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Historical, Generational Trauma Haunt Vietnamese Seniors in U.S.

Posted: Jan 21, 2012


Editor’s Note: The Vietnam War continues in the depression of many Vietnamese seniors decades after moving to the U.S.

Part 2 of series. Read Part 1 here.

ORANGE COUNTY, Calif.—Kim Trần smiled as she talked about her life in Vietnam before April 30, 1975—the Fall of Saigon. She described everyone as happy and having faith for their futures.

However, her smile fell as she detailed her experiences resulting from North Vietnam’s Communist invasion of South Vietnam. It led to her husband being jailed in so-called “re-education,” or labor camps.

Forced Labor

Prior to the Fall of Saigon, Trần’s husband was a high-ranking officer in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. Along with hundreds of thousands of former South Vietnamese military officers, religious leaders, former United States government employees and political dissidents, Mr. Trần was forced to labor in the camps for over 12 hours a day. He and the others were indoctrinated in communist ideology at nights, said Trần’s wife.

“They were treated like prisoners,” she added.

After her husband was jailed, the new regime inspected their home, Mrs. Trần said, and confiscated her car and electronic equipment.

She, too, was jailed for three days, as the authorities were conducting a thorough investigation on her husband, she said.

“I was very, very worried about my children at home without anyone to take care of them,” she recalled. At the time, the oldest of her four children was only 12.

Once released, Mrs. Trần worried about how to make a living and support her family. With her husband imprisoned in the camps through 1988, she would visit every month, and bring him food.

Suzie Dong-Matsuda, a mental health professional and community volunteer, said in an interview that the men imprisoned in Vietnam’s labor camps suffered starvation, abuse, humiliation, emotional and human rights violations.

One long-lasting result of the imprisonments, said Dong-Matsuda, was the unintentional abandonment of the men’s families. There was a huge gap between the fathers and children they were forced to leave behind.

“We were very miserable,” Mrs. Trần said. On top of not seeing their father, she went on, her children were not allowed to pursue their education and the family was oppressed under the new regime. “I was very terrified,” she stated.

Dong-Matsuda explained that Vietnam’s history is one of war and subjugation. The small but strategically placed peninsula has endured being invaded and the occupied by the Chinese for 1,000 years, then colonized by the French for a 100 years, followed by the civil war between the North and South, which had the massive backing of the United States from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s.

“We’re talking about historical and generational trauma,” Dong-Matsuda said. People lost loved ones, and while some children grew up without their fathers, others were forced to participate in war efforts.

Women, like Mrs. Trần, were deprived of their partners and raised their children on their own, she said.

Then, there was the migration out of Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon. Dong-Matsuda noted that people unable to be evacuated on planes when the United States pulled out of the war in 1975 resorted to escape by boat or on foot.

Abuse and Discrimination

Many, she continued, were abused, raped and taken advantage of during the migration process. Once they arrived in the United States, Vietnamese, large numbers suffered--and still suffer--more trauma through discrimination, poverty--and intergenerational conflicts with their own children, who rapidly adapted to American customs and attitudes.

Mrs. Trần said that although she is happy now as a naturalized U.S. citizen, she does not like to talk about her experiences in Vietnam, which make her sad.

When she and her family first came to the United States as refugees in 1990, she was depressed because she felt isolated, unable to communicate with others in English.

She vividly remembers her dismay on asking a question of someone who said, “I’m sorry I don’t understand you” and immediately turned away. On telling the story, Mrs. Trần mimicked the person’s quick head turn—and then she burst into a few seconds of laughter. She added that she also lost a job because she was not fluent in English.

Dong-Matsuda observed that although the trauma Vietnamese Americans suffered only developed into clinical depression for some, it’s important for mental health professionals and the public to understand the historical context that has made their community especially vulnerable to depression.

This article, first published in the Viễn Đông, and was written by Vanessa White as part of a MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellowship program created by New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America. It is the second article in a continuing series.

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