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5 - Cultural Trauma and Vietnamese-American Arenas of Memory

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  29 November 2023

Ron Eyerman
Affiliation:
Yale University, Connecticut and Lunds Universitet, Sweden
Todd Madigan
Affiliation:
University of North Carolina, Greensboro
Magnus Ring
Affiliation:
Lunds Universitet, Sweden
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Summary

Abstract

This chapter provides a fine-grained analysis of the competing narratives of the American-Vietnamese War that have circulated within the Vietnamese-American community. The three major arenas of collective memory where these narrative contests occur are delineated (i.e., the community, the academic, and the artistic), then the specific narratives within each of those arenas are identified. Based on the ongoing narrative struggle over the nature of the war and the Vietnamese-American collective identity, the claim is made that the Vietnamese-American collectivity has suffered a cultural trauma.

Keywords: Vietnam War, cultural trauma, collective memory, cultural sociology, Vietnamese American, narrative identity

Continuing with the organizational plan of this book, we will now proceed to examine the different arenas of memory that the Vietnamese-American community comprises and explore the ways in which the war-related narratives are handled in each of them. One of the unique characteristics of the Vietnamese-American collectively is its hybrid nature—situated as it is within and between two cultures. Pulitzer-Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen describes how the Vietnamese-American community “is the third force between the binary poles of Vietnam and the United States,” how it “simultaneously belongs to or in both countries” (2017: 566). We pointed in the previous chapter to the challenges many Vietnamese refugees faced upon their arrival in the U.S.; to that list, we now add the challenge of how to make sense of the American-Vietnamese War and how to understand one’s identity in relation to it. Thanh Tan, host of the Seattle-based Second Wave, a podcast exploring the Vietnamese-American experience, speaks for many second-generation Vietnamese Americans when she says the war “is the backbone of my identity. It doesn’t matter that I was born after the fighting ended. Whether I like it or not, the Vietnam War is my war, too” (NYT, 10/3/2017). And indeed, she has often not liked it. In the following, Tan explains how this struggle affected her in her formative years:

I would see things related to the war—like my mother shedding tears while listening to an old pre-1975 Vietnamese song or my dad organizing a “Black April” memorial event commemorating the loss of South Vietnam—but I didn’t know how to process any of it.

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Publisher: Amsterdam University Press
Print publication year: 2023

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