As we enter our fourth month of traveling I’ve been plagued by two feelings: White Privilege guilt and American confusion.
Let me explain.
We fled Hanoi last week for Cat Ba, an island off of the famed Halong Bay. Halong Bay is known as one of the modern natural wonders of the world due to the tall limestone karsk islands which dot the emerald green water just off the shore. We were thrilled to see this incredible sight up close, and delighted that Cat Ba Island still feels relatively unknown and underdeveloped. Yay!
We spent the week riding around the island on our moto, exploring caves, mountains, rice paddies, villages, Buddhist cemeteries, and the town. We took two private boat tours through the gorgeous bay and had some amazing adventures deep water soloing (rock climbing without ropes and falling into the water when finished) and hiking around Monkey Island.
Cat Ba Island hasn’t always been an adventurer’s paradise, however. Not long ago it was a major North Vietnamese stronghold for the Viet Cong fighting Americans in the American-Vietnam War. While there we visited a hilltop fort with the most delicious views of the bay and very realistic mannequins manning a now defunct cannon pointed towards the water. This fort was where they watched for the American Navy approaching. We saw the concrete bunkers they built into the hillside. It rained the day we were there, and the bunkers had a few inches of water on the ground. It hit me that it would have been the same way when it was populated by soldiers 40 years ago, and it made me sad that they were fighting under those conditions.
We also visited a place called Hospital Cave. Hospital Cave is literally a mountain cave which was turned into a hospital. We had a guide for that visit who explained how they brought wounded soldiers into the upper cave and the rooms the built for surgery and beds. It was awful. It was very primitive and seemed cold and scary. I had very strong feelings of shame and guilt while being led through this place, thinking, “We did this. How could my home country have been a part of something that was so awful these people were forced to help their wounded in a cave?”
The truth is that, as a child of the generation directly involved, I know nothing about this war. My parents and their friends didn’t talk about it. I can’t even think of anyone I know who fought.
Because I don’t know anything about the war I don’t know how to feel about my heritage’s part in it. Here I am in this country surrounded by museums, prisons, monuments, and people who were directly involved in the war and I have no idea what to think or feel about them or what they might think or feel about me.
When a native asks where we’re from and I answer “America” do they cringe? Feel tense? Blame me? Want me to leave? Think I’m desecrating their hospital cave? Feel nothing? This thought consumes me.
I need to understand the war enough to frame my time here. I need to understand the impact America had on this place.
To help, I decided to watch the Ken Burn’s documentary series on the Vietnam War recently released on Netflix. I’m only on episode 3 of 10, and I’ve become somewhat obsessed. I rewind sessions I don’t understand and look up additional facts on Wikipedia. I’ve learned that, though America had a larger picture in mind during the war and was very helpful to the Vietnamese in a lot of ways, we also did terrible things here. Terrible. The Viet Cong did, as well, and it’s hard to understand how anyone could be considered a winner. It just feels like we all lost.
I’m still pretty confused (but apparently so was America at the time so I don’t feel too bad about that), so tonight I decided to go to the source: My Mom.
My mom was not only a teenager and college student during the war but she dated my Dad the entire time, who always wished he could have fought in the war (missed enlisting by one year) and became career military. I wanted some insight into the feeling of her generation and into my Dad and their military friends.
She told me some horror stories and painted a much clearer, darker image of what she and her friends went through than I’ve seen on the documentary. She had to stop talking twice to hold back tears, couldn’t bring herself to tell me about particular people, and said she could never come to North Vietnam. She told me not to feel any American guilt about the places we saw in Hanoi and Cat Ba Island because “The Viet Cong brought that on themselves.”
That cleared up some of my feelings.
She did say that the soldiers who returned hated the Viet Cong but only had wonderful things to say about the country and the citizens. As a country Vietnam seems to have left a good impression on those men, and she said it made her so happy to know that her daughter and grandson are in this country playing with and learning from the Vietnamese.
She thinks it’s people like us and our children who can ensure these sort of wars come to an end because we have open minds to love and understand other cultures. I’m still a bit confused on my American identity here, but that made me feel loads better.
The white privilege has been a compounding issue.
So far I’ve been overcharged and yelled at while standing right beside Vietnamese who are not treated that way. People are trying to take advantage of the fact that we don’t speak the language and might be rich and gullible. I feel like we walk around with a target on our backs, and then I feel guilty about being mad over the treatment because: A) I’m an American and owe them whatever they want for my country’s involvement in the war (because whatever we lost they lost more), B) I am an outsider on their property and they can choose to live and treat people however they want, C) I am “rich” and can afford the upcharge (I just hate the inequality), and D) They are willing to learn and speak my native language to have this fight and that doesn’t seem fair.
So, you see why I’m a little conflicted inside?
I’m really hoping these feelings go away. I hope that being in South Vietnam will help, as feelings there were more favorable with the American soldiers. We arrived in Hoi An yesterday and are already hard at work trying to make this feel like home. We found a community homeschool program for Whit, a beautiful apartment to rent for the next month, and have met with other expat families already so I’m hoping Hoi An will start to make my heart sing soon.
But it is a truly beautiful country!