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A Portrait of America in Vietnamese Writing about Agent Orange

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Abstract:

From the beginning of the movement to achieve justice for the victims of Agent Orange, Vietnamese writers have told consciousness-raising stories that have helped the exposed to understand their illnesses are not the result of fate, have allowed readers to identify with and to an extent experience the problems of exposure, and have motivated readers to provide both public and private assistance. At the same time, these stories paint a complicated portrait of American identity, suggesting a range of positions in regard to taking responsibility for the problem.

Based on interviews with families suffering from AO-related illnesses, Minh Chuyen’s short story, “A Father and His Children,” traces the devastating intergenerational impact of the American defoliation campaign. The patriarch of the family, the one initially exposed, writes to the CEO of an American chemical company: “As victims of the dioxin in your agent orange, we cannot rest peacefully on our deathbeds. We urge you to bear full responsibility.” He receives no response. And while the disintegration of the family at every level—physical, mental, generational—makes the reader feel the inhumanity of the American corporate identity, the story also suggests another American identity by entwining the family’s fate with that of the Zumwalt family, the American admiral who ordered the defoliation of Vietnam’s inland waterways, his son who commanded a swift boat that navigated those waters and later died of two Agent Orange related illnesses, and his grandson, who was born with severe learning disabilities. The Zumwalts bring one of the family to the US for much needed, yet ultimately cosmetic, therapy. What emerges is a very complicated relationship, and thus a complicated understanding of Americans.

In the story, “Thay Phung,” Ma Van Khang presents a similarly complex view of Americans. On the one hand, Americans are presented as having caused the cancerous tumor that the protagonist will eventually die from, but on the other, the protagonist responds to the news of his terminal illness by exclaiming: “It would be strange if I did not have a tumor! During five years in the jungle, the only water I drank came from below the layer of fallen leaves defoliated by the toxic spray from American planes. If I didn’t die from that, I wouldn’t think much of the invader’s technology!” Phung simultaneously expresses his awareness of the toxicity of the spray, the American’s culpability, and his respect for his enemy’s ability to have produced such technology in the first place.

Such multi-layered responses to Americans in relation to Agent Orange mirrors attitudes many Vietnamese held toward Americans even during the war, as they drew a distinction between ordinary Americans and the American government, recognizing the humanity in the individual and in the people generally while at the same time condemning the government’s imperialistic intrusion into Vietnamese affairs. The current state of affairs concerning Agent Orange continues to bear out this distinction: the US government refuses to take full responsibility, while individuals have led the way in promoting aid and conducting research.
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Name: American Studies Association Annual Meeting
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http://www.theasa.net


Citation:
URL: http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p244118_index.html
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MLA Citation:

Nguyen, Lien. and Waugh, Charles. "A Portrait of America in Vietnamese Writing about Agent Orange" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hyatt Regency, Albuquerque, New Mexico, <Not Available>. 2014-11-30 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p244118_index.html>

APA Citation:

Nguyen, L. and Waugh, C. "A Portrait of America in Vietnamese Writing about Agent Orange" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Hyatt Regency, Albuquerque, New Mexico <Not Available>. 2014-11-30 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p244118_index.html

Publication Type: Internal Paper
Abstract: From the beginning of the movement to achieve justice for the victims of Agent Orange, Vietnamese writers have told consciousness-raising stories that have helped the exposed to understand their illnesses are not the result of fate, have allowed readers to identify with and to an extent experience the problems of exposure, and have motivated readers to provide both public and private assistance. At the same time, these stories paint a complicated portrait of American identity, suggesting a range of positions in regard to taking responsibility for the problem.

Based on interviews with families suffering from AO-related illnesses, Minh Chuyen’s short story, “A Father and His Children,” traces the devastating intergenerational impact of the American defoliation campaign. The patriarch of the family, the one initially exposed, writes to the CEO of an American chemical company: “As victims of the dioxin in your agent orange, we cannot rest peacefully on our deathbeds. We urge you to bear full responsibility.” He receives no response. And while the disintegration of the family at every level—physical, mental, generational—makes the reader feel the inhumanity of the American corporate identity, the story also suggests another American identity by entwining the family’s fate with that of the Zumwalt family, the American admiral who ordered the defoliation of Vietnam’s inland waterways, his son who commanded a swift boat that navigated those waters and later died of two Agent Orange related illnesses, and his grandson, who was born with severe learning disabilities. The Zumwalts bring one of the family to the US for much needed, yet ultimately cosmetic, therapy. What emerges is a very complicated relationship, and thus a complicated understanding of Americans.

In the story, “Thay Phung,” Ma Van Khang presents a similarly complex view of Americans. On the one hand, Americans are presented as having caused the cancerous tumor that the protagonist will eventually die from, but on the other, the protagonist responds to the news of his terminal illness by exclaiming: “It would be strange if I did not have a tumor! During five years in the jungle, the only water I drank came from below the layer of fallen leaves defoliated by the toxic spray from American planes. If I didn’t die from that, I wouldn’t think much of the invader’s technology!” Phung simultaneously expresses his awareness of the toxicity of the spray, the American’s culpability, and his respect for his enemy’s ability to have produced such technology in the first place.

Such multi-layered responses to Americans in relation to Agent Orange mirrors attitudes many Vietnamese held toward Americans even during the war, as they drew a distinction between ordinary Americans and the American government, recognizing the humanity in the individual and in the people generally while at the same time condemning the government’s imperialistic intrusion into Vietnamese affairs. The current state of affairs concerning Agent Orange continues to bear out this distinction: the US government refuses to take full responsibility, while individuals have led the way in promoting aid and conducting research.


Similar Titles:
Why Isn't America Helping People It Hurt During the War? Agent Orange Narratives from Vietnam

The Treadmill of Destruction in the World-System: Agent Orange and America at War with Vietnam


 
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