Thursday, June 18, 2015

Vietnamerica: A Family's Journey

Vietnamerica: A Family's JourneyVietnamerica: A Family's Journey by G.B. Tran
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I connected with Vietnamerica on a couple of levels, emotionally.

First, my earliest recall-able memories are from my time spent as a child in the Philippines, at Clark Air Force Base, 1973-75. Take a careful look at those years - yep, I was there when South Vietnam fell to the Vietminh. I clearly remember driving past the flight-line to go with my mother to the commissary for groceries and seeing a pair of Chinooks landing. One sported a big white square with a red cross emblazoned on it. I saw the troops getting off of the helicopter - some of their faces were covered with bandages, others were being carried on stretchers, several used crutches. I asked Mom what was wrong with these men. All I remember of her reply was something like "they're hurt, honey. They're going home." It wasn't long before we watched on TV as overloaded helicopters dropped civilians off onto U.S. ships before ditching in the ocean because there was no room to land on the ships anymore. Of course, it was all very exciting - I was five years old at the time and didn't really have a clue what was going on.

Second, as a graduate student, I had the good fortune of being a teaching assistant for Dr. Al McCoy, Professor of Southeast Asian History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (Go Badgers!). I taught about 120 students in breakout sessions that were, students told me, the funnest part of the class. We had a great time with discussions that would probably be illegal post-911, like the exercise where I "armed" the students with 5; 500 lb HE bombs and a Piper Cub and had them plan how they would bring the city of Madison to its knees with only those five bombs. Yeah, I'd probably get arrested for teaching that now.

I'll be honest - my background in Southeast Asian history was extremely limited and my background in U.S. history was close to nil. But I did have a very good grasp on guerrilla warfare, insurgency, and counter-insurgency, especially in Africa (my MA was in African History), and a good grasp on the rise of nascent nationalism in the colonial state, so I got the gig with Al. I remember late nights furiously reading ahead of the students, brushing up on my own country's history, which I probably should have already known. Hey, it worked out okay.

But that lack of knowledge on US history was a bit of a shame to me. It still is, really. I had to work diligently to catch up and pass my students enough to be prepared for their inevitable questions. Thankfully Doctor McCoy was an excellent lecturer, possibly one of the best I've ever heard, and he did an outstanding job of covering those sections. He was always very understanding when I would come to him with dumb questions about U.S. history. In exchange, I supplied him with plenty of banter about our sometimes conflicting theories on insurgency and counter-insurgency, as well as a few shared anecdotes about the FBI, CIA (his realms of expertise) and the OSI (mine - but that's a story I can't tell you). All-in-all, it was wonderful.

That lack of knowledge of one's own history provides the driving force behind Vietnamerica, which is really a sort of confessional on the part of G.B. Tran. His parents - father and stepmother, actually, but that is an entire story within the story - fled Vietnam when Saigon fell, and he was born after they arrived in the U.S. When his grandfather and grandmother pass away, he reluctantly goes back to Vietnam with his parents, who haven't been there for 30 years.

This, I can relate to, in some smaller degree. As a military brat, I only saw my grandparents every couple of years or so. I never really knew my maternal grandfather as I would have liked, and only got to know my maternal grandmother when we lived with her for a year in 1979, when my dad was in cross-training and we couldn't live where he was at the time (though I suspect that Mom and Dad needed some time away from each other and were frankly in more debt than they cared to admit, so Mom and my brother and I stayed with Grandma - then again, I could just be inadvertently spreading false rumors). My paternal grandparents I got to know only when I moved out of my parents' place, while we were in England, and moved to Wyoming to live with them for a few months (an even longer story - you might read about it before I die, or not . . .).

Where I did not connect with Tran was with his resistance to wanting to go to Vietnam to connect with relatives he had never met. I've always been fiercely loyal about family, quirks, problems, dark closets, and all. I am very proud of my family name and my ancestry. People ask where "Aguirre" comes from and I have to respond "It's Basque". Some people have asked "You mean Spanish?". "No, I mean Basque. You never called Grandpa Spanish. He'd blow up your post office and police station if you did!" Then there's the inevitable "Do you speak Spanish?" No. I speak English, some German, and some Swahili. No Spanish. "Well you don't look Spanish." "That's because my dad was adopted." "That's sweet." "No, not really. Dad and my aunt, his twin, were both beaten black and blue and left for dead on the side of a highway in Wyoming by my biological Grandmother and her then boyfriend. Her husband was in prison at the time. My grandparents - MY Grandparents - picked my Dad and aunt up from the side of the road and took them into the police. Two weeks later, the state called them and explained that no one had claimed them and asked if they would like to adopt the twins. Grandma and Grandpa had been trying, unsuccessfully, to have children since their only child had died as an infant. So they adopted my father and my aunt. So, no it didn't start out sweet, but I guess it ended up that way."

These experiences of mine are what was evoked as I read Vietnamerica. It hit me on a deeply personal level. It will likely not have the same effect on you, though it might. If it does, I empathize, and I'm a touch sorry.

From a purely critical viewpoint, the book is a little emotionally distant, mainly because Tran himself is trying to put his parents' and his family's story at the forefront, rather than his own. It's a little difficult to connect with the author, to be honest, though he portrays his family history with honesty and sympathy. I just couldn't get into Tran's own head.

The artwork is merely good, but the cinematic structuring of the narrative is nearly perfect. Tran is a wonderful composer of the comic medium. The man should be writing storyboards for movies, then turning them into animated films. I bet he'd be fantastic at it.

The story of the structure itself is a little choppy and it's difficult to follow, at times. Be sure to refer to the illustrated family tree that Tran provides - it's a lifesaver when you're feeling a bit lost.

And we all need a lifesaver, from time to time. Or several live's savers. So many stories. So many lives. So many saviors. It's really a wonder that any of us are alive to tell our tales at all. It really is.

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