Stories That Can’t Be Told

I have mentioned stories that can’t be told. These are stories about the generation of the parents of our students and, if they are still alive, stories about the grandparents. Young people have told us these stories but there is no way that I can repeat them. They are, of course, stories of what people did and how they survived during the years of the French occupation, the American War, the years immediately following the end of the American War, the wars with Cambodia and China, the end of the Soviet Union and now the turn toward a mixed economy.

People in these stories fight in the wars, get bombed, get lost, get taken prisoner, get tortured, see their cities burned and friends and families killed. They also fight in war, bomb other people take prisoners, torture, burn cities and kill people. They experience famine, flood and drought. They practice voluntary privation to get through hard times.

The same people escape, some by helicopter and ship to the US where they live in Southern California or Houston. Some escape by boat, after paying thousands of dollars in gold to a fixer, and many drown or starve or are picked up by pirates. Some pay those thousands of dollars twice or more. Some people are in prison and they escape, or they are in re-education camps and they survive and are released. Some people are the fixers and the camp guards.

People in these stories migrate, from the south to the north or more often from the north to the south, bringing a different accent, different expectations and culture. They also migrate from Vietnam to the US, to Cuba, to Canada and other countries. They have been to Russia to study and know Russian. They have visited Soviet bloc countries, including East Germany, for specialized medical care.

Some of the ones who make it to the US come back, or their children come back, speaking Vietnamese and hopeful to be part of the new Vietnam, which is an economy developing at 6.8% per year. They meet the children of people who never left, who have profited from the new economy, who live in splendid houses – some in District Seven, a few kilometers east of TDTU – and have live-in maids and drivers.

Everyone who has a grandfather who worked for the French is sitting next to someone whose grandfather was Viet Minh. Everyone whose mother was transported away from a battle zone to live with strangers is sitting next to someone whose father who flew US-supplied planes on bombing runs over the battle zone.

If you pick any one of these stories and tell it by itself, it sounds like the story of a lone individual fighting for survival against mighty forces of evil. You have to braid them together to know what you see when you look out at a classroom of seventy students, sitting side by side.

Published by helenaworthen

Labor educator, retired from University of Illinois, taught at TDT University in Ho Chi Minh City in the Faculty of Trade Unions and Labor Relations. Co-author with Joe Berry of Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the contingent faculty movement in higher education, forthcoming (August 2021) from Pluto Press.

4 thoughts on “Stories That Can’t Be Told

  1. Good point about how do we teach when we’re do busy learning? Hmmmm… I think the students might have somethign to say about that. But I don’t know anywhere near enough to write a book about this. We’re kind of in a bubble, here. 20,000 students running around a campus the size of a city block, all of them eager to learn English and therefore very friendly…but over the fence it’s a bit of a different world.

  2. I find it fascinating that the people of Vietnam are able to live with their horrific past side by side with each other. The saying that time heals all wounds may have some bearing but it appears to me that they’ve learned to live with each other and their past involvements. As you say, some will talk and others won’t and I can empathize as some things may not be uttered as they are too painful still. The people of the US can take a note from this. How do you stay focused on teaching when there is so much to learn from your students? Is there another book coming perhaps?

  3. As Helena’s spouse and colleague teaching these same students, she has it just right. We in the US never really had this situation since after our Civil War, and especially after the fall of Radical Reconstruction and the sometimes integrated schools that came with it, there were never very many places where the degree of mixture that she describes in our classes too place (at least until the 1960’s and the Civil Rights Movement) even many more years later than the mere 40 years since the end of the American War here. There are still devisions and lots of things that are not said, but the development of this society, at least as we can see here in HCMC and TDTU, in these years is remarkable.

    So, the whole experience is pretty remarkable, but also frustrating for us. We are constantly in situations with questions where the people who know the answers aren’t talking (at least not to us in English) and the people who will talk only know a small part of the answers we seek. The result of this situation looks, on the surface, like a younger generation that is fully as depoliticized as the average US college student. Under the surface, we have some hints that this is not totally the case, but without the language and better insight and feeling for the culture, we really can’t know. My father was a “foreign expert lecturer” under a Fulbright grant in Iran in 1959-60 at Tehran University, in Iran and I now remember him expressing some of the same frustrations. I now know how he felt in many ways. At least I am not here in any way as a representative, or paid for, by the US government so I do not have that monkey on my back that he did. (This was the period just a few years after the US-engineered overthrow or the elected Mosaddegh government and the reestablishment of the Pahlavi monarchy).

    One very good thing is that lots of people do want to talk with us, if only to practice their English and get contacts for study or collaboration in the USA. We hope to learn a lot more along these lines when we get a chance to go out and teach workers and unionists (which we are told is a real possibility) and we are very excited about that. As always, we are learning as fast as we can and asking many stupid questions. They have not thrown us out of fired us yet. Maybe we will really get away with it? On to Hanoi later and other provinces before then.

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