“Number one,” “number ten,” and “gook” were just the beginning. The GIs used “dinky dow” to mean “crazy.” It’s a corruption of the Vietnamese điên cái đâu (down tone on the last word) which means “crazy.” From “dinky dow” came “dink,” meaning a Vietnamese. Then there was “chop-chop,” meaning “fast,” borrowed from Chinese; “deedee mow,” meaning “hurry” from the Vietanmese đi đi mau which means “to go fast;” “mama-san” and “papa-san,” meaning an older woman or man, borrowed from Japanese; and many others.
The way we Americans used slang to refer to all things Vietnamese during the war said a lot about us. It demonstrates our humor and irreverence and our inborn inclination to see the bright side.
But it also reflects our superiority complex. Our borrowing of pidgin-English terms from Japan, Korea, and China to use with the Vietnamese shows how we failed to distinguish one Asian race from another. And all the terms were demeaning. The Vietnamese, whom we called “the little people,” were assumed to be inferior to us.
My sense is that we Americans need to understand that our racial arrogance and condescension pose real dangers. In Vietnam, for example, we assumed that the North Vietnamese were inferior. President Johnson referred to North Vietnam as a “raggedy-ass, little fourth-rate country,” clearly not competent to win a war against the U.S. In Vietnam, we won every major battle but lost the war.
Have we learned anything from our experience?