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Vietnamese father answers his American son: living with defeat

Tuesday May 01, 2001

Recent revelations by former Sen. Bob Kerrey about his role in the death of women and children in Vietnam underscore how that war refuses to go away for America. The Vietnam War is an everyday remembrance for Thi Quang Lam – one of the four top South Vietnamese generals – who now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. His son, Pacific News Service Associate Editor Andrew Lam, finally mustered the courage to ask his father questions he has had since arriving here 26 years ago. 


By Andrew Lam 

Pacific News Service 


As Communist tanks rolled into the city of Saigon early on the evening of April 30, 1975, my father, Thi Quang Lam – a lieutenant general in the South Vietnamese Army – boarded a naval ship with a few hundred other Vietnamese officials and their families and headed out to sea. Nearing the Philippines, where they would ask U.S. authorities for asylum, he put away his army uniform, changed into a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, and tossed his gun into the water. 

I was not there. I had left two days earlier with the rest of the family in a C-130 cargo full of panicked refugees heading for Guam. But for years I regarded the moment when my father jettisoned his gun into the sea as a kind of historical marker – the beginning of his exile and my beginning with America. 

My father was 42 years old. I was 11. 

A French-educated man who came from a wealthy, land-owning family in a small town in the Mekong Delta, my father towers over many other Vietnamese men of his generation. Five feet, nine inches tall, he also has the solitary characteristics of those in leadership positions, a presence so cold to those who did not know him well, that I have seen soldiers tremble in his presence. In Vietnam, because of his many victories in battle and his dark skin, the Viet Cong called him the “Black Panther of the South.” 

In America, however, the Black Panther is recognized by few outside his Vietnamese community. Though he managed to remake himself as a banking executive, my father's passion remains extra-territorial. “The U.S.A., for me, is a destination, not a homeland,” he said. 

That is, Vietnam remains always on his mind. As it does for so many of the one million South Vietnamese who fought alongside the Americans, but who were abruptly abandoned in the middle of a battlefield. 

For me, April 30 marked the 26th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. For my father, it is a date filled with feelings and memories that I have always been afraid to confront. Still, his voice remained controlled when I finally gathered the courage to ask, on the eve of this anniversary, about those feelings. 

“I feel both anger and sadness,” he replied evenly, though the hurt clearly ran deep. “Anger because we were abandoned by our allies – the U.S. – at the darkest hour of our history. Sadness, because so many of my comrades-in-arms sacrificed for nothing, many were sent to concentration camps, and the country was ruled by a bloody, repressive regime.” 

We went back in time to the final days, when the French government vainly tried to arrange a coalition government between the existing regime of General Duong Van Minh, the Viet Cong and a third opposition party. But President Minh decided to surrender and ordered all ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) units still fighting in Saigon and 4th Military Region to do the same on April 30. Five ARVN generals committed suicide rather than surrender to the enemy. 

“After hearing the message of surrender, I decided I had to leave,” my father recalled. 

I had to ask. Did my father consider suicide also? And, if not, why not? 

“The generals who committed suicide were corps and division commanders whose units were still combat effective. They committed suicide because they didn't want to surrender their units to the enemy. The reality was that by choosing to die, these generals upheld the highest level of the Confucian concept of honor.” 

And for my father? 

“This was a question of choice. I didn't commit suicide because I was not a unit commander and because I felt (former) President Nguyen Van Thieu should be held responsible for our defeat, not the unit commanders in the field.” 

That choice came with its price: the sting of defeat, and even dishonor, a sting my father salves with bravado predictions. “I bear the loss of the homeland,” he said, “because I know the Marxist system will eventually collapse and I hope I will have the opportunity to come back in a free and democratic Vietnam.” 

But had he forgiven this “destination” for abandoning his own? And how does one forgive when what was lost was one's homeland? 

My father laughed. “I am fully aware that international relations are not based on sentiments and emotions, but on strategic interests. I also know that we didn't have a voice in 1975. But the situation has changed and today, the increasingly powerful overseas Vietnamese communities – financially and politically – can impact U.S. relations with Vietnam. I am confident that, with the continued struggle of the Vietnamese people and involvement of our younger generation, we can put an early end to that bloody aberration (Communism) of the history of mankind.” 

It was, as diplomats might say, a “full and frank exchange.” Yet what I, his son, could not bring myself to ask was if he really believed this “common goal” isn't just wishful thinking. Certainly, we want better living standards and more freedom in Vietnam, but a ‘common goal’ implies a strength of national purpose, be it in Vietnam or among Vietnamese 

Americans, that has probably evaporated along with the end of the Cold War, the opening of more porous borders and the emergence of more complex, multinational and multiethnic identities. 

While my father considers himself an exile living in America, I consider myself an American journalist who happens to make a yearly journey to Vietnam without much emotional fanfare. The irony is that he cannot return to the country to which he owes allegiance, so long as the current regime remains in power, while for me, my country of birth has become a point of departure, an occasional destination, but no longer home. 

I am a product of the suburban America my father chose over the death or reeducation camps that befell many of his peers. For my father, history runs backwards, to a lonely nationalism and the place whence he fled. Mine consists of Disneyland, Tahoe, and my father's first American car, and runs forward from there to a more cosmopolitan reality. 

In a dream I once had, I am a child diving into the blue ocean to retrieve a rusty gun. As I reach out for the gun it dissolves into sand and sifts effortlessly through my fingers. I woke in tears. Its message was clear: one cannot fight the old man's battle; the past is irretrievable. Irretrievable then, still it must be remembered, its lessons to be explored and learned, and rendered into testimonies, into words.