Vietnam war memorial. [InSapphoWeTrust/Flickr][some rights reserved]“...are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana wrote the line in 1905 in “The Life of Reason”, and Winston Churchill remembered it well enough to paraphrase it in 1948. But, nonetheless, according to most contemporary politicians, the real aspects of history suck. Just make things up as you go along. And maybe, if you yell your version of the past loudly enough, you might become president.
I have been getting Memorial Day missives, and I am puzzled at what people want to remember. And why. I understand and empathize with those reminding all the revisionists out there of what was going on underneath the turmoil and hippie self-righteousness of the Vietnam era. The country needs to accept the fact that it wasn’t black and white. But I have received wails concerning everything from the National Rifle Association and public gun-toting to military discounts-- all in connection to this Day. I don’t know why I personally have become a magnet for such thoughts, but it has indeed had an effect on me.
Our blunders into Southeast Asia are an especially appropriate subject here in New Orleans. We have a huge Vietnamese population, and their influence has been profound. Interestingly, most of the refugees from Hanoi in the North that managed to get out were old-world French-educated Roman Catholics, escaping the Communists. They have settled in Algiers and around the Mary Queen of Vietnam church in New Orleans East. The neighborhood has fantastic bakeries, and delectable Vietnamese versions of New Orleans poboys on rice-and-wheat-flour baguettes called bánh mì. Those who got out of the South were predominantly Buddhists running from the corrupt and brutal dictators of Saigon, and have settled most heavily in Avondale and around several temples on the Westbank. Oddly enough, the Americanized Buddhists have the best barbecue: thịt nướng.
So, food and religion appear to rank above politics as centering factors among the displaced of Southeast Asia. Rather like old world New Orleans.
The new arrivals were shunted aside as transgressors at first, when the first Vietnamese resettlers started showing up after the Fall of Saigon in 1975, and began to gather in vast numbers in southern Louisiana. The locals were overwhelmed and frightened. Popular opinon was that these people were the reason we had gotten involved in that god-forsaken war, and they were the sole reason we lost it.
This knee-jerk inaccuracy faded with time. The population of the working class neighborhoods into which the Vietnamese moved eventually realized that, hey, these are just people who love to fish and drink beer; they have rice and hot sauce as staples of their diets; they thrive in hot weather, and, they can deal with the monsoons.
Even Thomas Beller, food critic for Travel+Leisure Magazine, remarked on the similarities between the New Orleans and Vietnamese cuisines.
Well, ok then, since that's what we do here already, you can stay.
The new community weathered the effects of 2005s Hurricane Katrina better than most segments of the city, and rallied around their parish church for resettlement before most neighborhoods had even pumped the floodwaters out.
In 2008 Anh "Joseph" Cao, an attorney from eastern New Orleans who had fled Saigon as a child, became the first Vietnamese-American in Congress. He won in a district that had been gerrymandered to give African-Americans a say in elections. Even though two of every three voters were, and remain, registered Democrats, the Republican Cao won handily over the discredited African-American Democrat William Jefferson. Cao lasted one term, but now in 2016, he is back in the race for the US Senate.
Five years after Katrina, the state and the Vietnamese community were hit hard by another disaster. CNN noted that the fishermen had become an extremely important part of the local economy, and therefore were deeply affected by the 2010 BP spill:
A third of all fishermen in the Gulf are Vietnamese, making them arguably the most affected minority out there. More than 24,000 people of Vietnamese origin live in Louisiana, according to the last completed census. About 6,000 live within a two-mile radius in the neighborhood of New Orleans East -- distinguishing it, the area's priest says, as the greatest concentration of Vietnamese people outside of Vietnam.
Thịt Nướng [Pockafwye/flickr][some rights reserved]
And now it is Memorial Day 2016. Last Sunday my partner and I ate at Hoa Hong 9 (9 Roses), a family-oriented Vietnamese restaurant in Gretna on the Westbank, for what is their most formal meal of the week--which we love. People-watching is much more enlightening than staring at a wall-suspended TV, even though many at 9 often do, especially during football season. At least three generations sit around almost every table, often four. I have noticed though, that on successive visits to the place over recent years, each time there are fewer women wearing the old-style dresses, and fewer patriarchs are in suit and tie as they preside over the table. And now, the restaurant has added “Chinese” items to the traditional menu, hoping to pull in more “Americans”.
This follows the predominant opinion that the unique character of the community, while tighter than ever in many ways, is beginning to inexorably dilute.
Family remains the key to retaining their old ways while also becoming completely realized Americans. I have had many Vietnamese students over the last eleven years, and even those best assimilated into the culture, with perfect uptown high-school sorority accents, punk hairstyles and Saks jewelry, somehow remain occasionally subject to a haunted mind-set. Lovely, creative, incredibly intelligent kids from good families, with only the fear of failure to beat.
So, yes, I am remembering the veterans of various wars our country has fought. Yes, I am thinking about guns and the terrible havoc they cause for their creators and owners. I remember those who are gone, I do, and I acknowledge all that they so generously gave.
But I remember the survivors, too. Wherever they came from. And so, we can learn one more lesson, not just from the past, but from the present too.