For decades, I silently observed, and whenever possible, along with my children, participated in various commemorative events organized by Vietnamese communities in Southern Cali, during the “Black April”. This year there were some notable changes on the delivery messages, as some key note speakers started to articulate quite clearly that we have paid a very high price for “freedom in America”: by the whole South Vietnam being betrayed by our allies. In my humble opinion, however, the Black April commemorative event organized by Vietnamese Student Association (VSA) of UCLA students stood out as the most remarkable since it was carried out quite thoughtfully, solemnly. The students sincerely expressed their desire to understand and empathize with their parents’ history and experiences: their parents- as refugees- who-had to leave their beloved country to live in exile, at all cost.
Along with my son, Viet, I had the distinct honor and pleasure to attend the aforementioned event at UCLA, as one of the four panelists. Viet had the opportunity to express his opinion regarding Black April, representing the younger generation Vietnamese American, and I was invited to share my experiences regarding the days prior to and after April 30, 1975. The student organizers did an excellent job portraying their appreciation for their parents and those who sacrificed themselves in the quest for freedom. And I was truly glad and inspired after the meeting, silently thanking the students who lighted up a torch of hope for a healthy, uplifting Vietnamese community with their positive engagement, establishing the face of the new generation Vietnamese Americans who were born and raised here.
What made me so enthralled?
First and foremost: in dignified, well poised mannerism, they expressed their opinions and ideals very sincerely, with much depth. No cliches, repeating what we’ve often heard in our communities over the past four decades. And to hear them sing the South Vietnamese National Anthem! I have saluted my old country’s flag while singing our national anthem many times before, solemnly, wholeheartedly, but the manner in which they sang the national anthem of South Vietnam that day brought tears in my eyes: They had harmonized the anthem most beautifully, expertly. Every note, every word was delivered with uttermost perfection. Without any accompanying musical instruments, they had rendered the most hauntingly beautiful performance, the best I have ever had listened to.
Additionally, they expressed their own concerns, growing up with stories about a free, beautiful, gentle South Vietnam that was sentenced to die, about the tear-drenched, suddenly overturned existences of their parents and grandparents….
Complete attention rendered at this event, whose purpose was to reminisce and commemorate the memories of a horrific past by the older Vietnamese American generations, was accompanied by the students’ sincere, respectful American friends. There, they shed an intense, candid light to their inner struggle and thoughts: how the US government’s foreign policy portrayed the injustice and cruel betrayals to their allies. While the panelists spoke and shared their experiences, the hall full of attendees was completely, respectfully silent, signifying a mature, serious audience.
The lyrics of the very few selected songs for this special event were quite meaningful, profound. They represented the students’ restlessness and deep reflections, sentiments, and performed with amazing solemnity and virtuosity.
They made it clear: though they might not be able to fully comprehend all the pain we suffered, they are still proud of their Vietnamese heritage, and would like to maintain and build their identities within the community and preserving the humanistic, heroic, indomitable traits that were embedded in the old Vietnamese culture, no matter where they live.
A current student, Jay Nguyen composed and recited the following poem, echoing his dreams, anguish and insights:
“Này Công Dân ơi! Đứng lên đáp lời sông núi.
Đồng lòng cùng đi hy sinh tiếc gì thân sống…”
Words that echo through corridors of my body like wildfire.
Burning a passion of an enigma… foreign to an unbeknownst, innocent Vietnamese-American kid.
Just what did it mean to be called Vietnamese, to be called South-Vietnamese?
Words that pulsed through every heartbeat of my mother, whose beautiful Saigon, ripped from every root of the ground before it even knew the light of the world.
Gone in an instant, like ashes blown away into an abysmal black hole.
Just what did it mean to be part of South Vietnam?
Words… that kept phantom roots in place and hope alive. Words that offered light in the dark creating shadows of a nation that would see their dreams.
Words that kept a culture strong and alive.
Words… that fell at the feet of my grandparents as war burned 3 stripes to the ground.
Every flag being stripped down from boats that sailed across the vast ocean whose salty waters held hopes of a “better life in America.”
No. They never wanted to leave.
No. They never asked for any of this.
No. Everyday a dream.
No. It is their reality.
No. It is part of MY reality.
I am part of a great nation–that fell to the ground when its flag was leveled down to the dirt, reduced to nothing. Words that are intertwined into the DNA of South-Vietnamese everywhere. To those who lost their homes, families, and country… remember these words. Remember our Flag Bannered high above our heads.
Their attention to details in organizing this important event respectfully is clear: the majority of the students wore black or white that day. Each table, covered with black cloth, had a vase of fresh flower, surrounded with lots of yellow rose petals, and sprinkled with red rose petals, the color of the South Vietnamese flag. Even the gifts for the panelists (myself included), consisting of a black T-shirt and a handwritten thank you card were presented in a black gift bag. There was also a section showcasing black/white images about VN war, the fight against the enemy by the South VN, the evacuation in 1975, the boat people, and the horrific torture, forced labor and evil, degenerative revenges the VC inflicted upon their labor prisoners, the former South VN officers, many of whom died in these so called “re-education” camps.
The event ended with a candlelight ceremony, commemorating the Black April. The students invited everyone to make a circle and those who had been refugees to voluntarily share their individual experiences living in exile. Then, all the light switches in the room were turned off, so that the flickering candles could light up the audience’s collective sincere, serious faces, praying silently for those who have sacrificed for freedom, and for a new Vietnam with freedom, democracy and justice.
From the bottom of my heart, I would like to thank the UCLA students for organizing the Black April, commemorating the day of national grief, with uncommon, inspiring sincerity. You have helped restoring confidence, and hope for those who had been once political refugees, who had to leave with deep wounds and broken hearts- who, even now, still cannot rest peacefully thinking of their old country .
Phuong Minh Vo
*About Jay Nguyen:
My name is Jay Khanh Nguyen. I was born in San Diego but grew up and raised in Austin, TX. I am a first-generation Vietnamese-American and am currently attending the University of California, Los Angeles. I remember my mom never being home, working countless hours to meet ends for my older brother and I. She nor my grandma (who took care of my brother and I) never spoke about their home country, Vietnam. I never knew about my history, I grew up American. In high school, I joined THIẾU NHI THÁNH THỂ (TNTT) and started to learn more about my roots and became more interested in history. I remember watching a documentary: Last Days in Vietnam; and the last scene of that movie hit me. It was a scene of an escaping boat having to lower the South Vietnamese flag in order to enter the Philippines.
My motivation to succeed is driven by my mom who actually did not escape the country because she was one of the less fortunate to do so. She was young, a girl, and had little money. This is the story some do not recognize because of so many Vietnamese escaping to America–they forget about those who could not. She later could come to America with my grandma years after the communist regime. As my mom’s son, her struggle in Vietnam and America motivate me to write and have her live a comfortable life.