My children and grandchildren were born in the U.S., but I was born in South Vietnam. I was reminded of the cultural differences between these two countries when I saw news reports of Sean Penn in Baghdad.
Seeing this Hollywood actor in Baghdad, speaking out against possible war waged there by the U.S., reminded me of the time Jane Fonda went to Hanoi. I am relating the following story to do my part as our nation braces for war. It is the least that I can do for the country that has given me the right to speak my mind since the moment I set foot on its shores. The Jane Fonda incident took place in 1975. I had been in the United States for just six months. My English was still broken, and my knowledge about this country was limited.
My new American friend Sharon Brown and I were inside an air-conditioned mobile home that sheltered us from the summer heat in Kansas. On television was an old black-and-white film about an extended family living in transient camps.
I didn't understand all of what was going on, but Tom Joad, the character played by a young Henry Fonda, reminded me of my brother, who ran away from home at age 17 to join the South Vietnamese army and who was killed in action on his 21st birthday.
"He looks like my brother," I told Sharon. "Oh? In which way?" Sharon asked.
"His skinny, not-smiling face. He's leaving home, and he loves his mother," I responded. Of course, I hadn't read "The Grapes of Wrath" or any other of John Steinbeck's novels. "He is a great actor," said Sharon. I nodded to be polite. She added, "But three Hanoi Janes put together wouldn't make one of him."
I couldn't figure out where Jane Fonda fit into this conversation. Eventually, Sharon said Jane Fonda was the daughter of the actor playing Tom Joad.
"We should have tried her for aiding and abetting the enemy." I had never heard such English words before, but with the irascible pitch in her voice, Sharon's meaning was clear.
I asked Sharon how she could like the father if she didn't care for his daughter.
"Why not? I dig her brother even more," Sharon said, grinning. Sharon's eyes guided mine to her "Easy Rider" poster.
I had seen this same poster of the handsome, carefree American riding his Harley-Davidson many times. I couldn't understand how Sharon could like the father and the son but hate Hanoi Jane.
"Why not? They didn't do anything," Sharon said.
By now I was seriously confused.
In my country, guilt by association was steeped in tradition, and collective punishment in past centuries called for three immediate generations of a traitor to be executed along with the traitor. Just as in name calling, where the simple Vietnamese line Bao noai cha maay would denigrate three generations of women on your father's side as members of the oldest profession.
But I didn't say anything to Sharon. Not only because my English was poor, but because I had a revelation. I recalled the time in Vietnam when I questioned American GIs about the fate facing Jane Fonda when she returned to America. They told me that nothing would happen.
I was totally surprised. In Vietnam, something like Jane Fonda's visit to North Vietnam would at least land you in prison for a long time. I asked the GIs, "Why not?" and was told, "Because!" I figured that a rich movie star got special treatment.
I was told she had "rights."
Now I was more than curious. The GIs tried to explain to me how things worked in America, but all I got was a vague notion that there were inherent differences between Vietnam and the United States.
Now, I knew!
Finally, I told Sharon not to be too hard on Jane Fonda. She bristled: "What are you talking about? I didn't mind that she went over there. As a matter of fact, I was one of those who opposed us going to 'Nam. But riding on the tank with the VCs and wearing that stupid hat?"
Normally, I would be insulted by anyone referring to the traditional Vietnamese cone hat as stupid. That day, however, I made an exception. "Do you know that to a young Vietnamese, that photo defined American freedom more than the war could express?"
Thuy Reed is founder of New Viet Woman, a San Pedro-based organization that does social work.