Academic journal article Shofar

Where You Are From: The Poetry of Vaan Nguyen

Academic journal article Shofar

Where You Are From: The Poetry of Vaan Nguyen

Article excerpt

I am here as a tourist, as an Israeli.

-Vaan Nguyen

THE JOURNEY OF VAAN NGUYEN

On June 10, 1977, the Yuvali, an Israeli freighter helmed by Captain Meir Tadmor, was on its way to Taiwan when it came upon a dilapidated boat carrying 66 Vietnamese refugees.1 After days drifting in open waters in the South China Sea, the refugees were in need of immediate medical attention, so Tadmor took the refugees on board and attempted to disembark in Hong Kong. The ship was refused entry; their reception in Taiwan and Japan was no different. In Israel, the plight of the Boat People, as the refugees were called, stirred analogies between World War II and "the trauma of the 1940s when refugees seeking to escape death at the hands of Hitler were refused entry into British Palestine and other Mediterranean ports."2

Then Minister of Absorption David Levy chastised the refusal of developed nations to come to the aide of the refugees and in his rebuke he emphasized Israel's status as a home for exiles: "Let them do as we have," he said, "May they lend a hand to save women and children who are in the heart of the sea without a homeland, and lead them to safe shores."3 Menachem Begin, fresh from Likud's historic electoral win, extended to the refugees a guaranteed offer of asylum and resettlement, his first official act as prime minster.4 With this commitment in place, Taiwan agreed to bring them to shore, and from there they eventually made their way to Israel and were relocated to an absorption center in Ofakim, in the Negev, a place that one Associated Press report described as "a desolate Israeli desert town."5 This also marked the first time that Israel had granted political asylum to a group of non-Jews, but Begin and other Israeli officials specifically invoked comparisons to WWII Jewish refugees in their public support of this initiative. Indeed, Begin famously declared that "the Israeli people, who have known persecution, and know, perhaps better than any other nation, what it means to be a refugee, couldn't watch the suffering of these wretched people. It's only natural to grant them a refuge in our country."6

Former Prime Minster Golda Meir also weighed in-"would one not rescue a stray dog or a wounded bird?"7 Eventually, three groups of refugees from Vietnam came to Israel (one in 1977 and two in 1979), totaling over 300 people, but most of those who arrived eventually left for the United States or other countries.8 Those who stayed were offered job and housing assistance and the opportunity to apply for Israeli citizenship after five years. Of those who stayed, some started families in Israel, either marrying other Vietnamese immigrants or intermarrying.

Duki Dror's 2005 documentary, The Journey of Vaan Nguyen, revisits this history through the story of the Nguyen family, retracing their life in Israel from the moment of their arrival in 1979 to the film's present day. Two narratives run through the film: the first is a portrait of the Israeli-born poet Vaan Nguyen, the friction between her Israeli and Vietnamese identities, and where they come into conflict and contact in her every day life. The figure of Hoimai Nguyen, Nguyen's father, and his efforts to reclaim ancestral land in Vietnam constitute the second narrative.9 The film, clearly the work of a sophisticated filmmaker, has a rough, almost unfinished quality that leaves these narratives largely unresolved. While scenes of natural and urban landscapes are very crisp and vivid, most of the footage of Nguyen and her father conveys the intimacy and spontaneity of a home video. The film also includes archival footage of the 1979 arrival of Vietnamese refugees, where they are greeted by a crowd that includes immigrants from the 1977 group, some holding signs, in both Hebrew and Vietnamese, proclaiming "Welcome to Israel, Our Second Homeland." The refugees' encounter with Israeli Jewish culture and the Hebrew language contextualizes the story of the Nguyen family in Israel's ongoing discourse on exile and immigration, assimilation, and multiculturalism. …

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