"The Northerners are fanatics," my father said at dinner one night after the Good Guys incident. My father had lived in Paris and liked wine more than jasmine tea; within five years of his arrival in America, he obtained an MBA and lifted us out of poverty into a suburban middle-class life. "The Northerners immolate themselves and talk too readily of martyrdom. They don't think rationally. They think emotionally. Tu sais, comme ta mere! Those boys must have ingested all the plots for tragedy from their Northern Catholic parents."
My mother dropped her chopsticks and feigned anger. "We Northerners defeated the French while you drank their wine," she said, but we all laughed. She was, like the rest of us, also drinking French wine. As the entire family sat there under the gaudy faux-crystal chandelier, in my parent's five-bedroom house with its kidney-shaped swimming pool, the irony did not escape us: Historical tragedy had come to seem beside the point.
How did this happen? Perhaps only a loser knows real freedom. Forced outside of history, away from home and hearth, he can choose to remake himself. One night America seeps in, and out goes the Vietnamese soul of sorrow. For the Vietnamese refugee family, the past is an enigma best left (at least temporarily) alone. Didn't I see America invade the household when the conversation at dinner in our new home leaned slowly but surely toward real estate and escrow, toward jobs and cars and GPAs and overtime and vacation plans--the language of the American dream? Even my father's dinner conversation had shifted to memories of an earlier time, a time before the war, when B-52 bombs were not falling and Vietnam was a lush tropical paradise or when he was living in Paris as a young man, tempestuously in love.
But I suspect irony was a luxury unavailable to those young men. Without the warriors-turned-businessmen, the pool, the chandelier above the dining room table to anchor them in a more complex reality, their passions remained colored by old-world vehemence.
A big difference between me and them was that my father helped me with my homework. I trusted my father's version of America, that "it was built when Europe dumped its nonconformists on America's shore." That to make it in America, you need shrewdness, flexibility and a good aptitude for knowing your place in the world. My father, who saw himself as living in exile, nevertheless taught me how to interpret Walter Cronkite's bad news, taught me how to drive.
I did not, because of my father's help, fail school. That singularly most important American-making institution embraced me and rejected those boys. I am also nearly seven years older than Loi Nguyen, old enough to record the actual war in my memories as an army brat. I do not need John Woo's slo-mo gore. Because I thought it through myself years ago, I know the illogic of killing Viet Cong from helicopters in peacetime--how would you distinguish them from ordinary Vietnamese? Which conical-hatted figure would you shoot?
A FRIEND WHO WORKS IN Palawan refugee camp in the Philippines recently sent me a poem he found carved on a stone under a tamarind tree. Written by an unknown Vietnamese boat person, it tells how to escape tragedy.
"Your mind is like a radio that you can dial to a different voice. It depends on you. So do not keep your mind always tuned to sorrow. If you want, just change the channel."
When I turned 30 recently, years after I switched the dial, as it were, my father said, "At your age I was already a colonel."
"We are very different now, Dad," I snapped, a little irritated. "I don't have a need to be a warrior here in America." My father smiled a sad, knowing smile. What relevant words of wisdom can an exiled general pass down to his fully grown American son, the one whom he sometimes introduces to his ex-army buddies as "the American one," which in Vietnamese could translate, depending on the context, as "bad," "soulless" or "traitor"?
As I think about those young men and what they did, I realize that I, in Vietnamese eyes, haven't been a very good son. I had denounced my father's passion for his homeland as parochialism, had learned to listen to his war stories as tales of nostalgia, had, in fact, taken the private angst of his generation and disseminated it in public light--an unfilial act.
I imagine the Nguyen brothers adoring their father, the ex-sergeant of the South Vietnamese army. They must have loved and trusted his war stories. According to the Sacramento Bee, the Nguyen brothers had folded their arms, the Vietnamese filial pious gesture, and asked their parents for permission to leave the house that fateful day. This image haunts me. They tried to bring dignity to their father by fighting his war. They coveted being good Vietnamese sons: To assuage the old man's grief, the young man must defeat his old man's enemy.