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Black April, Bright April: From Postwar Pain to Personal Peace (abridged)

Black April, Bright April: From Postwar Pain to Personal Peace (abridged)

Picture of Trangdai Glassey-Tranguyen

Black April, Bright April: From Postwar Pain to Personal Peace

Trangđài Glassey-Trầnguyễn
Archival Photos: Olivier Glassey-Trầnguyễn
Documentary Photos: Benjamin Vũ 

Trangđài Glassey-Trầnguyễn reporting on trauma, loss, and emotional health in the Vietnamese diasporas was undertaken as part of The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships (CEHJF), a program of the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. Drawing from the Vietnamese American Project (founded by the author in the 1990s at Cal State Fullerton), this story combines oral history interviews, community participation, and lived perspectives. Contact her at vietamproj@gmail.com. 

THE AUTHOR'S OBJECTIVE:

Since 1976 till today, each April brings a time of reflecting, commemorating, and preserving a historical moment that has changed the fate of Vietnam and its people. Black April has become a sacred event for the Vietnamese diasporas for the last several decades, as sacred as the Lunar New Year for the Vietnamese people. And Black April will continue to be an index of the presence of the Vietnamese people away from home.

Through this project, I wish to embrace this commemorative tradition of the Vietnamese communities around the world. At the same time, I also wish to receive and lift up the lights that have transformed April 1975, moving it beyond a time of violence and loss. We have built the Little Vietnams across the world. We have raised many a Vietnamese generations away from home. We have turned the table around, working in tandem with the world and using contemporary consciousness to preserve history and build the future. These lights have always shone in our midst – they are our very own grandparents, parents, siblings, children – lighting up a new dawn on the shambles of yesterday. We don't only have a Black April, but each of us is the reality of a Bright April.

 

*** 

Thuy Thanh Nguyen could not sleep for months. She cried long hours, snapped at her husband and children, and threw things at them. She was agitated all the time. She could not help herself.

No one in her family knew that Nguyen already attempted suicide twice and failed. The first time, she locked the family catering store up but forgot to remove the "Open" sign. A Caucasian customer knocked on the door when she was opening the poison bottle. The second time, she closed everything up but the Vietnamese businessman next-door came over and insisted, "Sister, please make me a meal." She couldn't turn him away.

She paid out-of-pocket for visits with several psychiatrists, but the monthly 20-minute sessions were not helpful. She was sent to the Orange County's Behavioral Health Department, but heard that if she were to be diagnosed with a mental condition, she would not be allowed to see her children. She dodged the doctor's order.

It was 2002, a year after she lost her eldest daughter, Thao Thuy Le, 31, to a brain tumor. For an entire year, Nguyen devoted all of her energy to care for her daughter during the serial surgeries. After the funeral, Nguyen was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Vietnamese women are five times more likely to have cervical cancer than women from any other ethnicity. She had two operations, and survived. 

During cancer treatment, she had to give up the catering business, which her family worked diligently for years to build up. Nguyen lost control of everything she had worked hard for: her daughter's health and survival, her family's business, her sense of self-reliance.

"The past trauma kept appearing as if a film on the TV screen, playing and rewinding," Nguyen recalled. "The thirteen years in the gulag haunted me day and night. I could not push it away. I was in severe pain," she added. Her past trauma started to surface and affected her family negatively.

Research has shown the direct impacts that a traumatic past has on younger generations, linking parents' traumatic experiences and their children's psychology. Jerry Truong, a Vietnamese American artist born and raised in the Sacramento area, recalls his parents' boat escape and refugee experiences in the early 1980s in his works, including "Disappearing" and "Layer/Shell."

Doctor Eliza Noh at Cal State Fullerton comments on this linkage from her decades of studying depression among Asian Americans, "Research studies have revealed trans-generational effects of trauma, particularly studies on trauma among children of Japanese American internees and children of Southeast Asian refugees and genocide survivors. In my own study of Asian American female suicide, I found similar intergenerational linkages, such as patterns of depression or violence passed from one generation to the next. Some suicidal or depressed women have other family members who also suffer from depression. Some suicidal women have experienced violence, such as physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, either directly or indirectly within their families, which they experience as a form of trauma contributing to their depression."

This trans-generational linkage was prominent in Nguyen's family. Quan Long Le, her only son, then 29, worried about her conditions, and repeatedly urged her to seek care. Nguyen refused. He eventually called the County's help line. J., a Vietnamese American social worker who wished to remain anonymous, answered.

J. took on the case in 2003, and for five years, worked with Nguyen to help her overcome her depression and fears. Nguyen is afraid of noise and unable to drive. She can never hold keys, whose jangling sound causes her to go berserk. The keys signal the gulag intense interrogations and the disappearance of detainees.

J. forged a sense of trust in Nguyen, which was crucial for the treatment and recovery process. In fact, J. contributes three factors to Nguyen's recovery, "First, Nguyen trusted me. Second, I wanted to help her. Third, she trusted in God." Nguyen, though, is also comforted by the accomplishments of her son – a computer engineer and a former Staff Sergeant in the Air Force Reserve, and the wellness of her surviving daughter.

The struggles with past trauma, like Nguyen's, are common among Vietnamese refugees and immigrants, who suffered severe postwar socio-political persecutions in Vietnam. People living with depression and anger can hurt themselves and their families in serious ways. Yet because of cultural stigma associated with mental health and misplaced fears such as losing rights to see family members, those affected are uncomfortable seeking or considering care. Very few Vietnamese Americans with a traumatic past have a chance to process their pains.

However, that has changed. Tri Nguyen – a mental health practitioner at the Community Research Foundation in San Diego – says, "Although we are still far behind the mainstream population in understanding and accepting mental illness as a medical problem, I do see an increase in the acceptance and motivation to seek mental health services in the Vietnamese/Asian American communities in recent years."

Nguyen's acceptance of treatment and progress broke a silent wall that had stood in front of those with PTSD all of this time. "I refer several of my friends to this service, and they lead a much happier life now," Nguyen confided.

The fact that Nguyen discussed her treatment with her friends, and now for the first time in the media (via this story), is already a huge breakthrough. Trust, again, plays a key role. "I trusted you," she told me. "When you interviewed me some over ten years ago for your research, I always kept you in mind. I follow your writings, and I am grateful you are doing this project," her eyes smiled. She was referring to the oral history interview I conducted with her in the 1990s for the Vietnamese American Project (VAP), which I founded and directed at CSU Fullerton since that time.

Her story resonates with so many others, from mothers with disabled children, veterans, those affected by wars and persecution, to women surviving cancer and PTSD. As Nguyen continues to fight depression reprises, she sets a good example for others to seek and sustain care. 

Yet psychiatric treatment is not enough. Nguyen regains and sustains balance through volunteer work and participation in a Christian church. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, asserts that "Compassion is one of the principal things that make our lives meaningful. It is the source of all lasting happiness and joy." Nguyen's compassion for humanity brings her joy, and further helps her heal.

Nguyen's faith in God continues to guide her. Reverend Tri Minh Dinh, a Jesuit priest and the Vice-Ecclesial Assistant for Vietnamese Christian Life Community in the USA, comments on the role of faith in Vietnamese American life. He says, "Grace in abundance is freely available. God wishes to heal and give us greater life, yet humbly awaits our receptive response. As we allow God to be God, we experience such transforming grace."

One might be curious about the nature of Nguyen's traumatic past that prompted her PTSD. When Thuy Thanh Nguyen and her family arrived in California through the Humanitarian Operation in 1992, she brought with her some prized possessions: two pairs of frayed gloves constructed from remnants, and two sweaters stamped with her gulag identification numbers – all courtesy of her thirteen years in the gulag.

But she also brought with her intangible possessions – those that cannot be confiscated or destroyed: an unyielding determination, a compassion for humanity, and a strong faith in God. 

Notwithstanding her health limits and language barrier, Nguyen and her family started working and attending school right away. In the VAP interview, she discussed how she wholeheartedly embraced the gender equity in America, beaming, " In Vietnam, women are ostensibly privileged with their male partners earning the bread. De factor the wives are kept from yielding any income, unlike in the United States. Women are proud to contribute to the family finances, and for me, that is the most exciting thing. We are fortunate to be in this advanced and desired land, where if you sweat, your stomach will be filled."

Sweat did Nguyen, and bold was she to start a catering business after three years in the U.S. But what she accomplished in America pales comparing to her experiences in postwar Vietnam.

The period following the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975 was a most horrendous time in the history of South Vietnam. Homes were confiscated, public facilities taken over, socio-cultural groups banned, schools disrupted, and civilians imprisoned in their own home.

Former service personnel of the Republic of Vietnam in the South (ROV, 1954-1975), professionals, educators, intellectuals, writers, artists, landowners, entrepreneurs, among others, were persecuted and forced into the gulags. Nguyen and her husband Long Thanh Le were among them.

Nguyen joined the ROV Police Federation in 1966 in the first class of the National Police Academy in Saigon. She founded the Thien Nga Special Task Force in August 1968, and directed it since 1969-1975. Her husband graduated from the Dalat Academy and served in the ROV army till 1975.

The post-1975 Communist government in Vietnam targeted individuals like them to elicit the former ROV's national secrets and to destroy the human bodies involved. Nguyen was interrogated daily in May, and coerced into the gulag thereafter. Her husband was incarcerated earlier. Their three young children – two of them with delayed development – became parentless and lived with Nguyen's parents in My Tho.

Nguyen was confined to a male prison, prompting fear for her safety and dignity. She was hounded around the clock about her past services. After months of unsuccessful interrogation, the Communist government sent her to the labor camp in Long Thanh. There was minimal drinking water, and no bathrooms. She waited for the monsoon rains to shower.

Nguyen experienced the worst conditions in the gulag. In 1981, she faced solitary confinement in a sunless cell. She was chain-interrogated 24/7, received only some water and a ball of rice daily, and slept on the cement floor that flooded in rains. She urinated into a military tank in her cell. When she was chained up, her feet hang off the ground, eaten by the rustic chains. Nguyen became jaundiced and paralyzed, contracted malaria, threw up blood, and fainted regularly.

The thought of reuniting with her children kept her going. She always called out to God, trusting that God had helped her through the worst times of her gulag years.

After confinement, Nguyen worked at the notorious Ham Tan Z30D camp. She and fellow detainees had to grow vegetables – which they were then fed – using human urine and solid wastes. The insanitation prompted diarrhea and other illnesses in the detainees, who were without medical care and even used pincers to extract teeth. Many died from exhaustion, starvation, and sickness.

After thirteen treacherous years, Nguyen was released due to her failing health. Her children were afraid of her sight, exclaiming "Mommy looks scary without teeth!" Outside of the gulags, she continued to be persecuted, chased from place to place, and found no job. Nguyen and her husband set up a pavement coffee stand in Saigon to eek out a living, supplementing it with optimism and sacrifices. The couple provided education for their children, who were constantly ostracized and harassed.

Life was unbearable for them until the Humanitarian Operation enabled former ROV service personnel to relocate to the U.S. Nguyen applied, but her family's departure was delayed for two years due to health and paperwork complications. Leaving Vietnam was a difficult blessing. Nguyen had to leave behind her own aging mother, the pillar of her family during the horrendous gulag time. Had it not been for Nguyen's mother, her three children might not have survived.

Nguyen's story of trauma and loss, her exemplary community services and survival spirit, and her journey toward healing can help other Vietnamese Americans and their counterparts around the world connect and heal from war trauma of decades back.

On March 9, 2012, Senator Lou Correa honored Thuy Thanh Nguyen as a Woman Making a Difference, for her "commitment, dedication, and enthusiasm in serving the Orange County community." Nguyen's recognition augments an appreciation that has been long felt in the Vietnamese American community.

A dedicated volunteer with the ROV Disabled Veterans and Widows Relief Association, Nguyen processes hundreds of applications from disadvantaged veteran widows from Vietnam each year. She serves as the treasurer of the Assembly of ROV Veterans in the U.S. Southwest, and oversees social services for the Federation of ROV Police Association.

Since 1976, Vietnamese Americans commemorates Black April – an event as important as the Vietnamese Lunar New Year. This story embraces Black April as a community tradition, and embarks on a new direction – Bright April, a celebration of Light, for anyone who seeks to rise from the darkness of wars and trauma.

Through the deep-running currents from Nguyen's traumatic memories and her persistence on survival, we can celebrate the light that comes from individuals like her – the everyday members of the Vietnamese American communities everywhere. At long last, April is not just a dark month. April is also a celebration of light for Nguyen and her ethnic fellows.

Happy Black April! Happy Bright April!

 

This story was also published in the sources listed below. The list only includes news agencies that the author contacted for the official publication of the project. Several other websites have also re-posted the series.

  • On Hiệp Nhất Monthy: Print only.
  • On Sống Weekly: Print only.
  • On Hải Ngoại Phiếm Đàm: (Website hacked, no longer accessible)
  • On Vietnamese Americans in Utah: (Website hacked, no longer accessible)
  • Gạch Nối Magazine (UC San Diego): Print only.
  • Blog Nhà Báo
  • Tiếng Nói Việt Nam (Voice of Vietnam)
  • Vinh Danh QLVNCH
  • Lý Tưởng Người Việt

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