Why you'll see the South Vietnamese flag flying in Seattle | KUOW News and Information

Why you'll see the South Vietnamese flag flying in Seattle

Oct 31, 2017

I grew up in the United States. Like any all-American kid, I said the Pledge of Allegiance, celebrated the Fourth of July and saluted the American flag.  

But that wasn't the only flag in my life. There was also the yellow flag with three red stripes — the flag of South Vietnam, a country that no longer exists.

I have fond memories with this flag. We hung it in our home when my dad hosted political meetings. My mom placed a miniature version of the American and Vietnamese flags together on a little stand above our giant 1980s stereo system. At a Vietnamese event, that flag was displayed next to Old Glory.

As a little girl, I pledged allegiance to the South Vietnamese flag on Friday nights before Vietnamese language school classes.

Looking back, it’s kind of amusing to think about. We were these little kids, who often spoke better English than Vietnamese.

But standing there with our hands at our sides and looking up at that flag — we got it.  We knew it was a somber, meaningful exercise. Something that was bigger than any one of us.

But this isn’t just about love for the South Vietnamese flag. There’s hatred, too, for that other flag: red with a yellow star — the communist flag.

Photographs of Thanh Tan's family members are on display at their home on Friday, September 29, 2017, in Olympia.
Credit KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

I never even saw the official flag of Vietnam until I got to high school. Now, it has a way of appearing uninvited and unannounced.

Take emojis, for example —  type “Vietnam” into your phone and see what comes up: The communist flag. A tiny little trigger that reminds us: Our side lost.

Washington state is home to some 70,000 ethnic Vietnamese residents. And in places like Seattle, where there is a sizable Vietnamese community, the flag can become a matter of public debate.

Thanh Tan (center) poses for a photo with her parents Duc Tan (left) and Tau Luong (right) on Friday, September 29, 2017, at their home in Olympia.
Credit KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

That’s what happened in 2015. Long story short, the Seattle City Council voted on a proposal that would recognize the South Vietnamese flag as the symbol for Vietnamese-Americans living in the area.

It was a symbolic gesture, but it meant a lot to the Vietnamese community.

Passionate Vietnamese refugees and their children testified before the council about the flag and their deep connection to it. The resolution passed, but not without some drama.

Councilmember Kshama Sawant, famous for controversy and far-left stances, voted against the resolution.

“I have great respect for the Vietnamese community,” she said at the time. “And the thousands of Vietnamese people who have emigrated to the Seattle area … but when it comes to democracy, the former South Vietnamese government was also a dictatorship.”

She said she supported part of the resolution, but couldn’t support the former South Vietnamese government. Her arguments make sense in a lot of ways. The South Vietnamese government was not perfect.

But to many in the audience, it felt like a denial of their pain.

From left, Duc Tan, Tau Luong and Thanh Tan laugh while sitting around a table at their home on Friday, September 29, 2017, in Olympia.
Credit KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

At the time, I was an editorial writer with The Seattle Times opinion section, and I struggled with the issue. It was about emotion, the pain of losing something you’ll never get back. Facts and logical arguments didn’t exactly work.

In one column, I wrote this resolution would offer Vietnamese refugees comfort knowing where they came from. That their suffering would not be forgotten.  

Looking back, I can remember the basic premise that I started with every time I wrote about the South Vietnamese side or the flag issue: The South Vietnamese were the good guys, while the communists —  and the flag that represents Vietnam —  represented corruption, human rights abuse, evil.

The pain that my parents still live with.

I felt good about that column and other posts I wrote. I got some feedback —  some positive, some negative. Some that made me think.

“Your argument for honoring the South Vietnam Flag could also be used to support the honoring of the Confederate flag,” one reader said.

“You cannot resurrect the past, just like the Confederate battle flag, the war is over,” said another.

You get used to handling mean feedback when you’re broadcasting your opinion in a newspaper, but equating my support for the South Vietnamese flag as support for the Confederate flag? I immediately felt defensive.

The comparison had never crossed my mind.

Duc Tan, left, and his daughter, Thanh Tan, laugh while eating at Ramblin Jack's Restaurant on Friday, September 29, 2017, in Olympia. KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer
Credit KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

To many, the Confederate flag is a visceral symbol of racist ideology. But it also represents a sanitized version of history, a romanticized version of a complicated past.

I don’t think there’s anything in common with the Confederacy and South Vietnam, but it did get me thinking that this issue is not so black and white.

Phuong, a friend who grew up in Vietnam and moved to the U.S. for college, didn’t understand the flag debate.

She’s 30, part of a younger generation of Vietnamese people who don’t have the same intense feelings toward the Vietnamese flag.

“I think the history that I grew up learning was that we won the war and we successfully reclaimed our country and united the north and the south, and that is a good thing,” she said. “I never realized that Vietnamese-Americans felt this sense of loss.”

She said she never saw the yellow flag with three red stripes in Vietnam. Maybe that’s what inspires Vietnamese-Americans in the U.S. to keep its legacy alive.

The South Vietnamese national anthem is shown in a workbook on Friday, September 29, 2017, at the Hung Vuong Vietnamese Language School at the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Olympia.
Credit KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer