Monday, December 16, 2013

What Nelson Mandela Taught Me, a Vietnamese Refugee, About Justice and Reconciliation

Seeing and hearing Nelson Mandela speak at the Oakland Coliseum on June 30, 1990 was a DNA-changing experience. He had saved me from becoming a flag-waving anti-Communist Vietnamese immigrant.
To the thousands of Vietnamese refugees arriving in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan was not just the 40th President of the United States, but also our "savior," our champion against communist tyranny and oppression. Or so we thought. I was destined to become a Republican in order to repay a debt of gratitude to him, but then I learned about apartheid South Africa.
For someone who had risked his life escaping Communist Vietnam, it was difficult to fathom that while Reagan was professing to fight communist tyranny and oppression, his administration was aiding and abetting racial tyranny and oppression in South Africa.
I arrived in the Bay Area at the end of 1981 as a 17 year-old refugee during the height of the anti-apartheid campaign on
This "Press Aide" badge has been
with me at all times since 1990.
college campuses, especially at UC Berkeley. Initially, I didn’t yet have the wherewithal to understand what was going on until I enrolled at Merritt College in the Oakland Hills in 1984.
Many of those involved in the Third World Student movement at UC Berkeley and San Francisco State University had now become professors and instructors. Merritt College Chicano Studies instructor Froben Lozada was one of them. He taught a class called “Racism in America.”
I took the class out of curiosity and interest in history and politics. I was still on track to become a Republican so Lozada and I had many fights, even though my English wasn’t quite proficient enough for political debates. For whatever reason, he took a liking to me. He directed me to books, literature and films about the Civil Rights Movement, the Farm Workers Union, the Black Panther Party and, of course, South Africa.
I was shaken to the core. I grew up in what was then the Republic of South Vietnam or ‘free’ Vietnam, America’s ally in Southeast Asia. USA was “Number One” to us. America had come to Vietnam to hold against the tide of communist tyranny and oppression. She could do no wrong.
A moment forever etched in my mind occurred when I found out many black soldiers suffered racist abuse at the hands of their white comrades in Vietnam, and then came back to what amounted to second class status in America. It took me days to shake it off.
Then came the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, which had been championed by then-Oakland U.S. Congressman Ron Dellums. When President Reagan vetoed the bill in 1985, which had been passed by both the House and the Senate, it dawned on me that his anti-Communism stance was all politics. South Africa’s racist brutality took a backseat to geopolitics. (The veto was overridden by both Houses of Congress shortly after.)
From that day on, Froben Lozada became my favorite teacher, whom I continued to keep in touch with until the early 2000s. Lozada died in January of this year at age 83, a fighter to the end.
I went on to take part in the Anti-Apartheid Movement at San Francisco State University, where I had transferred, as well as other civil rights issues. When Nelson Mandela walked out of Victor Verster Prison on February 11, 1990, I felt a sense of jubilation and liberation as if I had lived in South Africa.
Upon his release from prison, Mandela and his then-wife, Winnie, embarked on a 12-day, eight-city tour of the United States, which included a visit to Oakland, California on June 30, 1990. I signed up to work the event as a volunteer.
With previous experience working for the Merritt College student newspaper, I was assigned to work as a “Press Aide.” I was able to see his easy smile and folksy manner up close before he took the stage to a rapturous welcome, an indescribable atmosphere.
For a newly-arrived immigrant, one who had escaped his country by boat, it was an experience and a memory that possibly nothing will rival for as long as I live.
After the victorious North Vietnamese overran South Vietnam in 1975, uniting the two halves into the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, a communist state, purges and persecutions were carried out against those who were part of the American-backed regime, of which my father was a member.
Millions of Vietnam’s southerners suffered. As many as two million took to sea to escape, to find a better life. I was one of them. Like all Vietnamese refugees, we had resentment and hatred for the regime that forced us out. It had become our sworn-enemy even though we were fellow Vietnamese.
But when Mandela came out of prison after twenty-seven years, his words portrayed none of the resentment and hatred for his jailers or the regime that had tried to kill him. His message was one of reconciliation, of rebuilding a new South Africa inclusive of those who had oppressed and brutalized non-white South Africans. No purges and persecutions. It was a shocking revelation. 
What I learned from Mandela was that hatred and resentment only poison your own mind, not your enemy’s.
The following year, I was able to put aside my apprehension and fear of communist Vietnam. During that time, visiting Vietnam was seen by many in the overseas Vietnamese community as aiding and abetting an enemy state, which needed to be brought down. But I went back to see my family for the first time in eleven years. I was part of the first wave of former boat people to have done so.

This post was originally published at Hyphen Magazine. Would like to thank Momo Chang for coaxing it out of me. Without her persistence and patience, it would have taken me another year to finish it, Mandela's 1st death anniversary.

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