“You will hurt,” the review promised. “Vietnam hurt us.”
The reviewer was not the first to understand the heart of Seeking Quan Am, but they were perhaps the first to put it in such simple terms.
It took me a long time to get to that heart, which was, in fact, the hurt. I did not want to inflict hurt but I did want to touch it. I myself had experienced it, even at my remove from the fighting, as had untold numbers in our generation, and I wanted that hurt acknowledged.
The hurt isn’t much talked about now, if it ever really was. Time is supposed to heal all wounds, after all, so if we haven’t healed by now, we keep it to ourselves. I wanted to bring that hurt to the surface, in myself, in the two stories the book contains, and in my readers.
I had to go to a monastery (and break my wrist, but that’s another story) to find the right balance. We all know about the stereotype of Vietnam veterans as living on a dangerous hair-trigger, but that goes for all the people who hold the stereotype and only want to hear stories that exploit it. They are getting a cheap thrill at the expense of genuine trauma and I refused to play into it.
I wanted to avoid the opposite as well. Yes, Vietnamese welcome Americans, to the befuddlement of visitors who assume their hosts will harbor a grudge, but they aren’t naive. They know that many of the Americans who visit Vietnam, or return to the country they had fought in, need the healing they generously offer. Sometimes this welcome is called “forgiveness,” because to Americans, no other word makes sense. I have so many stories of Vietnamese kindness and welcome that I could easily have made that the story. I could have conveyed the message that everything is fine now. I refused to do that either.
I wrote Seeking Quan Am for people, whether veterans or not, who still feel a vague, unnamed unease about the endings of the stories they hear. They may have relived hours of anguish-filled memories through Ken Burn’s documentary, for instance, only to have it end with a weak “mistakes were made” and the United States “meant well.” Endings like that are cowardly.
Trying to resolve a story like the Vietnam War is impossible. It also misses the point. If there is no way to find consensus, if experiences are wildly divergent and wildly contradictory and if emotions about it all still run high 50 years later, trying to resolve it means you have lost the plot. Resolution is not the goal and it is not the story. The story is the lack of resolution, the absence of answers, the endurance of the hurt. That is what I tried to capture, not as a documentary but as an experience.
“You will hurt.” I took that as a compliment. I took that to mean I was not dancing around the core issue, trying to make people feel better as a way of skipping over the hard parts. Allowing ourselves to feel the hurt, but not to dwell there, is what it takes to come out the other side.
“Vietnam hurt us.” Yes, it did, but coming out the other side means knowing it wasn’t Vietnam-the-country that hurt us, but Vietnam-the-war. It’s not too late just to sit with that, perhaps in the company of others.
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I took the photo at a small shrine on the grounds of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi