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Background Information

The Gangster We Are All Looking For, written by lê thi diem thúy, is a true-life novel about a Vietnamese refugee family in San Diego, told from the perspective of the family’s daughter, who is just six years old when they arrive. The narrator and her parents struggle to adapt to life in an unfamiliar land, while simultaneously dealing with a troubled marriage, a father’s mysterious past, and the loss of a brother, in this painful, magical, and poetic novel.

The Vietnam War

The represents a successful attempt on the part of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam, DRV) and the National Front for the Liberation of Vietnam (Viet Cong) to unite and impose a communist system over the entire nation. Opposing the DRV was the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam, RVN), backed by the United States. The war in Vietnam occurred during the Cold War, and is generally viewed as an indirect conflict, or proxy war, between the United States and Soviet Union, with each nation and its allies supporting one side.

U.S. Role in the Vietnam War

The war spanned several presidencies including Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford. The U.S. withdrew forces in 1973, but continued to provide funding and support to South Vietnam until even that trickled down to nothing which left the South even more vulnerable to the North. More than 3 million Americans served in Vietnam. By war's end, 58,193 soldiers were killed, more than 150,000 were wounded, and at least 21,000 were permanently disabled. Approximately 830,000 Vietnam veterans suffered symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder. An estimated 125,000 Americans fled to Canada to avoid the Vietnam draft, and approximately 50,000 American servicemen deserted. In 1977, United States President Jimmy Carter granted a full, complete and unconditional pardon to all Vietnam-era draft evaders. The Vietnam War POW/MIA issue, concerning the fate of U.S. service personnel listed as missing in action, persisted for many years after the war's conclusion.

Post-War Re-education Camps

Following the North’s takeover by the South, members of certain social classes were incarcerated in order to coerce them to accept and conform to the new social norms (communism). The camps were administered by PAVN or the Ministry of Interior, but they were not regarded as prisons and indeed were separate from the prison system. They were considered to be institutions where rehabilitation was accomplished through education and socially constructive labor. Only those who "deserved rehabilitation" (as opposed to those who deserved jail) were sent to the camps, where their political attitudes, work production, and general behavior were closely monitored.

Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1975

Passed under President Gerald Ford, this act was a response to the Fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War. Refugees from South Vietnam and Cambodia were allowed to enter the United States under a special status, and Congress granted them special relocation aid. Volunteer groups such as Civitan International, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the International Rescue Committee, and more sponsored refugees and cared for them after they arrived.

Conflicting Perspectives

The Vietnamese see the war as something that was done to them, an event that ruined their country. On the other hand, the U.S. had a completely different perception of the war. Vietnamese and Vietnamese Americans know Vietnam as their country--not just a place where the US has fought a war.

Boat People

This term typically refers to refugees or asylum seekers who emigrate (often in large numbers) in boats that are usually old and crudely made. The boats are not seaworthy and unsafe for the refugees. The phrase "boat people" came into common use during the late 1970s with the mass departure of Vietnamese refugees from Communist-controlled Vietnam, following the Vietnam War. Since 1979, the U.S. has accepted over 800,000 refugees, many of which came through government operations and programs. In light of market reforms in Vietnam, the return of Hong Kong to China by Britain and the financial incentives for voluntary return to Vietnam led many boat people to return to Vietnam during the 1990s. A good handful of the remaining asylum seekers were voluntarily or forcibly repatriated to Vietnam. In 2008, the remaining refugees in the Philippines (around 200) were granted asylum in Canada, Norway and the United States, marking an end to the Vietnam boat people history.

Read KPBS's coverage of Operation Frequent Wind, the largest helicopter evacuation on record. Nearly 6,000 Vietnamese refugees escaped from Saigon. More than half landed on the USS Midway, now stationed in San Diego.

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