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My War Memories

Posted by envirostats on Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Having lived in Canada since 1980, I’ve come to learn much about the Canadian efforts in various wars past and present. In fact, I’ve seen enough war documentaries over the years in wars in which Canadians have contributed, though not always focused on the Canadian war effort, I’m surprised I haven’t suffered from depression… and I don’t mean that as hyperbolic humour. You try watching all 16 hours of The War documentary on WWII, mostly about the Americans but also about others, and see how you feel afterward! In case you missed the first 9 hours on PBS Detroit last Sunday, there’s another 7 hours this Sunday from 2-9 pm AST. I had seen it all before.

Along with all the Canadian war efforts, I’ve also learned about the Viet Nam War in being from Viet Nam. The interesting thing about how I’ve learned and come to view both wars, though, is that it’s as if they were some distant thing I was not all that attached to, little more than the Canadian friends all around me other than that I have Vietnamese heritage. I might as well have been first generation rather than having been born in Viet Nam and actually having lived through some years of the war with real memories. That was because my years there were as a toddler, in about as sheltered a war environment as could be, and I have been in a far away environment free of reminders for most of my life.

I was born in Sai Gon, Viet Nam, the last place to fall before the Americans withdrew and the Viet Nam War ended. It wasn’t under seige till the last days of the war in late April 1975, when I was still not yet four years old. The battle was also over pretty quickly since with the American withdrawal, there wasn’t much of a fight being put up. My only memory of it, and the Viet Nam War, was of Sai Gon being bombed while my immediate and maternal extended family sat at the back of our home hoping the bombs wouldn’t hit us. It was the first time I ever saw fear in the face of an adult, who, in my eyes at the age of three, were pretty much invincible as gods who ruled the universe, and I can’t say I’ve ever been afraid of anything since… not even in a few near death experiences. It was my first memory where I could place myself in a time and place, although not correctly my first memory as others I have my Parents have pointed out to be before that fateful day after which our lives would be changed forever.

Many years later, I was told the story of my Maternal Grandfather, the one I only ever saw in an old black and white photo as a young man. That was because he had been taken out into the woods in the middle of the night, along with numerous other male villagers, way back when and shot for being suspected as Communist sympathizers aiding the North Vietnamese. None of them were, and there bodies were never found… or at least identified if found. You didn’t do that sort of stuff in a poor country besieged by war for years on end.

Left on her own, my Maternal Grandmother raised my Mother and two other children in a war-torn, poor and patriarchal society with even more limitations against women. She did this with back breaking hard labour, assisted by the eldest girl sacrificing her education opportunities to help sustain the family financially so the younger ones could take concentrate on school and get a good education for their futures. Maternal Grandma also raised an orphan they took in soon after Maternal Grandpa’s death, with the girl’s Parents having been killed in the war. That was the war life in Viet Nam, and what made Mom’s side of the family so tight knit, still, despite the literal thousands of miles that have separated us all for many years now. Maternal Grandma’s hard life led to her early death before any of her grandchildren were born and all we ever had of her was just a picture like Maternal Grandpa… pictures being a once in a lifetime luxury for most in Viet Nam at the time.

Of course, my Father also fought in the war. He and his siblings, along with Mom’s younger brother, and many of their relatives and friends paid the price after the war through time in labour camps. Some did not make it through, and some never made through the war.

In 1980, my immediate family fled Viet Nam because of the remnants of that war left us with little hope of a bright future, leaving a lot of extended family. Some of them have since also left. But some haven’t and are still not thriving.

All that attachment to war, often being the very few growing up among my friends to know anything about war beyond books and films, and yet I have always had to make a conscious effort to recall it. My limited exposure to it, some told to me later, life in a place far away from it all and lack of reminders have pretty much removed those war memories from my instinctive nature to think of it when it comes to remembering wars and sacrifices others have made for them. That’s not a criticism of anything, just personal insight, which is why I am writing this note. I am indebted to all the Canadians past and present who fought for the freedom I enjoy today as a refugee from a less fortunate place, and I have the utmost gratitude for it. However, I also have my own war to remember because it has affected my life just as much, and certainly much more personally… memories I will and must never forget, whether I remember them first or last.

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