Vietnam War Memorial
I’m considering submitting this picture to the Museum of Chinese American for their photo contest. The theme is your memory as a new Chinese American. I don’t have many pictures from the early days but I think this one represents a more profound turning point in my life. If you are reading this, I’d like to hear what you think.
My mother and I had become US citizens nine years ago in 1998. I remember pledging allegiance under the American flag for the first time in the immigration office. I questioned if I was ready to renounce my homeland China, whether I would ever be completely loyal to America as my new homeland. Over the years, I’ve struggled with the idea, unable to truly see my reflection as an American. At the time, I didn’t identify with this nationality and when in debates about US politics, felt extremely uncomfortable when the word “we” was used to refer to Americans. Changes happened quietly in me over the years. I grew to understand the true meaning of freedom and liberty.
A few years ago, in 2005, I visited the Vietnam War Memorial while I was in DC for a conference. I was unprepared by how much the memorial moved me. I looked at the names carved on the black marble, its reflections of the green lawn, the blue sky and visitors in the marble. Seeing the red carnations laid in front of it, waves of emotions washed over me. I felt an immense sense of pride. This was the first moment I began to relate to myself as an American. I am proud to be a citizen of a country that protects my freedom and rights as a true free person.
The black marbled memorial, carved with soldier’s names, serves as a mirror that beckons the viewers to reflect deeply into themselves about who they are, what they stand for, and appreciate what has been given to them. I particularly like the description of Maya Lin’s design from Cruelty and Silence: War, Tyranny, Uprising, and the Arab War by Kanan Makiya (1993).
The Vietnam War Memorial works because it eschews patriotism while acknowledging the dead–individually and collectively–as the only worthy reason for having any kind of monument devoted to remembering that particular war. Lin’s low-slung tapering black granite wall, inscribed with the names of 58,132 dead Americans, signifies both a nation’s shame and its compassion for those it has lost. The reflective surface of the monument evokes contemplation, turning viewers into imaginary participants, implicated in the narrative of a war which is being remembered as a simple list of individual names ordered by the date on which they died. Built into the earth, rather than rising above it in the phallic character of traditional monuments, Lin’s memorial has been called a “gash of shame.” the sinking black granite wall into which one descends stands in sharp contrast to the white marble obelisk of the Washington Monument. In almost every detail, this object cries out against the glorification of war or the deification of power. Therein lies its eloquence.