occasional pagoda or temple stood stoic and unyielding against colossal industrial complexes. In between the small towns, temples, and factories, rice paddies flanked the highway. At the turn-off to enter Hai Duong City, the navy and white Ford Automotive logo towered over a blanket of green fields.

“Was it the American War?” I had already learned the local name for what we call the Vietnam War.

Hai Duong is not just a black dot on the map. With its strategically important location between the coast and capital, the area was a hotbed of revolution during every step of Vietnam’s quest for independence, dating back 2,000 years to early invasions by the Chinese in the Red River Delta. The outlying province was also a perennial target for French and American pilots hoping to bomb supply routes. Thanks to the economic reforms of the mid-’80s and early ’90s, which were implemented as communism was collapsing in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, Hai Duong today is one of Vietnam’s most industrialized areas. It is home to factories producing sneakers, cars, and computer parts. Like the rest of the country, it practices a free market economy with capitalist ideals while still paying lip service to socialism.

***

At Hai Duong College, nearly all of my students were girls aged 18-21, just a few years younger than me. For many, I was the first foreigner, let alone American, they’d ever met. In the beginning, some would wave hello then flee if I walked toward them on campus. They were shy speaking their beginner’s English, and I was strange. Thankfully, their curiosity eventually got the best of them. Within a few weeks, a student named Linh invited me to visit her family’s farm in the countryside.

As we made our way up the village path from the dirt road to her house, Linh linked her arm with mine in the familiar way many Vietnamese women do. “My father,” Linh said, sidling closer, “he has only one arm.”

While something about the way she said it made me certain how he had lost it, I didn’t want her to feel like she had to hide the fact from me just because I was an American. “Did he lose it in a war?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Was it the American War?” I had already learned the local name for what we call the Vietnam War.

Linh nodded.

“That was a terrible war, wasn’t it? I’m very sorry.”

“Why? It is not from you. The past is the past.” Linh replied.

In the future, I’d hear this phrase—“The past is the past”—repeated whenever the war came up. For a long time I wondered just what it meant and how true it was.

“Did your father come to Vietnam?” Linh asked me.

I explained that he had been too young, but I knew some other Americans who had come, like my mom’s cousin Paul. I didn’t tell her that Paul had been a Navy pilot in 1968 and was charged with broadcasting television and radio from the air to troops and South Vietnamese on the ground as part of “Project Jenny,” keeping them informed and, sometimes, entertained. Since I had come to Vietnam, we had corresponded over email. He remembered spending many nights orbiting over places like Hue, Saigon, and Can Tho, and he had often wondered what the Vietnamese were thinking or doing below. Now, he was curious where the country had found itself 40 years after he left. He did not ask me about current government or economics, but he did ask if women still wore the traditional ao dai, a long fitted dress with slits up the sides and wide-legged pants underneath. I told him they did, on special occasions. He also wondered if the hotel where he lived in Saigon was still standing. Later, I found that it was, standing dilapidated against the gated community of villas that had recently been built across the street.

The Vietnam War never seems entirely in the past for Americans. It is on the tip of our national tongue: held in reserve and ready to be marched out to explain current situations, like Afghanistan, or to warn about a possible future, like Syria.

Linh squeezed my arm and assured me her father would be happy to meet me. At the end of the path, a modest house with a corrugated metal roof and whitewashed brick and mortar walls peeked out from woody bushes. Chickens scampered and ducks waddled in the yard. Linh’s father opened the door and greeted us with a rush of ecstatic Vietnamese. Grinning, he extended his right hand to shake mine. His left arm ended just above his elbow and hung at his side. Linh began to translate.

“He says he is happy and proud to have you in Vietnam, teaching his daughter.” He stopped shaking my hand and rested his hand on Linh’s shoulder. Then he lifted his left arm, half gone. “He says he lost his arm in the war with America.” The smile never left his face as he spoke.

Xin loi,” I replied in my elementary and stilted Vietnamese. I’m sorry. I felt like there was no way my simple words would ever be enough, even if I could’ve spoken his language fluently. He just nodded and continued to smile.

I would see a disabled beggar on a bus with a crooked spine, shriveled limbs, or bulging eyes and a student would tell me he was a victim of “toxic science” from the war.

Linh asked if I would mind having my picture taken with him. He held out his hand again so we could pose shaking hands. I asked Linh to please tell her father that I was honored to be at his house, and that I was also proud to be her teacher. When I asked her later if her father had told her many stories about the war, she shrugged. “No. It’s in the past.”

I was overwhelmed by the history between us, but Linh was not. The Vietnam War never seems entirely in the past for Americans. It is on the tip of our national tongue: held in reserve and ready to be marched out to explain current situations, like Afghanistan, or to warn about a possible future, like Syria.

***

When I came home to the U.S. in 2010, family and friends wondered if the Vietnamese had questioned me about the war or showed any sign of hostility to me as an American. They had not. In fact, war was never the center of conversation. In someone’s house, I would notice a picture of a young soldier in uniform hanging above the family altar, or I would see a disabled beggar on a bus with a crooked spine, shriveled limbs, or bulging eyes and a student would tell me he was a victim of “toxic science” from the war. I understood this to mean Agent Orange, the defoliant that American forces had dumped over swathes of jungle in an attempt to wipe out the enemy’s cover. Both the U.S. government and the chemical companies who produced Agent Orange, such as Dow Chemical and Monsanto, claim they didn’t know it was toxic or could cause birth defects. When I saw a person disfigured and clearly suffering from the effects, I would struggle not to stare. But then that line would come again—“The past is the past”—and my students would move on, taking me with them.

I wondered if this mindset had something to do with the fact that Vietnam has dealt with foreign invaders for thousands of years—from China, France, Japan, America, Cambodia. I also knew that Ho Chi Minh had said that the enemy was the American government, not the people. This was supported by the common knowledge that many Americans protested the war and the Vietnamese belief—however skewed—that the majority of servicemen had been drafted against their will. Practically, I also thought Vietnam might be so forgiving of American because it needs our capital, technology, and clout in the world economy.

Giap’s death might look like the last of the war era to Americans, but for the Vietnamese, that era has been over for a long time.

But maybe the question of forgiveness, or at least of moving on, is closer to how one man I met in Hanoi explained it: “We were fighting over a girlfriend. We won the girlfriend. Why would we be angry? But you didn’t win the girlfriend. So maybe your country still thinks about it.”

Linh is part of the first generation in Vietnam in well over a century that has grown up without foreign domination or war. In college they still memorize Ho Chi Minh Ideology, including the tenets of communism and the former president’s speeches, and learn about Giap’s military strategy, but their sights are set on the future, not the battles of the past. Giap’s death might look like the last of the war era to Americans, but for the Vietnamese, that era has been over for a long time.

During his last few decades, the general himself helped to usher Vietnam away from the past by encouraging economic reform, speaking out against corruption and environmental pollution, and championing closer ties with his former enemy, America. In 1990, John McCain met Giap for the second time; their first meeting had been when the future U.S. Senator was held prisoner in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton.” McCain was officially in Vietnam’s capital to talk about normalization between the two countries as well as the ongoing POW/MIA issue, but he also hoped to swap war stories with the Vietnamese general. He was fascinated by Giap’s defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu and marveled at the Ho Chi Minh Trail. But the general, then around 80, wasn’t very interested in talking war. He said that was the past. He wanted to discuss Vietnam and America as friends, and the future.

I think this is also what Linh meant when we were standing together near the rice paddies outside her father’s home and she told me that the past is the past. It’s not that history doesn’t matter, or that heroes won’t be remembered, but her country won’t be defined by war. In the days following Giap’s death, people mourned him not only as a military genius and hero, but also as an architect of the kind of change many want only more of in Vietnam today.

Madeline Felix is currently finishing her MFA in Nonfiction Writing at Columbia University, where she also teaches undergraduate creative writing. A 2009 U.S. Fulbright Fellow, Madeline is working on a book about the year she lived in Vietnam.

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One comment for Madeline Felix: Where the Past is Just the Past

  1. Comment by Tom Gibble on August 14, 2014 at 12:07 pm

    This articles was well written. I was left wanting more. I am anxious to read your book.

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