A Tradition of Disillusionment, of Sound and Fury
I'm someone who loves to look at the past and think about what it might've been like to be there during those watershed moments in history, probably because I'm sensitive (according to my mom) and have always been interested in history. One of the things I've thought about most has been what it must've been like for my grandfather when he returned home from fighting in Vietnam with his worldview shattered by what he had seen in combat.
He was born during the Great Depression, and was a young boy during the surge of nationalism and "can-do" attitudes that came with the entrance of the US in World War II. It was in this environment that his perspective of his country was shaped, which helps explain why he attended the United States Naval Academy and eventually joined the Marines, where he worked his way up to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
My grandfather Jack believed in the inherent goodness of the United States, that there had to be a good reason why we were involved in Vietnam, and that something good could come out of it for everyone, and for democracy as well. He volunteered to be deployed, despite being a pacifist and also a father of then-eight children (four more would come in the years succeeding his return home), and declared to my father, his oldest child, "that if it came down to [him] and a Viet Cong, [he'd] let the Viet Cong shoot [him] before [he'd] kill another human being."
The things Jack experienced in Vietnam were nothing short of earth-shattering. Everything he had come to understand about his country, which he represented on his body with his uniform, was vastly incongruent with what was happening around him. He began to question the moral reason for the United States' involvement in a small country in Southeast Asia, where language and cultural barriers separated American soldiers and Marines from the people they were supposedly helping, where it seemed unlikely that America was doing anything good for the Vietnamese civilians and non-combatants who were far too often tragically caught between gunfire and then labeled as "collateral damage," where black and brown soldiers were sent in to go after a mysterious yellow enemy in a war started by white men. He identified that despite America's technological advantages, there was no will to win the war or a common, united understanding of the reasons for intervention, so what use was there to fight it in the first place?
As Jack's granddaughter, I've time and time again tried to put myself in his shoes, especially when I played an American GI in a Vietnam War play called Tracers. I've always understood the significance that such an experience can have on a man, but I have never felt anything remotely close to his disillusionment that he carried with him for the rest of his life until the morning after the election, when I read the results from my iPhone screen. Over the course of the day, I oscillated between a state of "well if we survived Jim Crow, we can survive four years of this" and a complete, utter destruction of my perceived reason to exist.
The latter has been devastating to experience the feeling of, because just the day before, I was telling my mother that I've come to realize that the thing I want to do with my life is to fight to bring more Asian American stories and representation to Hollywood and mainstream media. My underlying motivation in this world is to help people, and to have that completely broken by the state of the country I was born in is a feeling I cannot find words to describe. To speak in a simile, it is like the feathers on the wings of my human spirit have been clipped off, and I am plummeting into the core of the Earth.
I know that this is a historic moment for all of us, one that we'll tell our children about one day. I've experienced flashbulb memories before--I can remember the exact time when my best friend in high school read from her iPhone that a gunman had entered Sandy Hook Elementary School and opened fire as we sat in a corridor of our school--and they've certainly rattled me in their aftermath. But the thing I perhaps struggle with most right now is how incredibly terrifying it is to exist in a moment that will be revisited time and again years from now, while being completely unsure of what is to come next. As a person who is used to handling her stress or grief in an active manner, I find that I'm unable to do so this time around because I simply have not had the life experience yet to know how to move forward from this feeling that reads as a total loss of my self-understanding. I was too young to remember September 11th, even though my grandmother was so close that she saw the Towers fall from her own bedroom window, and I find myself asking older adults who lived through the Kennedys', Martin Luther King Jr.'s, and Malcolm X's assassinations, through Watergate, through the threat of nuclear destruction in the Cold War, through the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and through the crack epidemic, the same question: "Have you ever been this scared?"
I'm hundreds of miles away from my home and parents and cats in New York, and there's nothing more that I want in this world, besides this being just one horribly vivid nightmare, than to be back with them right now. This is incredibly confusing because I've been thinking over the last few weeks about how there's a part of me that never wants to leave Oberlin because there's so many things I want to do with my education that I don't actually have time for in four years, but the results of the election have been so destabilizing for me psychically that I'm struggling to feel that I'm still the same person as I was November 7th.
I began with this post with a statement about how I often try to place myself emotionally within the events of the past. Now I can't feel anything except anger at myself for being so focused on imagining what the stress was like of living during the Liverpool Blitz or whatever else I was pondering that it never occurred to me that a moment like that could happen within my own lifetime, that it could happen right now. And it obviously already has.
I think what I've come to realize since I woke up that day is that this is the moment that changes everything, that it may come to partially define my generation. In a sense, this is what World War One was to many modernist writers (though not all of them, because my Modern British and Irish Fiction professor David Walker has pointed out that modernism started before The Great War), a devastating event that profoundly affects everything as we know it. As a filmmaker and a writer, I'm coming to realize that this will indefinitely affect the works that I produce from here on out. One thing I've kept in mind is that I'm not the only one who is going to be affected by this, and that it can be something that can bring us together, weirdly enough. Though I'd love to be with my parents right now and have a face to face conversation with them about this, my professors have been wonderful in providing spaces for discussion and insight from their perspectives. I don't think I've ever mentioned this on here, but I almost went to college in Ireland at Trinity College Dublin if I hadn't gotten accepted into Oberlin Early Decision II, and I have no idea how well I'd be able to handle this news all the way across the Atlantic, at a school significantly larger than Oberlin, and in a country my family emigrated from but whose roots they had to deny having when they changed their last names from Greenan to Greene so they could try to build a better life in the US. I'll never know for sure, but I know that the closeness of the Oberlin community right now has been really key for me, because I started writing this post while trying to fight back tears, and I'm ending it no longer doing so.
For now, all I can do is try to take care of myself and the people I care about. Maybe I'll read from an Alexander Hamilton biography later on if I feel the urge to.