Adieu, Miss Saigon


January 28, 1991|By ANDREW LAM

Poor Miss Saigon, now tattered, now old news, Uncle Sam is just about finished with her. ''Vietnam,'' wrote Charles Krauthammer, ''will be retired as the defining American experience of this age.'' Having found a new romance in the Arabian sand, will America finally put my homeland on a shelf?

Vietnam as America's metaphor for defeat and lost innocence will be retired to the cemetery where all useless metaphors go to die. It will be replaced by ''The Lesson of Iraq,'' the new metaphor, we hope, for victory over evil, for a renewed sense of manifest destiny.

In a while, Vietnam might fade into obscurity while Iraq, after its destruction, will be the poor country that needs our help. If Iraq loses, it will be America's newest desperate darling. Expect movies, fads, Little Baghdad to spring up next to Little Tokyo, Little Saigon and Little Seoul. America's newest theme park will have genies and flying carpets. America can't help but fall in love a little with what it defeats. Looking at Japan, some envious ex-Viet Cong whisper that they wish they too had lost.

America's involvement in the Persian Gulf, after all, can be very therapeutic. It can lead to a restored self-image. Victory will do America a whole lot of good, never mind the atrocities of war -- the B-52's raining down on the Garden of Eden, sorties that light up an otherwise mysterious Arabian night.

In her thatched-roof shanty home, however, Miss Saigon reminds us that atrocities of war live on. War: it haunts the minds of children who lived under falling B-52 bombs and napalm. War: it sends hordes of refugees to search for a better life elsewhere -- my family and relatives now cover the entire globe. (There are, coincidentally, a few thousand Vietnamese refugees stuck in the Jordan refugee camps.)

War for some rural Vietnamese is ''chay giac'' (translated: to run away from soldiers). My grandmother, in her convalescent home in San Jose, upon hearing the news of war said: ''Close the curtain, son, lest the enemies enter.'' She is too old, she adds, to chay giac this time. Senility has its point in time of troubles, though the instinct to avoid violence, it seems, is the last to go.

The Middle East will serve as the narrative that Hollywood needs in order to replenish its own lack of imagination. Vietnamese, now living as extras in L. A., should be worried. ''No more jobs in bogus Vietnam war movies,'' says a friend. Sally Field already rushes to find her mixed-blood daughter in Iran, proving that American females can be as aggressive as Rambo, but with a maternal heart. ''A Sheltering Sky'' finds Deborah Winger strutting the dunes in North Africa in search of a wild romance.

Post-Vietnam America is no more; the marriage is over. Is the divorce to be finalized when the Baghdad night sky lights up and hordes of Iraqi refugees flee to Jordan? Iraqi families interviewed echoed the terror Vietnamese experienced under the bombs. ''My chil- dren are hysterical,'' one Iraqi woman said. ''If this war keeps up . . . ''

But victory will leave the American psyche clean of post-Vietnam residues and our citadel will once again shine. A ''gentler'' and quicker war, it seems, is necessary to exorcise the bad spirit of the previous long and unsuccessful one. American superiority will be unquestioned, patriotism will unite a diverse America. Everybody loves a winner, after all.

American tourists to Vietnam tell me of their visits to the Ho Chi Minh trail and the intricate Viet Cong tunnels of Cu Chi. Vietnam flaunts its war wounds for voyeuristic Americans. ''For a dollar,'' says one, ''you can shoot an M-16 to have a sense of what it was like.'' For a few more dollars, Johnny, weary Miss Saigon will try to whisper your name.

Perhaps in a few years' time, a tour will be set up in Iraq. The guide in Baghdad could show us sights of broken palaces and B-52 craters half-filled with sand. We could even make a movie about a love triangle between helpless Miss Saigon, now a servant caught in Iraq, evil Mr. Baghdad, the antagonist, and a wanna-be-naive but heroic American GI. Call it, ''Wild Orchid in the Desert Storm.''

Or we could have a Madonna rock concert by the walls of Babylon. Gyrating to the newest rhythm of metallic drums, Madonna just might show the gods who really won.

Andrew Lam, born and raised in Vietnam, writes for the Pacific News Service.

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