Restaurant Reviews

The Things We Still Carry

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Right then, on the oldies station that served as our dining music, Elton John started singing "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," and the paradox of the situation struck me. The song took me back to my college years and the war in Vietnam. I was the same age as these Vietnamese-American kids are now.

My fortune cookie said, "A good laugh and a good cry both cleanse the mind."

Former U.S. senator Bob Kerrey's agonies have brought back memories for all of us. Getting tear-gassed by the police during street protests was about the extent of my combat experience. My father, who fought with the marines in Korea, thought I was a coward for protesting. I ducked out with a student deferment, and I'm glad I avoided the war. But I have a deep sense of guilt and shame about it, and a feeling of betrayal toward those who fought and died there.

Two summers ago I took my kids to Washington, D.C., for a visit. While we were wandering around the Mall, we came upon the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and stopped in for a look. When I walked up to the black wall covered with names, tears started flowing down my cheeks. "Why are you crying, Daddy?" my daughters asked.

"I don't know," I answered truthfully.

In response to the Kerrey flap, the media have been airing the squawkings of the same old Vietnam-era hawks and doves. We've heard these pat answers and easy morals before. And they are as wrong now as they were then.

In Houston, there is a group whose opinions about the war I am much more interested in: the Vietnamese-American college students. Which is why I have come back to Thien Kim for lunch today.

Houston has one of the largest Vietnamese communities in the country; current estimates run as high as 46,000 people. The immigrants began arriving after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Some were elite government and business leaders, and some refugees. The college kids hanging around Thien Kim are their children.

There are six students sitting at a round table, five males and one female. Several are members of the Vietnamese International Students Association at the University of Houston. I really want to ask them a question, so I walk to their table and introduce myself.

I explain that 30 years ago, when I was their age, I was asked to go to Vietnam to fight for their country. And I ask them, "If war broke out in Vietnam tomorrow, and it looked like there was a good chance of overthrowing the communist government, would you go fight?"

"No way," they all agree.

"Why not?" I ask. "It's your country."

"It would be brother fighting brother," one student explains.

"Hopefully we've learned something from history," says Andy Chau, a 24-year-old UH student. "Wars don't solve anything."

For these students, who grew up while the communist regimes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were falling, the war in Vietnam must seem anachronistic. Chau's history lesson is direct: Governments fail only when people refuse to put up with them anymore. War can't bring that kind of change; it can only cause suffering and death.

The students tell me that the South Vietnamese flags on Travis were put out on April 30, the 26th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. With the rallies and flags, some members of the local Vietnamese community are trying to keep the memory of a free homeland alive, much like the anti-Castro activists in Miami. But the kids don't seem sympathetic toward the pro-democracy forces. They are pragmatists.

"Vietnam will be communist as long as China is communist," one student bluntly informs me.

"Our student group tries to aid the Vietnamese people directly without getting involved in politics," Chau says. For instance, when floods devastated Vietnam recently, the students raised $26,000 among the local Vietnamese and channeled the money into the waterlogged country through religious groups. "Let the U.S. government deal with the Vietnamese government, and we'll just deal with the people."

"Did the United States do any good in Vietnam?" I ask them.

"No, I think the U.S. was there to pursue its own political interests," says 25-year-old Lucia Tran.

I wonder how their opinions as Vietnamese-Americans would differ from those of their purely Vietnamese parents. Like the traditional hot-and-sour fish soup with the Southern catfish and Texas jalapeños in it, Vietnamese culture has undergone an Americanization in Houston. The second generation is proud of their Vietnamese identity, but they are also recognizably American.

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Robb Walsh
Contact: Robb Walsh