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.