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new internationalist
issue 248 - October 1993

A future from the past
Changes in Vietnam made it possible for a young refugee to return to the scene
of her childhood. Liêu Truong reflects on the experience
and the future – her country’s and her own.

A future from the past Fourteen years ago my family left Vietnam in secrecy. We dared not tell even our closest relatives. Escape in those uncertain days was the only option left open for some people and it meant one of two things – freedom or death.

When I left I had to forget my country in order to survive. But in 1989 the Government’s Doi Moi (‘renovation’) policy made a return journey possible. Why did I need to go back to a country I had left in secrecy and with fear? I wanted to find an answer to this question, to rediscover my roots, my forgotten background and my country.

As I left the airport and entered Saigon my anticipation turned to shock. Less than 24 hours before I had been in a country which has everything. Now I found myself in the midst of poverty and chaos. ‘Is this what I came for?’ was my first reaction. Contrary to the images I have seen while living outside Vietnam, Saigon is small and dark, the streets and roads dirty, the atmosphere polluted and smelly. Houses and shops are built in a chaotic way. It was like stepping into an unkempt backyard. I was ashamed to have such thoughts, desperate to cling to something familiar, to reassure myself that this was indeed my country.

I had been looking forward to walking down the familiar streets of Quy Nhon, the routes I took to school 14 years ago. Nothing had forewarned me of the drastic changes to my small town. The park, cinema, school, library; the ice-cream parlour and the pagodas; the railway tracks and the big market where once I played as a child, were no longer the same. Gone were the long, thin neon lights in pink, yellow, blue and white; gone the jostle and the crowded tables. In their place dull lights, Russian- and Chinese-style posters advertising supposedly sumptuous ice-cream.

In my heart I began to wonder what would have happened to me if I had never left. Would I have had an education? Would I have had a family by now? Would my life have been different from all the other young women living in Vietnam?

By chance one of my best schoolfriends recognized me in a bank one sunny morning. We arranged a class reunion, where we talked about how our adult lives had begun and – this was very special to me – about their hopes for the future in a peaceful, liberated and changing Vietnam. Their lives had been very different from mine. It was hard for me to relate to my past, looking through the eyes of the 12-year-old girl I had been when I last saw them at this circle of friends with changed personalities and circumstances.

All the boys had been through compulsory army training and served for three years in Cambodia, on the Vietnam/China border or at home. Some regions made military service compulsory for girls too. One bright, moonlit night Châu - who had been our school class captain - cried out in a sudden outburst of joy: ‘Five years ago I would not have been allowed to enjoy myself as I have tonight. I would have been patrolling the streets with a loaded gun on my shoulder.’ But the lucky ones – those who did not have to go to Cambodia or to the border with China – seemed mostly to have enjoyed their time in the army. They learnt songs of freedom, love and courage and treasured these moments of youth.

Most of the girls in my class got married and started families in their early twenties. Huê, one of my closest friends, became a tough, independent businesswoman, buying and selling scrap metal. She married before the others and now has a child aged seven. Thanh-Vân’s family became well-off under American-style capitalism during the War. With her dowry she started a tailoring business. Her business, like others throughout Vietnam, is flourishing under the Doi Moi policy. Others – Loan, Tâm, Hanh – saw getting married as the only option and now run their family businesses; education for them finished at the twelfth grade.

Students whose families had been involved in some way with the enemy (America) were discriminated against by the Communist education system between 1975 and 1985; so were students whose relatives left Vietnam illegally. They were not allowed to enter university unless they denounced their families and showed their intention to become good citizens. But Hoà, whose father is a member of the Communist Party, sailed through university and has been working for three years in a state-owned bank.

I asked my friends how they felt about my returning. Many of them regarded me with suspicion. As a Viet Kieu – a Vietnamese person living abroad – I had already felt a general air of resentment among those who had struggled through the hard times in Vietnam. They have good reason for feelings against Viet Kieus who come back flaunting their new-found prosperity. Many of those who failed to escape grieve at their missed opportunities.

But these same people now believe they have an image of Vietnam’s future. I sometimes feel a sense of loss for my teenage years spent away from home. Now I see my friends with new hopes and desires and I feel the need to return. This is a crucial time for my generation, growing up without war – a crucial time in my country’s history. I came home in search of a past. Instead I discovered a future.

Liêu Truong currently lives in Cambridge, UK, and is a development worker with the Vietnamese Refugee Community.

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