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What coronavirus and the Vietnam War share: Homeschooling, distancing, fearing for your life

Sheltering in place during the Tet Offensive prepared me to cope with the coronavirus today.
Vietnamese Children in Refugee Camp
Vietnamese children begin to evacuate homes in the Cholon area of Saigon during Viet Cong attacks on May 7, 1968.Bettmann / Getty Images

Ever since COVID-19 quarantined us earlier this year, I have had a vague sense of déjà vu. When I was 6 years old, I lived through the Vietnam War’s Tet Offensive of 1968, in which the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong forces launched a surprise Lunar New Year attack on South Vietnamese cities, notably Saigon, where I grew up. It foreshadowed, and in some ways caused, the withdrawal of American troops seven years later and my own family’s escape and resettlement in the United States. The coronavirus is like my experience during the Vietnam War in the sense that it erodes our idea of home — if home evokes not only shelter but also emotional solace and spiritual peace.

Ill-considered decisions by those in power can change the lives of everyday people dramatically, and quickly.

As Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month arrived in May, the parallel deepened. The month’s premise reminds me that new homes, and new histories, can be rebuilt from loss and destruction. But the loss and destruction from my childhood echoes what we’re seeing with the coronavirus today. As Fox Butterfield noted in The New York Times, the two great tragedies — the loss of South Vietnam, and the coronavirus pandemic — are linked by political expediency and poor leadership. My Vietnamese American identity is a direct result of past U.S. presidents making decisions about Vietnam based on their political viability, not on their concern for the well-being of the people involved, particularly the Vietnamese.

Ill-considered decisions by those in power can change the lives of everyday people dramatically, and quickly. It happened when political leaders made myopic choices that let COVID-19 spread rapidly, then issued inconsistent policies on precaution measures. Similarly, the Vietnam War’s devastating turning point began with the Tet Offensive, when U.S. leadership’s misrepresentations regarding the war’s costs and duration profoundly undermined public trust. In both cases, the result for the affected Americans and the Vietnamese was increased surveillance, social distancing, homeschooling and restrictions placed on daily life, as well as the positive consequence of creative grassroots efforts to foster solidarity and renewal.

On that first morning of the Tet Offensive, I was jolted awake by loud keening. I found out that Tuấn, our neighbor’s 16-year-old son, had been killed during the night by a stray bullet. My family — my parents, my two siblings and me — had to evacuate to a large shelter in a city high school for safety, since our house stood too close to the municipal power plant and was deemed an attractive target in warfare.

The high school shelter was filled with different groups of people from various parts of the city. In another version of social distancing, my mom warned us to be wary of people who claimed to be our friends. She was fearful of child molesters and communist spies who might be mingling among us. We stayed at the high school for what seemed like a long time — although it was probably only a week or 10 days — until the fighting calmed down enough for us to return home, albeit with many restrictions and changes to daily life.

Once back, my joy upon learning that school would be closed from February until the end of the summer quickly evaporated. It turned out that my parents would be homeschooling me in reading, composition and arithmetic. Being high school teachers with no idea what was suitable for a 6-year-old, they improvised a rigorous curriculum of long reading assignments with fancy words, essay prompts on being filial and considerate, word problems and division by three-digit numbers. I received four hours of tutoring each day, with a break for lunch and a nap at midday.

Similar to 21st century parents faced with balancing work and raising children at home during the pandemic, my parents were overworked in the months following the Tet Offensive. My mom was unable to hire a housekeeper to help because of the strict regulations against taking strangers into one’s home. It was during this period that my dad branched out into journalism and would stay up late at night to listen to the BBC and write up his news columns.

I would fall asleep each night to the click-clack sounds of my dad typing on his avocado green Olivetti typewriter. I wonder about children who are living through the pandemic now — will they look back and remember the cozy feeling of having their parents nearby, in spite of the stress that the parents themselves may feel?

Although we had a nightly curfew, once we were back home, we found that sheltering in place and other safety measures were not uniformly applied throughout Saigon or the provinces. People were told to resume their daily activities in areas that seemed more or less dormant after the initial attack. The war had normalized danger and death, so daily movement became an exercise in magical thinking. While people were stressed out not knowing whether they would stay alive from one day to the next, they also believed it was no use worrying about it since all lives were predetermined by fate.

I think the similarity between the South Vietnamese’s fatalism in 1968 and the current resistance to stay-at-home directives in certain parts of the United States comes from the sense that once all semblance of order becomes compromised, life has to be lived in the short term. It’s a form of resiliency, but double-edged. If one is used to living life as merely coping with crisis, then it’s hard to plan for the long term.

Coping is an outlook that came early to me, since I was quite young when the Tet Offensive occurred. As such, the event, while deeply memorable, was something I reacted to, rather than something I could fully process. Perhaps this acquiescence has helped me become more adaptive to turmoil — another demonstration of resilience — but it has also prevented me from being fully invested in an alternative, and better, vision of life. Stoic but cynical, I would find practical ways to deal with disruptions but not actively question the changes that turned my world upside down.

Yet for a community to survive a war or a pandemic, it’s necessary to rise above cynicism, or at least fatalism. During the aftermath of the Tet Offensive, since there was no telephone to reach older relatives who lived in isolated pockets of Saigon, family members would volunteer to be runners. These runners would deliver food and news from household to household to make sure that the weaker and more vulnerable relatives didn’t endanger themselves by going outside.

While our 21st century version of community outreach features Zoom and social media, personal gestures like those made by the runners of 1968 are also practiced. We deliver food to our parents, knock and wave from outside closed doors or drive through neighborhoods while holding placards to wish someone a happy birthday, or just to cheer them up.

Yet for a community to survive a war or a pandemic, it’s necessary to rise above cynicism, or at least fatalism.

In mid-February 1968, after our return home from the high school during a lull in the fighting, my dad began to build a bomb shelter right in our sunken dining room, using sandbags bought from the military surplus store. Finally, in June, confident that the communist insurgent forces had retreated, my dad decided to dismantle it. He found below, through the tattered, chewed up canvas layer of the bottom sandbag, a hollow nest of newborn rats, pink, warm, glistening.

In the spring of 2020, I’m still haunted by the image of those pink baby rats. But this vision, while initially shocking to my young eyes, in time became a symbol of uneasy hope. We knew then, just as we know now, that life would go on, and we would rebuild again.