Agent Orange: Behind the pretty pictures in Vietnam

By Yumi Wilson

Flower maker in VietnamIt’s been two years since I went to Vietnam, but I can’t forget her.

She walked with a slight limp, and smiled often. Her eyes told me what our language barrier could not: She wanted me to focus on her abilities as a productive artist – not her disabilities.

Inside a tourist-packed museum featuring sobering pictures of the Vietnam War, the young woman and several dozen other physically challenged people showed off their artwork, ranging from handcrafted paintings to bright bouquets of bead flowers. Some demonstrated how they make the flower arrangements and others worked on canvas. Nearby, two young boys who are blind played the piano.

Away from the steady hum of music and laughter, the woman with the pretty smile led me on a tour, showing me proudly what she had made with her own hands.

Artist and her handsThrough her quiet action, I began to see the story in Vietnam as having less to do with who or what was to blame for the problems caused by Agent Orange to a desire for change. The artists at the museum that day were so open to me, not just because they had to win my opinion, but because they wanted me, an American journalism professor, to see them as who they really are.

Never once did the woman ask me about my stance on the war, or whether the U.S. government should help financially support people who may still be suffering from the effects of Agent Orange. She never asked me whether my father fought in the Vietnam War. If she had, I would have told her that he did fight, and that he lives with the legacy of war each day.

***

My father, now in his 70s, told me at his home in Ohio about 10 years ago that the Vietnam War was not pretty. It was tough for the front-line soldiers, he said, because they could never be sure who was friend or foe. Often, the enemy was a frail man, he said, or a woman or child. It was hard, he said, to know whether he was ever going to get back home to his wife and three children – we were living off base in Japan at the time.

Nowadays, my father wonders if he too was affected by Agent Orange, which was sprayed heavily by American troops attempting to clear vegetation and enemy hideouts.

In my father’s case, he has filed no claim related to Agent Orange with the Department of Veteran Affairs, but many others have filed claims and received some sort of compensation. In Vietnam, a growing number of Vietnamese people, supported by some American philanthropists and activists, are also demanding compensation or assistance to help people they believe are still suffering from the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam. Some claim the damaging effects of the dioxin found in Agent Orange has been passed on from generation to generation.

Woman walking in exhibitScientific data, however, remains unclear. Even organizers of the art exhibit in Vietnam were hesitant to pinpoint the causes of the artists’ disabilities and deformities.

What remains clear to me now, even two years later, is that the woman with the pretty smile taught me a valuable lesson. She reminded me through the simple act of kindness that even though we are from opposite sides of a painful war, we are not so different from one another. We both want to heal. We both want to move on. We both want our stories to be told with dignity.

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About Yumi Wilson

Yumi Wilson is an award-winning journalist whose been work has been published in the Associated Press, the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Jose Mercury News, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, SF Gate, Hokubei Mainichi, Newsdesk.org, MAMM magazine and the online edition of Hyphen magazine. She is the editor of her own news site, SF News Hub, a blogger for City Brights and personal essay editor for Hyphen magazine. Yumi teaches reporting, news writing, opinion and literary journalism at San Francisco State University.

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