Escape to Freedom: Twenty-Five Years After the Fall of South Vietnam

A quarter of a century may be just a dot in a nation’s history or a mere blip in the history of the world, but for over one million Vietnamese immigrants who have made their home in the United States in the aftermath of the Communists’ victory over what was known as the Republic of Vietnam on April 30, 1975, 25 years is an enormous period in their lives.

Between Two Worlds


Nevertheless, for the majority of Vietnamese Americans, as April 30, 2000, draws near, a quarter of a century is not long enough for them either to be fully at home in their new country or to erase bittersweet memories of their ancestral land. Even now, for me, the mobile homea ubiquitous monument of the American landscape I first caught sight of over two decades ago as it traveled at breakneck speed along the Dallas interstateremains a cultural oxymoron. For Asians, a house means the place where one is born, grows old and diesor in a colorful Vietnamese phrase, a place where the umbilical cord is cut and buriedan abode firmly and permanently grounded in the earth, providing us with a deep sense of at-one-ness with our family, our neighbors and our nation. Above all, a Vietnamese house, even a destitute hut, is a shrine where we offer prayers and sacrifices to our ancestors in fulfillment of our most sacred duty of filial piety. A Vietnamese house is always a family home. To see something with a roof, walls and windows whizzing by on a highway is to experience a culture shock. Truth to tell, the expression "mobile home" strikes me as a malapropism, since "home," even in English, connotes something of what the Germans call Gemütlichkeit.

If a score and five years is not long enough for Vietnamese Americans to be fully acculturated into the American society, it is also too short a temporal distance to heal our pain of exile and to soothe our nostalgia for our treasured past. For many of us, the wounds of separation are still bleeding, the absent faces of our loved ones haunting our dreams, the longing for a visit to the home country pulling at our hearts. Many older Vietnamese harbor the desire, as my own dying father did, to go back to Vietnam to die and be laid to rest with their ancestors in the bosom of the land that is called in Vietnamese "Mother Earth." Ironically, e-mail and the Internet, the "mobile homes" on the information highway, while affording us immediate access to our family and friends back in Vietnam, heighten the sense of distance and absence. To fill the void and preserve the Vietnamese language and culture, many Vietnamese communities in the United States offer a wide range of print, radio and television programs to remind Vietnamese Americans of their heritage. Visit Little Saigon, a town in Orange County, Calif., and you will see miles of Vietnamese restaurants, shops, malls, supermarkets and professional offices, where a Vietnamese can live a comfortable life without knowing a word of English.

Contributing to the American Common Good

A quarter of a century, brief and ambivalent though it is, still marks a memorable milestone and by convention calls for a silver jubilee celebration. Indeed, for many Vietnamese Americans, these years have been personally and professionally the most productive of their lives. Stories abound of how Vietnamese students have excelled, especially in technological fields. Many Vietnamese entrepreneurs have prospered, thanks to hard work and sheer resiliency. In the religious world, many churches and pagodas have been built, and services are well attended. These things make our hearts proud, and for them we are thankful to the American peopleto which we now belong as citizensfor the opportunities and the generous assistance they offered.

But it would be unseemly to gloat over the achievements of the Vietnamese in the last 25 years in the United States without remembering that besides bright and disciplined students, there are Vietnamese youths who are lost to gangs and drugs, or who are succumbing to the lure of consumerism and materialism; that besides newly-minted millionaires, there are Vietnamese, mostly women, whose labor is exploited in menial jobs because of their lack of English and poor skills; and that in the midst of the bustle and hustle of American life, there are lonely and desperate Vietnamese, especially old parents and grandparents, forgotten and even abandoned by their children.

The jubilee celebration not only prompts a retrospective glance at the achievements that Vietnamese Americans have already accomplished but also raises the question of what they can and should contribute to American culture and society in the future. Like any ethnic group that makes up the immigrant nation that is America, the Vietnamese did not come to these shores empty-handed, just to enjoy freedom and other benefits. They brought with them their talents and, above all, the riches of their culture. It is thanks to their culture that the Vietnamese will be able to grow in the gift of freedom that America offers them and not pervert this freedom into a license for maximal self-gratification. The freedom that they have risked life and limb to search for is not only freedom from various wants but also freedom for the values that their culture inculcates.

It would be impossible to describe in brief the values of the Vietnamese culture. In his recent apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in Asia (11/6/99) Pope John Paul II, adopting the suggestions of his Asian colleagues, speaks of the "Asian soul" as characterized by love of silence and contemplation, simplicity, harmony, detachment, nonviolence, discipline, frugal living, the thirst for learning and philosophical inquiry, respect for life, compassion for all beings, closeness with nature, filial piety toward parents and ancestors, a highly developed sense of community and a deep appreciation for the family (No. 6). These characteristics are of course not exclusive to Asians, nor do all Asians possess them. It is important not to idealize Asians with these qualities, but there is no doubt that if the Vietnamese Americans continue to live by these values, they will make no small contribution to the American culture.

Among Vietnamese Americans, Catholics constitute a significant cohort, estimated at 30 percent, compared to 8 percent of the population of 75 million in Vietnam. They too did not come empty-handed. Vietnamese Catholics brought with them the experience of 400 years of Christianity. Besides increasing the Catholic population in the United States, they have brought to the American Catholic Church numerous priestly and religious vocations (currently some 500 priests, 20 permanent deacons and several hundred sisters). They have enriched the church with their popular devotions, an abundant ore for theological inculturation. Every August, some 40,000 attend the liturgical and devotional celebrations in honor of Mary organized by the Congregation of Mary Coredemptrix in Carthage, Mo. Furthermore, Vietnamese Catholicism has been cross-fertilized with the religious and ethical traditions of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism, and can therefore serve as a laboratory for interreligious dialogue, a pressing necessity for an American Catholic Church faced with growing religious pluralism. Most important, many Vietnamese-American Catholics have suffered for their faith. Not a few of them endured years of imprisonment in "re-education camps." Their personal witness for Christ challenges our bourgeois Christianity and makes our theological rhetoric sound hollow.

A Word to Our People in Vietnam

A quarter of a century has separated us from you and Vietnam. But time and distance have not lessened our love for you and our country. If proof of this is needed, let the abundant help we offered you during the recent flood that destroyed the central region of our country suffice. As our proverbs say, "When the fingers are cut, the entrails suffer" and "A mouthful in times of hunger is more than a bundle of food in times of plenty."

We are aware that the Vietnamese government is planning celebrations for the silver jubilee of the event it calls the "liberation" of South Vietnam. In this connection, I would like to say the following concluding words in my own name, which echo, I believe, the sentiments of many Vietnamese Americans. We hope that the anniversary, both here and in Vietnam, will not be used to re-open old wounds. The Vietnamese who were born after 1975, both in the United States and in Vietnam, have no personal memory of what you government officials will evoke in your celebratory speeches. You will no doubt refer with pride to the "liberation" of South Vietnam. But let it be a true and universal liberation. Let freedom ring for all Vietnamese and in all aspects of life.

Above all, you need not fear anything from us Vietnamese Americans. We want nothing but to use all our talents and resources to serve the Vietnamese people. In particular, we Christians are urged by our Master Jesus to ask you for forgiveness, as our leader Pope John Paul II recently did for the wrongs the Catholic Church has done, and in turn to forgive you as God, whom we Vietnamese speak of as our Mother and Father, has forgiven us. Let the silver jubilee of April 30, 1975, not be a Pyrrhic victory of one group of Vietnamese over another, but rather let it usher in a new era of prosperity and well-being, justice and freedom, reconciliation and harmony for all the Vietnamese people!

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