This is the first story in a four-part series, published the week of Sept. 11, 2018, by Drew Pham.
We are told we must never forget that day in September. I’ve added it to that prescribed list of American things to remember, like the names of all 50 states and the Pledge of Allegiance and the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” There’s more to that list—rules for migrants and their children: to speak clean, unaccented English. The neighborhoods and parishes and cities in which I am and am not welcome. That my citizenship, my very Americanness is, and always will be, conditional, hyphenated—Vietnamese-American. They’re impossible to forget, like that clear blue September day, which now demarcates time—how it built a wall between then and now, who I thought I was and who I’ve become, what was true and that which has slipped into mythology. The beginning of a war. The end of my childhood. The end of my time as the enemy and the vilification of another migrant people. The power of those screens playing and replaying the moment of tragedy is so strong, the images so monolithic. I remain in its shadow, and I fear that with time, those towers and all their mnemonic force will one day blot out every voice and memory but the prescribed, the enshrined, the fetishized. But so often, I forget how blue the sky was, how the hint of a chill mingled with the warmth of a dying summer.
I was 13. I’d always loved autumn most of all the seasons. The slow onset of color in the trees, the cool air. It calmed my mother, too. It reminded her of home, how a cool wind would break over the green mountains standing guard over the Red River basin. She’d passed that fondness on to me. I’d gone to my high school in Alexandria, Virginia, that day thinking about falling in love, hands held and first kisses and slow dances at homecoming. I was thinking about freshman year, the incandescent future that I’d been sure would follow. I had wanted to be an artist, like my mother never got to be. She became a teacher, then an engineer. Practical disciplines. She’d encouraged me to draw, paint, sew, to make beautiful things. My family had always been teachers, or, in times of war, soldiers. I was in the drama classroom when my teacher turned on the TV. I watched the smoldering buildings, the darts of steel and bodies and fuel collide into them, and knew I would not be a teacher or engineer or artist. I stumbled into the hallway, to the lunchroom, huddled students vibrating, disarrayed.
Everything from that day is scattered and disconnected, yet each moment, each image stands out and draws me back into it. People were saying it’d be okay, people saying it was the Russians, the Chinese, that it was an accident—a horrible accident. They said the Pentagon had been hit. So many of my classmates’ parents worked there. My mother would sometimes go there for meetings. The phones were down. The Pentagon was hit. The smell of stale spaghetti residue on the floor, how it stuck to my palms when I’d fallen, crying for I don’t know what. Maybe the future I’d somehow already known was lost. Maybe for my mother—what was she doing today? I didn’t know. The phones were down. The Pentagon was hit. Maybe for my lab partner across the way, a quiet-mannered girl who’d surprise you and flash her wit like a hidden knife. That day there was nothing quiet or witty about the way she cried. She couldn’t reach her mother, an Air Force colonel at the Pentagon. Lunch ended. I went to my next class, eyes red and stinging. After that, they let us out early.
On the bus ride home, we passed a Hindu temple that already had been defaced with what looked like red paint, or pig’s blood; I never got close enough to tell. I remember what it felt like to be the enemy, an anonymous yellow extra to be raped and slaughtered in America’s war movies, the squawking villain who puts the revolver on the table, who electrocutes the hero on a steel bed frame. And then suddenly, what it felt like not to be the enemy anymore. I thought I wouldn’t suffer slurs like “chink” and “zipperhead” and “slope” and “gook” any longer. Relief, I felt relief. And shame for that relief. I remember coming home to my father as he watched it unfold on the news. But memory is a tricky thing: Sometimes I remember the hint of a smile on his face, sometimes I remember him saying that America was like the rest of the world now, though I can’t be sure.
I don’t like remembering my father’s grim satisfaction as he watched the towers burn. It runs counter to what the rest of the country remembers; that smile reminds me that Vietnamese were—perhaps, deep down, still are—the enemy. The story goes that this nation came together that September day, and in many ways that’s true. In other ways, it’s woefully false. I remember my history teacher skipping the scheduled lesson, either the day of or the one after. How easily we lose such details. He told us that angry men and talking heads on the news and the man in the White House were going to tell us we should go out there and get those A-rabs, that they’d try to rile us up into supporting a war he knew was coming. He wanted us to think for ourselves, to consider one another’s humanity. I wish there’d been more people like my history teacher. Common people. Powerful people. I wish they’d been there when I was growing up and bullied on the playground, and I wish they’d been there in ’47 before my parents’ country was labeled the enemy, or in ’56 to respect a peace treaty that would’ve reunited a broken nation, in ’64 and ’68 and ’72 and all those years that might have prevented all that hurt, even if it meant I would never have been born. But people like my history teacher are not so common, not so powerful. If I must continue to live the consequences of war, I’d like to remember this one decent man who on that day in September, or maybe the day after, told us to remember a little humanity, a little kindness.
I watched as we invaded Afghanistan, Iraq. I watched the reverence my countrymen paid to soldiers with standing ovations at ball games and yellow ribbon bumper stickers and even from anti-war protestors who supported the troops, even if they didn’t support the invasion of Iraq. It was as if everyone thought our country had moved past the specter of Viet Nam—the myth of the spat-upon veteran. As if that was the most important part, as if millions of dead Vietnamese—no different than my father or mother—counted less than my adoptive country’s ego. We were still extras in America’s war movie. I went on remembering—all through high school and college and the Army—that Hindu temple, the movies with Vietnamese villains. I went on watching my country turn on another group whose Americanness was—still is, always will be—conditional, hyphenated. I watched it all thinking that if there were ever a way to erase the role of enemy from my heart, if not my skin, then it would be by joining the military. And as wild a fantasy as it had been, I thought maybe, just maybe, I could be better than the generation before, that I could, in some small way, be a more compassionate soldier, fight a more humane war. I swore my oath of enlistment at 17.
I’m 30 now. Once a scared boy trying to make sense of a catastrophe. Once a soldier. These memories of mine—between the day the war started and all the days that followed—tumble and break against one another; fragments and shards lie side by side in a jumbled mess. I see the face of the man I killed, how peaceful he looked, and he bleeds into the clear blue morning when the war started. A fever in the cancer ward radiates from the searing barrel of my rifle in a firefight. The hard-packed Afghan trails and paths confuse themselves for the cracked glass, refuse, and fallen leaves strewn over the sidewalks along the tree-lined block outside my apartment. My mother takes the place in my mind of a woman who’d lost her son to an American bomb. My father’s face etches itself on the faces of angry villagers in a bazaar. Memory is a strange thing.