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Dueling Americas

Updated: Apr 25, 2022

By Phuc Tran

Phuc Tran (Photo by Jeff Roberts)






Love it.

Leave it.

Go back to your country.

There is tension in my family when we talk about living in America. My parents, who fled (with me) to America when Sài Gòn fell in April 1975, are deeply patriotic. They have eternal and profound gratitude for President Ford’s executive order to evacuate South Vietnamese civilians who worked alongside the United States military, gratitude for all the government officials who helped them along the way, and of course, gratitude for our sponsors in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, who took in our large family—a tired, huddled, yearning mass of refugees.

Phuc Tran and his parents, brother, and extended family their first year in America (Spring/Summer 1976).

My grandparents, who worked for the United States Embassy, secured thenecessary paperwork for my family in the final days of the Vietnam War (I am aware that I call it the Vietnam War when it is called the American War by my family), so that some of us were able to escape Sài Gòn. We narrowly avoided an exploding transport bus; my father was conscripted by the South Vietnamese army while trying to leave Sài Gòn (but found us two weeks later at a refugee camp on Wake Island). During our escape, I was struck by shrapnel and developed a fever that my mother treated by submerging me in an ice bath. We skipped across the Pacific all the way to Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania, where the federal government had set up a relocation camp for thousands of Vietnamese refugees. By the time we arrived in Carlisle, my parents were happy just to worry about mundane things like learning how to drive in the snow or how to pronounce Montgomery Ward.

They were happy to start over.

The Hookes and the Burkholders were our family sponsors in Carlisle. They brought us on board and helped the Trans navigate the new (and ironically vast) shores of small-town America. We are all eternally indebted to the kindness and generosity of our sponsors—Americans who saw the moral imperative to help strangers from a strange land, Americans who knew that the right question was not about what they themselves stood to gain from their actions, but what would be lost by their inaction. My parents believe that our sponsors’ magnanimity represents the best of America, and they are right. That open-armed kindness is the best of America.

My brother and I, reared and raised in the farm-girded heartland of Pennsylvania, are patriotic too, but our patriotism unfurls itself with banners different from my parents’ unflagging, star-spangled pride. Our patriotism is the kind of love that measures itself by its high expectations (something that we know firsthand from our parents themselves). I love America, and that is why I expect it to be better for everyone—or at least to be as good as advertised. When I memorized and recited “with liberty and justice for all,” I believed it. Especially the “for all” part.

My father in particular feels that my criticism of America—of its racism, its patriarchy, its consumptive capitalism, its imperialism, its hypocrisy—is embarrassing to him in light of how well we’ve been treated. I daresay he is aggravated by my perspective because it smacks of ingratitude and a privileged hostility. My father’s patriotism is not quite “love it or leave it” jingoism, but it’s the refugee equivalent—it’s “don’t rock the boat” Americanism. In short, it’s conservative.

I recognize that, because of the trauma of war and the upheaval of the refugee experience, my parents are stuck in the bottom rung of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Because they came to America with nothing, they are grateful for everything, and they are in constant survival mode—whether they know it or not. They save plastic bags and wash old food containers. They reuse and repurpose boxes and bottles. They buy everything in bulk at Sam’s Club. Their bar for success seems to be acquiring the essentials in Maslow’s bottom tier: paper towels and cartons of Frito-Lay products (preferably a month’s supply).

My brother and I, by privilege of growing up here, have different expectations—expectations built upon our parents’ sacrifice and work and scrimping. We expect more from our country and community because we started out, securely, on a higher tier of Maslow’s hierarchy. We never had to worry about food and shelter in the same way that our parents did. The gap in our family’s dueling Americas lies in that gulf between where we feel we fall on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and for what we’re scratching. I want a sense of community and love and self-actualization. My parents want food and a roof over their heads. My parents want me to

lower the bar. I want them to raise theirs.

And in our own dysfunctional, familial way we play out the tensions of American democracy itself. We wrangle with the best way to be citizens in our country. We argue about what it means to be patriotic. We excoriate each other for our votes during Thanksgiving dinner, which is a mix of turkey, mashed potatoes, and a side of bánh cuốn. We draw lines in the sand to indicate who is the political other in our country—in our America. It’s a strange metaphor that I live in Maine and they live in California, as far apart geographically as we can live in our contiguous states of America.

Our America.

Go back to your country.

My father can remember when “your country” referred to a different place. He remembers when “Go back to your country” was not an insult, but an expression of his own deepest (and most unfulfillable) wish. He had just gotten here, not by his own choice but by no other choice. Go back to my country? I wish I could, buddy. I wish I could.

But my brother and I? As kids, we heard “Go back to your country” as a preamble to more insults and maybe a fistfight with bullies. That dual understanding is the very real gap in

our small family unit, even as that gap plays out in ways large and small.

In short, my family is not a monolith—not as refugees, not as Vietnamese, not as Americans. We are as complicated, paradoxical, divided, united, aspirational, and multifaceted as our country. How do we explore and value the contours and fissures in our disagreements without breaking ourselves apart, cracking ourselves asunder? These are the questions that we wrangle with just, as it seems, as our friends and neighbors do.

We are our America.

Phuc Tran was born in Vietnam and fled with his family to America in 1975. He earned a master’s degree from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He moved to New York City in 1997, where he apprenticed as a tattoo artist while teaching Latin during the day. He continues to teach and tattoo, owning Tsunami Tattoo in Portland, Maine, where he lives with his family. His acclaimed memoir, Sigh, Gone, was published in 2020.

The above essay appears as the Foreword in the book Dear Maine written by Morgan Rielly and Reza Jalali.

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