Sound of Sanity
Kathy L. Nguyen, USA/Vietnam
June 11, 2003
"What are you doing down there? Why are you hiding in the dark?" demanded my mother. My father sat crouched in a corner of the basement, his hands over his ears.
"They’re after me. I know they’re watching me. Get out of here!"
My mother’s voice shakes with anger and fear when she tells me about my father’s latest episode. "He’s getting worse," I said. "I don’t know how long we can go on like this," she stammered. "Either he dies or I die, but I can’t go on like this, living with a crazy person."
My father is becoming more and more paranoid. He is convinced that everyone is after him—corporations, people at work, strangers on the bus, neighbors, family friends. He’s even started accusing my mother of conspiring with "them" against him. When he tells me this, I sit quietly and nod my head. I am afraid he will explode, as he always does, when he thinks we don’t believe him, or even worse, if we think he’s crazy.
It’s been two years since my father had his first MRI, which showed that there was bleeding in his brain, a tiny seepage. It appeared as a dark spot on the X-ray image. The bleeding was slow, but consistent, perhaps from an old wound, a blow to the head, the doctors aren’t sure. The neurologists can’t confirm whether it has anything to do with his mental state. What they do know is that it could set him off at any time. He is a ticking time bomb. The doctors advise my mother not to let him drive. It is vital that he take his medication, and see a psychiatrist.
My father is deaf in one ear. An artillery commander in the South Vietnamese Army, he became deaf from the shell shock of combat, the only physical injury, or so we thought, of a life lived in war—fifteen years fighting and another thirty just trying to survive. War does not end when the killing stops. For us, the American War in Vietnam is everpresent. It shadows everything in our lives, our past, our present, even our future. It is, in Arundhati Roy’s words, another kind of "war without end."
It’s been twenty-eight years since my family fled Vietnam and came to the United States. And everything we have done since, the things we do, the tasks of living, of surviving, of trying to get on with our lives, yet still trying to reconnect to a past we know is irretrievable—that time before the war—are all attempts to make up for the innumerable losses of war. The loss of family, parents and grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends. Loss of home, country, status and dignity. Loss of power, language, culture, heritage, past, dreams, hopes. The loss of tranquility, a sense of belonging. And for my father, the loss of his mind, because for people like him, a war zone is a state of mind. It is a place of fear. The mind cannot function because of the traumas of the heart.
My mother tells me about her feelings and experiences as a refugee and a person who was directly involved in the war in Vietnam. She was a translator for American military officials at the so-called "mini-Pentagon," the war headquarters established in Saigon by the US Department of Defense. Like so many Vietnamese caught in the American war machine, she too, was forced to find a way to survive under siege by a much larger and more powerful force. And she has this to say about her experience: "I feel resentful and betrayed. On a personal level, I truly appreciate the kindness and generosity of the American people who helped us settle here. On the other hand, I think the loss of millions of lives, both during the war and after, when thousands more perished at sea trying to escape from the devastated country, the separation of families, and destruction of homes, these are inconsolable and unjustifiable. I remember how the South Vietnamese people and their stupid leaders used to trust and place so much hope in the leaders of the great Unites States, whom they naively regarded as their saviors, believing they really wanted freedom and democracy, and cared enough for a little country like ours to send their soldiers to die there! Looking back, I see that the South Vietnamese leaders underestimated their own worth and looked down upon themselves and their people, and allowed a foreign power to do the same. Had they looked up to their own history and traditions, they would have found a different way to unite the country and preserve their integrity without foreign intervention. Instead, they led us down a bloody path that spans generations."
There is a phrase that my father uses, "Diec khong so sung." "The deaf are unafraid of the sound of a gun," which I interpret as a warning against the dangers of ignorance, a lack of awareness of the goings-on around you—and their profound consequences. And as I contemplate the past and the current state of war, another war without end, I look with dread upon this new corps of men—somnambulistic fools bent upon destroying so many lives in their quest for power—and I feel caught in a never-ending nightmare, screaming without sound. It is not enough that they have already broken our hearts, time and time again, they attempt also to possess our minds. The only recourse for us who are living, who envision a world freed from oppression, to end the cycle of pain, violence, death and destruction, is to scream outloud our dissent—through writing, teaching, music, art, activism, vigilance and protest—for only then will we wake from this nightmare.
A few months ago I accompanied my father when he went to have another MRI. My father is not comfortable speaking English so he needs me there to translate for him, but I know it is also because he is afraid. I remember the way he looked that afternoon as we hurried to his appointment. I could barely keep up with him. He skipped ahead, like a nervous child. The sun shining in his eyes made him squint. When he looked back at me, I saw that he was terrified, but he tried to force a smile. "Do you think they’ll find something? They should know, right? Maybe they’re right. Maybe I’m crazy?"
The technicians strapped him onto a table that would convey him into the magnetic resonance imaging contraption. Before he slid back into the body of the machine, I squeezed his hand, tight, and assured him, "You’re not crazy."
Kathy L. Nguyen came to the United States with her family after the Vietnam War ended in 1975. She teaches at the City College of San Francisco and Vista College in Berkeley and is working on a novel.