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Author Study: Viet Thanh Nguyen Curated by David Liu : Historical, Social, and Political Context

Viet Thanh Nguyen NPR podcast interview with Kelly McEvers:

HISTORICAL CONTEXT: 

The Vietnam War was the first ever to be televised across the U.S. Facing the clear defeat and undesired consequence following the end of the Vietnam War, the U.S. developed various anti-Vietnamese sentiments like racism, xenophobia, discriminatory incidents, or physical abuses. Tension and hatred between Vietnamese immigrants and white locals have persisted within academic settings, labor forces, and daily life.

 

The epithet “gooks”, coined to associate all Asians with the enemy and threats in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, provoked mass hysteria and encouraged anti-Vietnamese sentiments within the U.S. Consequentially, Vietnamese Americans are viewed as the new outside, foreign population. Similarly, Nguyen’s works have disclosed various elements of exclusion. In an interview on NPR with Kelly McEvers, Nguyen Nguyen has revealed the long history of Americans rejecting the Vietnamese refugees who they saw as completely foreign. Subjected to a new kind of xenophobia, Nguyen has always struggled to find his identity in this country.

SOCIAL/CULTURAL CONTEXT:

Following the end of the American military involvement in Vietnam, the aftermath of the Vietnam War had become a major theme in the American popular consciousness through all manner of popular Hollywood movies. Despite being influenced by the American culture, Nguyen still felt connected to his cultural roots within stories.

“ Even though I grew up as an American, deeply Americanized, this shadow of the war and of history hung over me, because I was constantly hearing stories about what had happened to the Vietnamese people from my parents or from the extended Vietnamese community that I was living in. “

“I just absorbed that sense of a persistent memory, of persistent trauma, of this feeling that the war was not over, and that the country had been lost, and that we still hoped that one day we would take that country back.”

 In an interview with the National Public Radio, Nguyen described the major impact of popular Hollywood movies in the 1980s like Rambo, Platoon, and Apocalypse Now. In “Rambo”, Nguyen explained that he identified both as the iconic character played by Sylvester Stallone and the Vietnamese killed by the muscular American hero on screen. Nguyen also recalled his encounter with the 1979 movie “Apocalypse Now” that “totally traumatized” him at a very young age. Even 10 years later, he would find his voice still shaking describing the scene where a sanpan full of Vietnamese civilians were brutally murdered by the sailors. Much like any other popular films at the time, the Vietnamese were otherized in “Apocalypse now”, merely portraying them as adjunct embellishments that complete the look of war.

POLITICAL CONTEXT: 

The end of the Vietnam War in 1975 was also followed by a surge of Vietnamese immigrants – some 130,000 refugees, most of which middle-class – that began to arrive in the United States. Being the fastest-growing minority following the influx of immigrants and refugees from Hong Kong, the Philippines, South Korea, Vietnam, and Indonesia, the Asian American was viewed as a threat to the education system and economy of the U.S. Despite the rich and diverse cultural backgrounds of the Asian American community, stereotypes such as the Model Minority have been created in response to their academic and social achievements.

In assuming that all Asians are people with similar educational and societal needs, however, the U.S. has given fair treatment to none. Suspicious of communist infiltrators, many Americans are subjected to the promotion of a widespread fear of a potential rise of communism, also known as the Red Scare.

 “People were suspicious of the possibility of communist infiltrators. And that meant that there was a lot of fear in this community, that your neighbor might be a communist, and you better not be seen as a communist. And on top of that, again, people were just trying to build their lives. And yet they were still struggling under the shadow of trauma and the legacy of violence that they brought over with them.”  

Hovering U.S. Army helicopters firing machine-gun into a tree line to cover the advance of South Vietnamese ground troops in an attack. 

Penetrating cartoon depicting a white officer commanding an Asian soldier to "Kill that gook, you gook!"