In Defense of Gratitude

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Lauren Vuong and her family were among the so-called boat people rescued at sea after the end of the Vietnam war. But to some, her gratitude for her family’s rescue is misplaced.

My family escaped Vietnam in 1980, five years after the U.S. withdrew. We left by boat and were lost at sea. Death seemed certain until the tenth day when a U.S.-flagged ship spotted us and stopped. I was seven years old. I dedicated most of my adult life searching for the Captain and crew, just to say thank you.

In my search, I discovered a line of studies examining the problematic nature of rescue and gratitude, especially in the U.S-Vietnam relationship. The argument goes like this: The U.S. was a player in the Vietnam War. Its withdrawal left a population of Vietnamese loyal to the U.S. ostracized in their own country. Instead of owning its role in the conflict, America can feel good about rescuing Vietnamese refugees.

On the flip side, colonial occupation -- by China, France, and the U.S. -- is deeply woven into Vietnam’s history. Some academics question whether integral to this notion of gratitude is a colonial mindset that prevents critical examination of the self-serving motive behind rescues. Gratitude, the argument goes, obscures America’s responsibility for the very havoc it created.

In reality, neither the refugees nor the mariners that I’ve encountered struggle with such thoughts. Instead, I’ve learned that at the base of every rescue lies the empathetic human spirit that connects a captain and crew who can choose to stop their ship, or not, for the desperate, starving inhabitants of a crowded, sinking boat.


My rescue offers a paradigm of succor without ulterior motive. And I am grateful even if some dismiss me as intellectually unevolved. I refuse to abide by the notion that compassion and gratitude is anathema to a liberated mindset. I believe it is indispensable to our humanity. The alternative, that is, a world in which compassion is extended but questioned and gratitude is intended but restrained, is too cynical to bear.

With a Perspective, I’m Lauren Vuong.

Lauren Vuong is an attorney in San Francisco.