Viet Dinh’s “Substitutes”by Alexis Hill · April 24, 2019
Viet Dinh’s “Substitutes,” first featured in Volume 11, Number 3 of Five Points provides a new personal perspective into the communistic rule in Vietnam. Typically, stories that discuss the dynamics of Communism in Vietnam focus on the people already enlisted in the military and the harsh experiences they must endure, even against their will—Dinh uses his personal experiences coupled with his storytelling abilities to create a new perspective of Vietnam from a child’s point of view. The basis behind Substitutes was heavily influenced by the perpetual war that happened in Saigon during the 60s. Vietnam was in a severe state of decline due to the war’s effects, people were jobless, starving, and trapped serving in the war because they needed people to fight. The Vietnam War is usually considered one of the worst atrocities in Vietnam’s history, but it is often overlooked and celebrated in American culture without regard to the aftermath it left. Dinh tells the story of Vietnam’s horrific war time through the perspective of a class of rambunctious sixth-graders in Can Tho who all have poor parents unable to escape the harsh life of communism. They send their children to school in hopes of a better life for them. The Vinh Xuong school is represented as a haven amidst the harsh climate of life in Vietnam, where their only fear is falling from their parent’s expectations. However, the effects of Communism bleed into school within less than a year—students undergo numerous substitute teachers to replace their original instructor, Mr. Hanh, an older man who demanded discipline and obedience from the students. His replacements are unlike him—Miss Bui, Mrs. Pham, and Mr. Luu who Dinh highlights throughout the story by using first-person narration to show their reactions and behaviors for each instructor.
Initially, the students were relieved Mr. Hanh was replaced, his need for excellence instilled a sense of fear in the students that made them dread their classes. However, they eventually recognize a pattern—each substitute eventually disappears and never returns, including Mr. Hanh. They theorize the teachers have escaped the country through the Mekong River in search of safety among the heavily divided country. The story follows the gradual decline of Vinh Xuong and the importance of education, their instructors being a foreshadow of the decision they ultimately make and their lack of interest in learning. With each instructor, the students become more rambunctious—believing they have newfound freedoms with every new instructor. Their last instructor is not an instructor at all. Instead, he is a North Vietnamese soldier who manipulates the students into hard labor by the promise of freedom from school through a propaganda speech about how unless the school is—something that students have voiced and displayed often throughout the story. Their desire for freedom and its potential promise of it persuaded them to quit school, allowing Vinh Xuong to become a re-education camp for South loyalists and escapees. Dinh heavily focuses on the tactics many Northern soldiers used on children to propel the fall of Saigon, seeing their impressionable minds to capture South Vietnam. The use of education is a primary concept that is intertwined through the story’s entirety because it emphasizes how profound the decline of South Vietnam was, not only affecting adults but the futures of their children, too.
Photo credit: Paul Sorene, Life At The Embassy House, South of Saigon, Vietnam, 1968-1969
Alexis Hill is an English undergraduate at Georgia State University with desires of becoming a successful freelance writer, poet, and author.