Saturday, August 10, 2019

Walking down Madison Street in downtown Chicago one day, I noticed an optical store named "For Eyes Optical". Now, that is an interesting name. Is the name emphasizing the service, or is it a play of words? I grew up wearing eyeglasses. In Vietnam, people called people who wear eyeglasses, like me, "four eyes" -- your two eyes plus the pair of glasses. "For eyes" for "four-eyes"? Now, that is an interesting play of words to emphasize your service.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

"Sugar Free" / "Sugar, Free"

I just submitted the following funny true story to Reader's Digest:
When I came to the United States in the 80's as a refugee from a war-torn country, I craved sweet things and did not have a lot of money. One day in the school's cafeteria, I noticed a small placard in front of cupcakes with these two magic words: "sugar" and "free". I grabbed a couple. The cashier charged me for both.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

America Did Not Lose Vietnam. Vietnamese Did.

Regarding "America Lost Vietnam but Saved Southeast Asia" (by William Lloyd Stearman, WSJ Opinions, 1/28/2019), America did not lose Vietnam. The Vietnamese lost Vietnam. In 1975, with the fall of Saigon, the South Vietnamese lost South Vietnam. There was no more fighting American soldiers there for America to lose Vietnam. I am now a Vietnamese American; back then, as a South Vietnamese teenager, I had a good middle class life, was French educated, did not contribute much to the war effort, could not get out in 1975, learned what real communism really meant for four years, finally escaped in 1979 as one of the million of boat people who risked life for freedom. Over the years, I have been pondering about the "loss of Vietnam".
Winning or losing a war means that you have achieved your objective or not. The American objective in the Vietnam War was the containment of communism in Southeast Asia (the Domino Theory). Americans started to achieve that objective in 1972 with Nixon going to China. If Nixon could toast mao-tai with Mao Zedong, then communism was not so bad, in the sense that it was bad for the people living under the communist yoke, but not so bad that Americans could not make deals with those commies. By the early seventies, the domino countries of Southeast Asia such as Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, had mostly overcome communist insurgencies and could stand by their own. With that, America had achieved its strategic objective. America has won the Southeast Asia Domino Theory war. With China in the North acceptable, and ASEAN countries in the South strong enough, South Vietnam which was intended as the anti-communist buffer, lost its strategic tent pole role. What was left for Americans was to go home in muted victory, first with the withdrawal of troops via the Vietnamization effort, then the returning of POWs via the 1973 Paris Peace Agreement.
Between 1973 and 1975, the Vietnam War was truly Vietnamese, with North and South Vietnamese happily killing each other. The war material may be Soviet, Chinese or American, but the spilled blood was pure Vietnamese. The war for the South Vietnamese was now an existential war. But we, as South Vietnamese, did not know about it. We kept thinking this was still the Domino Theory war with the full support of Americans, not realizing that Americans had already won that war, inconspicuously and in full view. "Americans never abandon us" was the mantra in South Vietnam at that time.
I remembered living through the years of 1973 and 1974. The Second Arab Embargo hit South Vietnam hard. The pay of South Vietnamese ARVN soldiers could not keep up with the inflation; morale plummeted. Graft and corruption, which was endemic, now became epidemic in the army brass and all levels of government. As for the populace, the poor tried to survive, the rich tried to get richer, and the middle class tried to do both. Everybody tried to do something for himself, much less for the country. As for the nation of South Vietnam, we all waited for North Vietnam to attack, then resist a little bit and looked for Americans to come to the rescue. We heard that B52s were still at Guam and the Seventh Fleet was still somewhere in the South China Sea (which we called the East Sea).
December 13, 1974, the North Vietnamese attacked. The ARVN debacle was swift. Four months later, April 30, 1975, Saigon fell. People said that the ARVN did not stand and fight. ARVN soldiers were like any soldiers. They would stand and fight if convinced of the reason to do so, and led by leaders who believed in that reason. And that reason was the existence of South Vietnam. The crème of South Vietnam did not think that way. The elite and the rich who did well during the war, fled. Many top commanders who perfected the art of personal graft instead of war, ran. Why would the poor and poorly led ARVN soldiers stand and fight? But stand and fight, they did, just not enough of them to staunch North Vietnam's Spring Offensive. So it was us, the South Vietnamese -- for both who fought or those who skipped the fight, that lost South Vietnam. Saying it differently, like "America lost Vietnam", was a dishonor and insult to millions of ARVN soldiers who answered their duties for twenty long years, especially to over a quarter of million of them who paid the ultimate sacrifice.
Now it is the turn for the victorious North Vietnamese to lose Vietnam. Between 1975 and 1986, while the world moved forward, Vietnam moved backwards with its Marxist command economy. In 1975, South Vietnam got its military debacle; in 1986 the Communist Party of Vietnam got its economic debacle. Since the 1986 Doi Moi and subsequent market oriented reforms, Vietnam is doing economically much better, at times dramatically so. Ironically, this economy looks a lot like the pre-1975 South Vietnam economy - crony capitalism mixed with state capitalism, but now hiding under the socialist banner. Until responsible capitalism and representative democracy are prevalent in Vietnam, the full potential of Vietnam and its laborious and yearning population cannot be achieved.
How about America? After winning the communism containment Domino Theory war in 1973, America has been invited back by the Southeast Asia countries, including Vietnam, to contain another -ism from China. To be clear, the containment is not about to contain China, which deserves to become a super power on its own right, but about the policy of neo-feudalism espoused by the current Chinese leadership.
Godspeed for America and Vietnam.