My name is Long Tran and I’m the founder of the Vietnamese Student Association (VSA) at the University of Washington Tacoma. As a graduating senior, I was interested in wearing a stole that represents my heritage at commencement. However, there was one problem, I wanted to wear a yellow stole with three red stripes that represent the flag of South Vietnam. Unfortunately, this was seen as a political statement based on the complicated history of the Vietnam War and experiences of the diaspora that risks being seen as offensive and controversial since the North Vietnam flag, which would take the form of a red stole with a single yellow star, is recognized as the official flag of Vietnam.
Recently, I felt it was fair to apply for both flags to be approved to be worn at commencement since I believed that the freedom of expression for any Vietnamese student to align with either flag trumped my personal and political alignment with South Vietnam. I wanted all current and future Vietnamese students to be able to express themselves. Thus, I believed I took a non-partisan, objective stance by applying for both. However, members and officers of VSA, the registered student organization I was the former president of, had concerns about both flags being approved under the VSA. After meeting with VSA leadership, it was clear that they did not want to risk offending anyone at commencement, which is a totally fair concern.
This gestures to the censoring of the two flags from any productive conversations and visual expressions of pride. Historically, both sides have been unable to represent their perspectives without backlash. In my opinion, this is unacceptable. If both sides are unable to even wear Vietnam flag stoles, from either side, the entire experiences and histories of the Vietnamese diaspora are erased since our perspectives are blinded and voices are muted. However, after meeting with VSA, there was a consensus that a VSA-themed, non-flag stole would be the best, most safe course of action since the newly registered student organization should not start controversy before ending the first year of operations. Thus, everyone wins, for now. Seniors like me will be able to represent our Vietnamese culture and VSA does not risk offending the general public.
Although we should not be satisfied, we can be hopeful since dialogue has been catalyzed regarding the flags. This is a step forward in making the Vietnamese experience in America visible and relevant. One day, I hope Vietnamese immigrants, refugees, international students, Americans, and citizens around the world could proudly display their flag without fear, whichever flag that may be.