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

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. 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)
  2. 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)
  3. If this essay resonated with you, share it with someone else.
Our family in Pre-COVID Days in front of Long Hai Restaurant

Why Study the History of Colonial Indochina? Talk at Middlesex Community College 2020

I recently delivered a talk  to 150 college students at Middlesex college through the Asian Studies Development Program. I was encouraged to prepare a talk which spoke to diverse students who might not have a background on Asian history. In preparing for the talk, I took a long time reflecting on the simple question, “Why study the history of colonial Indochina.” In the talk I explain three reasons:

  1. It is important.
  2. I am constantly learning and unlearning.
  3. It is hard.

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[TEACHING] Virtual Reality Module: Analyzing Representations of Angkor

This is a teaching module I designed for my course, “Contested Histories of Colonial Indochina” at Brown University, Fall 2019. [See below for full teaching module or Download Teaching Module>] I connected with an ambitious, award winning project “Virtual Angkor” which brings the 13th century Cambodian metropolis of Angkor to life through virtual reality and 3D simulation. Led by the talented team of Tom Chandler, Adam Clulow, Bernard Keo, Mike Yeates, and Martin Polkinghorne (SensiLab, Monash University, UT Austin, Flinders University), Virtual Angkor allows students to experience and pose questions about Angkor’s social life, trade networks, structure of power and kingship, as well as architectural layout.

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[SYLLABUS] Contested Histories of Colonial Indochina

History 1978D – Fall 2019

Contested Histories of Colonial Indochina: Culture, Power, Change

Instructor: Dr. Cindy Nguyen, History Postdoctoral Fellow

E-mail: Cindy_Nguyen@brown.edu

Course Description

This seminar explores the history of French colonial Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos) from 1858 to 1945. Challenging Euro-centric narratives of colonialism, we will critically analyze the colonial encounter as complex exchanges, geographically diverse, and socially uneven. We will examine the mechanisms and limitations of the colonial state, capitalism, administration and institutions, and science and technology (maps, communications, transportation, medicine). Rather than position colonialism as an external agent of change, this seminar dedicates attention to local agency, and social and cultural transformations. We will focus on the creative production of new ideas, print media, and urban and religious communities especially in 1920s to 1940s Hanoi, Saigon, and Phnom Penh. By reading primary sources, we will consider how historical actors experienced and understood colonialism and social transformation. Key historical and theoretical debates addressed include the production and legacies of colonial knowledge, construction of modernity and civilization, development of civil societies, transformations of religious communities, and articulations of identities around gender, class, revolution, and nation. The final session will consider the legacies of colonialism on language, race, nationalism, and identity. A close analysis of French colonial Indochina will serve as a framework for a cultural and politically situated history of empire in Southeast Asia and beyond.

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READING AND MISREADING – Presentation at ARI NUS, Singapore July 2018

This paper was presented at the 13th Annual Singapore Graduate Forum on Southeast Asian Studies on July 25, 2018 at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore.

Presentation title: Reading and Misreading: From Temple of European Knowledge to Public Space of Vietnamese Modernity and Social Life, 1919-1941

Slides: Cindy Nguyen Hanoi Central Library Reading Room ARI NUS July 2018 Final

Please cite all images and parts of the paper to Cindy A. Nguyen

Video of Presentation:

Q&A:

Abstract:

This talk examines the transformation of library reading in colonial Vietnam from a symbol of French modernity to an everyday practice of Vietnamese modernity and social life. Focused on the 1920’s and 1930’s Central Library Reading Room in Hanoi, I demonstrate the ways in which Vietnamese students, urban readers, and administrators challenged and redefined the meaning of the library into a Vietnamese space of public sociability, self-learning, and global knowledge.

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Orthodox v. Revisionist v. Vietnam-centrism in Vietnam War Histories

Photo by Eric Kim, Tuyên Quang 2016, Historically named by the Party as the glorious “Center of the National Revolution”

**A Note: This summary of key debates between Orthodox, Revisionist, and Vietnam-Centrism understandings of the Vietnam War will without a doubt, be interpreted as contentious. My aim here is not to cast value judgment on the ethics of war, but to push further the responsibility towards understanding HISTORY and its actors. 

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History of Classification and Information Reading List

Genealogical distribution of the arts and sciences’ by Chrétien Frederic Guillaume Roth from Encyclopédie (1780) by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert

For your summer reading pleasure and in the context of the ever rising importance of critically thinking through classification, here is my complete qualifying exam list on HISTORY OF CLASSIFICATION AND INFORMATION.

Cindy Nguyen
Examiner: Cathryn Carson
Second Field: History of Knowledge Systems

History of Classification and Information

1. STS & Memory Practices: Classification, Documentation, Catalogs, Libraries, Archives
2. History of Information, Information Age, Enlightenment Institutions
3. History of statistics: governance and discipline
4. Data Science: theory, explanation; experts

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