Memory  /  First Person

Feeling Conflicted on Thanksgiving

For Viet Thanh Nguyen, a member of a refugee family, Thanksgiving does not bring up warm and fuzzy memories.

Being a father makes me re-evaluate everything, makes me wonder how I am shaping, deliberately and accidentally, a young human life. In sending my 2-year-old son to preschool (he is now 4), I worried about how his teachers and classmates would socialize him.

Would he become even more of a boy? Because by 2, he was already, despite our best efforts, identifying as a masculine child who loves Batman and “Star Wars.” How would he grapple with race? Because by 3, children at his liberal school were using racial epithets and pulling their eyes into slants.

And what about Thanksgiving? His school was already teaching him the same myth about Pilgrims and Indians that I had learned. I wanted to give him alternatives.

“Do you know what Thanksgiving means?” I asked him.

“Yes.” He thought about the word I had taught him. “Genocide!”

Some American readers will condemn me for being a politically correct killjoy. Other readers are thinking: “Go back to Vietnam. And take your son with you.” Please refrain from sending me your letters. I already have plenty like them and don’t need any more, thank you.

What is wrong with saying that Thanksgiving is about genocide as much as it is about gratitude?

History and America are contradictory and ambiguous, and yes, 4-year-olds who are capable of being racist and sexist should be exposed to some of that ambiguity as a form of inoculation.

Take the Thanksgiving meal. While the turkey does not find this meal to be an ambiguous experience, it is for people like me, refugees from Vietnam and survivors of a war that killed three million Vietnamese people. Generally, we are thankful to be in America and not in Vietnam, where we would not be free to say words like genocide or to contradict propaganda, as we do here. But some of us are not so thrilled about eating that turkey.

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