There is a current art exhibit in Washington, D.C., that I am hoping to see -- “Artists Respond: American Art and the Vietnam War, 1965-1975,” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Holland Cotter in The New York Times calls it “protest art” from the American point of view.
But the “second, smaller” part of the show I most want to see is “Tiffany Chung: Vietnam, Past Is Prologue,” a view of the Vietnam War era through Vietnamese eyes – “far more than a mere add-on,” as Cotter put it.
The Vietnamese people experienced that war – in some ways 180 degrees differently -- but it is safe to say all suffered.
In 1991 I visited “post-war” Vietnam with a small group involved in child care. My wife was doing vital volunteer work by frequently visiting India but she also visited Thailand and the Philippines. I joined her on the trip to Vietnam to deliver goods to a hospital and visit facilities in both “North” and “South” Vietnam.
I was most definitely not there to work or act like a journalist, but I could not help looking and listening to how “The American War” had impacted Vietnamese lives.
Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City: We met a doctor doing complicated surgery. He let us gown up and observe a complicated facial procedure done by a visiting American doctor, the mutual language in the operating room being French.
We got to spend enough time with the doctor to learn he had been on the “wrong” side when the North took over, and was sent to a camp deep in the countryside. I gathered that his family had assets, and he had a great reputation, and he was released from the camp and allowed to resume his profession, refreshing his skills at major hospitals in Asia. He was an asset.
In a relaxed social setting, the conversation got around to how he was able to put the war behind him, to function, to move on. I totally paraphrase his answer; it has been a long time, after all. He said you cannot live in the past, you have to get back to “normal” as smoothly and quickly as possible.
When I (subtly, I hope) asked about the lost years in the camps, he showed no bitterness. He was still a surgeon, putting people back together again. Life went on.
Hanoi Region. We worked our way up north (baguettes and coffee on the beach; ancient ethnic villages; a growing crafts shop outside Da Nang) and we flew to Hanoi. On a chilly day, we took a jitney out to visit a rural orphanage. Our interpreter was a woman around 30 who worked in the sciences and was fluent in English. I happened to sit next to her.
Far into the countryside, I noticed circular ponds scattered on the flat land. I asked the interpreter what the waterholes were for – fishing? rice? source of irrigation?
Actually, she said, with no trace of emotion or agenda, they were holes left over from bombs. She did not mention Richard Nixon or Henry Kissinger or the “Christmas bombing” of Hanoi and Haiphong in late December of 1972.
She remembered, she said casually, living at a school, and hearing the bombs, and later discovering children her age had been killed or injured. I did not ask any other questions.
The orphanage was shabby, but the workers were doing the best they could. They let us hold children as we walked around. They had a handle on each child, would not release children for adoption if relatives claimed them. We were bringing some aid, and people were courteous.
A young worker pointed at my ball cap, from the 1990 World Cup, and he said, “Maradona,” and I gave him the cap. And then we flew on.
Now I read about the show at the Smithsonian about the remaining terrible divisions in the United States over the Vietnam War. I hope to see that show, as well as its companion piece about Vietnamese reaction to the American War – “more than an add-on,” indeed.
Tiffany Chung: Vietnam, Past Is Prologue:
My past articles about John McCain, American hero, and Vietnam:
My article about the excellent crafts shop outside Da Nang:
"Among the things that have long fascinated people about Jesus and explain his enduring appeal is his method of dialogue and teaching. "He asked a lot of questions and told a lot of stories in the form of parables. In fact, parables form about a third of Jesus’ recorded teachings. The Gospels were written decades after he died, so his questions and parables clearly left a deep impression on those who bore testimony to him....
"Some of Jesus’ questions were rhetorical; others were meant to challenge or even provoke. In some cases, Jesus used questions to parry attacks by religious authorities who set traps for him. In others, he used questions to enter more fully into the lives of others and to help people look at the state of their hearts. He asked people about their fears and their faith. Jesus used questions to free a woman caught in adultery from condemnation and to inquire whether people considered him to be the Messiah. He probed deeply into questions not many had asked before him, like “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
---(Peter Wehner, long-time White House consultant and writer, in the NYT last week about Jesus Christ’s method of teaching by asking questions.)
"Would that I could mention all the illuminating details in this biography, for example, why Wells praised Black Americans so highly, saying, 'I took a mighty liking to these gentle, human, dark-skinned people,' and 'Whatever America has to show in heroic living today, I doubt if she can show anything finer than the quality of the resolve, the steadfast efforts hundreds of black and colored men are making today to live blamelessly, honorably and patiently, getting by themselves what scraps of refinement, beauty and learning they may, keeping their hold on a civilization they are grudged and denied.''
-- "How H.G. Wells Predicted the 20th Century," Charles Johnson, NYT Book Review, Nov. 19, 2021. ***".
...the monsters arrive."
"They come in a deafening, surging swarm, blasting from lawn to lawn and filling the air with the stench of gasoline and death. I would call them mechanical locusts, descending upon every patch of gold in the neighborhood the way the grasshoppers of old would arrive, in numbers so great they darkened the sky, to lay bare a cornfield in minutes. But that comparison is unfair to locusts.
"Grasshoppers belong here. Gasoline-powered leaf blowers are invaders, the most maddening of all the maddening, environment-destroying tools of the American lawn-care industry."
---The great Margaret Renkl, from Nashville, one of my favorite NYT bylines, Oct. 26, 2021.
(She describes our Long Island enclave to every decibel, every stink.)