On the Wrong Side of History

I met An at a hospital in Alexandria, Virginia of all places, at my son’s bedside during his stay in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. She was one of his nurses and, like most who are drawn to that profession, treated me with quiet compassion. It was only after weeks of occasional small talk, usually about his progress, that we began to chat.

That evening was blissfully slow, the usual beeps and whistles of the monitors a little quieter. An sat with me while I watched my too-tiny sleeping baby and silently wished time would pass a little slower, dreading the shift change that would signal the NICU’s closure for the evening, and my departure.

I asked An where she was from, and when she told me she was Vietnamese, I asked her how long she had lived in the United States. She explained that she left Vietnam was she was 17 in 1979, and arrived in the US in 1981. I asked her how she spent those middle two years, imaging her studying in Europe or backpacking around Asia, a gap year turning in to two.

“I was in Thailand,” she said, “in a refugee camp. I learned English there.”

An was one of 800,000 Vietnamese citizens who fled Vietnam by boat after the 1975 fall of Saigon. The new government sent one million people, most of whom were associated with the former South Vietnamese government, to “re-education” camps. An and her older brother decided to run. Her parents are still there, but she hasn’t seen them in years.

Vietnam War Museum

She didn’t know where they were going that night, more than 30 years ago, when they boarded a boat with hundreds of strangers, only that they were leaving Vietnam. The voyage was difficult, crowded. An told me that she was sure she was going to die. “I couldn’t swim,” she said, “none of us could.” She couldn’t remember how long it lasted. It felt like weeks, like maybe it would go on forever.

After two long years in refugee camps, first in the Philippines, and then in Thailand, An was ultimately resettled in the United States, along with her brother. She married another Vietnamese refugee, and he’s the reason she hasn’t returned. His father was an official in the South Vietnamese government before the end of the war. He can never go back, and her last visit home was uncomfortable, threatening almost. She knows she won’t see her parents again.

An was surprised to learn that I had visited Hanoi, and shocked that I had found its people welcoming. It seemed ludicrous to me that she would face more hostility and more suspicion than I did, though parts of my trip were certainly unsettling. I saw Hao Lo Prison, dubbed the “Hanoi Hilton” by American prisoners of war held there in the 1960s, the most well-known of whom was former presidential candidate and U.S. Senator John McCain. Though not much remains of the prison itself – it was demolished in the 1990s – the gatehouse contains a museum to the prison’s history.

Hoa Lo Prison

It was a difficult place to visit, the museum’s displays wildly inconsistent with what I remembered from history class. The personal accounts of the POWs that survived were dark, memoirs of interrogation and torture. But this museum is a lesson in propaganda, of history being written by the victors. Senator McCain’s flight suit is on display here, paired with photos of prisoners playing basketball and eating cake, or laughing as they play chess or dominos. The captions emphasize the excellent treatment of the prisoners, highlighting their good health and high morale. It’s difficult to see so much history and suffering erased. Though the North Vietnamese are hardly the first to re-write the past, rarely are we confronted by the evidence.

John McCain's Flight Suit

I asked An, now a U.S. citizen, if she was still a citizen of Vietnam. “How should I know?” she said. “I still have my passport. Does that mean anything?” She has no way of finding out.

Eventually my son came home from the hospital, and I no longer cross paths with An. My aunt came to visit, as families do after the birth of a child. She had served as a Navy nurse in Vietnam, and I told her An’s story, amazed at the conditions she had survived. I discovered that my aunt had also been in Thailand, in a refugee camp, all those years ago. She had worked in the camp’s labor and delivery ward, taking care of women and infants who had fled Vietnam. She too had been struck by the conditions those women left behind, and how they had chosen to survive.

Communist Propaganda poster

It amazes me that these women – An and my aunt – share two narratives – the first in Thailand, in a Vietnamese refugee camp decades ago, and the second in northern Virginia, in the orbit of the same incredible little boy. So often we hear it’s technology making the world smaller, or international students, or volunteers. It’s sad things too though, wars and refugees, hospitals and heartbreak, that bring us together. No one knows that better than An, a refugee in a new country helping the world’s tiniest patients fight their own battles.

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