Scarred by war, scattered on the far shores of diaspora, displaced
by the winds of Operation Dispersion, the refugees once gathered,
with the whole clan (ten, twenty, thirty) in tow, at the Tết Festival in San Jose,
to celebrate the greatest joy on earth: the shared fortune of being alive.
During the early 80s, the refugees came searching for communion,
looking to ease the pain by sharing with each other the individual stories
of a collective grief:
tales of running for their lives after the fall of Saigon,
accounts of drifting in a boat on the unforgiving seas, more often than not,
right into the waiting hands of pirates,
who assaulted brothers with machetes, abducted and raped sisters,
threw fathers overboard, leaving behind mothers and children
to sort out how suddenly fate could turn.
Once bound by the fresh wounds of loss—loss of loved ones, loss of homeland,
loss of self—stitched together by a deep ache
and a profound longing for community,
the refugees assembled each year to honor
a new year, and a new life, in a new country.
Unlike the early years, when the Tết Festival was as overcrowded as Pulau Bi-dong,
this year’s festival, some three decades later, is as desolate and as somber
as the abandoned refugee camp after its inhabitants had left
for the modernized worlds of Little Saigon and Vietnam Town.
Now, what remains is the shell of the shipwrecked trawler, decomposing steadily
on a distant bay, whose few remaining faithful come to pay tribute—
squeezing into lamenting áo dìa tunics from the vanquished old country—
searching for the comfort of kinship to anchor their wandering souls.
What is found today at the festival of remembrance (or forgetting)
is hardly comforting:
pathetic and expensive kiddy rides (some of which are defunct) without riders,
an unadorned stage with a kids’ karate performance only a few friends and family come to watch (It used to be decorated with colorful banners calling for “Freedom
and Human Rights for Vietnam”), a desperate MC yelling out, through the ear-splitting loudspeakers, lottery ticket sales for a drawing no one pays any attention to
(Five dollars each for a chance to win $125! Hurry, today’s your lucky day!
This year’s your lucky year!),
three pathetic food stands selling bánh mì sandwiches with hardly any meat,
bún riêu soup with hardly any flavor, shrimp rolls with hardly any shrimp.
The booths used to provide valuable information to the recent arrivals
(what governmental programs are available for the elderly and the handicapped
or how to fill out public assistance forms),
and once proudly displayed cultural artifacts and photos of life back home,
have been overtaken by empty advertising kiosks peddling insurance,
pitching tours to everywhere (Thailand, Canada, Australia, France) but Vietnam,
selling unwanted trinkets and outdated stuffed animals.
To overcome boredom, the booth attendants sit and surf on phones, anxious
to get home to celebrate the real Tết, killing time
until someone asks about something or other, to which they’d quickly
spring into action and start rattling off their sales pitch,
with a sudden burst of enthusiasm, overly eager to close the deal
and make a small commission so they could then fill the red envelops with lucky money
to distribute to expectant nephews and nieces.
Curiously, there’s a Homeland Security booth with immigration patrol agents
looking for new recruits. Is recruiting the children of former refugees
to prevent new ones from coming in effective?
Are the former Vietnamese refugees more experienced on what to look for,
and therefore, better equipped to deal with the new Middle Eastern terrorists and
asylum seekers who want to scam (and caravan)
their way into America?
One of the few popular booths is the massage kiosk, where the elderly blissfully sink
into reclining chairs, looking to rid themselves of the backaches
Tiger Balm alone could not.
Where are the elaborate dragon dances
and firecracker detonations of years past?
Are the Vietnamese so assimilated that they now prefer to see these performances
at Grand Century Mall while they go shopping?
What happened to the music booths selling the latest CDs and karaoke videos
of Vietnamese pop stars? Does Paris by Night still light up Vietnamese homes?
Is cải lương now only a fabric of the cultural historian’s imagination?
And where are the booths asking for donations to combat communism?
What happened to the decorated veterans in combat fatigues and red berets
who used to somberly display their metals, their allegiance, to the yellow flag
with the three red stripes?
They were once a regular fixture at this event, standing in solidarity,
saluting the motherland flag as they proudly sung the fatherland anthem
to a crowd ready to rekindle that feeling of fight (or at least donate to the cause).
Have they given up the struggle to keep alive the old Republic?
Or are they too frail to make it out now that they are platooned in nursing homes?
Where have all the Vietnamese gone?
Have they lost themselves in the suburbs?
And where are the young adults?
At a backyard BBQ? Watching a Niner game?
Too hungover from clubbing last night?
Since becoming doctors, dentists, lawyers and tech CEOs, they no longer have time?
Has the past been drowned out now that they’re swimming
in the success of the Silicon Dream?
Or are they dining at a new favorite steakhouse?
At an all-you-can-eat Chinese seafood buffet?
Even the free and convenient parking
and the low $10 admission fee (unadjusted for inflation)
are not enough to attract community.
Other than a few nostalgic old ladies and their grandkids showing off
newly-hemmed áo dìa—the only spot color in the gray, abandoned airfield—
what is Vietnamese about Tết now at the fairgrounds in San Jose?
Bamboo huts set up around the premises equipped with bonsai plants,
fruit bowl decorations and conical hats guests could wear and take pictures in?
Who’s Tết is this for?
What happened to the talk therapy of a shared tragedy?
What happened to the time
when animated discussions about life and exodus and exile fervidly filled the air,
when the ghosts of yesteryear floated in the incense smoke?
Where is the incense smoke?
What’s left is a community whose collective memory of war and its aftermath
appears to be fading fast (at least publicly) as it leaves behind a haunted sanctuary
whose few remaining spirits linger, sadly, searching for lost time.
Spirited away, I drive back to the Oakland Hills to celebrate Tết our way,
by feasting on Japanese food at our favorite sushi joint.