“This is the oppressor’s language, yet I need to talk to you.” –Adrienne Rich
I remember sitting on the wooden bed. The U.S. army fatigue blanket rested upon a straw mat. Another decade had passed and I was finally back on the land where my ancestors have lived. Vietnamese swirled around me. I would smile awkwardly at guests. Sip tea to keep my hands busy and my mouth silent. Wear long pants to cover up. Take notes on Vietnamese words. Hide my eyeglasses so I looked like a lady.
I was finally home. Yet no words could fix the problem. In my pixie cut, they joked I was a boy. When bored, they said I was too American. As I ate everything lovingly forced-fed to me, they remembered my blood. Unable to communicate with elders and unwelcomed by peers, I took to myself. I did chores. I visited the guava tree that no longer stands. I would occupy myself with words—English words. I asked questions, trying to recount a past life. And I cried, ashamed and frustrated at my disjointed self for not belonging. Then I hid those tears, ashamed and frustrated because Vietnamese women have learned to cry without tears.
The Vietnamese have a sacred bond with their ancestral lands. So I selfishly prayed for my father to be relinquished of his burden. I traveled into the homeland with him. I left alone.
Andrew Lam reminds me that the Vietnamese are fatalistic. We celebrate death dates, stopping by cemeteries annually. We light incense at relatives’ graves as well as for those “neighbors” nearby. “Have your visited your grandmother yet?” they ask me about my grandmother who has already passed. Vietnamese headstones do not mention individual achievements but rather list the names of one’s children. Filial duties run deep.
With this pain, I still sit here ready to romanticize. I smell the sweetness of ripening rice fields. I imagine myself pedaling into the countryside under a beating sun. I remember my hysterical uncle’s rants and foggy old eyes. I can taste the fresh banh uot as I watch the sidewalk symphony of Honda Dreams and hungry dogs. I listen for lullabies wafting in on a cool evening breeze along the Song Huong.
* * *
I left Vietnam ready to contrast it to the U.S. I thought about James Baldwin’s argument: “The necessity of Americans to achieve an identity is a historical and a present personal fact and this is the connection between me and you.” The Vietnamese seemed to have figured it out and I was not it.
Yet, tonight, I am beginning to understand the issue is much deeper. bell hook’s term “self-recovery” helps me to explore this. hooks quotes Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh as having said: “In the Buddhist tradition, people used to speak of ‘enlightenment’ as a kind of returning home. The three worlds—the worlds of form, of non-form, of desire—are not your homes. These are places where you wander around for many existences, alienated from your own nature.” Hanh argues that “forces of domination fragment, estrange, and assault our innermost beings, breaking us apart.”* To counter oppression, we must restore ourselves to a condition of wholeness. hooks compares this idea to an experience she calls “self-recovery;” through thinking and writing, she began to reclaim and recover herself to become whole.
I recently concluded a personal experience panel by telling the audience (my colleagues) that I often feel like I have no home. I am many different people fighting for the occupation of one body. I am colonized. Few people ever see who I am as a whole person. While teachers must embody a specific persona, the spaces I occupy demand that I remain just various personas. My personhood has been under attack.
I am realizing now that it has never been about destroying the oppressor. Rather, my work and my life are about being able to re-claim my wholeness.
*Andrew Lam calls this estrangement a “psychic disconnect,” but I like “self-recovery” because it focuses on an active response.