I’ll never forget the first time I saw a Vietnamese character on television. I must have been 5 or 6, and I was watching a rerun of Season 1, Episode 20 of the Nickelodeon kid’s show Hey Arnold!, entitled “Arnold’s Christmas,” which had originally aired a few years earlier in December 1996. In the episode, we discovered the backstory of Mr. Hyunh, a recurring character and refugee who was separated from his daughter Mai when he fled Vietnam in 1975 and resettled in the boarding house where the titular character Arnold lives.
“As the helicopter left, the soldier called out the name of a city — this city. He said he would bring her here,” Hyunh says, gazing wistfully at the falling show as he retells the moment he decided to leave his daughter in the hands of an American soldier. “It took me 20 years before I could finally get out of the country. That’s why I came to this city.”
Two decades before the era of Shang-Chi, the episode stood out as an isolated moment of visibility for those of us who’d heard these stories at home, but had never seen them included in mainstream narratives. Earlier this year, Hey Arnold’s director Craig Bartlett spoke to NBC Asian America about the episodes, revealing that at the time, he never knew what it meant to Asian American viewers, and noting that it was the show’s late writer, Steve Viksten, who convinced network execs to allow it to run.
For a first-of-its-kind piece of content, “Arnold’s Christmas” offered a relatively nuanced, and honest representation of the Vietnamese refugee experience — even by today’s standards. Through the character of Mr. Hyunh, the show humanized those iconic images of Vietnamese parents begging soldiers to take their children. Despite being a kid’s show, the episode didn’t shy away from sensitive material, exposing audiences to the harsh realities of American history.
As a testament to the importance of casting, Bartlett chose to work with Baoan Coleman, a Vietnamese American actor and former refugee himself. Voicing Mr. Hyunh in broken English with an accurate Vietnamese accent, and even speaking Vietnamese in one part, Coleman connected personally with the material in a way that made the emotional plotline feel honest. Bartlett says Coleman even consulted on the episode throughout its development.
“One session, we had Baoan do his whole monolog about giving up Mai,” Bartlett told NBC Asian America. “I just remember kind of huddling down and getting smaller and shutting my eyes and listening to it. And, we cried and cried. … Man, I was a wreck.”
Mr. Hyunh’s story was an unprecedented moment for Vietnamese representation specifically, but its themes of displacement, trauma, and homecoming might speak to the experiences of many different immigrants and first-generation Americans. And as America sits on the brink of repeating its past mistakes, the episode feels once-again relevant: how many more Mr. Hyunhs — invisible victims — will be left in the wake of America’s wars?
Despite its heavy theme, “Arnold’s Christmas” is ultimately a classic, warm-and-fuzzy holiday episode. In the spirit of Christmas, Mr. Huynh is granted his deepest wish. Nodding to another Christmas flick “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Arnold and his best friend Gerald are able to make a reunion happen between father and daughter. I’d be lying if I said I never shed a tear seeing grown-up Mai appear at the doorway. It’s worth remembering that for some, simply coming home for the holidays is a Christmas miracle.