a transcript from Kenneth Nguyen’s podcast
What does it mean to be Vietnamese? I can feel that we, as Vietnamese Americans, are very community-minded while, at the same time, we’re individuals. It’s the whole camaraderie.
I’m ethnically Chinese-Vietnamese. The first time I landed in Shanghai, the feeling I got was “oh wow, this city is more modern than I thought”. However, when I came back to Vietnam to make a documentary, after a while since I left in 1982, it was as if my skin had been dead from 1982 to 1998. The smell, the feel, or the humility of Vietnam was so different. The clouds were so much different compared to the clouds in the U.S. And to be able to go ăn chè on the streets – a Vietnamese dessert – or just go have a bowl of Phở, and just seeing people out on the street past 10 p.m. That’s Saigon. That’s Vietnam for me because your skin knows when you’re back in your homeland, right?
To this day, the most gratifying work that I’ve done – and it did not pay very much – was when I was working for Vân Sơn and going on tours with their shows. But the most important part was doing the travel shows with Việt Thảo where we talked to Vietnamese people all over the world. We were going to these pockets of Vietnamese communities and talking to them, hearing their stories about how they overcame their struggle as immigrants and how they started their business, be it a success or a failure. That’s being Vietnamese to me.
It’s about erasing our own history when we were studying U.S. history. I still remember this reading about the Vietnam war that was literally one paragraph in the U.S. history book. One paragraph. “We got involved in it. We lost. We moved on”, that was the Vietnam war history that I learned. It never occurred to me – that’s actually really sad – it never even occurred to me to study Asian American literature.
I started catching up after college. I was a late Boomer to my own culture and still to this day. I was so Americanized that I forgot to speak my own language, to focus on Asian studies and all that stuff. Until 1996, I went to see a play by Club O’ Noodles, and their play was called Laughter from the Children of War. And I was laughing and crying. The woman I was dating at the time was Canadian American. She was white American, she didn’t know what I was laughing at. When I saw that play, I was like: “That’s it! I’m Vietnamese. Yes. All these stories. That’s me. I lost touch with that and they’re there”. They’re sketch comedies. There’re scenes about feeling so embarrassed about your own country, feeling embarrassed that you have your friends come over your house and everything smells like nước mắm or mắm ruốc gì đó. Or speaking English with a heavy Vietnamese accent. When I was in high school, that was such a turn-off for me. And now looking back, it’s so embarrassing to see that’s even me in high school who did not even understand his own culture. After watching Club O’ Noodles, I felt ashamed of myself. I felt ashamed I had turned my back on my culture. And every time I went to Club O’ Noodles, I always felt like “man, I’m so white”, and so I threw myself into Club O’ Noodles so that I could reconnect with my Vietnamese roots. Still to this day, every time I’m doing every interview, I give thanks and pay tributes to Club O’ Noodles. That theater group turned everything around for me.
All of my films are about family and how to reconcile our childhood with who we are now as adults.
I was a huge fan of Tennessee Williams and Sam Shepard. So it’s all family dramas. Family is such an amazing topic that you can just sink your teeth into it for years and years and years just to try to understand the dynamics of family.
So that I know it’s about family and the really big person that’s always a shadow in all of my works was always my dad. He’s always this big figure that casts a shadow on my work because and not in terms that I had to follow in his footsteps. But the shout-out is “you can’t do it”. Why would you do it? Who would pay you to see your story? He used to say that to me all the time. However, now here’s the interesting thing you have to understand about asian parents. He only said that to my face, but behind my back, he was praising me. He was telling stories about how well I was doing. That’s fucked up, right? So he was supportive, but that’s his way of showing support. So my first official film was The Prescription, which has something to do with the impressions my dad gave me.
Then came Pomegranate, my second short film. It came from a poem. This movie is related to some memories I had with my grandpa.
My third progression was The Anniversary, or Ngày giỗ. In between that time when I made Pomegranate and The Anniversary, I stumbled on my dad’s old cassette tapes that he brought all the way from Vietnam, golden oldies Vietnamese songs: Sĩ Phú, Trịnh Công Sơn, and things like that. I’m always listening to them when I’m writing so a lot of that stuff gets incorporated in the writing itself where the music is already in there. And we did Journey from the Fall like that, too, because there’s a guitar theme that I’ve written into the script.
The Anniversary came through sort of my wanting to learn more about the Vietnam war other than the one paragraph that I read right in the history books. And what started it was when we were on a Club O’ Noodles’ retreat. I stumbled in an old thrift bookstore and found three books. One was called The Temptation to Exist, by Emil Cioran, a weird obscure French philosopher whose whole premise of the book is that in order to grow and become, you have to burn everything in your past. In order to create something new, you have to destroy everything old. The others were two books from a series, the books on the Vietnam war.
So I flipped through it. It had a photo of a woman and it talked about the aftermath of the vietnam war and boat people. There’s a photo of a woman who was being rescued from her boat brought onto a big navy boat. She was wrapped with a towel and her whole chest area was scarred, and the caption said that her mom threw hot water on her to keep her from being raped by pirates.
And then I remembered the story my aunt told me. She escaped by boat. She was a boat person, and the only reason why she survived was because she had broken out with chickenpox. So on the boat, filled with like 30 people whatever, she was leaving. She had chicken pox and so they said: “We’re really sorry we have kids on this boat. We don’t want our kids to catch chickenpox. We have to throw you over”. And in the middle of the night, the pirates attacked. And because she had chickenpox, they didn’t want to touch her. In the morning, they were rescued, and then they were towed into Hong Kong. Then, Hong Kong government didn’t want to accept them, so they set their boats back out. But they started breaking their boats, so they towed their boats back in. They tore it apart so they would sink. So for humanitarian reasons, the Hong Kong government had to rescue them.
When we were making Journey from the Fall, we kept thinking there’s so many stories left to tell. We had to set a limit, where we are going to draw the line and which story we’re going to tell because this is not enough of the book about people’s stories. We kept telling ourselves: “We’re just the first man. Hopefully this film will go out. People will see it, and it’ll inspire them to make more films”.
Retelling the story is not about opening old wounds. It’s to reconcile with our past. I think that a lot of people misunderstand that process. It’s not picking up the old scabs. But if you don’t know where you came from, how do you know where you’re gonna go? There are vietnamese all over the world, and most of the time they left after the Vietnam war as refugees.
That in itself carries a lot of trauma for the community, and that trauma our community has never themselves spoken about outside the community. There’s always this thing where it embittered them. And they haven’t had a chance to tell, and when they’re watching movies about the Vietnam war, it’s Platoon. It’s Full Metal Jacket. It’s Casualties of War. It’s Time and Time Again. It’s all about the American Apocalypse Now.
Nothing about the Vietnamese. Nothing about how Southern Vietnamese soldiers felt when they lost their country and everything they had to move on. So it’s this thing, and it’s held so tightly. It’s a fist, the fist that’s so tight that there’s no blood able to circulate, and that’s where our communities are: getting stuck and can’t move forward.
That’s the reason why I made The Anniversary. What is the message of The Anniversary? We’re all in the same family. We’re all casualties of war. The vietnam war is a civil war. Southern Vietnamese versus Northern Vietnamese, and people don’t see it that way because America is such a huge figure that people only think about it.
At the time I made the film, when people talked about Vietnam, they still associated Vietnam with the Vietnam war. Nowadays, it’s a little different. We’re getting to a stage in history where we’ve moved past that. However, that doesn’t mean that we should just go there and then forget. I don’t think that remembering necessarily is antithetical to that progress. I actually believe that we need to deal with this within our own community. Until the world knows the story and they move past, that’s okay, right? But I always try to compare our history with World War II, and you think about Schindler’s List. How many years did it take until a film like Schindler’s List was made? A film that really talks about the holocaust? It takes time to understand the history and the pain of that history. Like I said, we spend half our lives growing and the other half recovering from that growth. Our community is still growing, but we still have a lot of recovery to do.