Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora
The scrawny street vendor in Hanoi studies my eyes, my lips. “Brother,” he says, “yours is not a Vietnamese face. It’s a face that has not known suffering.” Then he adds through a sigh, “Had I escaped to America, maybe I too would have such a face—a Viet Kieu face.”
In Vietnam my face and body take on mythological proportions. When a cousin proudly introduces me to a friend, someone who has tried a dozen times in vain to escape, the man promptly reaches over to squeeze my thigh. I have no doubt that this is an impersonal gesture. Visions of double-tiered freeways and glassy high-rises are to be extracted out of the Viet Kieu’s flesh. Squeeze a little harder and, who knows, you might just see Disneyland.
At a dinner party thrown in my honor by my relatives in Hanoi, people ask me to explain the intricacies of virtual reality, American foreign policy in the Middle East, and, while I’m at it, genetic engineering. They think my odd Americanized Vietnamese accent is perfectly charming. At another party my American passport is read like a comic book by my various relatives. As the entry and exit stamps of Greece, France, Mexico, Thailand, and a dozen other countries flutter past one cousin’s eyes, she looks up at me and declares dreamily: “Cousin, such happiness! It’s as if you have wings!”
Indeed, if in the last three thousand years or so it was generally understood that a Vietnamese soul is tied to home and hearth, in the last few decades a new idea has subverted the poetry of insularity: escape. In the decades that followed the end of the war, vuot bien—escape from Vietnam—has probably crossed every Vietnamese mind.
As it is, Vietnamese nationalism—that firebrand weapon that defeated the Chinese, Mongolians, French, and Americans—seems to have withered in its old age. While elderly Vietnamese leaders continue to emphasize the finer points of collective strength, citing memories of wars against invaders, the young of Vietnam have moved away from a parochial us-versus-them mentality. If Ho Chi Minh, the father of Vietnamese communism, once preached independence and freedom to his compatriots, today it’s the Viet Kieu, those like me and my family, persecuted by Ho’s followers and forced to escape overseas, who, upon return, exude freedom and independence.
As a Viet Kieu, I am often not just an individual but, to many, an icon against hopelessness, a character who took the high road and through whose life many can live vicariously. Familiarity and constant interactions over the last few years may have diminished the awe and glamour, but there is still an expectation here that a Viet Kieu, were he willing, could fulfill many an impoverished Vietnamese wish list.
I am, for example, mistaken on the streets of Vietnam for Santa Claus. One afternoon, a twelve-year-old street urchin named Tam nonchalantly asks if I might adopt him and send him to school. A young woman named Phuong, her face deformed by a skin disease also begs for help. “Brother, you can perform a miracle: pay for my operation.” And how many times, I wonder, have complete strangers—officials, rickshaw drivers, shop owners, ex–Viet Cong guerillas—offered me their daughters’ hands in marriage?
In the old quarters of Hanoi, my aunt-in-law’s neighbor, a young piano teacher, develops a crush on me. The aunt, who invited me to stay at her home, whispers, “Nephew, be careful.” That I had answered, “Yes, I do like Chopin,” was clearly for the music teacher a declaration of romance. Chopin’s “Polonaise” in various keys in due course echoed for hours from next door each afternoon, riding the humid air to my bedroom window.
In Vietnam as a child, I remember being moved by the national anthem that emphasized blood sacrifice to protect the sacred land. I remember feeling inspiration and awe staring at ripened rice fields at dusk. But that, as they say, was another life, a long time ago.
For me, as well as for many other Vietnamese of my generation, those birth ties were severed and our innocence died the day we crossed the ocean to distant shores.
Returning today, an odd gap appears between my countrymen and me. If I am some archetype in Vietnam’s new narrative of itself—a modern-day Odysseus of sorts, someone that those who stayed imagine they can become if they were to flee overseas—I feel a stranger in my own homeland. Vietnam is an eighteen-hour flight from San Francisco, but it is also an impossible journey. The jet plane does and does not take me home again. Or rather, I go home again but the country of my childhood memories is long gone, replaced by a collective yearning of possibilities beyond the provincial.
In Vietnam there is a movie called People’s Love made by a Vietnamese director about a Viet Kieu, the first film on the subject. It belongs to the viet kieu yeu nuoc—the patriotic Viet Kieu — category, of which there are few, if any. In the movie a Vietnamese American doctor, disillusioned with American life, returns home to find love and redemption. Such is the predictable sentimental script, funded by the state. It drew very few viewers.
I think the unfolding Vietnamese epic is closer to the reverse. Vietnam’s innocence died with the birth of the Viet Kieu—the birth of the Vietnamese Diaspora. Vietnamese twenty-first century romance is not with land, river, and rice field, but with glamour, with cosmopolitan and borderless life.
Still, I can no more deny my own sense of displacement in the new Vietnam than can I deny my role in the new Vietnamese imagination. No wings sprout from my back, but I have nonetheless brought a boon back to my own homeland: myself. I am evidence that the outside world exists.