The Vietnam War: The Contrasting Politics of Representations & History

The most accessible narrative of the Vietnam War portrays the American solider heroically fighting the communist super powers of Northern Vietnam. These depictions are drawn predominantly from perspectives of American soldiers and circulate within American popular culture. The Vietnam War, which lasted from 1957 through 1975, followed the aftermath of World War II (Ferry 2). In this period, the French reestablished colonialism in southern Vietnam while communist leader Ho Chi Minh established the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) in the north (Ferry 2). Meanwhile 1960s McCarthy age of postwar America sustained a culture of conformity and anxiety towards communism in the United States. In this age of McCarthyism, the U.S. government deemed any act which challenged the preservation of American culture as untrustworthy or inherently communist. Fear in the spread of communism from Southeast Asia prompted U.S. military involvement (Ferry 3). Antiwar movements followed in the late 1960s when a recorded 500,000 plus American soldiers were documented fighting in Vietnam (Ferry 3).

Cartoonist Thi Bui’s graphic memoir The Best We Could Do (2017), is a 329 page graphic memoir which documents the detailed history of her family’s escape from Southern Vietnam in the 1970s to their new lives in America. Published by Abrams ComicArt in New York City, Bui narrates the text of the graphic memoir in a poetic fashion alongside engaging illustration. Bui titled the memoir The Best We Could Do, from her perspective as an aging mother and in recognition of the two paternal generations which the timeline of her memoir follows. The structure of the memoir begins from the birth of her first born son, backwards through memories of the war. These memories are shared through the eyes of her siblings being raised in the United States, temporarily displaced in a refugee camp off the shores of Pulau Besar, to Bui’s birthplace in Vietnam. In this timeless story of immigration and the Vietnamese diaspora, Thi Bui examines the importance of identity and the meaning of home.

On the theme of representation, NPR host Mallory Yu’s article “Cartoonist Thi Bui Weaves Together Personal and Political History” (2018) offers a biographical framework for examining how the personal, historical, and political amplify the significance in representation of various Vietnam War narratives. Yu’s report which was aired on All Things Considered offers insight into how Bui found closure in her traumatic past after realizing that she is not responsible for representing all Vietnamese diasporic voices of the war. Published by World Literature Today, scholar and professor Alison Mandaville offers a similar framework for examining the politics of representation within American popular culture in her review of “The Best We Could Do/Saigon Calling: London 1963-75” (2018). Mandaville offers the underrepresented narratives of Vietnamese Americans Thi Bui and Marcelino Truong, who share intimate family and political histories which contrast stereotypes of Vietnamese people illustrated in film, pop culture, and American scholarship. By acknowledging the difference between Bui and Truong’s stories, Mandaville demonstrates the politics behind the absence of contrasting representations of the Vietnam War.

In “Chapter 2: Refugees from War” of the book Vietnamese Immigration (2003), Joe Ferry provides a comprehensive political history of the Vietnam War starting at the end of World War II in the 1940s through the 1990s. In doing so, Ferry successfully outlines and draws connections between the politics of how dominant portrayals of the Vietnam war has potentially impacted U.S. immigration policy in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Ferry’s book was published by Mason Crest Publishers in 2003. Mandaville’s analysis of how Bui and Truong’s distinct and intimate narrations of the Vietnam war illuminates the erasure of Vietnamese diasporic voices and histories in mainstream media. Yu’s interview with Bui, which argues that a singular perspective can never accurately reveal the entire truth of the Vietnam War overlaps with Mandaville’s argument of representation politics. Both of these points inform Joe Ferry’s argument of how poor depictions of Vietnamese people in mass media predicted bias immigration policy of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Throughout her graphic memoir, Bui weaves U.S. anti-immigration rhetoric in scenes of tension to highlight the influence in which discriminatory language inhibits freedom of cultural expression and racial, ethnic, and minority acceptance in the United States. After hastily escaping Sai Gon in an evening on the March of 1987, Bui’s family meets a refugee boat docked in Can Tho. After landing on the shores of Pulau Besar, Bui’s family joins a refugee camp holding “hundreds of thousands…flooding into neighboring countries, seeking asylum” (283). Bui’s family waits in line for their name and picture identification to be registered into the refugee camp before Bui’s mother, who is pregnant, returns from the local Hospital Kuala Terengganu. Central to page 267, Bui inserts photocopied passport-sized images of herself and each of her family members holding plaques which function to generically identify her family among thousands of others by “name, boat number, date of birth, and date of access” (267). While Bui is depicted unintrigued, staring blankly beyond the focus of the camera, Bui’s father also appears unamused with a weathered look in his eyes. Bui’s mother is captured supporting the weight of the youngest of Bui’s sisters on her hip. Surrounding the four images, Bui illustrates rough, impersonal sketches of nineteen other Vietnamese refugees also holding their identity plaques which detail their significance. In cursive print, the center of page 267 reads “We were now BOAT PEOPLE-” with an undertone of defeat simultaneous with acceptance and solidarity (267). Although the text is presented in a style similar to a handwritten letter, the font is in fact computer generated. The personalized appearance of this text resembles traces of official documentation through Bui’s artistic choice to present the text deceivingly hand-written. Bui’s unclear presentation of how she wants this page to be observed is constructed intentionally to provoke the audience to inquire their understanding of what “boat people” connotes. Additionally, which context and sources have informed their preconceived notion of “boat people”.

Located in the bottom right corner of the page, is a textbox which reads “—five among hundreds of refugees flooding into neighboring countries seeking asylum.” (267). The sketches of these faces in the background of the text further suggest how policy and news coverage mutes these individual stories. The most easily accessible narratives of the Vietnam War often portray from the American perspective. These perspectives, which circulate within American popular culture insufficiently document the Vietnamese diaspora. Similarly to the discourse which supports anti-immigration policy, Bui argues even the resources of authority such as the news also part takes in minimizing detailed family histories into simple numbered statistics.

The intimate photographs of Bui’s family in contrast to the rough outlines of other underrepresented Vietnamese personal and political histories work to exemplify the subtle ways in which cultural outlets, such as the news, promote and sustain the dehumanization of immigrant and diasporic communities. In critique of the function of anti-immigration rhetoric, which is to dehumanize, Bui intentionally utilizes the common metaphor of refugees ‘flooding’ into the United States. Similar to the language surrounding disease control and epidemics, ‘flooding’ suggests threatening undertones of what can not be contained and is therefore negative or deviant. In the context of the Vietnamese refugee crisis, ‘flooding’ also works to create an effect of negating the human experience while emphasizing the animalistic. Finally, Bui purposefully juxtaposes the individual portraits of Bui and her family to a common example of anti-immigration terminology such as ‘flooding’ to reveal the ruthless way in which anti-immigration language disregards the countless, undocumented voices within Vietnamese diasporic communities. Through this work, Yu’s argument emphasizes the significance inherent within how representation is narrated. While she asserts that Bui’s voice should not forcefully bear the responsibility of retelling the entire Vietnamese diasporic narrative, the intimate photographs Bui shares at this point on her memoir validates the individual in each recount of their lived experience in the diaspora (2). The narration of Bui’s family properly exemplifies how the voices and lived experiences anyone within the diaspora should have been depicted.

Mandaville’s critique of the media’s role in supporting the erasure of the voices directly relates to Yu’s report, which criticizes the lack of recognition which mainstream American cultures gives to the muted voices of Vietnamese diasporic communities. Before beginning her talk at the San Diego Comic-Con convention, Bui shares with her audience that her narrative represents a singular representation of a national narrative which extends beyond herself (Yu 1-2). Until recognizing this truth, Bui was unable to begin the process towards reconciliation of her family’s traumatic past (2). Both of these scholars indirectly acknowledge the damaging ways in which media simplifies the histories surrounding the Vietnam war. Ferry’s critique in the lack of footage documenting the destruction of “once-lush green countryside” now damaged with “land mines; chemical sprays [which] stripped foliage and vegetation” diverges from the fabricated narrative of the American soldier sacrificing himself for the betterment of Vietnam’s deeply entrenched communist society (4). The enhanced representation of the heroic American soldier in the wake of the degradation of Vietnamese ecology validates Bui’s frustration with the political bias inherent within media representations.

Toward the end of her memoir, Bui introduces a painful memory exemplifying how anti-immigration rhetoric has effectively manifested within the Vietnamese diasporic communities into a dangerous competition of who can deviate farthest from their cultural baggage. Upon arrival into the United States, Bui’s family moves into a two bedroom house with her aunt, her husband, their five children and one dog in Hammond, Indiana. From an impressionable age, Bui sensed the societal pressure to assimilate into American culture. Bui’s older cousins, who “had been in America for three years already”, often scolded Bui for behaving like “such a REFUGEE!” when, for example, she ate cereal out of the box (285). In response, Bui blamed herself for “probably embarrassing” her cousins for their “fresh-off-the-boat appearance” (285). Bui illustrates this page into a set of two larger frames stacked on top of one another. The top half of the page distinctly separates into two smaller frames which portray, Bui and her siblings in contrast to her more experienced and assimilated “American” cousins. Bui and her siblings are illustrated barefoot, in simplistic clothing which does not serve beyond the functional use as a protective layer. In contrast, Bui portrays her older cousins, aunt, and uncle, standing confidently united in the aesthetic appearance of 1970s American fashion.

The metaphor of appearing “fresh-off-the-boat” threatens Bui’s cousin, who has already gauged the sacrifice she is expected to make in order to find comfort in the contrasting binds of American culture. Vietnamese people have historically named themselvesat people”. This title reclaims aspects of the shared refugees experience of escaping Vietnam in boats. The boats provided the Vietnamese refugees a means of survival and an opportunity for escape. Floating for weeks at a time in a wide expanse of ocean water, most families were split apart or never had the opportunity to reach land. Bui foreshadows themes of assimilation and the model minority in this scene when her cousin threatens her for her dress and mannerisms which don’t align with American culture. Boats which were once sought-after for protecting refugees, now represent a discarded narrative as an foreigner subject to alienation. Assimilation now dictates how Bui will craft a home for herself in the United States. Although the boat represents a concrete Vietnamese identity distinguished through war history, the drifting boat also connotes an emotional and physical sense of unidentifiable weightlessness. Despite actions of assimilation, the boat in “boat people” is symbolic of the American identity which Vietnamese refugees will never claim.

While the parallel alignment of these frames appear to highlight difference between Bui and her cousins, the arrangement also foreshadows the insecurity which Bui’s cousin feels towards her threatened “American” identity. After dismissing Bui, Bui’s cousin asks, “at least don’t eat like that in front of my house where everyone can see you!” (285). In this bottom frame, Bui’s cousin projects her insecurities onto Bui in the form of unwarranted aggression. The words of her cousin invoke the fragility in their identities as Vietnamese-American immigrants (285). Similar interactions at school inform self-consciousness in her identity. Bui’s cousin reveals the precarious nature of her American identity when she reprimands Bui for harmless mannerisms such as eating cereal out of the box.

In connection to the work of Bui’s memoir, Mandaville’s critique of the media’s role in supporting the erasure of the voices directly relates to Yu’s report, which criticizes the lack of recognition which mainstream American cultures gives to the muted voices of Vietnamese diasporic communities. Before beginning her talk at the San Diego Comic-Con convention, Bui shares with her audience that her narrative represents a singular representation of a national narrative which extends beyond herself (Yu 1-2). Until recognizing this truth, Bui was unable to begin the process towards reconciliation of her family’s traumatic past (2). Both of these scholars indirectly acknowledge the damaging ways in which media simplifies the histories surrounding the Vietnam war. Ferry’s critique in the lack of footage documenting the destruction of “once-lush green countryside” now damaged with “land mines; chemical sprays [which] stripped foliage and vegetation” diverges from the fabricated narrative of the American soldier sacrificing himself for the betterment of Vietnam’s deeply entrenched communist society (4). The enhanced representation of the heroic American soldier in the wake of the degradation of Vietnamese ecology validates Bui’s frustration with the political bias inherent within media representations.

In reflection of how poor depictions of Vietnamese people in mass media influenced bias immigration policy, Ferry demonstrates the influence of pop culture and wider socio-political movements on U.S. policy. He acknowledges President Lyndon Johnson’s conscious shift to “not seek re-election as president” in response to U.S. antiwar campaigns (3). Ferry’s critique of how poor documentation, or a lack thereof, overlaps with Yu’s critique of how an absence in representation obscures some parts of history while exaggerating others. In the latter half of chapter 2, Ferry recounts the suffering which refugees experienced through generations following the war (5-7). Although Ferry does not outright state how mass media has directly influenced the discriminatory immigration laws of the late 1970s and early 80s, he point out the revealing significance and politics of not documenting history of the “bombs [which] destroyed infrastructure that had delivered electricity, clean drinking water, and sanitary sewage disposal to the population” following the aftermath of the Vietnam war (4). Through this point, Ferry correlates how the removal or leaving out of certain histories reflects a stylized prejudice in documentation.

Through his book, Ferry’s analysis of documentation aligns with Mandaville and Yu’s arguments which highlight the politics and responsibility of representation. Through entertaining Bui’s personal inflictions and “academic grumpiness” toward deconstructing offensive and stereotypical cultural representations of Vietnamese people in graduate school at NYU, Yu discusses how Bui intentionally “weaves the personal, historical, and political” in form of a graphic memoir (4). Yu discusses how Bui consciously decided to promote her voice through the frame work of a graphic memoir, which is the most accessible to a wide audience. The singular narrative of the Vietnam War which the Vietnamese people are bound to by Hollywood blockbusters consistently document the Vietnamese in stigmatized representations. The demonization of the Vietnamese aligns symbolically to the negligence of their continued suffering following the aftermath of the war.

The context of Bui’s memoir in conjunction with the connections between Yu, Ferry, and Mandaville arguments advocate and pioneer for the significance and politics of representation within the sphere of multiculturalism. The connection between how Yu illustrates the specific biographical context of how the process of writing this novel while raising her child supported Bui’s reconciliation of her layered identity relationship with her parents, Ferry, outlines the objective political history of the Vietnam War in contrast to mainstream documentation, and Mandaville outlines major debates of how blind American patriotism sustains ignorant representation of non-American perspectives, provides access points of deeper analysis into the role and responsibility of media in representing history. Points of overlap between Yu and Ferry’s arguments have had the effect of further illustrate the extent to which mass media can impact culture and history. Drawing from the overlap in these three source, the essence of how, which, and what narratives are portrayed in the media carries importance. Mandaville’s point of distributing the knowledge of oral histories draws stronger ties of connection between Yu and Ferry’s argument which both indirectly highlight the importance of documenting history in accessible modes of communication. These congruent points of connection broaden the definition of “false representation” to include also a lack in representation. Additionally, on the point of representation, these sources raise the question of how will media continue to impact history moving forward. How will this influx in influence be monitored? Should it be monitored?

Work Cited

Bui, Thi. The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir. Abrams ComicArts, 2018.

Ferry, Joe. “Chapter 2: Refugees from War.” Vietnamese Immigration, Mason Crest Publishers,   2003, pp. 8-14.

Mandaville, Alison. “The Best We Could Do/Saigon Calling: London 1963-75.” Review of The Best We Could Do, by Thi Bui. World Literature Today, March-April 2018.

Yu, Mallory. “Cartoonist Thi Bui Weaves Together Personal and Political History.” All Things    Considered from NPR, 1 August 2018,             http://www.npr.org/2018/08/01/634606313/cartoonist-thi-bui-weaves-together-personal-  and-political-history

 

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