October 10, 2008
Los Angeles, CA
Yesterday, my history professor ordered me to stay after class and then apologized to me.
“We are sorry for everything that we did. Vietnam was such a beautiful place with beautiful people.”
I shifted awkwardly, unsure if this was the beginning or the end of the conversation. I adjusted my backpack bringing it up to my tense shoulders. Not sure of what else to do with my hands, I touched the split ends of my hair. I folded the corner of my final exam booklet back and forth, creasing the edge between my sweaty fingers until it ripped off.
I nodded slowly and mouthed goodbye to the last student filing out of the classroom. “You know, Vietnam was my home. I knew immediately on the first day my boots touched that red earth. I was just a little over 20, but I knew that Vietnam would change me forever.”
I glanced around the now empty room, my eyes tracing the peeling pale blue paint around the door. All of a sudden I felt eyes directed downwards at me and I became acutely aware of my small stature under his gaze. “I was just about your age probably. Where did you say your family was from?”
I never said anything, I thought to myself. Instead, I politely told him everything he wanted to hear.
My family is from Biên Hoà.
“Oh of course! I flew out of ‘Bin Wa’ airbase there many times.” Looks at me for some confirmation or…was it affirmation (?) of his Vietnamese pronunciation.
I fled Vietnam by boat.
“It was horrible, horrible what we did. How could we abandon so many good, honest, hard working people? It was the American government, they lied to everyone, especially the troops.” Proceeds to sing that worn down American tale, a familiar tune that goes something like,
doo da corruption, liberal press, threat of Communism…
dee dee Now what they want you to believe is…
doo da We learned our lesson there in Nam…
Actually, I do not remember saying much at all come to think of it. I nodded silently while he spoke. Sometimes I submitted those signals that said we were in a conversation by sprinkling in ‘hmm’ and ‘oh really?’ When he looked at me and paused to take a breath or to let the heaviness of his words sink in—I hurriedly wrinkled my lips to convey empathy and understanding as a substitute for looking him in the eye.
I was not sure which social cues and staged behavior a situation like this required. What did he want me to say? Did he want me to say anything? Did it matter what I said? Did it have to be me or any other representative of Nam would do?
I wondered how and when and why he strategized his approach. Was it my last name that gave it away? Was it because of how I looked? Was it something about my homework assignments that gave away that ‘vibe’ to invite him to a reconciliation session of his wartorn past? Did he want to approach me sooner, but waited until the last possible minute when the class had finished because…because he no longer owed me anything as my teacher? or maybe because he might never see me again?
Then suddenly he interrupted my looped performance of hmms and frowned lip wrinkling with another “We are sorry for everything we did in Nam.”
Before I could even take a breath and stop the words from escaping, spilling out from my lips, I mechanically muttered.