After a while it got to be funny. Mysterious things would happen, things that seemed to go against our expectations or that appeared not to make sense. Finally, Dan exclaimed over one of these things. I said, “And you know the reason for that?” We said together, “Because we are in Vietnam!” Annoyance melted into delight. We savored the pleasure of being in a place that had the endless capacity to throw our preconceptions up in the air so that we could watch where they came down.
Generally, I found this phenomenon to be far more interesting than the persistent chorus that “the Vietnamese have forgiven us,” which always seemed meant to settle things in some way. Every time I heard it I could not escape the feeling that something was being skipped. It was as if a magician had performed some sleight of hand in front of me – I could see what I was meant to see but not how it got there.
The repetition of this phrase seemed to me to grant us immunity, to jump through to a glib happy ending. Much as I wanted to go down that road, I couldn’t. Even if it were true (and I think to some extent it is) we don’t even know if we mean the same thing by the word. Consequently, in my mind, there was the danger of projecting a wishful worldview in which we don’t have to keep doing our own work, clearing our own stuff, taking responsibility.
What is settling out for me (and granted, it is early days yet) is a sense, not of certainty but of mystery. I believed before I left and I still believe that 45 years ago the United States engaged in a desperate, misguided, cruel conflict we had no business ever being in that was sustained by arrogance, hubris, and lies. In other words and not to put too fine a point on it, we fucked up. We also lost. As a nation, we have never come to terms with either of those truths.
I am mesmerized by dimly-sensed possibilities if we did come to terms with those truths. If the Vietnam War was a mistake, what if it was one we needed to make so as to learn something we needed to learn? The Vietnamese who single out the American soldiers for welcome say something very like this. What if Vietnam were no accident? What if there is something there, in that particular culture, that we needed – and still need – like medicine?
Meanwhile, the Vietnamese evidently have found a way through. They won, which makes it easier, but they also found a way to harness American economic power to pull them out of war and into rapid development. As my son says, they threw us out and made us pay to come back. It was brilliant, canny, and pragmatic. They are not super-human, some exalted form of spiritually-evolved humanity. They are just really good at making things work on the ground.
At the same time, there is the mystery, the acceptance of today as it is today, the understanding of human nature that means that war can end and that former enemies can meet as friends. This world is presided over by Quan Am, the Bodhisatva of Compassion, the Lady Buddha. Quan Am is a shape-shifting coalescence of serenity, patience, and wisdom. In some images she stands upon a dragon and pours out the water of compassion over a roiling world.
American culture has a hard time seeing her. Really to see her means letting go of part of our identity in order to grow, to live, to be healed. The independent, self-reliant, passionate side of our nature is our strength but is also, at least potentially, our downfall. We need to look at Quan Am, at her image and past it to the idea. We need to see that she represents something missing in ourselves and yet not foreign. Vietnam is linked to the United States now with bonds forged by love and death. Whether we choose to see Quan Am or not, she pours out her water upon us, too.