The Trauma We Don’t Remember
We know trauma is bad for us. But what about hidden trauma?
What was that thought just then in your head?
Is it your mum drinking?
Is it your dad being abusive?
Is it your ex gaslighting you?
Is it a friend deadnaming you?
Is it losing someone?
Is it a car accident?
Is it assault?
Is it war?
I visited my home country recently, living there for a couple of weeks as I had for more than eightteen years. I started to take interests in my history and heritage in a different lens, not because I had to, but because I wanted to gain a better understanding of my family, of myself. What I learned led me to finally internalise and start the journey of healing from the trauma that my family hasn’t been able to talk about for decades, in the context of world history and emotional maturity.
Having been born and raised in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, I learned about the long history of the land I grew up on, starting 2879 BC, how we were enslaved and dominated by China for 1000 years (111 BC — 938 AD). By the 19th century, the French colonial empire was heavily involved in Indochina. They occupied Vietnam until 1954 after their defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. When the Japanese took over for a short period of times in 1945, a famine broke out.
After decades of French colonialism, Vietnamese people were tired of being “controlled” by foreign forces; and yet the 1954 Geneva Conference left Vietnam a divided nation. The Vietnam (Second Indochina) War occurred. As a result, war, poverty, and political oppression continued until the Fall of Saigon in 1975.
Learning about these facts meant nothing to me as a kid. Emotionally, I was detached. Trauma was dressed up in propaganda, romanticisation, and the numbers of how many enemies we, as a nation, has killed to “liberate” and “unify” our country. The real lessons were hidden behind big textbooks and lengthy exams. As an adult, it is evident to me the government had ignored, mostly unintentionally, the psychological impact of long-term psychological trauma on the country and its people, several generations later. Politics aside, I don’t blame them. The government have had more issues to concern about, naming food, poverty, overpopulation, trades, education, and the preservation of traditions and resources.
As a kid, though, I’d understood my paternal grandparents were Communist soldiers. My grandma was tortured so intensely that her arms’ tendons were severely damaged. The full story is much beyond the injuries, of course. In 1945, my grandma joined the Việt Minh at the age of 20, like many others who were angry living under the French rules for the 50 years prior. Hồ Chí Minh and his Communist ideology offered a way out. During her service, she met my grandfather in the forest shortly after, who was known by his birth name as this point, Hồ Quý Chấn.
In 1954, my grandparents migrated and settled in the Central Highland area in the South. The land was so new that my father could see tiger prints not far away from the house. Despite appearances, they weren’t supportive of the South Vietnam government; they were operating as Việt Cộng Spies, as so many operating undergrounds during this time, sending information to the North. My grandfather was known as Lê Văn Ba during this time, nicknamed Ông Tư Lê (roughly translated to Mr. Le ranking forth). Until this day, there’s a bunker in the family’s home where they would hide their Việt Cộng comrades. I suspect this was when my grandma was tortured for information. On the other hand, she was also a beloved teacher in the community. After the Fall of Saigon, my grandfather changed his name to Hồ Quyết Tiến. He also may have had more aliases I may be unaware of. In total, they had ten children together, five of whom died early.
My maternal grandparents, on the other hand, did not join the Army; they met in the workplace where my grandfather was the director and my grandmother was the head accountant. Before the victory of the Việt Minh in 1954, my grandmother was the daughter of a lord. From 1954 to 1975, the “land reforms” in Vietnam left her family with nothing. She was also betrothed to someone who left her to study in the USSR. They got married and moved to the North due to my grandfather’s devotion to the Communist Regime.
After the Fall of Saigon, they were offered land in Saigon for the loyalty. They refused and decided to move back to their hometown in Bình Định province. My grandfather started getting jealous of my grandma’s betrothed and got abusive. He hit grandma in front of my mum and assumingly the rest of the siblings. Furthermore, due to the lack of medical intervention, three of their seven children died early in life. Telling me the story, my mum torn up about her younger brother who had died in her arms as a baby, while she was very much a child herself.
Dramatised war is often black and white. Real war isn’t. People in wartime don’t make the expected choices over and over. Sometimes they do what’s right. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes, it’s hard to even tell what’s right.
— Ben Brock Johnson, Endless Thread Podcast
A few nights after hearing the stories, it finally hit me, the trauma dots connected. That night, I cried. The type of crying that you could only do in the privacy of your own space, sobbing ugly on the floor. I was overwhelmed by the sheer trauma my family went through, how they survived during and after wartime. I wept violently and somehow silently; for my grandparents, for my parents, for my country, and for the lost lives of innocent people (and even those who weren’t much so). I wept for the lost potential. I wept for everyone suffering right now as I’m writing this. I wept for myself, for the trauma I didn’t remember, including how my mum delivered me by herself, dropping me on the floor while she could barely stand. I wept for the pain she went through; the direct results of war and the cruelty of the human race against itself.
The truth is that trauma is not just “in your head”. It leaves a real, physical imprint on your body, jarring your memory storage processes and changing your brain.
Unsolved trauma, especially in childhood, can lead to negative consequences such as depression, suicide, drug abuse, liver disease and obesity. According to the latest research, the trauma our parents and grandparents experienced can be passed down to us. In Scientists Are Discovering How Trauma Can Be Inherited, Dana G Smith mentioned trauma could be genetically passed down to future generations; meaning our genetic mark-ups can be altered if our parents experienced traumatic events in their lives. Trauma can also make an imprint on our cells. Fortunately, only the first future generation would be impacted biologically unless the trauma was extremely dramatic and long-term.
Psychologically, trauma affects parenting styles, resulting in either distant styles of parenting or inappropriate reliance from the parents on the children so they can cope with their pain.
[Toxic stress created in childhood] is the source that a lot of the problems in our society can be traced to […] There is a saying in public health — we need to move upstream. It is the work that is the root of the root.
On a societal level, collective trauma can also create generations of political apathy, feeling of loss, filled with the trauma they don’t know they need to deal with. In Vietnam, and other developing countries, with the lack of support from the government and social education, its citizens are turning into cogs in a machine. They are content with being mindlessly busy, only to follow any sign of wealth without understanding the consequences or making the sacrifices necessary for real success. The lack of choices, especially for women and other marginalised groups, is a topic only among young people who have had more of Western influence growing up, such as through the rise of the internet.
I’m not alone in this, perhaps my generations are also reconciling with the past, despite how desperately our parents want to ignore the pain they’d buried a long time ago. Or at least that’s what I gathered during my search for a better way of living. Either way, I believe the first step for us to heal as a nation, not just economically but also socially and psychologically, is to talk about it, to discuss, and, most importantly, have empathy towards the past.
Somebody said, “Vietnam has moved on from the Vietnam War, but the Americans haven’t.” I don’t think that’s true. Vietnamese people, together, will soon need to confront the past so we can tackle the challenges we have in this modern world, to address issues such as fake news, LGBTQ rights, climate change, health and well-being, and on top of it all, ethics and morals. Or to put it simply, to become better people.
However, these are big topics, I’m only one (tiny) person among more than 96 millions Viet people living in the world. I haven’t found solutions for my people’s pain but I want to invite you to keep poking at these issues with me. Because I do believe, with all of my heart, this is the only way.
Regardless of how the trauma is inherited, the important thing is to stop the transmission to the next generation.