I came to Vietnam seeking forgiveness.
Around 1970, when my father was about to be drafted and sent to war in Vietnam, he and my mother hurriedly married and headed for Canada. Two years later I was born in North Vancouver, British Columbia, an American born abroad. After 18 years in Canada, I migrated to the San Francisco Bay Area—the place where my father spent much of his youth, and where many of his family members still lived at the time. Though on the surface this move was for university and athletics, in retrospect I believe I was drawn south by a deeper unconscious desire to understand my Americanness.
When I recently learned of a need for workers from my company to travel to Vietnam, this same desire caused my insides to leap. I volunteered as quickly as I could. Something inside me longed to push yet farther into my own history by visiting a country I knew little of, yet that had so profoundly shaped me and my family. There was something I needed in Vietnam.
Three days ago, I had a beer with my Vietnamese tour guide on Catba Island—one of the many Islands in the majestic Halong Bay archipelago—and I shared the story of how the war in Vietnam had torn the U.S. in half, how my father had refused to fight, how he had lost his U.S. citizenship as a result, and how events in Vietnam had thereby profoundly affected the course of my life. I told him that I had come to Vietnam expecting an underlying level of hostility or bitterness toward me as an American, given (what I believe to be) the injustice committed by Americans in the war, but that I had only experienced warmth and friendship from the Vietnamese people. He told me that most Vietnamese have put the war and animosity toward Americans behind them. He said that even his uncle, who fought on the Vietnamese side throughout the war, had not been bitter toward an American veteran who had come to stay with my guide and his family a number of years ago.
In a moment alone, around five minutes after our conversation, I felt an unexpected surge of emotion. Tears welled in my eyes, and an unmistakable sense of forgiveness washed over me. A burden I had not clearly recognized had been lifted. Though I didn’t know it when I volunteered, I had come to Vietnam seeking forgiveness for the sins of my country—sins that I did not commit, and yet sins that are strangely bound up in my personal story. In my encounters with the warm Vietnamese people, and especially in the conversation with my tour guide, I found what I was seeking. I feel as though another dark and dusty chamber of my soul has been unlocked and swept clean by my gracious God, throwing open the shutters to admit his liberating light.