Being In Hanoi

February 11th, 2010

As I flew home to the U.S. after spending two weeks in Vietnam, I couldn’t help but think about the classic photo of a young Vietnamese girl running naked toward the camera in a war-torn country. I could not have been older than that girl in the late sixties and early seventies when the Vietnam War took place (or as the Vietnamese describe it in English translation, the incursion of American aggressors.) Vietnam was a beautifully rich mosaic of culture, history, economic development, and unfathomable patterns of highway traffic. But I was most moved by my own experience of being a U.S. citizen in this country that was site where U.S. military forces battled Vietnamese forces on their home soil. And there I stood on that soil.

My identity as an American first surfaced powerfully as I stood within the walls of Hoa Lo Prison erected by the French to imprison Vietnamese people who were suspected of resistance to French colonial rule. The prison was built in 1896, but in the wake of the ousting of the French in 1954, eventually became a site where U.S. pilots—Senator John McCain among them—were imprisoned during our Vietnam War from 1964 until 1973. The prison became a museum in 1993 as a “monument to revolutionary patriotic soldiers who heroically lay down in Hoa Lo Prison.”[1] It was disturbing enough to view so much of the brutality visited upon the imprisoned Vietnamese as seen through the eyes of those who erected the monument. But in an odd way, I found a morose comfort in that part of the exhibit because I knew I would come upon the part where the U.S. presence was documented, and I worried that would be worse. It wasn’t, as it turns out, but the video images of planes dropping bombs kept me off balance, nonetheless. My American-ness came strongly to the fore in these moments.

When I travel internationally and I allow myself to sink into the place in which I am situated, I am reminded how much of who I am changes. In academics, we call this “fluid identity” and “context-driven identity.” But my experience was simply that I realized that I become invested in being someone when I am in the comfort of my homeland. I am American, a U.S. citizen who is African American, a scholar and expert on diversity, a native Clevelander, an educator. All of these selves have meaning and power for me and help me maintain my sense of self-esteem. It is who I am.

But when I go to places like Vietnam, I remember that when I am at home, I am a fish in a pond swimming around in water as though there was nothing in the world but water. It is not until I get out of my home and settle myself in that I realize I can come out of the water and experience something else. And come to see myself as someone else.

[1] Quoted from “Introduction on Remains of Hoa Lo Prison” placard at the museum site.

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