The clean and improved monument of John McCain in Hanoi
Soon after I arrived in Hanoi, the text was revised on the monument to John McCain next to Trúc Bạch Lake. When McCain visited in May 2015, I brought him and the other senators traveling with him to see the clean, improved monument. The Vietnamese pejorative prefix “Tên” before McCain’s name had been replaced with “phi cong” or “pilot.” McCain’s name was spelled correctly. The repairs had been done quietly, with no fanfare.
I learned that Phạm Quang Nghị (then Secretary of the Hanoi Party Committee) had instructed that the changes be made. Prior to Nghi’s meeting with McCain, the marker had read: “NGÀY 26-10-1967 TẠI HỒ TRÚC BẠCH QUÂN VÀ DÂN THỦ ĐÔ HÀ NỘI BẮT SỐNG TÊN JOHN SNEY MA CAN THIẾU TÁ KHÔNG QUÂN MỸ LÁI CHIẾC MÁY BAY A4 BỊ BẮN RƠI TẠI NHÀ MÁY ĐIỆN YÊN PHỤ. ĐÂY LÀ MỘT TRONG 10 CHIẾC MÁY BAY BỊ BẮN RƠI CÙNG NGÀY.”
Translated, this said: “(On 26 October 1967 at Truc Bach Lake, Hanoi’s people and armed forces captured USAF Major John Sney Ma Can who flew the A-4 aircraft shot down at the Yen Phu power plant. His was one of ten planes shot down that day.”
In early 2015, it was revised to read: “NGÀY 26-10-1967, TẠI HỒ TRÚC BẠCH QUÂN VÀ DÂN THỦ ĐÔ HÀ NỘI BẮT SỐNG PHI CÔNG JOHN SIDNEY McCAIN THIẾU TÁ KHÔNG QUÂN THUỘC LỰC LƯỢNG HẢI QUÂN HOA KỲ ĐÃ LÁI CHIẾC MÁY BAY A4 BỊ BẮN RƠI TẠI NHÀ MÁY ĐIỆN YÊN PHỤ. ĐÂY LÀ MỘT TRONG 10 CHIẾC MÁY BAY BỊ BẮN RƠI CÙNG NGÀY.”
Translated, this says: “On 26 October 1967 at Trúc Bạch Lake, Hanoi’s people and armed forces captured U.S. Naval Air Force Lieutenant Commander John Sidney McCain who flew the A-4 aircraft shot down at the Yen Phu power plant. His was one of ten planes shot down that day.”
The differences are: (1) the correct spelling of McCain’s name; (2) the correct identification of his rank and military branch (USNAF, not USAF); and (3) by dropping TÊN from TÊN PHI CÔNG, which makes the text becomes more formal and fair. TÊN is a classifier for despicable individuals such as enemies, thieves, robbers, cheaters, and rapists.
The Vietnamese language has a group of classifiers that have built-in positive or negative connotations, which can be added or dropped to express the speaker’s attitude toward the subject modified by the classifier. After TÊN was dropped, the text was no longer marred by the speaker’s bias against the subject.
This subtle difference is relevant to a native speaker. There are jokes about Vietnamese who tried to impress their French bosses by punishing the Vietnamese subordinates who used derogatory classifiers to address those same French bosses. As the classifier didn’t translate at all, the non-native speaker finds the punishment puzzling.
Ambassador Ted Osius tells a remarkable story of how the United States and Vietnam overcame the tragedy of war to build an enduring new relationship. My husband John played a part, along with so many Americans, including principled Democrats and Republicans in Congress, successive U.S. presidents of different political parties, and civic leaders -- including proud veterans -- determined to chart a new course for our peoples that is about the future, not the past.
I recommend Ted’s book as both an authoritative history and a colorful account of an ambassador’s life in a country of strategic importance to the United States. - Cindy McCain, Chair of the Board of Trustees of the McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University.