South Wind Changing
In the fall of 1992, shortly after Washington lifted the ban on travel by United States citizens to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, the writer Susan Brownmiller arrived in Hanoi on assignment from the magazine Travel and Leisure, and was met at the airport by one Mr. Kha, her official guide “Mr. Kha wears glasses,” Brownmiller observed, “which is rare for a Vietnamese. Not that their eyesight is better than ours, as a nation, but because eyeglasses cost three weeks’ wages for the average worker.”1
A few years earlier, there might have been another explanation for the relative scarcity of bespectacled Vietnamese. Following the withdrawal of US forces from Vietnam in 1975, the North Vietnamese conquerors sought to consolidate their power by waging a campaign of “re-education,” which included imprisonment, torture, and death for suspected opponents. As Jade Ngoc Quang Huynh describes it in South Wind Changing—a memoir of his life in wartime and postwar Vietnam, his escape as a boat person, and his eventual resettlement in America—determining who was an enemy of the people was often so arbitrary that simply by wearing glasses one could be persecuted as an intellectual or a “bourgeois elitist.”
Huynh was an eighteen-year-old university student in Saigon when the city fell and he was sent to re-education camps. He describes one self-criticism meeting in which the camp commander, Comrade Son, explained that killing recalcitrant prisoners could serve as an example to the rest of them—a speech which the assembled inmates, surrounded by armed guards, automatically applauded with a chant of “Long Live Ho Chi Minh.” Then, as if to illustrate, Son ordered a new prisoner, “who wore glasses,” to come before him.
“You look handsome with your glasses. You are an intellectual from the south, huh? You know too much… You are a traitor, you are an idealist. Am I right, our citizens?” he rasped in his heavy accent full of scorn. Then he grinned….
“No, comrade, I’m not an intellectual person. I’m a mechanic in the army and I never held a gun to anyone. Look, look at my hands. They’re all dirty with calluses. I’m not a traitor. Please forgive me!” He raised his voice louder and louder, repeatedly, but the crowd’s voices were overpowering his.
“Don’t lie to the party,” Comrade Son shouted. “I have all your files here. You were working for the secret police. You have to confess to us now!”
The crowd quieted. The prisoner kneeled down and crawled over to him and begged for forgiveness… Son pushed him away. He crawled back again, but this time the guard who stood next to Son raised his gun and knocked him down. The blood began to dribble from his mouth.
“Who will volunteer to punish our traitor?” Comrade Son asked.
One of the men in the antenna group, the prisoners who spied for the guards, stood up… Son threw him a rope. He held it, pulled the prisoner’s arms to his…
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