The Unspoken Ambiguities

In Cộng Đồng, Chính trị (Politics), LittleSaigon - Seattle, talawas, Việt Nam on 2009/09/24 at 10:33


For many internal/external reasons, it took us almost five months to be able to translate our below Vietnamese essay posted on Talawas into English.

To connect with each other and grow in spite of pain and discomfort (which most of the time are the space where deeper learning takes place), this piece is for you and also for us. This essay was written as a heart and soul in the making after our incredibly challenging three-year activism with Little Saigon Seattle . Silence came first. Then words appeared. We were finally able to synthesize somewhat a portion of our unspeakable feelings into words. This essay was born after our many conversations and reflections with each other regarding the struggle that goes beyond the gentrification of Little Saigon Seattle. It was about our heart-wrenching observations of the overall ambiguous behaviors conducted by Vietnamese communities outside of Vietnam.

Vi Nhân

Posted in Talawas on May 10, 2009

We look on in horror as capitalism – now that his brother, socialism, has been declared dead – rages unimpeded, megalomaniacally replaying the errors of the supposedly extinct brother.

(Günter Grass – Nobel Prize in Literature 1999)

Capitalism-Socialism_Günter Grass

More than thirty years have passed since the national calamity on April 30th of 1975. The first group of escapees (1975) and subsequent boat people waves (1979-1980s) fleeing the Vietnamese communists have been in exile for more than one generation. The more recent waves that are under the humanitarian categories include the ex-political prisoners, Amerasians, and family reunification through the Orderly Departure Program started in the 1990s until now. Thirty years plus would be more than enough for the offspring of the first escapees and boat waves being born, grown up, and started their own career.

Most second-generation Vietnamese Americans have been integrated into American life. Whether they reach for a broader engagement such as joining the Vietnamese Student Associations and/or working in charity organization or not depending on two considerations: (1) Do they feel isolated due to lack of fluency with Vietnamese–their parent’s native-tongue, and lean instead toward the mainstream American culture with its obsessed individualism while being engrossed in a constant search of personal identity? or (2) Does their experience of growing up in a multicultural atmosphere or experience of emptiness, isolation and dissatisfaction lead them back to reopen the door to their roots?

In the higher education environment, the left-leaning academics grounded in racial lens has sprung up in institutions and pursued their pedagogical mission promoting twisted historical lessons of Vietnam War. In everyday life, Vietnamese youngsters have learned to act and behave according to the Western rhythm–full of biases toward traditional mainstream perspectives. Inevitably, their behaviors then clashes with Vietnamese culture and refugee/community ways of doing when these everyday practices transformed into a thinking habit. Consequently, there is an unconscious inferiority complex planted like a seed and gradually rooted in their mind. To the point that accepting assimilation and color- and white-blinded racism without awareness and conscious understanding, especially when this vast unconscious void has impacted them to neglect the Vietnamese American community and Vietnam; it is wrong.

Second generation Vietnamese Americans devote themselves in working for various mutual associations and non-profit social services due to their idealistic desire of making contribution to society, especially to the Vietnamese American community. Ironically, these non-profit groups work at a dragging and half-hearted pace while serving their own self-interest due to a need of funding for operation and perpetuation of their own entity; however, they often assume a “patronizing” disposition exhibiting an attitude of grandeur. They are entrenched and confined within, not going too far from their self-erected walls, and refuse to speak up against injustices. Whether they are aware or not, these agencies end up becoming a social control tool in a system that sustains structural inequality that is often implicated in public and welfare policies. All their activities are no more than putting a bandage on a deep wound. However, they do not (or not willing) seek for an understanding of why and who created these deep yet repeatedly inflamed wounds. This is the first ambiguity: the non-profit agency as a withstander of structural inequality.

Going a farther step would be evaluating the trend of charity work and fundraising in helping the poor in Vietnam carried out not only with the second generation Vietnamese American youngsters. There are so many Vietnamese proverbs and aphorism grounded in humanistic tradition such as “Máu chảy ruột mềm” (When the blood sheds, the heart aches), and “Lá lành đùm lá rách” (The green leaves shield the withered leaves) already embedded in the Vietnamese psyche. In addition, altruistic deed and voluntarily spiritual work are expected to be the merits for the next life’s blessing, or a promised heaven after death. Who would not want to gain honorable name as well as accumulate merits at the same time! Yet, more importantly, there are no fewer individuals launching these charity agencies in order to build up social standing with their moral certificates and wide network contacts for their own career/business profits. It is a shortcut way to achieve and enhance status for those who have money to afford the dream of becoming a “godfather.” Somehow there are more people with an obsession by the needs for both certificates: one of degree, the other of morality for social climbing. This is the second ambiguity: the charity association and the moral credit.

It is convenient to hide behind a charity shield or a culture armor to excuse oneself from “politics”, and ensure a warranty for famed position. Yet, such assumption does not mean the same in action. Indeed, charitable and cultural works always carried an embedded political meaning. We may not engage in political parties; yet, every of our act—more or less and even if we behave as “sitting under one’s own tree” (“bình chân như vại”)—does signify a political meaning in relations to citizenship and civil rights. They are rights and responsibilities of a citizen of a nation and member of a global society.

To love one’s country does not equate with loving the government or going for its national policies without question. Patriotism reveals in the act of dissent against policies of unjust, dictatorship, pro-hegemony and racism—applied within or beyond a national geographical boundary—when witnessing the innumerable human sufferings accumulated over time. Patriotism manifests in active engagement to facilitate and promote democracy, liberty, civil rights, human rights for everyone. Patriotism is not blindly following the manipulated feelings of self-righteous nationalism and parochial, partisan favors. This is the third ambiguity: “apolitical” and flag-waving patriotism.

Let’s read a newspaper piece of On-line Youths of Vietnam reporting the summer camp with Vietnamese Overseas Youths who were called as “camp attendants” and participated in a program entitled, “A Journey of Homeland Heritage”:

At the farewell timing, Executive Secretary of the Communist Youth League Thanh Phuong Lam asserted: “The business for overseas youth is one of the special interests of our League. The Central Committee will continue coordinating with other units, Vietnam TV in organizing programs for our overseas Vietnamese young friends …”. Sharing with our overseas friends who were present today, the Secretary of the Youth League of Ho Chi Minh City Cang Thanh Tat remarked:“Vietnam is a country full of love, simplicity, kind-hearted and eager to embrace your return to motherland.”

“Throughout this 15-day journey along the length of the country, you–the camp participants–were lionized in sightseeing national landscapes. Moreover, you expressed strong emotions once taking part in traditional activities such as the pilgrimage to the ancestral land of our founder King Hung, paying a visit to Truong Son Cemetery, having dialogue on “Immortal Flowers” about the lives of 10 young female soldiers who martyred at the firing line of the Junction Dong Loc. Yet, many of you were also very impressed about the courageous spirit and intelligent minds of the folks belonged to the iron land of Cu Chi when visiting Temple Ben Duoc, and crept into the underground tunnel Cu Chi…”

In just two paragraphs above, we could see that the communists have mixed brass with gold while proselytizing their political campaign, overseas Vietnamese campaign, and overseas Vietnamese youth campaign so that they can dupe people: Making communist particulars gilded with culture and national traditions. National heritage was co-opted to become the commercialized polishing product for “our party’s patriotic war”. The party heads direct their underlings to conduct relentless propagandas portraying a mystic motherland on the other side of the ocean under their decoy of “building the country” to lure and fool the naive overseas Vietnamese youngsters with the seductive images of poverty and hunger due to war consequences. The herald of “love one’s country and love your motherland” was fused with loving socialism, loving the government, and ruling policies of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP). The ambiguity of patriotism by the swindler!

After 30 years, a generation of Vietnamese overseas has attained success in academy, commerce, and government. The Vietnamese psyche of “Five ranks of titles, literature title was supreme – Four social ladders, scholarly official at top” [1] has created an increased need to excel foremost, and gain “titles and laurels” for prestigious status. This need accompanies an unattenable obligation for a quit-pro-quo. The price for this quit-pro-quo is the “silence”. The complicit silence with injustice, close one’s eyes to the lies, turn one’s back from oppression. This exchange is not only through verbal pact but also from the hidden “rules of the game” . The rules of the game are well “understood” and deeply ingrained in the thinking so that no need for the players to be bribed, induced, or pressured. The “rules” are completedly self-conformed and -enforced. The players’ “political correctness” is always in escort with the in-power for protection and prop, for a steady “umbrella” in case of the weather “storms” and avoid the reach of legalities, or being pulled the rugs under. These are not the individuals or groups worrying about the “pot of rice” while making a living. Those are in fact the “politically correct” intelligentsia who looked down on bare back laborers and starving service workers as tools for them to maneuver, pass out hand-outs, and eventually become self-acclaimed as kind and generous.

“Open mouth, get the bridle” (Há miệng mắc quai) and “Clamp mouth, take the bribe” (Ngậm miệng ăn tiền), these are two proverbs but actually work as one. Open mouth to take things in; so if not clamping mouth shut then one could only mutter with some muddled words. We’ve often heard many “anecdotes of refugee stories” in our local gossips and sighed with disappointment. Such as stories of non-profits seeking and scrambling for funds, using public money for other purposes categorized as “so-called” administrative overhead. Reality wise, it’s not too disheartened to see such jostling behavior in a competitive individualistic society. But when this symptom occurs day in day out which makes folks exclaim that “That’s the way our community is!”, and the “politically correct” would chime in “Go with the flow!” Are all the well-to-do quite “politically correct” in following the model minority trend of hard-working, compliance, kowtowing, heads-down, and indifferent toward realities? That’s the fourth ambiguity: the “political correctness” of the intelligentsia and the silent majority.

In the recent years we have seen an undercurrent of migration flow from Vietnam to overseas, from the short-term foreign students to long-term work visas, and to smuggled workers in various trades. We’ve seen the transfer of business ownership from local residents to the Vietnamese who have no relation to refugee community. We’ve seen the leaders and gatekeepers of “township associations” who no longer have anything to do with refugees either. The most prominent in this flow is the Vietnamese foreign students at community colleges and universities. Many overseas professionals were hence promoted to serve, or to employ this population. There is no lack of people who see this group as a potential for profits from A to Z until the students get a piece of degree (or even longer if they somehow manage to stay in the West).

Besides becoming a cheap labor source in research project for the academia (to gather information, data from community places such as temples and churches), foreign students become a hot-selling merchandise. Because they have more brain power (English and knowledge) than the laborers and trafficked sex workers. This hot-selling merchandise is put up for sale, channeled into a labor network chain in restaurants and a source of demand for housing accommodations. The services offered could include illicit drugs, gambling, carousing, and other illegal activities for offsprings of ultra-rich Vietnamese communist party members. Partying doesn’t limit within the internal boundary of these Vietnamese foreign students. They gradually infiltrate into the VSAs (Vietnamese Student Associations) with a strategic “student campaign” for expanding the circle of influence and befriending with the second-generation Vietnamese American students.[2].

In the mean time, the U.S. market is no longer lucrative for investment. Ethnic brain power is either not highly sought after or paid with a bargain because racism is still rooted in American society. The oversea new capitalists and intellects then turn toward their homeland. They are eager to invest, “building” the country. They rationalize with the well pitched phrase “Our homeland has changed tremendously”. If there was change it is in fact only the façade of market economy, so that the party cabal could easily and freely use their power to exchange, sell off, bribe out to the opportunists of greed. The deformed façade of “socialism oriented market economy” propped up by the snake heads of the VCP to cover up the dictatorship embedded with exploitative, immoral, and ecological disastrous policies.

Yet it is most painful when seeing waves of Vietnamese overseas returning to Vietnam not only in determining to forget the bloody history under the hand of the VCP, but also turning a blind eye on blunt oppression and injustice. They throw themselves into individualized glamour fashioned as “Người Đương Thời” or “The Contemporary Figure” to be served due to their privilege and position. They act carelessly and consort local government chieftain while scrupulously living like the neo-colonialists. If “The Contemporary Figure” was pumped up to high heaven through various media means, but at the same time, was slighted and disgraced bluntly in front of the audience that “you’re such a worthless outcast”, it’s still a go to do. [3]

Greenback capital rushed in, Red capital smuggled out. Blood money, sweat money are all mixed up, so how one could know! Neo-colonialist exploitation and class exploitation by the ruling party members are greased through the open market economy system on the surface format. It’s an environment for man-exploit-man via the rubbish of one-party hegemony, jungle capitalism, and heartless know-how. Gradually, the personal relationship, trading partnership, and working in the NGO (Non-governmental Organization) network spring many obligations and binds that make individuals or groups (consciously or unconsciously) yield to implicate – under the banner of reconciliation – with the totalitarian policies that harm people and give away the country subordinating to other power.

Just recently, on October 14, 2008 the NGO PeaceTrees Vietnam had entertained Vietnam Ambassador Le Cong Phung at the Washington Athletic Club (or WAC) at Seattle. Four organizations sponsored this welcoming event are the DuBois Law Firm, Boeing, Russell Investments, and Washington Athelic Club. Being an NGO entity, PeaceTrees Vietnam is yet engaging in diplomatic activities not apolitical at all. A simple friendly greet-and-meet session or an opportunity to polish the front cover of the Vietnamese Communist government, for trading partners (legal advisors, airplane manufacturers, and capital investment firms) to be hooked up? Blood money could be laundered clean for further rotation in new cycles.

Two weeks later, Jerilyn Brusseau, PeaceTrees Vietnam co-founder and president, was invited to be the keynote speaker for the annual gala organized by the Vietnamese American Bar Association of Washington (VABAW) on October 28, 2008. [4] This is an ambiguity tangled with private/public, within/outside multilayer: development and rebuilding or exploitation of neo-colonialists from overseas and party ruling class?

The unsaid ambiguities with razor thin border between good and evil are easy for mistaken and dodging. Evil is always adorned itself with vibrant glitters and coated sugar; the red devil always cloaked under a shimmering coat. After contemplating on these unspoken hidden ambiguities which were named here, we could at least distinguish truth from falsehood in order not to be so trapped into co-optation with evil and to act with integrity and compassion.


[1] To be at the scholarly position in the old times was the most notorious in the five high-ranked royal court titles. Scholar was always the crème of the top in career ladder as well. From the two poems: “Scholar” (Kẻ sĩ) and “Paper Scholar” (Tiến Sĩ Giấy) of Nguyễn Công Trứ (1778-1858).

[2]The most recent event was the Tet Celebration 2009 of Tet in Seattle Organization (which Dr. Kiet Ly is the Chair of the Board of Directors) at Seattle Center. The Vietnamese foreign students from Seattle Central Community College and other community colleges did engage in the “Youth and Dream” Project organized by Judith Henchy, a librarian of Southeast Asian Center of the University of Washington, who coordinated with Seattle Public Library staff. The red flag of Communist Vietnam was dauntingly tagged on the map of Vietnam in the exhibit area due to “confusion”. Only until the Vietnamese American ex-political prisoners discovered and protested, this red flag was removed.

Other equally important incidents regarding the mingling of Vietnamese foreign students with the second generation Vietnamese Americans:

(1) The Vietnamese foreign students living in Seattle have gathered on the University of Washington campus on a regular basis to engage in “Kids Without Borders” Project (of The Greater Seattle Vietnam Association—a non-profit agency that serves as a medium for trading and charity works with Vietnam).

(2) The Vietnamese Student Association of University of Washington (VSAUW) mostly consisting of the second generation Vietnamese Americans also followed the “successful” path via the beauty contest named “Miss Vietnam Washington” of Tet In Seattle. The university students did a fundraising for a Vietnam Mobile Clinic, and have attempted to reach their targeted goal of $20,000. They would delegate their student members to go to Vietnam with the non-profit Wellness Global Foundation ( founded by a “patriotic overseas Vietnamese lady” and a “honorable citizen” of Vietnam. She faces opposition in Belgium for years and serves as the channel between the charity works in the West and Vietnam. Two board members of this organization who are her relatives in Colorado, and a Vietnamese American Professor of Medicine and Acting Head of the Gastroenterology Division at the University of Washington (UW), Seattle, Washington. VSAUW already organized their fundraising for two times:

(2a) At Tea Palace Restaurant on February 28, 2009 for $10,000; and

(2b) At the inter-university beauty contest “Hoa Khoi Lien Truong” of 2009 on April 18th at Kane Hall of UW. [At the same time, there have been unknown reasons for email messages sent to UW students containing information about the dangerous alert of Little Saigon Seattle gentrification and land use inequity were filtered and blocked for almost a year. The UW students have been caught into these ambiguous activities.]

[3] Henry (Hoang) Nguyen—the youngest son of Bang Nguyen, a former vice minister assistant of the South Republic government before 1975, was asked by the talk show host named Loan Bich Ta to eat a banana upfront at the beginning of the interview for Program “Người Đương Thời” (The Contemporary Figures) on Vietnam channel VTV1 distributed on May 7th, 2006

(From: or at YouTube: )

The banana is a symbol indicating the assimilated Asian Americans whose physical skin is still yellow but the mind and heart already pro-Anglo Saxon cullture and way of life. These Asians are or want to be assimilated, not willing to sustain their previous generation’s culture after their settlement in America.

However, the talk show “Người Đương Thời” (The Contemporary Figures) still proposed Henry Hoang Nguyen as “The Unknown from Harvard”, and “The Second-Generation Overseas Vietnamese Who Make Contribution and Enrich the Homeland.” While the majority of post-show comments regarding this hottest TV interview expressed a similar admiration for Henry Nguyen as their idol, one audience’s nickname “Con Quốc Quốc” wrote yet the following (Note: This nickname “Con Quốc Quốc” was a metaphor. The commenter used the name of a bird—the “crake”, a species of bird in the Rallidae family that sings heart-rending sounds–to express how this bird sound could make the exiles or long travelers homesick):

“The unknown from Harvard Henry Hoang Nguyen is possibly one of the most accurate answers for resolution #36 of Secretary of the Central Party regarding the overseas Vietnamese.”


[4] VABAW’s Fourth Annual Banquet ( was held on October 28, 2008 at the Triple Door. The theme for the evening was “Ambassadors to Our Communities.”

Vietnamese Version: Những cái nhập nhằng không tên

Capitalism-Socialism_Günter Grass_E_1

Other related articles in Vietnamese (with English translation):

Part 1: American Ambassador Michalak’s visit at Seattle (Nhập nhằng sinh hoạt cộng đồng Việt TB WA)

Part 2: Whom from the Vietnamese Community Seattle Mayor Nickels interacted with?
[Phần 2: Thị trưởng Seattle tiếp xúc với những ai trong Cộng Đồng người Việt.]

Reference: Gentrification—a new form of racism (Joe Debro)

Newer article (2010):

Collective Amnesia and Rhetoric of Mobilized Participation (short version)

Collective Amnesia and Rhetoric of Mobilized Participation (complete version)

Recent articles (September 2009):

The Rebuttal: “Letter to the International Examiner Editor in Chief” (Thư phản biện gởi cho Chủ Bút International Examiner tiếng Anh)

A letter to the second-generation Vietnamese Americans (Thư ngỏ Anh ngữ cho giới trẻ): “Critical Reflection with Vietnamese Young Readers”

Other Vietnamese essays on Talawas:

Bịt miệng nạn nhân

Chúng tôi (Tự trào – Trí thức – Tâm Tài)

Tôi là người Việt Nam

Thời cửu vạn, ôsin

Lết tới “thiên đường”

Phản bội hay trung thành với lý tưởng?

Other essays on Da Màu:

Tháng Tư Câm

Hồn ma và xương khô

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