Thursday, July 4, 2013

Liberty, Patriotism, and America

I have recently developed a friendship with an amazing person, Chilan Ngo (pronounced shuh-LAWN No). Chilan is a first generation American, and her family is from Vietnam. Had it not been for the war, Chilan's family would still be in Vietnam, but now they all live in Southern California. History geek that I am, I've been having a ton of fun the last couple weeks, asking questions and learning more information about her family, the war, and their "new" lives here. Chilan is extremely American herself, but like many first-generation Americans, also has a soft spot in her heart for her parents' homeland, and is a great connoisseur of both American and Asian food.

Last week, Chilan sent me this photo and her thoughts on it and patriotism. I thought it was a fantastic perspective, and asked her if she'd allow me to post them here today, because it is definitely worth reading for all of us. I hope you enjoy it, and have a fantastic 4th of July!

"Paris - Gay Lussac Street - 3pm on April 27, 1975

From Lut├Ęce Student Housing, South Vietnamese students from the Universities of Paris and Orsay-Antony silently marched to show their support to South Vietnam and express their gratitude to soldiers who had laid down their life for liberty and democracy...

Three days later, Saigon fell..."
A college friend of my dad’s found this picture. It’s of my mom, my dad, and their friends, participating in a student peace rally to support South Vietnam. The rally took place in Paris, 1975 — just three days before the South Vietnamese capitol fell to the Communists. It is profound and heartbreaking.
My mom tells me that the French authorities were nervous about any organized demonstrations, due to all of the fighting and confusion brought on by the war. Riot cops lined the streets, though it wasn’t necessary. The students were simply showing support for their country while in France—a country which would grant them asylum when the Communists overtook their homeland. The signs they are holding are written in French, and read, “Great Day of Mourning,” and “Honor to our Soldiers who Died for Liberty.”

Although my mom is hidden behind other people in the photo, she knows her location based on the friends around them. (She pointed each one out and told me where they are now, mostly working professionals still living in France.) My dad's head is just visible in all its long-haired glory; two years later, he would be forced to cut it should-length for his wedding. Everyone is wearing a white headband as a sign of mourning for the fallen soldiers—nothing to do with hippies. When my Ba Noi (paternal grandmother) died, we wore similar headbands for her funeral services.

So what does an old photo from Paris have to do with American patriotism? Well, along with many others, my parents gave up their Vietnamese citizenship after the country fell and established French citizenship. They were married in '77 and immigrated to the USA in '82—a year and a half before my older brother was born.  A decade later, they were granted American citizenship.

Us kids were beyond lucky. We grew up in Southern California as full-blooded Americans, and were raised in a upper middle class neighborhood with Caucasians. Our parents taught us English as a first language, ensuring that we didn't adopt their French-Vietnamese accents. I'm as Twinkie as you can get. It's easy to forget just how privileged I am to be here, sheltered from all the horrors and hardships that my elder generations went through. Although my parents had it relatively easy as exchange students, the rest of my extended family had to flee the country as refugees. That horrific experience alone would take a book to describe.

This photo reminds me that third world countries may be less rich, educated, and "cultured" than others, but their people can have just has much heart, humanity, and patriotism. Patriotism isn't about firing your constitutionally-mandated guns and having BBQs on the 4th of July. People everywhere have bled and suffered for freedom—not only our Founding Fathers, but also those in countries all over the world.
As a graduate student, I spend most of my time caught up in research and bemoaning my lack of better data. Amidst the madness, it's good to step back and be thankful that I am here, sitting at my own desk in a new, clean building, working at a top-notch university, self-supporting and having my own good credit, getting to do great things (for SCIENCE), and not even having to go into debt for it! Taking a bigger step back, I am here in a truly free country, enjoying my rights as a citizen, woman, and human being. I'm proud to be American, and Vietnamese, and even French! My parents may not throw a party for every US holiday, speak English without an accent, or watch the Superbowl, but they have a deep, unique appreciation of the liberty granted here. As my mom said, "It's a wonderful country!" Being American is an overwhelming privilege. We may hate whichever poor soul is president, rage about the government wasting our money (or the universities spending it on administration), and bicker about politics in general, but we must never forget what it means to be free.

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