As Dan Heath, an American bestselling author once said “Data are just summaries of thousands of stories – tell a few of those stories to make the data meaningful.” So here I am telling the evocative and powerful story of Teresa Mei Chuc, a Vietnamese war refugee, who fled Vietnam with her mother and brother when she was only 2 and a half years old.
Teresa’s story, unfortunately, began with her dad being taken away by the Vietcong and kept in a Vietcong “reeducation” prison camp for nine years while her mother was still pregnant with her. The death, devastation, and destruction in the Vietnamese war finally pushed Teresa’s mother to flee the country and seek refuge in the United States. However, the journey was far from simple, Teresa, her mother, and brother had spent almost 3 and a half months in the South China Sea before they were able to proceed to the U.S. But this was not the end of the struggle either, while approaching the United States, the engines of the ship failed, resulting in a lengthy United Nations investigation before they were allowed into the country under political asylum.
Most refugees’ stories are told up to this point, a long, arduous journey to seek political asylum in a developed country and they are finally admitted. But this is just the tip of the iceberg, what follows is just as challenging, admittance into a nation does not mean the trauma of witnessing a war, being caught in the middle of it, and fleeing it is forgotten. Teresa tells us how, after nine years in the Vietcong “reeducation” camps, her father came to the United States, and had to deal with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and assimilate to the culture all by himself as there was no support provided by the United States government. The stories of trauma, fleeing, and assimilation to a new country are now told through Teresa’s collection of poems in her 2018 book “Invisible Light.” One such poem is Agent Blue, which Teresa reads in the interview.
On discussing the poem further, one of the verses appears curious “To kill correctly takes calculation.” In asking Teresa whether she is referring to the hearts of the people or the paddy fields in referring to this, she suggests that it is both since in Vietnamese culture both are closely related. Teresa tells us that her mother always told her that “As long as you have rice you can survive”, we can understand what rice symbolizes for the Vietnamese and consequently the multifold implications of destroying paddy fields. Furthermore, the question of whether the U.S. military was able to achieve its goal through the use of Agent Blue and whether the devastating impact on civilians was worth achieving the goal arises. To this, Teresa suggests that she does not believe that the use of Agent Blue or even other implications of the war were worth it to be able to win the war and that what the U.S. did was terrible. Furthermore, Teresa asserts that the willpower of the Vietnamese in resisting colonization despite the use of Agent Blue and other military tactics by the U.S. government nullified the ability of the U.S. to achieve their goal.
While more broadly discussing Teresa’s experiences with war and displacement, she reflected the sentiments of so many previously colonized and displaced people worldwide in saying that the Western world believes that nature and the people are separate when in fact they are both closely interrelated. The land makes a part of the people’s soul and the people make the land what it is. She highlights the necessity for us as human beings to respect that connection of the people with their land and attempt to understand the people rather than create conflict to have a more peaceful world.
Please watch the video above for the full interview with Teresa Mei Chuc.