How I Got Radicalized

I Became a ‘Closeted Socialist’ After My Family Fled Communism

As the daughter of South Vietnamese refugees, I had to hide my interest in Ho Chi Minh’s socialist theories

Welcome to How I Got Radicalized, a new series that tells a story about a cultural moment that made you drastically rethink how society works.

It is 2007 and I am 10 years old when my father takes me to an anti-communist protest in Little Saigon, California. Almost everyone there is a South Vietnamese refugee, clutching the corner of a banner or waving the former republic’s yellow and red striped flag. I’m too young to understand why we’re out on the hot sidewalk — mostly I just want to go home — but I am old enough to know my father’s migration story by heart, to know how he fled Saigon in 1975, how he was separated from his family for 10 years, and how he blamed it all on North Vietnamese communists.

My dad used to take me and my brother on trips to Little Saigon every weekend to visit my grandparents, eat, and go grocery shopping. Immigrant communities were all around us at every point of my childhood. When I had to do a “living history” project in fifth grade, most of my peers also interviewed their parents about how they left their homelands. A friend’s mom spoke to the class about her time living in a refugee camp, while my science teacher (Mr. Tran, no relation) darkly joked that he had once been attacked by pirates. My dad is a quiet man and doesn’t share much unless asked, though I rarely felt the need to when I was growing up. My family’s story didn’t seem particularly special given the breadth of experiences around us.

I learned enough to avoid mentioning communism around my father, lest I set off one of his bitter monologues. When I once expressed interest in visiting my family’s old neighborhoods in Vietnam, he told me I’d have to go alone. He was barred from entering the country because of his anti-communist work, but he didn’t want to go back anyway: “Not until Vietnam is a democracy.” I didn’t want to probe his trauma and accepted his firsthand account as fact. Who was I to challenge him, when he had lived through a war? My family’s stories always started with the day they left Vietnam or skipped around to highlight happier childhood memories, tales of setting off firecrackers in the streets and chasing stray dogs. The curation of what they told me seemed intentional, and I knew that if I wanted to learn about the politics of the war, I would have to do it on my own.

Ho Chi Minh was the hovering specter whose name I wasn’t allowed to say at home, yet he soon became the catalyst drawing me toward socialist theories.

I didn’t start looking for answers until I moved to New York for college to study English. The only class on Vietnam my school offered was titled “Vietnam War,” an already biased, Westernized naming of what Vietnamese folks might call the American War. It was taught by an elderly white professor in the history department who had a graduate degree in East Asian Studies.

The first week of class, we were assigned a biography of Ho Chi Minh that was almost 700 pages long. I checked out a copy from the library and nestled it on the edge of my bookshelf, where the communist leader’s name and face hovered over me as I studied. I wanted to be an unfazed scholar, but I was more uncomfortable about it than I would like to admit. My grandfather had been a government worker in South Vietnam and would’ve surely been sent to a reeducation camp, among other possibly worse things, had he not been able to escape. My relationship to Ho Chi Minh felt personal. If older relatives ever visited my dorm, the book would be the first thing I hid.

Ho Chi Minh was the hovering specter whose name I wasn’t allowed to say at home, yet he soon became the catalyst drawing me toward socialist theories. He connected the anti-colonial struggle in Vietnam with movements in Africa and South America, expelled French colonizers, and frequently commented on the exploitative nature of American capitalism. In class, we watched a BBC documentary about the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (the CIA’s precursor) and its role in Ho Chi Minh’s rise to power. My professor lectured on the South Vietnamese puppet government and its atrocities, the Berkeley anti-war riots, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech, and the belief that the war was a result of U.S. imperialism and the military industrial complex. It was the opposite of what my family had always preached — that the United States was our ally and savior.

Every government was complicit in the war, and as my grandfather simply puts it, “All war is bad.” But I wanted to understand my family’s trauma. I had to grapple with my position as a second-generation American; it’s easy to study a war in its aftermath, to sit in a classroom dissecting political maneuvers and analyzing characters’ psyches, but I can barely begin to fathom living it, to fully comprehend my father’s pain.

Others in my position often refer to themselves as “closeted socialists”; it’s a label I’ve come to identify with and adopt.

There is a significant generational divide in politics among Vietnamese Americans: Older generations tend to associate liberals with socialism and are unable to reconcile their refugee status with the Republican Party’s anti-immigration platform. My father is now a consistent Democratic voter in U.S. elections, which is uncommon among his diaspora peers. Of the estimated 2.1 million Vietnamese people who live in the United States, roughly 48% voted for Donald Trump’s reelection; 35% said they thought the Republican Party was doing a better job with immigration than Democrats. On Facebook, a cringe-inducing video of middle-aged Vietnamese folks singing and dancing in support of Trump has been circulating among my extended networks. Meanwhile, on the opposite end of the spectrum, younger generations have created groups like the Asian Americans With Republican Parents Support Group, protested Tony Pham’s induction as ICE director, translated news articles into Vietnamese to bridge information gaps, shared bail funds and call scripts, and organized within their communities. Everyone is informed by their own kinds of trauma from living under oppressive systems, and that trauma can be acknowledged, but its resulting actions cannot be excused.

I recognize the irony that reading Ho Chi Minh’s work and being taught an American perspective of the war was what sparked my unlearning of the anti-communist mantra. Still, I find myself in a conflicted space. Others in my position often refer to themselves as “closeted socialists”; it’s a label I’ve come to identify with and adopt. Many factors contributed to my shift in politics, but I wouldn’t have been able to arrive there without first interrogating the war for myself. My radicalization has been an ongoing process, one that involves trying to understand what it means to now occupy the country that tore apart my parents’ homeland and how the American government continues to displace, and disparage, so many families like mine.

writer based in new york

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