True Story, Issue #25

"Suffering Self" by Minh Phuong Nguyen

True Story, Issue #25

When a young writer’s body begins attacking itself, he searches for the roots of his illness in his family’s trauma. Begging his parents for their “story crumbs,” he reconstructs the story of their wartime experiences in Vietnam, his father’s arrests and his mother’s starvation, and the bribery that made it possible for them to escape the country.

From "Suffering Self" by Minh Phuong Nguyen

In November of 1988—eight years after he had failed his escape attempt by boat, was captured, was imprisoned, ran away, was recaptured while smoking a cigarette, was imprisoned again, dug hundreds of thousands of spoons of dirt, did not dig quickly enough, had his ankles chained to the prison cell, finally escaped with the help of a Northern soldier and had arrest warrants posted on him, and five years after he had settled in Da Lat in his mother’s house, had begun to consider himself safe from his past, had met my mother, married her and had three children—my father was talking with his uncle, who typed American papers and documents for clients.

They were sitting cross-legged on straw mats in the shade, out of the dust, with a typewriter, cups of tea and a pack of cigarettes in front of them on a low desk, and my father was smoking, hacking a little, spitting into the dirt.

His uncle might have teased him, asking (in Vietnamese, of course), “You still have your army documents stashed somewhere? Are there any left?”

“Yes, of course!” My father might have exclaimed, or he might have said a softer, “Yes, I still have something,” because it was a public torment to be known as a soldier who had fought with the Americans. Thirteen years earlier, in 1975, two years after the last American combat troops had left Vietnam, my father had been on the losing side of the Vietnam War, had fought the bloody battles of those last desperate months, and had lived to see the Communist youths, ragged, gaping and gaunt, walk into Saigon beside their gleaming tanks on another dusty, hot day.

“What about the trại học tập cải tạo? Are they going to hold it over you?” his uncle the typist might have asked.

My father spit again into the street. “I served my sentence. They released me voluntarily.” In May of 1975, after hiding out for a few weeks with a couple of girlfriends in Saigon—soon to be renamed Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh, or Ho Chi Minh City—he had resignedly reported to the reeducation camps, where he was never successfully educated to hate Americans and their capitalist ideas, though he stayed there for three years.

“Well,” his uncle continued, giving my father a copy of a document, “here’s good news indeed!” He had recently copied the document, which explained that former officers of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) who had also been political prisoners were welcome to petition for immigration to the United States of America. My father’s uncle did not know the name of the American president who was responsible for this decision, but he knew the president had a party called the Republican Party.

The last question was the most important. “And are they going to let you go?”

“I’ll find a way,” my father said, the only thing he could say.

“Well, get along with you! Here’s your ticket out of this mess, you rascal,” his uncle would have concluded. My father would have been ecstatic and filled out this document. Finally, here was a legitimate, legal, and safe way to get to America. My father decided—right then or at some point during the three years before we finally reached the New Orleans airport on July 21, 1991—that the best way to show his gratitude to this president (God bless whoever-he-was, his family, and his ancestors) would be to join the Republican Party when he arrived in America. During my childhood in America, whenever I exclaimed at the fact that we were in America—Americans!—my father told us to love this Republican president and to honor him for giving us a chance to be Americans, and we have always done so, even after my father got to know American politics, changed his mind, and declared us Democrats.