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Discovering Joy After My Family’s Traumas During the Vietnam War

9 minute read
Hoang, the daughter of Vietnamese refugees, grew up in Orange County, Calif.—not the wealthy part. She worked for MGM Studios and later, as a docu-series producer. Now she writes novels, blogs full time, and is the author of My Father, The Panda Killer

As a second-generation Vietnamese American I spent much of my youth railing against my heritage. The reasons were as simple as being a normal rebellious teenager, and as complex as not understanding how PTSD could be a catalyst for generational trauma. As an adult I’ve worked hard to appreciate where I come from, but earlier in 2023 at an online Áccented event hosted by the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network (DVAN), I found myself, once again, at odds with my community.

In the chatroom, a flurry of discussions about the Vietnamese diaspora chased each other up my screen when a thumbnail caught my eye. In the photo, a smiling Vietnamese girl posed with the “peace” sign. Her purple pigtails danced in the static picture, and beside her face was the question: “When can we talk about Viet Joy?” She was tired of Vietnamese people being synonymous with the Vietnam War. Claps and raised hands emojis celebrated the comment. I waited for someone to interject, or merely even say, it’s not that simple. When no one did, I exited the conversation. Alone, I fumed.

What is so wrong about wanting joy? I’ll get to that, but first we need to rewind a few years. Okay, a lot of years—to 1994 when I was nine.

A keychain with white block letters swung from the zipper of my green JanSport backpack. The letters spelled my name, "J-A-M-I-E," and there was a dolphin at the bottom. I’d just finished the first day of fourth grade. Fresh off a move from Tustin to Orange, California, I was new at this school. Walking toward my cousins’ carpool, I stared at my feet partly because eye contact made me queasy but also because of my tendency to trip over air.

“I like your keychain. Dolphins are my favorite animal, too,” a voice said. I looked up into the piercing blue eyes of a girl with blonde hair and beautiful tan highlights in her Goldilocks curls. 

“I like your name,” I said. While I was typically bad at remembering names, I knew hers for two reasons: One, because it was embroidered across her plush purple backpack and, two because we had the same name spelled slightly differently: "Jamie" and "Jaime." But a difference in spelling was hardly a reason not to be friends. Our obvious commonalities had BFF written all over us. When she told me she swam with dolphins over the summer, I immediately thought of matching “Best” and “Friend” lockets.

“Wanna eat together at lunch tomorrow?” I asked.

“I can’t.” The words burned in my ears. Experience told me I should know better, but I was desperate for a companion. I wanted to say something that would change her mind, but before I had a chance, she added, “My mom would kill me if she knew we were friends. She hates your kind.” I smiled—a nervous reflex—and we parted ways. I’d always known the Vietnam War was unpopular in America, I’d just never had it said directly to my face.

There were many other instances like this in my formative years, but for the sake of this story, let’s call this the beginning. This moment marked the start of an intense desire to shift away from all things Vietnamese. If Jaime’s mom, sitting behind the steering wheel of her brown minivan more than 100 yards away, could tell that something was wrong with “my kind,” my deficiencies must have been pretty obvious. 

Fast forward to 1995, when my family visited Vietnam for the first time since my parents fled as refugees. I was 10 years old, wearing butterfly shorts and a white T-shirt. I followed behind my mom and older sister in a crowded outdoor market. We’d been in the country less than 48 hours, and I’d already heard (from strangers, mind you) that I was “the ugly sister,” “fat,” “round,” “chubby,” and had a “face that is easy to hate.” Apparently, that last one was a compliment—similar to “Her cheeks are so cute I just want to pinch them,” but I didn’t see how the two were comparable. “If you can’t see, it’s because your eyes are broken,” my mother told me.

Four years later, on February 26, 1999, Vietnamese protesters headlined the news throughout the U.S. A video store owner in Westminster, Calif. put up a picture of Ho Chi Minh alongside the Communist Vietnamese flag. Tensions were high, the posters people carried were chilling, and I felt a shame and sadness I couldn’t yet explain. I was not a refugee, but it bothered me to know that this was the country my parents grew up in. This Vietnam I saw in the posters was my mom and dad’s beloved homeland—my ancestral culture. And it was broken.

The year of the protests marked a turning point in my narrow-minded perspective. I tiptoed into my family’s history collecting only a few stories because no one wanted to discuss the past. But one memory, in particular, laid heavy on my chest. My grandmother, Mẹ, lost her husband in her late 30s. With six kids to feed and bombs dropping from the sky as frequently as rain, she dug a ditch deep enough for her youngest three (two were under the age of 5, and one was my mother) to fit, covered the hole with boards, and left them there while she walked the streets selling her goods. At four ft., eight in. tall, Mẹ was a warrior.

Read More: 50 Years After 1968, We Are Still Living In Its Shadow

Then in 2017, my uncle, whose PTSD mirrored my dad’s but couldn’t be hidden, passed away. His death took with it answers to questions my generation never figured out how to ask. As his body was laid to rest, I wondered if he ever found joy after the war. I’ll never know. Without a record, death erases history.

All my life I’ve struggled with what it means to be Vietnamese American. But I took my friends to try phở when it became trendy. Occasionally, I pronounced the name like I didn’t speak Vietnamese, like I hadn’t eaten this dish my entire life. I put on an “aó dài” for my wedding. And I unraveled my thoughts into a young adult book about intergenerational trauma as witnessed through my own “broken” eyes.

By the time I logged into the DVAN event, I had spent more than two decades unpacking personal trauma while building an emotionally empathic bridge toward my parents, my grandparents, my great-grandparents, and my Vietnam. The wooden slats connecting one step to next were arduous to build and left calluses that eventually healed into scars. Joy was not part of this journey. Guilt, shame, fury, regret, comprehension, and appreciation, yes. But not joy.

Because of this, my purple-haired nemesis’ comment felt like a personal affront. It read to me as, "Why don’t you just get over it?" Angry and hurt, I ruminated on this term, "Viet Joy." When no answers emerged I did the only thing that seemed productive: I researched. Moving from one webpage to the next, I scoured the internet for examples. There are none. Viet Joy is not yet a concept in motion. Vindication should have tasted sweet; instead, my mouth was sour. The catalyst for my rage against Viet Joy suddenly looked a lot like jealousy.

Changing my approach, I considered where the term came from. Viet Joy is an iteration of Black Joy. I first learned about Black Joy from bookstagrammers who posted stacks of books written by African Americans which did not center on Black trauma. The Smithsonian defines Black Joy as “an effective tool that has allowed individuals and groups to shift the impact of negative narratives and events in their favor.” I love this term, and the hashtag led me to some of my favorite books, like Slay by Brittney Morris and Legendborn by Tracy Deonn.

As my mind initiated a shift, Viet Joy lingered at the edge of all my thoughts. The artistry manifested through Black Joy was inspiring, and the opportunity to create a space within my own head, controlled by my own thoughts, where I might love who I was, was a powerful draw. “Who could I be if I learned to like myself?” I wondered.

I read on. I learned that Black Joy is an affirmation that gives ownership of joy back to the person, how it is a form of resistance, and how it is not about forgetting.

The #BlackJoy hashtag led me to The Black Joy Project. Created by Kleaver Cruz, the Instagram page is filled with hundreds of posts where individuals defined Black Joy. The unifying thread that connects Black Joy is not made up of a single idea that all Black people believe. Black Joy is first a collective support for the “each” while knowing that what follows is the “and every.” It was here that I discovered that Viet Joy didn’t need to be singularly defined. Its meaning can change with each person. And each and every definition is valid.

My error in judgment now glared at me. “Each and every definition is valid.” She was not the problem. I was. I could not accept her idea of Viet Joy because the ease with which she embodied the concept felt unearned. Why? Because if two paths exist and they both lead to the same destination, but one lets a person skip along while the other demands they crawl on their hands and knees across shards of broken glass, I would choose the latter option. The hardships my parents experienced after the war conditioned them to believe that the easier path was a trap. This was what they taught me and, therefore, what I expected of this purple-haired girl.

But this is how the cycle of generational trauma continues. Suffering begets suffering. My parents suffered, then passed their suffering along to me, and I suffered, so now I want this stranger to suffer, as well. Except I don’t want to perpetuate the cycle. If I can, I’d like to break it.

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