It’s remarkable that I’ve been friends with Giang for nearly four decades. We’ve spent but a year in the same state and, frankly, have little in common. Giang studied computer science, business administration, and engineering technology. He makes more in a year than I do in ten. He drinks Bud Lite and recycles corny metaphors and analogies. A director of marketing, Giang actually told me, “I can sell a freezer to an Eskimo.”
Driving from California last week, Giang stayed at my sweltering apartment for two nights. Since he had never been to Philly, I took Giang to a decent cheesesteak joint, Independence Hall, and the Liberty Bell. Having spaced out in history classes, Giang had forgotten that Philly was the nation’s first capital and the War of Independence was against the Brits. No matter, Giang got snapshots of himself in front of the iconic sights.
I also showed Giang the Italian Market, Little Cambodia, Kensington, Penn’s Landing, South Street, Dirty Frank’s and Friendly Lounge. In Little Cambodia, we saw kebabs and other delicacies sold on the streets and in a park. It was too hot for volleyball. On a sidewalk, young and old tried to toss bean bags into a hole in a plywood board. We admired the exterior of a brightly painted Buddhist temple. Just like Vietnamese, Cambodians are often mischaracterized as “war refugees” although they have fled from the Communist peace.
What my friend really wanted to see was Fort Indiantown Gap. In 1975, Giang stayed there as an 11-year-old refugee. The same age, I was at Fort Chaffee in Arkansas.
It was good to get out of the city. The Pennsylvania landscape featured nothing dramatic. On Horseshoe Pike, we spotted a concrete chicken on a roof, some Amish clothesline, “trump / trump / trump” scrawled on the back of a highway sign, and that’s about it. Since Giang got the Amish and Hasidic Jews confused, I untangled for him their contrasting hair convictions, hat beliefs, horse notions and electricity theologies.
In 1975, the ride from Harrisburg Airport astounded the refugees. I translate an online account by one Hà Giang:
Each length of road took us further from everything we had left behind, and a step closer to our awaiting future, which to us at the time was extremely vague and unsettled. Our tenuous happiness was mixed with worries.
Though exhausted, no one could doze off because we had just slipped into a new world, as far as language, sceneries, sounds, colors, even the air, fragrances, everything around us was new, everything was different.
I strained to etch on my mind the first images of this country where I had just landed.
The wide road unfurling behind us, the novel one-story houses, way too wide compared to Vietnamese ones, though too low in height. I saw very few with tiles, and absolutely none with tin roofs.
Also, the houses here did not share walls but were comfortably situated on private plots of land, with their entrances not near sidewalks but receding way back behind lusciously green, square-angled lawns. Between one house and another there was no fence, only bushes sometimes, or absolutely no barrier at all, though looking closely, one could see that the grass color of one house was slightly different from another’s.
Such a long road, yet there was no human shadow, so that we had to wait forever to see one old man leisurely sweep a few leaves.
Oh what peace! Peace and serenity were my first impressions of the United States of America.
Pennsylvania was so different from bustling Saigon, crowded Saigon, chaotic Saigon, my Saigon already so distant. Oh Saigon, where are you now? And my parents, my friends, what are you doing there now?
Lost in thoughts, I didn’t even know the bus had turned onto a road leading to the main gates of Fort Indiantown Gap.
Another refugee writes that his time in the camp was “the most magical” of his life, such was his relief of escaping from Communism. By mid-June of 1975, there were 14,900 Vietnamese in Fort Indiantown Gap, and this transient community even had its own bilingual daily newspaper, Đất Lành/Good Land. (“Benign” is actually a better translation for “Lành.”) Vietnamese are big on newspapers. Wartime Saigon had about ten dailies at any time.
In spite of wartime censorship, massive propaganda, exorbitant taxing of newspapers and, occasionally, even imprisonment of journalists, South Vietnamese had access to a wider range of political opinions than Americans today. They also had many more political parties. There’s a saying, “Any two Vietnamese form a political party. Any three, a party and a faction.” No puppets or savages, Vietnamese took politics deadly seriously, because it was. In the end, though, they were just pawns of geopolitical schemers and war profiteers, same as the American soldiers who were sent over there.
Reviewing Apocalypse Now Redux for the Guardian, I point out how Coppola has scrubbed both spoken and written Vietnamese from a film he preposterously claims is not just about Vietnam, but “is Vietnam.”
Yours truly, “In Apocalypse Now, Vietnam is more or less one continuous jungle, with corpses casually dangling from trees, and arrows and spears flying out of the foliage. The arrow attack scene is lifted straight from Heart of Darkness, where a black river boat pilot is impaled by a spear […] As anyone who has been there will tell you, Vietnam is (and was during the war) grossly overpopulated. Rivers and roads are lined with settlements. The US, by comparison, is wilder. Another thing a visitor to Vietnam can readily see is the ubiquity of the written language—that is, of civilization. Signs and banners are everywhere. None of this is apparent in any of the panoramic shots of Apocalypse Now. Coppola hasn’t just withheld speech from the Vietnamese, he has also banned them from writing.”
Arriving in Indiantown Gap, Giang and I found the fort to be nearly deserted, with soldiers visible at only one building. As we browsed the rows of empty two-storied barracks, Giang blurted, “I’m getting emotional, man. I was here 41 years ago, and so was my future wife.” They’re divorced.
Giang wore a T-shirt, “Someone in Pennsylvania Love Me.” He had had 50 custom-made, one for each state. Thirty of them are grammatical, but the rest are missing an “s.” The native-born printer screwed up. Whenever Giang crosses a new state, he has his picture taken below the welcome sign. Not just methodical, my friend is anal.
Right outside the fort was an old timey restaurant, Funck’s, so that’s where we went for breakfast. An electrical sign flashed a waving flag, then “GOD BLESS THE USA.” By the cash register, there was a carousel with laminated signs of patriotic, inspirational or loving messages for sale. The clientele were mostly wholesome-looking families or soldiers in desert cammies. Perusing the menu, I learnt that “Honkey Eggs” had green peppers, onions and home fries mixed with two eggs and toast ($6.99). I searched for scrapple, found it then declared to the cheerful waitress, “This guy is from California and he’s never tried scrapple!” A scrapple faithful, I proselytize it at every chance.
As we waited for our food, Giang went to a convenience store next door and, chatting away, met a woman in her 60’s who had worked at the fort in 1975. After they hugged and took a photo, Giang invited Brenda to join us for breakfast. Since she couldn’t leave her shift, Giang bought her a Funck’s gift card as a token of thanks “for helping the Vietnamese.”
Steelton is 25 miles from Fort Indiantown Gap. In 2013, I met a man there who had been a guard at the refugee camp, “People were saying shit like, ‘These people killed my brother, they killed my father, and now you’re bringing them here.’ I was right there, I saw it, but things have changed, you know. Now you have all these Vietnamese businesses around here, all these restaurants.” Jackson was a black Vietnam vet who had done two tours.
The complexity of the Vietnam War is embodied by Phan Thi KimPhuc. History knows her as a nine-year-old victim of a napalm strike. Since the weapon was American, and the pilot South Vietnamese, Kim Phuc became a perfect symbol to the Vietnamese Communists because she seemingly vindicated them. Studying medicine in Cuba, Kim Phuc married another Vietnamese student, and they were allowed to honeymoon in Moscow. During the trip back to Havana, the couple deplaned in New Foundland and asked Canada for political asylum. Here’s a clear victim of an American bomb rejecting Communism to live in the West. There is absolutely no contradiction except to those who see the world in the most simplistic terms. Raised in a Godless state, Kim Phuc is also a devout Christian.
During the last Democratic National Convention, I saw many Bernie Sanders fans march around with red flags. Carrying a red flag and pumping his fist, a young man stood precariously on top of a seven-foot-tall chess piece. He was a pawn on top of a pawn. It is remarkable that Communism is still hip despite decades of unprecedented barbarity, much cultural heritage destroyed and millions of innocents imprisoned or killed. Across the West, it is distasteful to bring up Communist crimes, yet those by Nazis are relentlessly amplified. Holocaust museums and memorials greatly outnumber those devoted to the horrors of a movement to which Jews have contributed so greatly.
The US allied itself with Stalin, then fought Communism. It propped up Saddam Hussein, then murdered him. After bombing Hanoi, it now sells weapons to the same regime. In front of a huge Ho Chi Minh bust, Bush, Clinton, and Obama beamed. Freedom fighters will be redefined as terrorists or vice versa. When it comes to geopolitics, there is no ideological consistency. Only war is constant, and the flow of refugees.
Debating, voting or protesting, we are no more in charge of our destinies than the South Vietnamese.