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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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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LIBERATION TIME

Film & Poem by Cindy A. Nguyen

Chapter 1

What year did that happen?
Before liberation. / Trước khi giải phóng
When did you go to school?
Before liberation.

When did you become a farmer?
After liberation.
When did you meet dad?
After liberation.

When did you want to leave?
After liberation.
And when was I born?
After liberation. / Sau khi giải phóng

What is liberation?

Chapter 2

Liberation was a time.
It was a demarcation
of what came before
and what came after.

Liberation was a place.
where everyone was invited
and forever remained guests.
Awaiting an alternative future.

Liberation was a friend.
a neighbor, a brother
a believer, a dreamer
familiar, familial, filial.

Liberation was a sound
repeated, whispered echoes
to cleanse and empty
the evils of the past,
the errors of the past
the past, the past, the past.
Ngày xưa, ngày xưa, ngày xưa.

Hanoi, 2017
cindy photography sapa-16

BOOK REVIEW: Võ Phiến and the Sadness of Exile

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Schafer, John C. Võ Phiến and the Sadness of Exile. Southeast Asia Publications, Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Northern Illinois University, 2006.

UPDATE 10/15/2016: This literary masterpiece is now re-released as an open edition by Digital Commons at Humboldt State University.

Open Access Online version: http://digitalcommons.humboldt.edu/monographs/2/

Amazon Print version

Proceeds from the print version will support the Library Scholars internship program, which makes open access publishing at Humboldt State University Press possible.
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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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BOOK REVIEW: Christina Schwenkel’s The American War in Contemporary Vietnam

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Schwenkel, Christina. The American War in Contemporary Vietnam: Transnational Remembrance and Representation. Tracking Globalization. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009.

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BOOK REVIEW: Nha Ca’s Mourning Headband for Hue

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Nha Ca, Mourning Headband for Hue: An Account of the Battle of Hue, Vietnam 1968 (1970) (translation by Olga Dror, University of Indiana Press, 2014).

Gareth Porter, “The 1968 ‘Hue Massacre,’” Indochina Chronicle, No. 33. June 24, 1974.

Lien-Hang Nguyen, “The War Politburo: North Vietnam’s Diplomatic and Political Road to the Tet Offensive,” Journal of Vietnamese Studies, vol.1, nos. 1-2, (Fall 2006).

Merle Pribenow, “General Vo Nguyen Giap and the Mysterious Evolution of the Plan for the 1968 Tet Offensive,” Journal of Vietnamese Studies, vol. 3, no.2 (Summer 2008).

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