It was noteworthy, I thought, that those who had opened this path through the minefield of reconciliation were the younger Viet Kieu—the first generation of thoroughly Westernized Vietnamese. The product of two worlds, most spoke English as a first language, hadn’t seen a rice paddy since childhood, and probably knew more about the history of the United States or Australia than of Vietnam. They were, initially, strangers in their parents’ land. In the end, they became a bridge in helping the United States and Vietnam overcome the animosities of a devastating war.
“To be honest, I felt a lot of apprehension coming back,” said David Thai, a twenty-five-year-old Californian who at six-foot-one towered over every native Vietnamese. “I expected to see a lot of guns and cops. I didn’t know how people would react to me. I mean, I grew up with so many conceptions of Vietnam, of communism, of the war. But they were my parents’ conceptions, not mine, because we left when I was two.”
Many parents of Viet Kieu were aghast at their children’s decision to return. The parents had risked their lives to escape communism. Some¬times it took them ten or twelve attempts to get out. When their plans were foiled by police, they went to prison. When they did manage to scramble onto an overcrowded fishing boat, they had to give the captain the gold and money they had brought to start a new life. Thailand and Hong Kong lay two weeks away, through seas roiled by killer storms and patrolled by savage Thai pirates. Thousands died. And now the survivors’ children wanted to return voluntarily? The young Viet Kieu who had set¬tled into Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City—temporarily, if not for a life¬time—would write home and try to explain that the communism the government practiced was mellower and more flexible than the system from which their parents fled. They would say that the disastrous policies of the 1970s and 1980s had been reversed, that the government was stable, and that dreams of a reborn South Vietnam were gone forever. Their message did not always span the generation gap.
“I tell my family how taken I am with Vietnam and its culture,” one re¬turnee said, “and someone always says, ‘Ah, so you’ve fallen in love with communism.’” Another told me he sent his younger brother in California a T-shirt imprinted with the Vietnamese flag—a flag that in his father’s time had flown over only North Vietnam. The boy wore it to dinner and was sent away from the table with his father’s warning: “Don’t ever show that flag in this house again!”
I never could distinguish a Viet Kieu from any other Vietnamese. But native Vietnamese could in a snap. Viet Kieu were apt to speak Viet¬namese with a Southern accent. In fact, if they had left as children, they might not even speak the language fluently. Viet Kieu males were taller and heavier as a result of not being raised on a rice diet. They were more comfortable using a knife and fork than chopsticks, and sometimes they forgot to take off their shoes when entering a home. They would get funny looks when they suggested that friends diwy up a restaurant or bar bill—the concept of Dutch treat doesn’t exist in Vietnam, where someone is always designated as host—and they were likely to be more interested in the fortunes of the Los Angeles Lakers than those of Vietnam’s na¬tional soccer team. But it was more than that. There was something in their bearing that gave them away. They were, compared with native Vietnamese who didn’t belong to the Communist Party, a privileged class. Their deportment carried hints of confidence, sometimes superior¬ity or arrogance.
David Thai, who had left Vietnam with his family in 1972, grew up in Orange County, California, believing that if one wanted to be part of the American dream the first step was to bury everything Asian. “I was truly an American kid,” he said, as we drank Vietnamese coffee at the cafe he owned across the street from the Italian ambassador’s residence. “My friends were predominantly white. I preferred speaking English to Viet¬namese. I hated it when my father brought us to the Buddhist temple; I wanted to go bowling. You could say I completely denied my heritage. I’d never dated an Asian girl. I didn’t even know if I could get aroused by an Asian girl. I went to college and saw other Asians and I’d say to myself, ‘I’m better assimilated than they are.’ I didn’t even have an accent.”
At the University of Washington in Seattle, Thai took a course in Asian affairs and made friends with a few Asians. An interest in Vietnam took root. He wondered, What part of me still belongs to a homeland I don’t even remember? In 1995, he came back for the first time with a group of Vietnamese American students to study at the University of Hanoi for a semester. On the bus from the airport, the students threw high-fives, and someone shouted, “Wow, we’re in ’Nam, man!” The bus rolled by glisten¬ing rice paddies—the greenest green Thai had ever seen—and passed through dusty villages and followed the Red River down Yen Phu Street to a city his parents had never been in and one that was far more beautiful than he had dared expect. It took Thai about an hour to fall in love with the country of his birth.
After graduating from the University of Washington, Thai returned to Vietnam with $700 to look for an opportunity. He opened an outdoor coffee shop on Hoan Kiem Lake. When business started going gang- busters, his Vietnamese partners elbowed him out and kept the place for themselves—a fate that befalls many foreign entrepreneurs in a country where the legal structure is primitive and written contracts are not en¬forceable. “Part of it was my fault,” Thai said. “I was naive, too demand¬ing. It was the American way or no way. Once you think you’re Mr. Big, the Vietnamese are going to take it out on you.”

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