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Undoing the narrative of departure & arrival

The first time I returned to Vietnam was as an adult. I made the trip with my mother and I stayed for three weeks in the thick heat of summer in Hanoi, Saigon, and Lạc Viên. It had been exactly 20 years since I left the rural province of Lâm Đồng to land in San Diego, California. The second time I return will be this summer, for an indefinite stay.

Tomato fields in Lạc Viên, Lâm Đồng, 2016

After waiting two weeks, I finally told my parents:

“Do you remember that job I told you about in Vietnam? I think I’m going to take it.”

“Thôi đừng đi, con ơi.” They told me not to go.

Was there not any other place I could work? Singapore? Korea? Was this the only option?

The hardest part about making the decision to live in Vietnam was not the impending move, the lack of familiarity, or even the idea of starting a new job in a practically foreign country with different customs and rhythms. The hardest part was telling my parents. One would think they would be excited, satisfied even, that I would be interested in returning to spend significant time in a place they once called home. Instead, when they told me not do it, that it was not a good idea, I had to piece together a logical explanation. Here’s what I came up with.

There’s a deep irony in getting to choose to return to Vietnam when that choice was not one afforded to my parents when they left almost thirty years ago. I’m not sure they would agree with this point however. In returning, I am actively undoing the narrative my family had told me and themselves about Vietnam throughout the years: Vietnam and its history was a place we left behind to ‘choose’ to come to America. Coming to America meant new liberties, new ways of seeing the world, new opportunities. Vietnam is dangerous, it’s corrupted, it’s informal, it’s things happening under wraps and outside legality.

Why would I go ‘backwards,’ undo the choice my family had undertaken when we left?

What to me is the reality of forced departure, is perhaps to my parents and family, a narrative of choice. Even when the country became unrecognizable for my parents, they would still say they ‘chose’ to leave, they chose the US, and exerted their agency where they could. I wonder if they have mythicized this narrative of choice as a way to remember things differently. But the reality is that Vietnam is a place that forced us to leave and so therefore it’s not a place that deserves our return. We villainize what hurts us. When we are detained in reeducation camps, and spend years in despair, it doesn’t seem like there is a place for us. Almost as revenge, we can now choose not to return. We operate on a western-centric idea specific to immigrants in which we refuse to let go of myths like the American Dream, when we know full well that our relatives in Vietnam are better off than us because they never had to start over the way we did.

As a Vietnamese-American, an Asian-American of a certain generation, I know that hard work isn’t the only guarantor of success in America. But my choice to go to Vietnam isn’t because of my disillusionment in America. If anything, it’s closer to the fulfillment of that dream, exercising those very liberties that my parents wanted to secure for me from the beginning. To pursue one’s curiosity, even if it’s tracing trajectories of the past, is something my generation of Vietnamese Americans get the privilege to do. My decision to return to Vietnam very much has to do with familiarizing myself with my parents’ histories, but also to accept Vietnam as a changed place, and ever-developing.

As hard as it was having the conversation with my parents about moving to Vietnam indefinitely, what really pulled a heartstring was observing my parents’ resignation at my decision. There was a quiet understanding that for their daughter, who had always had to navigate this American world on her own, this was yet another one of those moments. There wasn't much they could do to intervene. Even before they would admit, I think they knew that this was what those American liberties meant: you resign to let your children go, 'to choose' in the various ways they will choose, and hope that they will somehow make their way back.

In a way, I feel I am compensating for that choice and liberty cut short decades ago. I hope they will realize that this is my way of traveling back to them.

While I’ll be physically distant, my “traveling backwards” means I’ll at least be closer to them in time.

Small street of Sài gòn, 2016


Yen Vu is a first generation scholar of Vietnamese and French literature, and intellectual history. She's a California transplant in New York and likes to write. She finished her PhD at Cornell in 2019, has held appointments at Hamilton College and Columbia University and will join the faculty at Fulbright University Vietnam starting Fall 2022.

Connect with Yen on Instagram @jpnesecurrency


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Dale White
Dale White
27 Eyl 2022

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