Miss Saigon Broadway Play Debate- A Vietnamese Amerasian perspective (c) TSIO
A perspective from a Daughter of an American born Vietnam Veteran and Vietnamese mother
For many years including in September of 2013 there has been much controversy surrounding the Broadway musical Miss Saigon. It was meant to be a love story between an American soldier and Vietnamese woman during what many Vietnamese in Vietnam call the American War and Americans call the Vietnam War. There has been an outpouring of ongoing criticism and protests from members of the Vietnamese community both in the U.S. and Vietnam. The critics have claimed that Miss Saigon has distorted the image of the Vietnamese people through various stereotypes of Vietnamese men and women and should be retold by them instead. Criticism has also come from other Asian groups that have no direct ties to the war in Vietnam. They feel Miss Saigon is not only stereotyping and racist to the Vietnamese, but all Asians. Letters, blogs, and other social media venues campaigned for others to not only boycott the production that took place in 2013 in Minnesota, but to prevent the production from taking place ever again.
Both the Vietnamese and other Asian critics, along with non-Asian supporters, have made some valid points regarding stereotypes and racial issues in general. I am the first one to speak out against racism and discrimination of any kind toward anyone. However, I have to disagree with some of the critic’s statements and thoughts regarding Miss Saigon along with adding some new ones.
I had wondered how many of the critics I seen on-line for weeks leading up to the play were closely connected if at all to the Vietnam War era. How many of them were Vietnamese Amerasian or were the mothers of Amerasians who were directly connected to the war in Vietnam? I also wondered if any of them actually talked to any Vietnamese Amerasians in-depth, if any at all about their experiences or views on this topic, let alone any American Vietnam Veteran. Many looked too young to even possibly be born during that era. Weeks later after the initial protests started, I went to observe a protest that took place at the opening of Miss Saigon in St. Paul, MN. I was really quite surprised and disappointed to find there were not any Amerasians or Vietnamese who lived through the Vietnam War era or their voices represented at the protest. The protestors as I had seen on-line were born decades after the war’s end and had no personal connection or were not even Vietnamese. Many admitted to not even seeing the Miss Saigon production. They were being led by a Japanese American professor who believes Miss Saigon is along the same portrayal as the controversial opera Madame Butterfly. I have only seen parts of Madame Butterfly and what I did see, I also didn’t care for. However, I spoke with this professor and another Japanese member of faculty who both admitted to not seeing Miss Saigon.
I do agree with the critics that quite often people, in my experience mostly men, have had the stereotypical image of the Asian woman. It gets old hearing some American men making statements such as they are tired of American women. They say they need to find an Asian woman while implying or actually stating directly that American women are too independent versus the Asian women who do not argue or complain. I have heard some men say that Asian woman will dress up more for their man and implied would be more “pleasing in other ways”. This can be offensive both to the non-Asian American women and Asian women both in the U.S. and in Asian countries.
One point that some critics have stated and strongly emphasized is that not ALL Vietnamese women during the war were prostitutes or bar girls. The critics believe the play actually perpetuates the stereotypes of Vietnamese women only as bar girls and prostitutes. I do not believe the play simply portrays that image toward the vast majority of Vietnamese women. Nor do I agree with some of their other arguments that I will try to break down although I will not attempt to address every single criticism that has been out there.
I will share some of my experience as a Vietnamese (National) Amerasian and as someone who has worked with many American Vietnam Veterans and Amerasians for 14 years. Amerasian is a term that has been used to refer to the children of American G.I.s and Vietnamese national women that were born during the Vietnam War era. It is a term I used to carry shame and stigma with, but now proudly embrace. I am considered one of the more fortunate Amerasians since I’ve been able to have my father in my life; although I have not been without my own experiences of discrimination. Many Amerasians and their mothers that I know experienced shame, stigma, different assumptions, or judgments toward them on some level whether or not they were involved with prostitution or worked as a bar girl. My involvement with Vietnamese Amerasians (more details)
Of course it is true that not all women were prostitutes or bar girls. My mother was not and neither were many others. My mother cooked and cleaned for the Americans and was highly recommended for her strong work ethic. She and my father, believe it or not, actually fell in love and then married during his second extended tour in Vietnam. Approximately one year later I was born in Vietnam and then my father returned to the U.S. by himself for a couple of reasons. One was to give extra time for my mother and I to have with my grandparents since it was hard to know when we would see them again, if ever. Secondly, it was easier for my father to bring us back to the U.S. with him as a civilian rather than as a soldier. My father is the initial reason why I proposed and advocated for a bill (WI) honoring Vietnam Veterans in my state, and now I’m a representative for a coalition advocating for a national recognition. I am a grateful and proud daughter of an American Vietnam Veteran who served honorably through his intention– which to begin with was to do good for the people of Vietnam (as the intention was for many others). I am also grateful that he loved my mother and I as he did to return for us instead of abandoning us. In fact my father had developed a trusting relationship and a confidence with my grandparents that they never doubted his return for us. That says a lot coming from an older generation Vietnamese especially during the middle of war.
Although I was never able to meet my grandparents, I did return to Vietnam with my parents for the first time back in 1995. I was able to witness my father’s interaction with my mother’s family. It was very evident that they absolutely loved him as he did them; they picked up as if they were never apart. My eldest aunt told me to make sure I marry a good man like my father.
See more of Thuy’s Reflections here
Although not all Vietnamese women who developed relations with American soldiers during the war were prostitutes and bar girls, the fact remains that it is true that many were. For the women that were, so what? They are still people who all too often were victims of poverty and other unfortunate circumstances to begin with. They only did what so many women have done throughout history to survive desperate situations such as war. Throughout the years I’ve witnessed where both Vietnamese people (in Vietnam and the U.S.) and some American Vietnam Vets have either wanted to deny this fact or dehumanize and demonize these women because of it, let alone some discriminate against the Amerasian children. As some of the critics argue against and strongly emphasized how they felt Miss Saigon was stereotyping Vietnamese and other Asian women and men, and believe themselves to be advocates through that process, could actually perpetuate shame and stigma on to these other women who found themselves in an unfortunate situation of having to do whatever they could to survive. The critics have failed to recognize that the play is supposed to only be about one aspect of the war and one particular story, not a generalization or about the Vietnamese experience as a whole. “Most experiences throughout history have some unflattering elements of the human experience”. (Author unknown)
For me as an Amerasian, I felt Miss Saigon was somewhat of a start to finally bring attention to some of our stories. I say some since the Amerasian experience is quite diverse like any experience. Miss Saigon was one story that actually helped humanize the women who did have to work as prostitutes and bar girls, rather than only the shame and stigma that has been placed on to them. Their story would never want to be told because of the embarrassment and shame from those who would like to forget and not recognize them, their stories, and this topic. Many also consider these women as nothing more than second-rate human beings to begin with. Being someone who has worked with Amerasians, this is offensive also to me. For some Amerasians, these women are still their mothers and the Miss Saigon story portrays more truth than maybe some are ready to reconcile. To not tell their stories too would be a shame and for protesters to object to some of these women’s stories being told in the manner some of them did, whether they realize or not, can potentially perpetuate more shame and stigma on to these group of women. It is unfortunate that not one Vietnamese Amerasian or their mother’s diverse experiences and voices were represented at the protest. I did reach out to the protestors for an opportunity to include that missing voice and have a discussion, but I never heard back from them.
In addressing the critic’s issue about Miss Saigon’s portrayal of American soldiers- In my opinion Miss Saigon presents a fair portrayal of showing the good and not so good in American G.I. representation.
The critics felt the play portrayed the lead male character of an American soldier in a typical racist role as the mighty white foreigner hero rescuing a pathetic desperate Asian woman from her God forsaken backward country; and the good old American clean-cut heroes and nothing less, liberating the poor little Vietnamese. I agree with the critics that this mindset definitely has existed out there including today. Some critics also said they cringed during the bar scene as evidence to a disrespectful stereotypical showcase of Asian women. To me the bar scene did the opposite in addressing both of these two criticisms. It spoke the truth of how men can and do behave, and some quite abusive, including some of “our boys” when being sent overseas. It is a fact that some Americans would like to deny or justify to this day.
Some critics feel that the portrayal of the lead male character’s relationship with the lead female character romanticized war and minimizes the reality of how some women were forced into these roles or were treated. Some critics were implying it was similar to the Korean women who were forced to become the “Comfort women” for the Japanese during World War II. I am familiar with the history of the comfort women, but do not recall ever hearing much about this being organized in the same manner during the war in Vietnam. Each time a critic has made this argument, they have not expanded on any details of this occurring in Vietnam such as real examples or testimonials, but rather more emphasis was placed back on the Korean experience. We should not be naive to think that it couldn’t or didn’t ever happen. Miss Saigon not only portrayed the behavior of some American men, but also of some of the Vietnamese men who were guilty of exploiting women.
On the flip side-Do the critics not believe it is possible that a genuine loving relationship could ever develop between a soldier and a woman who happens to be a prostitute or bar girl? I know of several situations where that has been the case, and quite a few American Vets who are trying to find those former girlfriends to this day.
There are many veterans who have reflected quite a bit on this issue and some have carried guilt for abandoning the women for whatever reasons where actual relationships had been developed. It was shameful and embarrassing for some Vietnam Veterans no matter what type of situation they were involved with, or even if they weren’t involved in any. Of course there were soldiers who were not involved with any women in Vietnam.
I try not to hold any judgment toward any of them because they were young, some foolish, it all took place in the middle of a long dragged out controversial war, and relationships of all kinds would naturally eventually occur. I did an interview with a Vietnam Veteran who had a girlfriend during the war who worked as a bar girl when he met her. (Interview coming soon). He as a soldier has not denied the fact that there was a lot of prostitution going on or women working as bar girls. He also is trying to find his former girlfriend and do the right thing by seeking out the truth on whether he has an Amerasian child. Many veterans told me that if and when they find out if in fact they do have a child, they very much want to connect with them. Of course there are some who simply do not care.
In addressing the critic’s concern on the negative portrayal of Vietnamese women and men- There were also some Vietnamese who have a tragic history of their own with stereotyping, discrimination, and even abuse of the Amerasian children and their mothers for various reasons.
· Some Vietnamese both in the U.S. and Vietnam placed judgment, shame, and stigma on to the women for being single mothers in a highly emphasized patriarchal family system.
· Some Vietnamese both in the U.S. and Vietnam didn’t like the mixing of races and that the children were no longer pure Vietnamese.
· Some Vietnamese from both Vietnam and the U.S. also stereotyped many of the women as being prostitutes and bar girls rather than viewing some of them as possible girlfriends in loving relationships with the American G.I.
· Some Vietnamese have not understood that some Amerasians and their mothers unfortunately were either abandoned or tragically separated from each other beyond their control due to strict orders for the soldier to get out of the country, were strongly discouraged to continue the relationship by military superiors, or death.
· Some Vietnamese in Vietnam looked at it as a betrayal of the women having relations with the enemy and viewed the child as being a product of that. Some of them abused the Amerasians either verbally, physically, or took advantage of them in other ways. Many Amerasians have reported that teachers could be quite abusive. They were definitely harassed by other students and some adults although they were only children, which led many to quit school.
· Some Vietnamese looked down on the women who were prostitutes instead of understanding they too were another victim in the war.
· Some Vietnamese, who are now Vietnamese Americans, used the Amerasians to help get them to the United States with the promise to take care of and love them. Once they got to the United States, they would then abandon them or continue to abuse them.
Some of the Miss Saigon critics were upset because they believed Miss Saigon portrayed a false picture in an an imperialistic mindset (although this type of thinking has occurred historically throughout the world with implemented related policies and practices) that Vietnamese orphans would be better off in the U.S. rather than in their birth land of Vietnam. Amerasians have told me they would rather live in the United States than Vietnam and they came to America because they did believe there would be more opportunities. The Vietnamese adoptees that were the first wave of orphans that came to America and other countries were mostly babies and were very fortunate to escape the trauma that other Amerasians in Vietnam were not able to. At the same time, some of the Amerasians that came to the U.S. much later reported to me that they also had a rude awakening about the reality of life in America. It wasn’t always open arms and acceptance on this end either.So far, all Vietnamese Amerasians I’ve talked to throughout the years told me that although some experienced discrimination from Americans, the discrimination came more from the Vietnamese (both in Vietnam and the U.S.) and their behavior was worse.
There were some that made out OK in Vietnam. Two Amerasians told me that former Viet Cong fighters embraced them after the war. From my experience working with Amerasians, it is a very small percentage that actually felt that their lives were good in Vietnam. Of course a person can’t possibly know every single Amerasian story.
All these behaviors can’t just simply be put on members of the Vietnamese Communist government or the former “enemies” as a scapegoat. There were Vietnamese both in the U.S and Vietnam who participated in these behaviors or simply just looked down on the Amerasians and their mothers with pity or little value. At the same time many Vietnamese did not participate in this behavior. I have Vietnamese friends (in Vietnam and the U.S.) and some have been volunteers at my Veteran events and helped me with Amerasians. I believe these mindsets have improved in Vietnam just like some have improved in the U.S.
Many stories were traumatic, but Amerasians have overcome much. Our stories just don’t involve the historical truth about the pain of war and discrimination (like any person with some type of direct connection to war), but also have the elements of resiliency, healing, rebuilding, leadership, and success today. These aspects need to be told as well. I hope that Amerasians, Vietnamese, and other Asians will continue to raise their voice to bring in other stories and perspectives for I still believe, there is a danger in only one narrative- Video clip on understanding -The Danger of a single story
The protestors met with the president and staff of the Ordway Theater who was presenting Miss Saigon to express their views and objections. I attended two of these meetings. I do not agree with the critics that Miss Saigon should not be shown for the various reasons I’ve already stated. To me that would be a tragedy to have one specific group of women and their stories be excluded when it does not represent all Asian women and men as the critics insist. The story was only portraying one of many experiences and perspectives. I do agree with the critics that there needs to be more Asian stories and other narratives, but this should not be with the exclusion of the reality of any historical narrative especially when it helps to humanize the women who worked as bar girls and prostitutes of the Vietnam War era, rather than demonize. To me, humanizing these women was exactly what the story of Miss Saigon accomplishes. In both meetings I attended, this very thing was confirmed when Vietnam Veterans who saw the play stated it helped them to see the women in this perspective and with empathy, along with the awareness of the Amerasian experiences, and not just their own suffering.
Meeting the Play’s Actors at an after-party
I actually had an opportunity to meet personally and talk one on one with the president of the Ordway, other staff, and the actors at an after party I was invited to. Two of the actors I talked to were Vietnamese. We had quite a conversation including about some things not covered in this piece. This video clip – (Limited Asian acting roles) will give you some idea about that aspect. At the same time, the two Vietnamese actors told my husband and I that they did not agree otherwise with the protester’s arguments about Miss Saigon. In fact they expressed the same frustration of finding no Vietnamese (from that era) or Amerasians among the protestors, or anyone who actually had seen the play. They also felt, in which I agree, there needs to be other Vietnamese stories and told by them. I also let them know that Miss Saigon was not complete in telling all of the Amerasian and their mother’s varied experiences, including some of the mistreatment from some Vietnamese.
*Click image to enlarge and for captions.
In my opinion I feel the Ordway could have done a better job to provide more of an opportunity and platform for the Amerasian experience and views on the play and the protests. At the two meetings I was able to briefly share some views that were not yet brought into this whole debate. It’s not quite the same as having a pre or post show before a larger audience such as the majority of the ticket-holders to ensure there was a proper understanding and balance of various narratives, even if just a quick and simple overview. I truly feel it was possible. I think in the future there could be more information in their program to clarify that this is just one story and one aspect of many from the Vietnam War, American soldier and Vietnamese women relationships, and Amerasian experience. I also feel though that recognition needs to be given to the Ordway and it’s President for the efforts they did make on this issue so far.
Although I did not entirely agree with the protestor’s views on the Miss Saigon play, I also applaud them for bringing attention to an issue that they felt needed to be exposed. I even told them the night of the protest that although I did not entirely agree with their views regarding Miss Saigon, I admired them for their efforts in exposing something they felt was an injustice. I told them I was proud of them because by doing this they completely debunked the myth of the quiet submissive Asian stereotype! I also told some of them, if there was a protest in which I agreed with them on an issue I felt was unjust, I would be right there with them. Although I may not agree with them on the Miss Saigon issue, I do agree that there are some very stereotypical and racist mindsets toward Asians still today and we need more diverse narratives.
There are and were many American soldiers like my father, who cared and still do about the Vietnamese people. Many developed great relationships with the Vietnamese, then and now. Many Vietnamese from each “side” of the conflict do know and recognize the American soldiers doing only their duty at the time, and how many are trying to do good in Vietnam today. That is the testament to many of the G.I.s that I have come to know.
American Veterans and Vietnamese Veterans from both sides of this history have and continue to come together to put the past behind them and move forward with new important roles today. I hope Vietnamese can do the same with one another.
There is one last thing I would like to add. There are Vietnamese and Vietnam Veterans who have come on board to become supporters and advocates for Amerasians throughout the last several years. I as well as other Amerasians have been grateful for this. However, I would like to address something I have witnessed on more than one occasion. I will start with a quote I heard recently, “Nothing about us without us”. If you truly support Amerasians, stand by them, but before you start talking about Amerasians and their issues, allow them to lead you in their own cause. Do not, whether you mean to or not, make their platform “Your Platform”. The Amerasians do not want or need pity. They are more than capable of working and advocating for their own issues.
Proud Vietnamese Amerasian, Proud Daughter of an American Vietnam Veteran and Vietnamese Mother (Thuy’s personal reflection on her experiences), Founder of Thuy Smith International Outreach (http://www.tsio.org/) An Advocacy, Humanitarian, and Educational organization.
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