It is has been 40 years since the ending of the Vietnam War when the last American helicopter left from the rooftops of Saigon; 40 years since my father, a solider for the Republic of Vietnam, was sent to re-education camp, where he was confined for seven years of hard labor for his crimes of "siding" with the Americans.
It has been 40 years since over 2 million people fled Vietnam via sea and land, seeking freedom from communism -- a journey where it is estimated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that up to 400,000 perished.
I was 5 years old when I left Vietnam with my parents, after my father's release from re-education camp. My initial memories of America include my mother explaining to me when we tried our first slice of cheese pizza that this was the American version of a French crepe. I also remember that my father rode a donated bicycle to his first day of work, proudly wearing the tailored suit he brought from Vietnam because he remembered from American movies that everyone wore suits to work. There he found out he was part of the janitorial staff. My father, who graduated from the elite Republic of Vietnam Military Academy and then directed military campaigns against the Viet Cong, was now cleaning toilets.
On April 30th of each year, including this one, as Vietnam celebrates Reunification Day, my parents will don on the black clothes of mourning, join the Vietnamese Diaspora community to salute the old Republic of Vietnam's flag and sing the Republic's national anthem. Over a somber meal following the flag ceremony, nostalgic discussions will revolve around the land that was lost, the memories of green rice fields and turquoise oceans teeming with fish.
Time for these immigrants is distinctly divided between before '75 and after '75. What happened in '75 is left unsaid, but understood among everyone -- the horrors of communist re-education camp, the nationwide food shortages, the terrors of escaping by boat into rough seas filled with robbers and pirates. These memories are all too real for these immigrants.
I grew up learning to remember Vietnam -- to love Vietnam, but also, to carry the fears and anguish from the country left behind. And yet, 40 years after the ending of the Vietnam War, I find myself back, living in the country where my parents were persecuted and from which we fled.
I have spent the last two years in Vietnam, first as part of a US State Department Fulbright Fellowship, then as an adviser for Harvard Medical School's program in Vietnam. I consider the central theme of me coming back to Vietnam is, "Returning to the land of my ancestors: Fulfilling my American Dream in Vietnam."
The country is vastly different from the one my parents fled. Over 60 percent of its 90 million people were born after the Vietnam War. The first Starbucks opened in 2013; McDonald's opened in 2014; KFC and Burger King now dot the country from north to south. Relations between the U.S. and Vietnam have normalized; diplomatic ties are strong, and ironically, military cooperation has begun. Vietnam is now in negotiations to join the U.S.-led Transpacific Trade Partnership.
I have spent these past two years traveling extensively around the country. Everywhere I have gone, I am warmly greeted with smiles and cups of tea. Questions of my background: when I left Vietnam, and my life in America, are always asked in a curious manner. I often depart from these centers with warm embraces and a thank you for coming back to Vietnam.
As this once war-ridden country rushes towards the future, Vietnamese-Americans like me are coming back with a desire to contribute to the nation building, through the lens of our American education, upbringing and culture.
Despite the blood and tears that were shed, and the lives that were lost, Vietnamese-Americans and their children are being welcomed back into Vietnam. We were once labeled "trash of the sea," in reference to the boat people, but we are now welcomed back as "nation builders."
Issues of human rights and freedom of press are still a point of contention between America and Vietnam, but improvements slowly are being made, through this people-to-people diplomacy. The Vietnamese have decided to sweep away and let go of the pain, anger and resentment from their conflicts with so many world powers, and embrace their place as a people in this world.
If an entire country can forgive the past and focus on the future, perhaps Vietnamese-Americans holding on to the pain, anger and resentment can also consider embracing the open-hand, people-to-people diplomacy. I believe and hope my fellow Vietnamese-Americans will be the bridge between the culture and societies of these two countries.