Vietnamese refugees still suffer from the loss of their homeland and identities. Columnist Thanh Tan, the daughter of refugees, writes about the need to hear and honor their stories.
SIX years ago, I sat on the witness stand in a Thurston County courtroom and lost my composure. I don’t remember the lawyer’s question that triggered the tears, but I locked eyes with the man who had publicly shamed my dad, Duc Tan, with false accusations that he was a Viet Cong infiltrator. I blurted out, “How could you?”
In that moment testifying in my father’s defamation lawsuit, my heart ached for him after his decades of volunteer work had been diminished and his dignity violated by fellow Vietnamese immigrants. My heart broke at the realization that the Vietnam War was not over, at least not for those who endured intense trauma before resettling in the United States.
Born in Olympia several years after the fall of Saigon, I’ve spent most of my life dodging that war’s shadow. Being a daughter of refugees made that impossible, especially as the lawsuit filed by my dad and the Vietnamese Community of Thurston County (VCTC) against their accusers dragged on for 10 years.
I’ve learned that to be Vietnamese American is to accept a mixed legacy of incredible survival and unspeakable pain. We are here largely because our nation, South Vietnam, lost a war. We were driven from our homes by fear of persecution. My father had been a teacher and officer in the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese army.
Seeking Refuge: 40 years after the fall of Saigon
Editor's note: As the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon approaches, the Seattle Times editorial board admires former Gov. Dan Evans and citizens who welcomed Vietnamese refugees into their homes and lives. That legacy continues, though citizens can provide more direct assistance to today’s refugees. Read more about this project.
When Washington did the right thing for refugees
Refugees face different challenges today during resettlement
Thanh Tan: 40 years after the Vietnam War, move past name-calling
Read the column translated into Vietnamese: 40 n?m sau cu?c chi?n Vi?t Nam, hãy v??n lên kh?i trò ‘ch?p m?’
As state with a global heartbeat, helping refugees is at heart of who we are
How local communities can give refugees a helping hand
Rapping for freedom and the end of communism in Vietnam
In Vietnam, former enemies must accept responsibility for war
Advice for refugees: Keep the family together, learn English and get a job
The unwavering belief in the American dream
Timeline: The changing face of refugees in Washington state since 1979
Map: Where Washington's refugees come from today
Refugees are driven from their home countries for many reasons. We want to hear from you.
Read others' refugee stories, see their photos and share your own.
The Bui family pictured in Vietnam before 1975. The family resettled in Tacoma after the Vietnam War.
Want to help refugees?
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International Rescue Committee in Seattle
Lutheran Community Services NorthwestJewish Family Service
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The first wave of Vietnamese refugees to come to the United States in 1975 rebuilt their lives from scratch. Over the next 15 years, they were followed by the boat people (including my family) who often faced death, starvation, rape and pillaging by pirates on the high seas. Starting in the late 1980s, Amerasian children of former U.S. service members started arriving. So did former political prisoners of the communist regime, who spent at least three years in “re-education” camps.
Looking back at my childhood, I remember the different waves reshuffling our growing Vietnamese community. My dad took his three daughters to political rallies and hosted meetings at our house. The smell of coffee filled the air as wives chatted in our kitchen while the husbands huddled in the living room — the South Vietnamese flag always on display.
They were not just socializing, they were sharing information: Where could they go to buy Asian ingredients? How could they support family still in Vietnam? What kind of test might someone take to get a state job and move on from janitorial work? Who was organizing the next rally to protest communist Vietnam’s human-rights abuses?
For my sisters and me, being raised by refugees meant balancing two cultures, two languages, two of everything all the time. If we were not rallying with our parents, we were proofing letters sent to elected representatives or collecting donations at benefit concerts.
Our family’s idea of adventure was taking refugees to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the state Capitol grounds, a monument many Vietnamese raised money to help build in the 1980s.
On Friday evenings, we attended Vietnamese language school, where classes were preceded by a salute to a yellow flag with three red stripes. The opening lines of the South Vietnamese anthem are seared into my memory:
“Nay cong dan oi, dung len dap loi song nui. Dong long cung di hy sinh tiec gi than song…” (“Oh citizens! Stand up! Answer the call of the rivers and mountains. Together, we go forth, sacrificing ourselves with no regrets…”)
My father was so consumed by community activities, he nearly rejected a promotion at his day job with the state Department of Social and Health Services. He felt survivors’ guilt, a sense shared by many exiled Vietnamese that they had to do something for their friends and family members still suffering and imprisoned in the homeland.
When new refugees arrived, their predecessors often taught them how to drive, find jobs and fill out paperwork.
As an adult, I was shocked to see a few of these same people turn against my dad and the local Vietnamese community. In a public notice published in 2003, a group calling itself the Committee Against the Viet Cong Flag claimed my father and the VCTC “worship the communists, poison our children’s minds and have continuously and systematically betrayed the Vietnamese community by working on behalf of the Viet Cong government.”
The supposed smoking gun was a festive holiday apron found behind a food booth that my dad oversaw for the Vietnamese community’s annual fundraiser at the Capital Lakefair. His denouncers held news conferences claiming that the apron’s depiction of a Santa Claus wearing red mittens symbolized Ho Chi Minh and the communist flag.
A Thurston County Superior Court jury ruled in favor of my father and his group. On May 9, 2013, the Washington State Supreme Court agreed with the jury that the Committee Against the Viet Cong Flag defamed them and showed actual malice. The case, which was covered by The New York Times, officially closed last year when the U.S. Supreme Court denied a review. Still, I wonder how such absurd accusations got this far.
Perhaps, an explanation is the trauma that still plagues many refugees who were loyal to the U.S.-backed Republic of Vietnam. Elder refugees still are anguished over the loss of their country and their identities on April 30, 1975. Before the fall of Saigon, they lived with well-founded suspicion of communist forces, known as Viet Cong, infiltrating the South. Today, they worry about the Vietnamese government’s Resolution 36, a 2004 measure to influence the overseas community.
The war did not end for some. Instead of guns, the weapons now are words.
The practice of labeling innocent people as communist sympathizers still happens in Vietnamese communities around the country today. Similar lawsuits have been filed in Minnesota, Texas and California. The effect is that many are discouraged from becoming civically engaged. This modern McCarthyism must end.
But how? By talking about experiences and honoring the struggles of each refugee.
One of my father’s childhood friends recently told me over dinner in a semi-bitter tone, “You’re lucky your dad was only in re-education camp for six months. He left the country. I was there for six years. I saw three men kill themselves in front of me. I still dream about it today.”
What our friend didn’t know was the exhaustive efforts of my father and others to raise awareness about the plight of political prisoners like him.
His comment reminded me that every refugee suffers in his or her own way. I could not give this man back those years he spent in prison, but I could acknowledge his experience. His story matters.
“My dad didn’t forget about you,” I assured him. “Please tell me more.”
Being Vietnamese American means contending with a complex legacy of trauma, loss, bitterness, distrust and survival that many are just beginning to talk about.
That’s not something to run away from. It’s something to explore and confront before memories fade and history repeats itself.