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As Others See the Vietnamese

NOWADAYS, African-American writers offer insights into the "black experience," native Americans write about tribal life, Asian-Americans probe the socioeconomic life of Chinatown. But, so far, the Vietnamese haven't offered such firsthand insights.

There are reasons for this absence. The French, unlike the British, did not permit the development of a large, Western-educated middle class in their Asian colonies. Those Vietnamese who did acquire a Western (French) education were soon caught up in political turmoil that rendered literary pursuits irrelevant. And by the time sizeable numbers of Vietnamese began studying English as well as French, their country was trapped in a 40-year cycle of devastating wars.

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So it's not surprising that out of five recently published books on the country and culture, none are by Vietnamese authors. With varying degrees of success, each author attempts a close look at the Vietnamese - in their own country and in the United States.

Best-known among them is Neil Sheehan, whose influential journalism in the 1960s culminated in "A Bright Shining Lie" (1988), his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of John Paul Vann. Sheehan and his wife returned to Vietnam in 1989 and interviewed people he had known or known of from his earlier work. His view of the present reflects his involvement - even obsession - with a war he once supported and later bitterly opposed.

Sheehan offers clear reporting, particularly on the appalling conditions of housing and health care and on the Communist Party's stubborn grip on power and its stumbling attempts to rejuvenate the economy. Yet, "After the War Was Over" stops far short of the full analysis one expects after reading his previous book.

If "A Bright Shining Lie" was too long and too exhaustively researched, this book seems too skimpy. And the tone is suffused with guilt. Certainly, American involvement in Vietnam had disastrous results. But it is also true that hard-line communist rule in Vietnam blocked economic progress no less there than in the former Soviet Union; Vietnam's elite prefers to trumpet the triumphs of the Great War of Liberation rather than face the necessity of making deep and unpredictable changes.

If American guilt underlies Sheehan's reportage, it's the overriding theme of "Four Hours in My Lai," a spinoff of a television documentary by two British journalists, Michael Bilton and Kevin Sim. The authors purport to examine the nature of cruelty in wartime, segue into the Vietnam of 1968, describe in excruciating detail the massacre of nearly 200 civilians by US soldiers, and then recount interviews with various eyewitnesses some 20 years later. The Vietnamese are seen simply as victims, and ignoran ce of their culture abounds. This is a tedious and overblown rehash of an already well-publicized incident.

In her frenetically upbeat "A Year in Saigon: How I Gave Up My Glitzy Job in Television to Have the Time of My Life Teaching English to Amerasian Kids in Saigon," Katie Kelly's sympathy for and genuine interest in her Vietnamese friends redeem what could otherwise have been a corny "Look Ma, here I am in Saigon" romp. Kelly shoves the reader into uncensored street Saigon - the smell, the heat, the mordant humor, and the self-sacrifice of Vietnamese women long since abandoned (with their Amerasian childre n) by American men.

The status of the Amerasians changed dramatically with the passage in the US of the Homecoming Act of 1987. Suddenly, Amerasian teenagers were eligible for prized visas to the US, and they needed crash courses in English. Kelly, a savvy television personality, was the perfect emissary to these youths who were crazy for American pop culture. Shunning translators and official escorts, Kelly plunged into the alleys of Saigon, communicating directly in sign language and pidgin English.

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Anthropologist Paul James Rutledge takes up where Kelly leaves off. In "The Vietnamese Experience in America," he uses interviews and standard sources to produce a useful, though unimaginative, reference work, detailing the events that brought various groups of Vietnamese to the United States, and the effects of US policies in determining admissions, resettlement patterns, and even economic progress. His portrait of this new stone in the American mosaic is essentially an optimistic one of steady progress

through education and small businesses. There is scant mention of the darker side: predatory gangs, family breakdowns, domestic violence, emotional disturbances, and the vicious factionalism within the anticommunist resistance movement.

Robert Olen Butler's "A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain" makes deeper and truer sense of the bittersweet life of exiled Vietnamese. He concentrates on Westernized families who escaped in 1975. The only American fiction writer who has delved deeply into the lives and psyches of these new Americans, Butler is fluent in Vietnamese, and it shows. It's refreshing to see this ancient and subtle language used with respect instead of GI pidgin.

Each of Butler's stories forms a poignant monologue. The Vietnamese characters take center stage and speak as if justifying their existence. Sometimes this didacticism is intrusive, but it may be unavoidable; the world view of the characters differs so greatly from that of the audience. Butler's characters appear to have adapted well to American life, but they nonetheless bear an overwhelming sense of loss.

In their nostalgia, guilt, and pain, they are no different from Westerners who have experienced wrenching traumas. But Vietnamese traumas find their outlet in a spirit world - a mental universe of unseen, powerful forces. This alternative reality occasionally intrudes at moments of stress and dislocation: A translator in the war wonders if a turncoat Viet Cong is really a demon; a lonely housewife discovers that her grandfather's soul has transmigrated into a parrot; an elderly, dying man converses night ly with the ghost of his old comrade Ho Chi Minh.

Though Butler's book excels in presenting Vietnamese life, he is an outsider. It's too soon for the Vietnamese themselves to tell their stories. Like all immigrants, the first generation is preoccupied with survival. The next generation of Vietnamese-Americans will produce anthropologists, sociologists, and journalists with a foot in both cultures.

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