SAIGON, 1975 –
Grandmother and Grandfather rushed the children out of the house and out onto the docks, with the hope that one of these boats could take them away from the bombs that ravaged their neighborhood. After arriving at the docks, Mother and her cousin were sent quickly back to the house to pick up more food, but as their motorbike turned the corner, a tank rolled onto their street from the other end. The trip back to the docks was a blur. As the family boarded the boat, their only plan was to live. Uncle Hưng was also sent back with another cousin, but they took a different route. They never made it on the boat.
[ This is a photo of my uncle, Phan Quốc Hưng. Born July 25, 1956. Missing 1975. I found the photo along with a wealth of old documents in my grandfather's suitcase which my grandmother kept under her bed. I did not discover this suitcase until after she had passed. ]
Meanwhile, my father was miles away from shore, serving in the Republic of Vietnam’s Navy. When his ship caught news of the communist invasion, they rerouted, and he would never again step foot onto the soil of his homeland, for in moments there would no longer be a South Vietnam. A son was forced to leave his parents and his ten brothers and sisters behind. He was the first of his clan to arrive in the Americas.
After settling in refugee camps in the Philippines and then in Guam, my parents’ journey brought them to Pennsylvania where they met. In 1978, I was born. In this sense, I was born out of the war. Perhaps not to the degree as those who were born in the refugee and labor camps, but through some divine intersection of life’s details, I was born. But unlike these, this is a war that I do not know except through the answers found from the curiosities of my own heart and the willingness of those who will relive the time to help me understand. The same war that stripped my parents of their freedoms was the same war that gave me mine. It was this war that generously afforded me the opportunity to live my dream openly, and to freely find salvation in the pursuit of truth. These are one in the same.
This 30th day of April marks the 40th year anniversary of the fall of Saigon, the birthplace of my mother and my father. It is a day when our country is remembered and Her stories are honored and shared. And though tears stream in mourning for our fallen loved ones (this, of course, includes our beloved South Vietnam), they also flow with immense gratitude for those who fought for our lives, for these lives that were spared, and for this life that we have been given to tell Her story. History. This story.
Hôm Nay (Today)
Now here we are, having made our home right off of Interstate 405 in Orange County, home to the largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam. Bà Ngoại remembers the boat from which they witnessed their country dissolve into the horizon of the waters that saved them - this little boat that drifted aimlessly for days before being rescued by the United States Navy. It was marked “405”. We have come full circle.
Hồn Này (These Souls)
I have been handed the humbling, daunting, and and awe-inspiring task to peruse through the rich information provided by both the Vietnamese American Oral History Project and the Orange County & Southeast Asian Archive of the University of California, Irvine, and recount these stories. My duty is to find what inspires me and make work that will help bring a visual art component to these important textual and textural stories. (Good Lord Almighty, is this real? Is this my life? Is this the "job" that I have really been given? *sigh*) Our team is currently developing a show for the community called VIETNAMESE FOCUS: Generations of Stories.
For this show, I've begun working on a project which I am calling “Quiet”. It is a piece which intends to bid peace, but the process has been grievous and burdensome, and a peaceful practice it has not been (not at this time, at least). It has called for the quiet space in which I’ve worked, in reverence of these lives lost. The quiet that came before the storm that funneled so tightly around our people. The quiet in which they walked, treading on dead leaves and the detritus of life around them. The voices that were made to quiet in the jungles while hiding from enemy forces. The quiet in which they prayed to their God and to their Ancestors as they pled for their lives and the lives of those they loved. This quiet that heavily drapes over us when we gather to mourn the departed. The quiet in which prayer flags billow. This quiet in which I write this because there are some things that at this moment, the letters can express, and a painting cannot, things for which, in this moment, the written word gives time, but the spoken word might not.
[ Quiet (in progress), ink on voile, 9 x 144" each sash. One of the funerary rituals in Vietnamese tradition is for the family members to wear white sashes upon their heads to signify their relationship to the departed. ]
This piece is composed of the faces of those who fell alongside their Sài Gòn - those whose ashes have been scattered among the ruins of war and still mist the air we breathe today. As I work, I peer into their eyes with grief in knowing that these eyes did not live to see freedom come. These are not just stories, or photos, or units contributing to the more than 2,000,000 lives that were taken by the monstrosities of this war, or the hundreds of thousands who went missing and whose stories were never given a definite ending. They were real people -- individuals who had dreams, who loved and were (are) loved, who weren’t given more time to contribute more to this life.
This is the burden of empathy and compassion, the weight of a love for those whom I’ve never met, whose suffering I can never fathom. This is for the ones who loved their country and died in the struggle toward the freedom into which I was born. Their deaths are keen reminders that Life and Freedom are fragile, and perhaps a reminder to live this life to its fullest capacity because this is the precious gift that we have been given.
A fist extended strong and high to those who have survived the struggle, to those who are in the midst of the struggle. You are not alone. To those who have yet to overcome the struggle, we shall overcome. To those who have died in the struggle, rest ye in peace.