National Defeat Day - National Liberation Day

Flipping through my United States passport as if it were a comic book, the young customs man at the Noi-Bai Airport, near Hanoi, appeared curious. "Brother, when did you leave Vietnam?"

"Two days before National Defeat Day," I said without thinking. It was an exile's expression, not his. "God! When did that happen?" he asked.

"The thirtieth of April, 1975," I answered.

"But, brother, don't you mean National Liberation Day?" he said, while trying to suppress a giggle.

If this conversation had occurred a decade or so earlier, the difference would have created a dangerous gap between the Vietnamese and the returning Vietnamese-American. But this happened a couple of decades after the war had ended, when the walls were down, the borders porous, and as I studied the smiling young official, it occurred to me that there was something about this moment, an epiphany. "Yes, brother, I suppose I do mean liberation day." Not everyone remembers the date with a smile. It marked the Vietnamese Diaspora, boat people, refugees.

On April 28, 1975, my family and I escaped from Saigon in a crowded C-130 cargo plane a few hours before the airport was bombed. We arrived at the Guam refugee camp to hear the BBC's tragic account of Saigon's demise: U.S. helicopters flying over the chaotic city, Vietcong tanks rolling in, Vietnamese climbing over the gate into the U.S. embassy, boats fleeing down the Saigon River toward the South China Sea.

In time, April 30 became the birth date of an exile's culture, built on defeatism and a sense of tragic ending. For a while, many Vietnamese in America talked of revenge, of blood debts, of the exile's anguish. Their songs had nostalgic titles: "The Day When I Return" and "Oh, Mother Vietnam, We Are Still Here."

April 30, 1976: A child of 12 with nationalistic fervor, I stood in front of San Francisco City Hall with other refugees. I waved the gold flag with three horizontal red stripes. I shouted (to no one in particular): "Give us back South Vietnam!"

April 30, 1979: An uncle told me there was an American plan to retake our homeland by force: "The way Douglas MacArthur did for the South Koreans in the fifties." My 18-year-old brother declared that he would join the anti-Communist guerrilla movement in Vietnam. My father sighed.

April 30, 1983: I stayed awake all night with Vietnamese classmates from Berkeley to listen to monotonous speeches by angry old men. "National defeat must be avenged by sweat and blood!" one vowed.

But through the years, April 30 has come to symbolize something entirely different to me. Although I sometimes mourn the loss of home and land, it's the American landscape and what it offers that solidify my hyphenated identity. This date of tragic ending, from an optimist's point of view, is also an American rebirth, something close to the Fourth of July.

I remember whispering to a young countryman during one of those monotonous April 30 rallies in the mid-1980s: "Even as the old man speaks of patriotic repatriation we've already become Americans." Assimilation, education the English language, the American "I" -- these have carried me and many others further from that beloved tropical country than the C-130 ever could. Each optimistic step the young Vietnamese takes toward America is tempered with a series of betrayals of Little Saigon's parochialism, its sentimentalities and the old man's outdated passion.

When did this happen? Who knows? One night, America quietly seeps in and takes hold of one's mind and body, and the Vietnamese soul of sorrows slowly fades away. In the morning, the Vietnamese American speaks a new language of materialism: his vocabulary is peppered with words like Mercedes Benz and two-car garage and double income.

My brother never made it to the Cambodian jungle. The would-be guerrilla fighter became instead a civil engineer. My talk of endless possibilities is punctuated with favorite verbs -- transcend, redefine, become. "I want to become a writer," I declared to my parents one morning. My mother gasped.

April 30, 1975: defeat or liberation? "It was a day of joyous victory," said a retired Communist official in Hanoi. "We fought and realized Uncle Ho's dream of national independence." Then he asked for Marlboro cigarettes and a few precious dollars. Nhon Nguyen, a real estate salesman in San Jose, and a former South Vietnamese naval officer, said: "I could never forget the date. So many people died. So much blood. I could never tolerate Communism, you know."

Mai Huong, a young, smartly dressed Vietnamese businesswoman in Saigon, had another opinion. Of course it was National Liberation Day, she said. "But it's the South," she told me with a wink, "that liberated the North." Indeed, conservative Uncle Ho has slowly admitted defeat to entrepreneurial and cosmopolitan Miss Saigon. She has taken her meaning from a different uncle, you know, Uncle Sam.

The customs man, on the other hand, stamped my passport, said: "In truth, brother, there are no winners, no losers. You're lucky, brother. You left Vietnam and became an American."

April 30th, 2004: In the Berkeley hills, in a house that gave way to the bay, my Vietnamese-American friends and I watch Gone With the Wind for the umpteenth time and looked for the scene of our unrequited romantic longings. Scarlet, teary-eyed with wind-blown hair, returning to take up the life she'd left behind in forlorn Tara. But she is doing something we no longer can. Or rather, we go back only to look and sometimes enter the houses where we once lived, and then we take leave.

April 30, 2005, tomorrow: I am in Sydney talking to Vietnamese Australians who are commemorating the event.

Children of defeat, self-liberating adults, we hug and, over a couple of bottles of dry Syrah, recount to each other, and to our American-born children, our own stories of flight.

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