My Vietnam, Your Vietnam: A Father Flees. A Daughter Returns.

  • By Christina Vo and Nghia M. Vo
  • Three Rooms Press
  • 316 pp.

A family seeks to make sense of its complicated past.

My Vietnam, Your Vietnam: A Father Flees. A Daughter Returns.

“Gia đình tôi là sức mạnh và cũng là điểm yếu của tôi.”
“My family is my strength and my weakness.”

While many of us can relate to this Vietnamese saying, different cultures have varying filial norms — felt, not necessarily articulated, more implicit than explicit. This bifurcation is particularly impactful in a cross-cultural context. Indeed, bifurcation is a constant theme in the dual memoir My Vietnam, Your Vietnam by Christina Vo and Nghia M. Vo.

Christina is a Việt Kiều — a Vietnamese American born and raised in the U.S. Her father, Nghia, is a physician who fled his beloved South Vietnam after the North Vietnamese takeover in 1975. His story — told here via excerpts from his 2000 memoir, The Pink Lotus — is not only about escape and patriation to America but also about extraordinary grief, the loss of home, and decades of mutilating war. Taken together, the authors’ reflections offer a poignant if incomplete journey through a rich, complex past and toward a tenuous dénouement between father and daughter.

The book resonates with dualities that permeate the writers’ respective histories and lived experiences. These include the contrasts between North and South Vietnam; Buddhism and Catholicism; family allegiance and individualism; and South Vietnam and America. Nghia writes in an evocative way about this dichotomy:

“During the day I prayed to Jesus and the Virgin Mary at the sisters’ school, but at night I donned a brown robe to say prayers to Buddha.”

The divisions are not neat and clean; each vibrates with tension and conflict, none more palpably than the gulf between father and daughter. The emotional estrangement between the immigrant parent and his American child drives both narratives. Stitching the trauma of Nghia’s generational losses to Christina’s more immediate familial ones leads not so much to a reconciliation as to a deepening mutual understanding.

“To know our past helps shape who we are,” writes Nghia. But for him, the loss of his motherland “was a deep division that remained within for my entire life.” His narrative details the texture of his past: his childhood spent with his grandmother; his medical training; his love of Saigon; the horrors of the Vietnam War; his two-month-long escape from Phú Quốc Island to Harrisburg, PA; his work as a doctor in the United States; and the death of his wife, Christina’s mother. Despite chronicling his many accomplishments, Nghia acknowledges the undercurrent of suffering.

“The suddenness of the disconnection [from Vietnam] stunned me,” he admits. “I could create another home in a different country, but there could only ever be one homeland.”

Christina’s story is far more concrete. Consumed with forging an identity as a second-generation American, she searches for stability and balance. Initially, she writes, “I wanted to hide anything that identified me as being Vietnamese.” But after college, irresistibly driven to explore her roots, she journeys to Vietnam:

“I went to Việt Nam to find and understand the meaning of family. I was still too steeped in American individuality to fully embrace the Vietnamese family.”

On some level, she begins to “recognize that the father I was searching for would be found in my immersion in Việt Nam.” As she learns more about him and begins to tease apart their lack of attachment, she comes to comprehend this complicated figure who she always thought of “as the man who didn’t speak…All my life, I tip-toed around him…If I loved something, I wanted to share it. He kept his love to himself.”

Love, in fact, is mentioned very few times in the book; neither Christina nor Nghia delves deeply into the affection they must surely feel. Visiting her father in Virginia, she writes, “He asked nothing of me, and I asked nothing of him.” In his house, she accepts his silence, they email each other to communicate, and “he sits upstairs and writes about his Việt Nam, and I sit downstairs to write about mine.” Nghia’s and Christina’s Vietnams are different, but in their intertwining, an evocative story emerges about what could have been — and might still be — for a father and daughter caught between cultures.

Russell J. MacMullan Jr. is a former English teacher and head of several independent schools. He has written extensively to school communities on educational issues.

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