My Experience Living through History: War, Human Agency, and Non-Future

Update 4/10/2020: Thank you so much for the kind and loving words of support! As a grassroots deployment of our skills during this difficult time, we have now started a “Long Hai Feeds You” Campaign to feed frontline medical workers. Read more and donate here. Thank you for the love and stay safe!

As a historian, I analyze continuity and change. How do moments of upheaval affect people, states, institutions, across time and space? I consider the nuances of change for certain communities—the degree of rupture from previous ways of life and the resiliency of individual lives, social practices, and cultural norms.

I examine the history of Vietnam, where war haunts all aspects of life and sense of temporality. Disruption was the only constant, and fear functioned as a stimulus for survival. The prolonged state of uncertainty led to the utter abandonment of all trust in the socio-political fabric of governmental systems, economic stability, and sense of community. Vietnamese lived at the boundary of divine intervention and fated misery. A sense of a non-future and the loss of human agency shrouded the everyday. I have come to understand this reality through my mother and father’s life. They were kids forced to become adults in the midst of war, created a family out of tentative dreams and functional necessity, and escaped their war torn world in hopes for any kind of future for their family. I am deeply embedded within this traumatic history as a child of the Vietnam War, born in a refugee camp in Malaysia, and growing up in America the land of promise, hope, and hypocrisy.

My family in the relocation camp in the Philippines after we were accepted to migrate to America. I am the infant in my mother's arms. My father is on the far left, my uncle next to my mom, my oldest sister (3) and older brother (2). A neighborhood kid on the far right.
My family in the relocation camp in the Philippines after we were accepted to migrate to America. I am the infant in my mother’s arms. My father is on the far left, my uncle next to my mom, my oldest sister (3) and older brother (2). A neighborhood kid on the far right.

Yet, it was not until COVID-19 that I now know what it means to live through history. While this moment is not the same as war, I have become familiar with its symptoms and side effects. The loss of human agency in everyday action. The inability to fathom a future. The surrender to fated defeat and existential misery.

Historical change is tremendously uneven. Because of this unevenness, I realize how privileged I am and how vulnerable others are. On an everyday level, my life has not changed all that much. Pre-COVID I spent much of my time by myself, in front of a screen or book, thinking, writing, and making sense of the historical world. During-COVID, I attempt to continue that work. We university instructors must adapt to remote teaching and research. While this process was painful, confusing, and exhausting, I am lucky to have a generously kind, supportive community and patient students. My partner is out of work as a self-employed artist and teacher for the foreseeable future, but at least I am salaried and we have health insurance. The most painful upheaval was that my partner and I had to pause all plans for our own future family. But we count ourselves lucky because we cannot imagine the anxiety and struggles of pregnant women and mothers with young infants living at this time. My sister-in-law is a nurse and mother of two young children, and her friends have kindly volunteered in her place so she has yet to work in the ICU with COVID-19 patients. The time will come soon.

I continued on with an air of triumphant resolution to dedicate my time and labor to helping colleagues with remote teaching, writing resources for inclusive digital pedagogy, and supporting my students from afar. I made an emergency plan for my home. I call my mom across the country and we watch and do youtube exercise videos and give her air high-fives through the camera. I like to tell myself that I was fermenting, making sourdough bread, taking long meditative walks, and having daily existential reflections before these were millennial trends in the time of COVID. And then everything changed—it was not a seismic transformation, but a turning of the page that I knew was coming.

Photograph by my partner Eric Kim

I had my first Zoom class meeting with my students. It was late, we were tired. We had logistical and technical bumps along the way. I maintained an air of positivity and encouragement. I thanked the students profusely. By the end of the session I was exhausted and felt depleted. Throughout the entire session I silently doubted how we were supposed to continue on with the teaching material at hand. But I continued through the lesson plan and inserted lighthearted jokes and thoughtful comments. I told myself: Maybe this class is a welcome distraction for the students? Maybe thinking about historical actors will help bring us away just for a moment of the fear, difficulties, and danger of our contemporary realities. I ended the meeting with disappointment, but still held onto a figment of hope that things will be fine and others have it much much worse.

Then I received news that my father in California is on the brink of closing our family restaurant of 25 years and unable to pay his basic living expenses. A complete reorientation of priorities: I spend every waking moment moving between frantic research and existential guilt. My partner and I figure out how to cut more expenses, apply to grants and loans, encourage customers to order take out from the restaurant via social media. All the while, everything. just. hurts. The guilt that my during-COVID life has been overall, manageable. The sadness that I am not there in California. The anger that my father already lived through a time of unfathomable injustice and uncertainty. The surrender to an inescapable future of difficulty and pain.

My father and I celebrating my Ph.D. graduation in front of our family restaurant Long Hai in Tustin, California

What I want to know is what it means to move past history. How did my parents do it? How did they survive, support four kids with nothing, and create a life and new opportunities for their kids? I am searching for that boundless power, that hope to hold onto, that rational deployment of my skills and any tools I have access to. What do I do? I continue to minimize all inessential expenses and direct that money to support small businesses and other vulnerable populations. I continue to check in with my loved ones and to tell them how much I love and miss them. I continue to take care of my health. I continue to be grateful for my health and community. I continue to be strong and vulnerable with my students and colleagues. I continue to write and make sense of this world.

I continue.

My identity card: My given name is Nguyễn Thị Kim Ạnh, but for due to a paperwork error I became the mis-named “Anh Kim.” When I was naturalized, my parents let me choose my name, Cindy.

Post-Script:

I know everyone is hurting. If you have a little to spare, please consider doing the following and spreading the word:

  1. Update 4/10/2020: Thank you so much for the kind and loving words of support! As a grassroots deployment of our skills during this difficult time, we have now started a “Long Hai Feeds You” Campaign to feed frontline medical workers. Read more and donate here. Thank you for the love and stay safe!
  2. Order takeout and delivery from my dad’s restaurant (Long Hai Restaurant) in Orange County, California. Give him a call at 714-838-8118. It’s just him working, so please be patient if he doesn’t pick up right away, just call right back and he’ll fix you up something delicious. (Long Hai Restaurant, 682 El Camino Real, Tustin, CA. Yelp and Menu)
  3. Purchase a photography book, online course, or camera goods by my partner Eric Kim. Pick up some new reading matter or gift it to a friend. Eric also writes a lot about making art and staying resilient through this difficult time. (Online Shop, Ships Internationally and Digital Downloads)
  4. If this essay resonated with you, share it with someone else.
Our family in Pre-COVID Days in front of Long Hai Restaurant

10 thoughts on “My Experience Living through History: War, Human Agency, and Non-Future”

  1. Wow Cindy. Tough and resounding article!! And maybe only able to be written by a historian. You hit the nail on the head with the similarity of COV and how historical events have dealt with Vietnamese people. I came to the same conclusion only last week. I am deep into an historical novel which spans 250 years, and follows two families. It is from a peasant perspective. I am constantly addressing the issue of people having NO control over their lives and their future. Lives at the mercy of warlords, royalty, pirates, armies, etc, etc, etc, and then on top of that wandering spirits!! There is a big picture up-side to this Cindy. Their ridiculously tough history has made a country which knows how to survive. I am living in Vietnam as COV hits. Being among the world best survivors makes me feel safe. You are also connected to a community of survivors; feel safe.
    Be safe Cindy.
    Paul Rowe
    Pauls History Club

  2. A very honest and revealing article. I don’t fully share the despair but I understand your perspective.

    As for Eric, I really wish he would do two things. Recognise that the real audience on his youtube are photographers and engage with them. For the very small percentage that are fools there are a far greater number that value his contribution. Secondly he could enable advertising to provide some revenue.

    No matter the era, each person fights for physical and psychological survival with what they encounter. We, today are no different to those before us, nor will it be different for those that come after. The only difference is what is thrown each of us in our time. It may be health, war, economics, abuse, unfairness, genetics, looks, nationality, poor parents, poor educational chances or whatever.

    Life is … Effort interspersed with occasional moments of achievement, opportunity and reflection.

    These moments of reduced effort need to be taken and enjoyed and not allow them to be overshadowed by the pain and effort of getting there, otherwise why bother?

    All the best to you, Eric and the other family.

    Alex.,

  3. What do mean when you wrote, “…growing up in America the land of promise, hope, and hypocrisy”- especially hypocrisy?

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