For the Montagnard people, home will always be in the central highlands of Vietnam.* It is their ancestral land. That's just a simple way of saying that many, many generations of Montagnard tribes have lived there. It means they have a connection to that land in mind, body and spirit. Being from the South, this isn't too difficult a concept for me to grasp.
There is an unwritten rule in the South: you aren't Southern unless you can trace your roots (How many of your relatives are from the South?) or you can provide a birth certificate to prove you were born here. Even then you may not qualify. Living here for about 30 years won't earn you the title of being a Southerner. This isn't to be insulting, mind you, it's just the way of things.
Southerners take pride in being Southern. We like knowing the names of our ancestors, how they got to the U.S., when/where they fought in what war, and who farmed what plot of land over the centuries. We like our big, wrap-around porches and the rocking chairs lined up on them waiting for guests to visit. We like our traditions, unwritten rules, and even spotting outsiders.
Have you ever seen a Northerner try to adjust to Southern life? Seriously, we don't mean to be rude. It's just amusing to us because life is so dramatically different here, and outsiders remind us of the differences. And because we're Southerners, we'll welcome most outsiders with home-baked treats and a sweet smile.
You see, every group of people has their own traditions. There are professionals who study that kind of stuff, and I think a part of me always wanted to be an anthropologist. I'm rather fascinated with human interactions. And I think that groups of people have their own languages, cultures and what-not because that's the way it's worked for thousands of years.
There are things that interrupt that way of life, though. The Vietnam War caused one of these shifts for the Montagnard people. They loved the central highlands, and had lived there for thousands of years. Then they fought with U.S. forces during the Vietnam War in hopes of retaining their rights to their ancestral land--no matter how war ravaged it may have become. Now the Montagnards in Vietnam are still facing persecution for being American allies.
See the shift? They can stay there, try to live peacefully and still be persecuted, try to change policies there and still be persecuted, or try to escape to seek refuge. They were our loyal allies, and we aren't doing much to help them--at least not that I have discovered.
So some of these Montagnards flee to the jungles, escape from Vietnam, and seek refuge in the United States if they can get here. It's a very long, difficult journey just to get to the U.S.--sometimes taking many years and lots of terrible challenges that I can hardly grasp. One fellow told me about sleeping on corpses in a graveyard to escape the Vietnamese.
When these Montagnards finally arrive in the U.S., they find a whole new set of challenges awaiting them: a new way of life, new land, new people, new customs. Yet they keep pushing forward, towards a better life for themselves and their loved ones--most often smiling the entire time.
Each Montagnard that has been kind enough to chat with me talks about their home land. They may have arrived two years ago. They may have arrived 15+ years ago. One thing remains consistent: they love and miss their home land. Each one is grateful to be here, living in the land of their allies, yet each one longs to bring peace and prosperity to their people that still live in their homeland.
My Google Alert sent me a link to this article today: Home Is Where the Communication Is by Etsuko Kinefuchi. The author writes about these things in a much more scientific way, which I enjoyed reading. The article touches on a lot of truth, at least as I have seen it in the years I've spent working on this film. Find 5-10 minutes and read it, then tell me what you think.
Have you ever left your home land? Was it scary or adventurous? What did you learn? Have you ever welcomed an outsider to your homeland? How?
*I recognize that not all Montagnards feel their home is the central highlands. That statement is a generalization, and there are those that have adjusted to life in new countries--this is the nature of things. Humans adjust. But, for the most part, among the people with whom I've spoken--home will always be the central highlands for the Montagnard people. That land is a part of their life, culture, and way of being.