Have you ever wondered the weight that words can have and how similar nouns or phrases might just express different concepts and thus have difference consequences for those who say it?
If you ever watched President Obama at a press conference you might have noticed that he pauses every so often for what seems as mere milliseconds. This might pass unnoticed to the untrained ear but certainly has nothing to do with his lack of linguistic intelligence. In the contrary, I would probably say that just as President Clinton his linguistic IQ is way up there.
Over the last years, POTUS has turned into one that carefully chooses his words- well aware that whatever he says might have strong repercussions in the country and also the world, as well as his presidency. When he takes those long pauses all I imagine is him going through a myriad of options for the next word he will use and rapidly matching those to the consequences each of them might have if chosen.
A great example of this is can be seen during this press conference from last year, coming on the eve of the release of a widely-anticipated Senate report on ‘enhanced techniques’, in which POTUS takes quite a few pauses and then says this:
Yet, even after he says it, he takes a breather, looks down and one can almost see him realizing the weight that a statement like that has, coming from the President of the most powerful nation in the world.
Now, lets take a ride to the most amazingly fictitious (and idealistic) presidency on TV, President Bartlet’s. During the West Wing’s pilot episode this fascinating exchange takes place between Mary Marsh, member of ‘Religious right’, Josh Lyman, White House deputy Chief of staff, Al Cadwell, another member of ‘Religious right’ and Toby Ziggler, head of communications at The White House.
And just like that we got schooled in the value of words, a process which I have been constantly reminded during my time in Vietnam.
The American War:
It almost feels as if it was yesterday when I had just landed in Bangkok and this very nice man sat down next to me while proceeding to ask me ‘where was I heading to?’. I told him I was on my way to work in Vietanm with people affected by Agent Orange. I’m not really sure when but at some point I mentioned something about ‘The Vietnam War’. He quickly glanced at me and without skipping a beat said ‘The American war’. Confused, I continue chatting with him until we said goodbye. Yet, in my mind this was more than a simple correction or confusion.
The same scenario repeated itself a few times, until I put one and one together.
For us Westeners, the habit of calling all wars by the place where they are/were taking place is almost as common as the usage of the Mercator projection for maps. The problem with those two examples is that they follow a Eurocentric approach which recognizes the West as the axis of it all and, in the case of wars, inconspicuously set the tone on the ownership of such war; Almost as a father who points the finger at his kid while saying ‘This is all your fault and now you have to deal with it’. The truth couldn’t be farther than the truth.
Let’s start with the recognition of wars depending on where they take place. If this is how we name wars, then there would have been four Vietnam wars: the eight-year-long war against France that ended in 1954, the proxy war fought by the United States to prevent communism from spreading, the Chinese offensive in response to Vietnam’s invasion and occupation of Cambodia in 1978 and the five-year-long Japanese occupation during the Second World War. Yet, it was only when Americans troops were involved that this started to be called ‘The Vietnam War’ throughout the western world.
As I asked the Vietnamese people on their thoughts of the war, I’ve have continued to hear as one of struggle to fight for the country’s independence against foreign interference and a true desire to unite the north and south all over again.
And yet, as I look into the different language translations that were given to ‘The Vietnam war’ in the western hemisphere, I find a linguistic pattern. A patter which sets the responsibility of the war in the entire country of Vietnam, almost as if they provoked and asked for it. In reality, the war was one of reactionary moves based on an American foreign policy doctrine called ‘Containment’; A policy which wasn’t necessarily based on fighting an all out war with the communist Soviet Union, but rather to confine communism to their existing boundaries. Unfortunately, as it has continued to happen with most wars, the military actions quickly escalated, created a chain reaction and made things worst for both civilian and military families on both sides.
The people of Vietnam then, in an attempt to set the record straight, have turned the tables and now call such a fatal and sad conflict ‘The American war’.
Chino/China (read Chee-no or Chee-nah in Spanish):
Soon after I arrived to Dong Hoi, I started sharing with some Peruvian family members and friends a few stories of my time in Vietnam.
It didn’t take long before some asked me how was the ‘Chinese cuisine’ (comida china) or said something about my interactions with ‘the Chinese people’ (los chinos). I quickly proceeded to correct them and said that people here weren’t from China and, thus, should be attributed the right term according to their nationality, Vietnamese.
Sadly, this common misconception goes back hundreds of years in time for Latin Americans and it’s still regular practice when referring to somebody with ‘Asian features’. As a matter of fact, if you were to travel to Argentina, Peru, Costa Rica or other country in the region you would find the same disrespectful and misrepresenting word being used on a daily basis. As a Peruvian, such an abrasiveness on the usage of those words might come as a surprise or even have some of my fellow countrymen/countrywomen question my lack of tolerance or humor. Someone might even bring up the fact that people do call others ‘chinos’ or ‘chinas’ in a non-demeaning way but to simply refer to someone with epicanthic folds.
Yet, the fact of it being a generalization remains. My friend Hiro, a former classmate at UPEACE and Japanese citizen, found the usage of it rather discriminatory, borderline offensive and had a hard time trying to change minds during his time in Costa Rica. As a proud Japanese, he felt belittled and stricken out of all the unique and remarkable traits of his Japanese culture. Japan is actually one of the few countries in Asia that has been able to maintain independence throughout most of its time, except for a short period after World War II. Its history is one of great pride: defeating the Mongols twice, kicking one of the world’s super powers butt (Russia), and other amazing feats that make their citizen humbly but gladly say “I’m Japanese”. I can then understand and embrace Hiro’s feeling on what does this generalization does for citizens of other countries other than China, specially those in which their cultures are intrinsically more than just ‘bumper sticker pride’.
The word chino/china not only obliterates years of history, it also minimizes the contributions and uniqueness of citizens from several subregions of Asian nations. It also misrepresents them by putting all in a melting bucket without care for the struggles their countries have endured and perpetuates the well-established stereotypes that go beyond Latin America but that expand throughout the Western world, especially in the media and Hollywood.
What’s most troubling about the usage of the word coming from Latin Americans is the ignorance of its origin, which dates back to the slave trade in the 16th century. People were then called ‘chinos’ as a way to systematically destroy their identity as it related to their country of origin, even when studies continue to show that most of the slaves weren’t even Chinese. Ironically, during the colonization of the Americas, Spaniards often did the same with other communities including Peruvians.
The usage of the word ‘chino/china’ is, to say the least, structural violence exemplified and a horrendous generalization that should be taken out of our Latinos lexicons once and for all.
Saigon vs. Ho Chi Minh City:
Expertise in Vietnamese geography has never been my forté but there have alway been two cities that I’ve frequently heard of in movies, music and broadways shows: Hanoi and Saigon. Hanoi is the capital and where I landed, while Saigon was the capital of South Vietnam and its fall marked the end of the American war.
Yet in 1975 the government decided to rename it ‘Ho Chi Minh City’ (HCMC), a name which has found its fanbase in the youth and the northern Vietnamese mostly. The name HCMC started to been used soon after the end of the American War, specifically in 1976, as a way to honor the revolutionary leader credited with uniting the country. HCMC is commonly used in government publications, activities and official documents while Saigon seems to be the mostly colloquially used by people in their mid-20s and on. In my experience this has been mostly true with the exception of those who use Saigon to refer to it but areas surrounding it (and far from District 1) are often referred as HMCM.
As I continued to ask around and do some research, I started to find out that the main reason why one would use Saigon or HMCM lays on very subtle political nuances.
Vietnamese from the north tend to call it Ho Chi Minh city and their ways are mostly conservative and more party-aligned, meaning they are mostly supportive of the current political system. Then there’s the more liberal and those who call it Sai Gon to embrace the aesthetics, history,culture and overall ways of the old capital of South Vietnam. The third group consists of those who were persecuted, suffered at the hands of the communist regime and might (or might not) had to flee the country. This group is commonly know as Việt Kiều which translates to ‘Vietnamese sojourner’, and it’s not a term of self-identification. Instead, those who had to leave prefer the term Người Việt Hải Ngoại or even Người Việt Tự Do which literally translates to ‘free Vietnamese’. I would love to touch on the history of this group but I might just save that for a future blog post.
As a golden rule, I normally use the name Saigon to refer to the city and when having dealt with government officials I’ve learned to quickly switch to Ho Chi Minh city; After all, I wouldn’t want to be seen as an agent provocateur of sorts since I already have enough to worry about with the different assignments I’ve covered in DC (read protests).
And even though they are all these subtle codes that might be conveyed by the use of one of the other, there’s still those who simply use Saigon because it can be said faster than (‘exhausting’) Ho Chi Minh city. C’est la vie.
Disable vs. Agent Orange victim:
A few weeks before I left for Vietnam, I attended a talk at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) titled ‘ Addressing War Legacies in Vietnam’. In attendance were U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy,Vietnamese ambassador to the U.S, Pham Quang Vinh, Tim Riser who serves as the Democratic Clerk at the Senate Appropriation Subcomittee and Dr. Le Ke Son, Director of the National Research Program on Agent Orange(AO)/Dioxin.
Senator Leahy spoke of the moral obligation that the U.S. has to repair the damage done to millions of military and civilians families who were exposed to Agent Orange during and after the war. Over the last decades U.S. Veterans have fought hard to have the government recognize the direct consequences of exposure to AO and eventually (partially) succeeded ; Yet, when a group of Vietnamese sued the U.S. government for them to recognize the cause-consequence of their AO exposure, the court simply dismissed the case. Sen. Leahy added that this was, simply put, a double standard. ‘The U.S Government refuses to accept responsibility for fear of thousands or even million of legal claims by Vietnamese citizens for reparations’ he added.
In his closing statements, he spoke of the 105 million dollars given by USAID to help in the clean up efforts of eight provinces as well as health disability programs of 21 millions dollars over 5 years. And this is where the two of the main issue lay.
To this day, the U.S. government has not officially apologized for the use of AO in Vietnam. Instead, they have awarded three grants providing assistance for people with disabilities living in communities adjacent to the airport in Danang. I will save my argument on the fallacy of providing assistance to only those communities known as ‘AO hotspots’ for a future post and instead focus on the broad term used for those affected with AO, disabled.
By continuing to use the word ‘disabled’, the U.S. government perpetuates the double standard pointed by Senator Leahy. In the U.S. , Veterans get (to an extent- *more of this on a future post) the proper compensation, social programs and medical care for Agent Orange exposure as explained in the Veteran’s Affairs website. The website itself uses the term ‘Agent Orange exposure’ without a problem, but when Vietnamese vets have claimed exposure to it, they are given a ‘Sorry but no’ and simply left to see if they qualify for any of the disability programs offered by USAID, as long as they are living in the communities where such programs are offered.
Moreover, by broadening the term, considerable funds are getting allocated to the wrong beneficiaries for a program that is well-known (even though not officially accepted) in place to remedy the effect of the war. All of it because of a word choice.
So what’s in a word? You might ask. Well, a whole lot of meanings, as I’ve tried to show on my last 2 posts; meanings that can hurt and neglect the unprivileged, and preserve the status quo. Our role then is to acknowledge the power of language while potentially getting those around us curious on the usage of one word over another.
Words can do more than just hurt, they can be active catalyst of change, if used properly. Hopefully these long reads struck a nerve or at least got you curious to start a conversation within your family and friends. After all, it all starts with us.
Posted By Armando Gallardo (Vietnam)
Posted Aug 2nd, 2015