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and Community

Hue-Tam Ho Tai

Maurice Halbwachs observed that memory is not the product of individuals acting in isolation but is socially constructed.[1] As John Gillis and others have proposed, commemoration and the politics of national identity are closely linked;[2] so are memory and community. If a community creates and sustains memory, the reverse is also true: memory creates and sustains the community. The creation of a common past is a means of defining what and who belong, and what and who deserve to be consigned to oblivion. Battles over memory are thus battles over how to draw the contours of community, who is to be included, and who is to be excluded from the community thus defined. This theme runs through, or is implied in, the chapters here by Zinoman, Giebel, Malarney, and Bradley.

As a southerner with my own ambivalent feelings about the recent past, I must therefore point out a significant lack in the present volume: the lack of a perspective from those who, during the war officially known as the War Against the Americans, fought alongside those Americans, or at least did not consider them enemies. The dead of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) do not figure in the state's commemorative project so eloquently described by Malarney and captured in film in When the Tenth Month Comes. ARVN veterans and their families are not entitled to any of the privileges accorded to northern veterans or survivors of revolutionary martyrs. This is not an unusual postscript to conflict. As Milan Kundera wrote of another set of

victors, “They wanted to erase hundreds of thousands of lives from human memory and leave nothing but a single unblemished age of unblemished idyll.”[3] To be truly comprehensive, a task beyond the capabilities of a single volume, the study of commemoration would need to include the dead of the South. To do otherwise risks turning them into the scholarly equivalents of the wandering ghosts of those who, dying unmourned, constantly haunt the living in an attempt to force their way into the consciousness of the community, to be acknowledged as worthy of being remembered if only because they once walked the earth.

It would also need to include the living, especially those who now live beyond the national boundaries. Diaspora and transnationalism have exploded the boundaries of identity and community. Besides local divergences from the national commemorative script alluded to by Malarney, Giebel, and Bradley, Kennedy and Williams and I point out as well the role of foreign visitors in shaping the representation of the past. Even more interesting, however, is the role of Vietnamese exiles. Those who left their homeland after the fall of Saigon (renamed Ho Chi Minh City) have created different communities of memory. April 30, 1975, the day when the Communist forces entered Saigon, is officially called Reunification Day and is one of two state celebrations. The other, Independence Day, celebrates the occasion on which Ho Chi Minh declared independence on September 2, 1945, in Hanoi's Ba Dinh Square. But while Vietnamese at home and abroad can take pride in independence, most expatriates ignore that date altogether. Their commemorative energies are concentrated on April 30, which they call National Day of Shame (Ngay Quoc Han). They mark it with their own set of commemorative practices that signify rupture rather than unity, sorrow rather than joy. This duality of commemoration is, of course, not a unique phenomenon. Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Straits celebrate independence on different days.[4]

Filled with the anguish of the recent exile from a country where a totalitarian state was still in firm control, Kundera wrote: “The people who have emigrated (there are one hundred and twenty of them) and the people who have been silenced and removed from their jobs (there are half a million of them) are fading like a procession moving off into the mist. They are invisible and forgotten.”[5] But his fear has not been realized, either among his compatriots or among the Vietnamese. The exiled Vietnamese poet Du Tu Le wrote:

Since time began, when people leave
each leaving represents a truth.

There can be no tomorrow if
they cower and submit.[6]

Exiles provide, mostly from afar, a truly contrapuntal voice to the official discourse, a voice that cannot be ignored entirely because modern communications make it so easily accessible to domestic audiences.

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there,”[7] wrote L. P. Hartley. For exiles, however, the past is a familiar place and a familiar time; it is the present that is strange. Where they reside does not quite feel like home, but their homeland is now out of bounds. What happens when their own narratives of the past and those circulating in the homeland collide, or when their memories are set side by side with present realities is worth further analysis. As occasional returnees, they come back neither as detached tourists for whom the past has been turned into a marketable commodity nor as American veterans trying to come to terms with their own personal histories by finding out what Vietnam has become since the end of war, nor yet as worshipful pilgrims at sites of memory constructed by the state. The proliferation of ancestral halls and other structures of commemoration refurbished or newly built with the help of overseas remittances attests to their active role in the reconstruction of the past as well as the economy. They are visitors from another place and time. If they come back to Vietnam as the visible symbols of past national trauma, they are also emissaries of a future still waiting to be born, the future that is supposed to replace the Communist utopia of yore. They open windows through which young Vietnamese, like the heroine of Paradise of the Blind, can glimpse different worlds and imagine different futures. They are the ones who pass through the airports and sit in the university auditoriums which form the objects of her longings.

And so, while the essays in this volume have focused on the construction of memory within Vietnam, there remains a need to redefine the meaning of community and expand the geography of memory.


1. Maurice Halbwachs, Les Cadres sociaux de la me´moire (Paris: Mouton, 1976). [BACK]

2. John Gillis, ed., Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton, University Press, 1994). [BACK]

3. Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (New York: Knopf, 1981), 24 [BACK]


4. I am grateful to Jeffrey Wasserstrom for reminding me of this parallel with the Vietnamese situation. [BACK]

5. Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, 23 [BACK]

6. Du Tu Le, “The Dawn of a New Humankind,” in An Anthology of Vietnamese Poems from the Eleventh through the Twentieth Centuries, ed. and trans. Huynh Sanh Thong (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996). [BACK]

7. L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1978), 9. [BACK]

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