Unmasking the Vietnamese-American Identity and Embracing the Contradictions Within

Ariana King
October 26, 2023

Like other immigrant groups, many Vietnamese refugees faced a constant tug-of-war in deciding how much to assimilate and how much tradition to preserve. But the legacy of the war—which has been viewed as one of America’s great failures—impacted Vietnamese-Americans in uniquely challenging ways. 

On October 6, 2023, author, law professor, and Vietnam War refugee Lan Cao visited the Weatherhead East Asian Institute to speak with WEAI Asia in Action Producing Fellow Naja Pham Lockwood about her “rise from the fall” of South Vietnam. 

For Cao, writing has been a critical tool for her to navigate the emotional turmoil of her journey. 

“My relationship with Vietnam itself is very much defined by love, loss, regret, remorse, anger,” she said. While in many ways her protagonists’ experiences mirror her own, fiction—more than academic or nonfiction writing—has been the best medium for her to dive into “the wreckage” and capture the dreamlike nature of the complex experience of war.  

The daughter of renowned South Vietnamese General Cao Van Vien, who brought to the US his precautionary habit of wearing pants with cyanide pills sewn into the seams, Cao faced high stakes. Although most of the fighting of early years of the conflict took place far away, the Tet Offensive brought the war right to her backyard. In the wake of the attack, she visited a military hospital with her mother, where she witnessed injured soldiers and victims of war firsthand. 

To complicate matters further, one of Cao’s maternal uncles was a member of the Vietcong. Despite his very different political and ideological views, before the fall of Saigon, he frequented family gatherings.

“Living in that setting made me realize that there are a lot of contradictions that one accommodates in life,” Cao said, adding, “It’s not as if the purpose in life is to get rid of contradictions. It’s not like, if you have contradictions you’re hypocritical. It’s a lot more complicated than that.”

She credits this family dynamic with cultivating her current worldview that an individual should be able to look at oneself and the world, and make decisions independently of what one is raised to believe. 

“[My family] never said ‘you must be this,’ or ‘you must be that,’ even though it was very explosive sometimes—very explosive, because it was life or death.”

When Cao and her family arrived in the US, for a long time they ate their meals with plastic knives and forks, thinking that the new government would not last and they would be back in Vietnam before long. 

Cao and other Vietnamese refugees had to reconcile the contradictory sentiments of gratitude towards the US for taking them in with frustration towards the country whose failures led to their displacement. And while xenophobia and racism are experienced by immigrants across the board, Vietnamese refugees in particular were sometimes treated (by traumatized veterans and others) as representatives of the war the United States lost.

Because of the US embargo during the ‘70s, Cao had no means of communicating with the rest of her family back in Vietnam. But family bonds trump ideology in powerful ways. 

One day, not long before the fall of Saigon, a street vendor selling banh bao approached Cao and handed her a fresh bun. The bun was “made special,” just for her. She split open the bun and found inside a message from her uncle—a warning for her to evacuate. It’s a story so dreamlike that it might have been taken from one of Cao’s novels. But sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction.