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.

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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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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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BOOK REVIEW: Gary Kulik’s “War Stories” & Nick Turse’s Kill Anything That Moves

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Kulik, Gary. War Stories: False Atrocity Tales, Swift Boaters, and Winter Soldiers or What Really Happened in Vietnam. Potomac Books, Inc., 2009.

Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam by Nick Turse, 2013

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Intro to the Henri Oger Project: ‘On Reading a Peripheral Text’

Photo May 14, 11 11 10 AM

It’s been nearly a year since I’ve stumbled upon the fascinating text Technique du Peuple Annamite (Mechanics and Crafts of the Vietnamese People) (Published 1908-1910).  I had hoped to come to more of a conclusive analysis of this text before posting about this project. However like most intellectual projects, more questions and directions for analyses have opened up rather than converged into a neat finality. (See poster of tentative DH research presented at 2015 Berkeley DH Faire)

Thus, I wanted to at least share my initial observations and inquiry into the text. Below is a brief introduction to the text itself and excerpts (Methods & History of the Book) from my essay “On Examining a Peripheral Text: Technique du Peuple Annamite”, which I hope to finish editing and publish here. Additionally, I created a timeline of the life of the text and author  below:

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