SAN FRANCISCO -- Several years ago in Hanoi I watched an old woman take down a faded picture of Ho Chi Minh, leaving a conspicuous white space on her living room wall. Eventually, her teenage grandson covered it over with a poster of Pamela Anderson.
For a while now, Uncle Ho's faded pictures have been routinely taken down in many Vietnamese households, replaced by something more au courant -- a Kiss or AC/DC rock band poster, a color TV set or, better yet, a family altar with incense smoke wafting. No one comments, no one cares.
But if taking down an old icon is uneventful in Vietnam, putting it up turned out to be a much messier affair across the Pacific. In Little Saigon in Orange County, Calif., a Vietnamese immigrant named Tran Van Truong, once a refugee himself, put up a poster of Ho Chi Minh in his video store and inflamed an entire Vietnamese community. Protest raged on every day for six weeks and an enormous South Vietnamese flag -- yellow with three red horizontal stripes -- now flies in the parking lot across from Truong's store.
From an outsider's point of view, the whole episode might seem absurd. The war of attrition between two archaic icons -- the poster of a long dead Communist leader and the flag of a country that no longer exists -- is as jarring as, say, waiters dressing up as Mao Tse-Tung and serving nouvelle cuisine dim sum in a posh joint on Santa Monica Boulevard.
Yet ask any Vietnamese protester outside Truong's store and he or she will recite stories of incredible suffering and unbearable loss. An uncle killed by the Viet Cong during the war; a brother lost at sea trying to flee oppression at home; a father sent to a reeducation camp; a best friend killed in the decade-long war of occupation in Cambodia; cousins suffering for years in the malaria-infected New Economic Zone.
None of these personal histories registers on the American imagination these days, let alone plays out in the American media, whose radar homes in first and foremost on the issue of free speech. Historically, it's been a curious curse of the South Vietnamese to lack the talent to play to the American media (think of the famous black-and-white photo of Gen. Loan executing a Viet Cong soldier in front of the camera during the 1968 Tet -- never mind that the same Viet Cong had killed an entire family an hour earlier, off-camera). The media portrayal of Vietnamese refugees and immigrants in Little Saigon is reduced to that of a rabidly anti-communist community, once persecuted by communism, now intent on persecuting a solitary man standing up for what he believes in.
But does the American media expect the Vietnamese community not to react? Does it not remember how the Vietnam War itself nearly tore America apart in the late '60s and '70s? Why should America expect any less passion from those who actually endured that bloody conflict?
Besides, the Vietnamese protest is tame compared to other possibilities. Imagine what would happen to a Cuban in Miami who put up a poster of Fidel Castro!
Yet, having said all this, I must admit that I, who fled Vietnam when the
war ended at the age of 11, also have mixed feelings. Of course I believe
that Truong has every right to speak his mind. But I cannot help but
think that this man, who went out of his way to fax various Vietnamese
organizations in Little Saigon about what he was doing, is a kind of
narcissistic ass. Although he got what he wanted -- the media limelight,
the underdog image -- Truong remains incoherent at best and inane at
worst. On TV he lights incense and bows to the Communist flag and the Ho
Chi Minh poster, but he betrays no sense of irony over the larger picture
-- that he fled to America to gain the right to free speech so that he
could eventually bow to the Communist flag of Vietnam.
For their part, the protesters are so mired in their anger and lust for
revenge that many can only view Vietnamese identities through the myopic
ideological lens of pro- or anti-communism. There's no room for
discussion. The oppressed have become the oppressors -- yielding the
moral high ground to Truong.
The truth is that many Vietnamese both in Vietnam and abroad have gone
far beyond the old "us" vs. "them" mentality. We are aware of the
injustice Vietnamese refugees suffered after the Communist victory, and
of the atrocities that followed Vietnam's reunification. But we are also
now too individualistic and too circumspect to allow a defunct flag and
the fading photograph of a dead man to frame the complex meanings of our
A young Vietnamese-American friend of mine from Los Angeles whose sister
was killed by Thai pirates while escaping Vietnam recently returned to
Saigon, where he is now a thriving entrepreneur. The son of a colonel who
spent 14 years in reeducation spent his honeymoon in Vietnam, despite
his dislike of the Hanoi regime. Having lost the war, these people have
emerged as the victors of the peace. They've learned to remake themselves
and go on with their lives, refusing to let the politics of the homeland
dictate how they live.
Some 60 percent of Vietnam's population today is under 30 years of age --
born long after Ho Chi Minh died. They have no personal memories of the
war nor any personal attachment with the bloated body of the long-dead
Uncle lying in the mausoleum in Hanoi. Ask them if they are working for a
communist paradise and they will probably snicker that they want what you
want -- a good job, the freedom to travel, schooling for their kids. They
want a VCR, a TV, a computer with access to e-mail and the Internet. And
if possible, they want a nice car.
The irony is that with the exception of San Jose and Orange County and
perhaps Dallas, nowhere in the world would an image of Ho Chi Minh
provoke such a potent reaction -- including in Vietnam.
On TV I heard a young man protesting outside Truong's store declare to
the camera that he "would die for the South Vietnamese flag." I winced.
The time to die bravely has passed, I wanted to tell him. Live bravely
instead. Spend that same passion to build a memorial for the dead, write
a book about your life, tell your children about your past, lobby for
Vietnamese rights in America, in Vietnam.
And watch how the old picture of the Uncle with his white beard in the
old woman's house in Hanoi is fading with age, waiting to crumble into