From refugees to living the American dream
Profilers: Hao Yuan Li, Nick Khoury, Judith Lee
In this video highlight, Cassandra Lam talks about her parents’ journey from Vietnam to refugee camps, and then their eventual life in the United States. She talks about how her parent’s experiences has affected her upbringing as a Vietnamese American.
Cassandra: My dad is from Sa Đéc, and my mom I can’t be sure because she’s from a really small village, and I don’t think I recall.
Us: What is your parents’ story?
Cassandra: On my mom’s side, her family owned a grocery store in a really small village. And on my dad’s side, his family was wealthier and they just had a very typical Vietnamese upbringing. They went to school, and then as the war came along both my parents had to find a way out. I know from my mom they basically had to turn all of their money into gold, and then they bought I guess a spot on a boat to go to Malaysia, and that was how they started leaving before the war started.
Us: So they left before the war started?
Cassandra: Yea they did because a lot of soldiers were starting to invade the village and my grandma didn’t feel it was safe for them to live there. And so she sent about 3 of her daughters on a boat with gold, and the way it worked was they couldn’t carry actual money in case pirates hijacked the boat so what you did was you swallowed gold and then you would hope that once you landed you were able to take it out. So my mom’s boat left for Malaysia, and they actually were hijacked by pirates, and one of my mom’s sisters was pregnant and she unfortunately lost her baby. And a lot of people were dying because they went 7 days without food or water, so a lot of people were drinking their own urine to stay alive. But both my mom and dad ended up in Malaysia in a refugee camp, and that was where they first met. And then from there on you needed an America sponsor family in America to get a flight over there. So they waited about 1 or 2 years at the refugee camp, and then eventually they flew over. My dad ended up in Chicago, Illinois, and he finished high school there. And my mom ended up in Minnesota, and they were both there for a while. And then they both somehow came over to Los Angeles, with family, and my parents met up again in LA and they eventually got married.
Us: What did they feel towards each side of the war?
Cassandra: They were more fearful of the communists because being from the South they kind of . . . I wouldn’t say fully embraced the American soldiers, but it was kind of interesting that they came over, and I know a lot of families over there were kind of enamored with the American soldier coming in to save them and stuff, but for my grandma she just wanted to pick her kids out. I’m not sure about her stance, but I know my parents personally they were very anti-communist.
Us: How did your parents find their way out of Vietnam?
Cassandra: It’s kind of done behind the scenes, because you don’t really advertise that you know people who can get you out because if anyone were to tell on you to someone else, that’s your life. I know my grandfather was sent into prison during this time, so only my grandmother was around to send off the kids. And I guess through the grapevine they heard of somebody, and you could only go on hearsay. So you have this meet up spot. My mom said you had to go through fields, and sometimes it was a treacherous journey just to get to the meet up spot. And then there’s this rickety little boat that takes you to the actual boat. And you’re doing this all at night because you can’t get caught. So you’re basically running around trying to find this meet up spot, and once you find it, you just hope that they don’t take your money and drop you off somewhere to get left.
Us: What happened to the rest of your parents’ family?
Cassandra: On my mom’s side, all her siblings left. My mom had 10 sibling, 8 sisters and 2 brothers. Everyone left except for 2 sisters, and both her parents stayed. On my dad’s side, everyone came over basically.
Us: All through the same way, through Malaysia and the refugee camps?
Cassandra: Yea, they all ended up in the refugee camps. So my mom’s side stayed and they still have their same village. Now they have a second house, but my grandfather eventually died. Life for them I think has been okay. I visited my grandparents on my mom’s side, I’d say back in the sixth grade, and I remember seeing communist soldiers walk through the village on horses. It was really weird because at the time, I didn’t understand why everyone in the village was panicking. I remember just sitting in my grandma’s market, and just hearing all these people suddenly say, “Put everything away!” So they were putting away all the stuff in their market to try to look like they didn’t have very much. And then I noticed these guys coming on horses, and I was like, “Why do they look so official?” Later on I realized they were communists and everyone was hiding their stuff just in case. So they were just going through the villages, and I could sense everyone’s fear as they came through.
Us: What was their life like in America?
Cassandra: I know on my mom’s side they actually lived with the sponsors, her and her two sisters. The sponsors took care of them every way; they bought them clothes, they paid for some of the stuff that comes with high school, because my mom and her sisters went to high school in Minnesota. She talked about going skiing for the first time … I felt like they got a lot of the stuff that maybe other Vietnamese refugees didn’t.
Us: How did your parents adjust to their life in America?
Cassandra: Both my parents were lucky because they did get to go to high school, I’ve seen both singulair of their high school yearbooks and I’ve read some of the stuff that people wrote in it. It seems like, on my dad’s side, he befriended some Chinese students and also a lot of Vietnamese students, because my dad was half Chinese; His dad was Chinese living in Vietnam. So my dad was able to reach out to two groups of friends, and it seemed like he liked high school. He played basketball in high school, and he also worked two jobs in high school to pay for everything. He bought his first car with his own money, because he had 6 siblings and supporting 6 siblings in America was really expensive for his family, so they couldn’t pay for very much. I know my dad worked at Weiner schnitzel in high school, he’s told me stories about that. So it seems like he had an okay time in high school, but I know he harbors resentment that it was so hard for his parents to pay for the 7 kids that they had. So I can see he’s kind of bitter that he didn’t get the ideal American teenage years because he had to pay for everything on his own. On my mom’s side, I know she graduated from Glendale high, which isn’t too far from here. That’s where she got her diploma. She went to Glendale community college for a couple years. It seems like she had an okay time too, but she also had a couple jobs.
I think for both of them most of their problems were within their own family, trying to find the medium for them. Are they going to be fully American or are they going to hold on to the Vietnamese culture? So I felt like for them the enemy wasn’t so much the American but their own families because their families were very restrictive and they really shaped how my parents turned out.
Us: Has your parents’ experience affected the way you were raised?
Cassandra: I think in a sense it does because whether or not we realize it our parents did a lot to get here. Some people my age aren’t as grateful, but I do feel like it was important that my parents told me their story when I was growing up. I remember my mom used to tell them to me when I was going to sleep. She used to make it sound kind of adventurous, and sometimes I thought it wasn’t real. But looking back I can see that she wanted those stories to shape how I grew up. And I think it did influence the way raised me too because they took school very seriously because their own schooling was interrupted by the war and the repercussions of the war. So they just wanted to do whatever they could so my sister and I wouldn’t have to work at Weiner Schnitzels to pay for our own tuition or anything like that. They try to support us in every way they can, as opposed to my mom who had to pay rent to her own sister or my dad who was always overshadowed by his own siblings. So they try to make our upbringing a lot easier and less stressful.
Us: How have your parents dealt with their past?
Cassandra: I know my parents are still affected, but I guess how much it affects your life depends on how well you are in America, because if you end up doing really well here then you feel grateful that everything you went through led up to this point. And you have all of these things that you never thought you would have. But on the other side, I know a lot of the Vietnamese in Garden Grove, they really hold onto their Culture, their Vietnamese culture. I know there, everywhere you go, you hear someone speaking Vietnamese, and all the stores are in Vietnamese. So I feel like they held onto their culture a lot more perhaps because they didn’t get everything out of the American dream. My cousin is living there; they’re financially harder off than maybe my parents. And most of the refugee families ended up there, and then their kids there. The financial level is slightly lower than the general American citizen, because they have trouble so much. They all live together, so their sense of American nationalism is pretty low because all they do is talk about Vietnam.
Us: Do you think that’s common, where Vietnamese come here and they kind of just cling on to each other because they don’t feel like they can integrate into society? Do you think your parents are the exception?
Cassandra: I think they are the exception because they had positive experiences with American or white people. Depending on how bitter you are, that kind of decided whether you held onto your Vietnamese culture or not. My parents tried, but they weren’t able to fight off the Americanization fully. I know at my house, they got mad when I started speaking English more and more. Up until Kindergarten I could only speak Vietnamese, and I learned English when I got into a Christian school. And then slowly as I started being exposed to more and more of the public education system, I started speaking English more and more. I was watching TV in English. Then eventually I lost a lot of my own language.
Us: Were they okay with that…with you becoming more Americanized? Was there a culture clash?
Cassandra: They were kind of upset when it first started happening. I know at school my dad would always be like, “speak in Vietnamese speak in Vietnamese.” And I would just be like, “Why do you want me to speak in Vietnamese all the time here? Everyone speaks English.” So there was kind of the traditional view versus the second generation view. So we’d kind of butt heads there. I know a lot of the things that people my age did growing up, my parents were very like “Why are you doing this?” They didn’t believe in letting their kids out either, because I know in Vietnam people are very strict on their female daughters. So when I started wanting to go out in middle school, I remember I never got to sleep over at anyone’s house. I didn’t get a cell phone until everyone else had already gotten one and then my parents finally acquiesced. They really pushed academics and they really didn’t want their kids to go out. So it was a constant battle between me and my dad, because I was so Americanized and he was trying to acclimate to that, to start realizing that his kids weren’t the way he was.
Us: So they adjusted?
Cassandra: Well they kind of had to because when I got to be a teenager we started fighting a lot about, “Should she go out? Shouldn’t she be studying? Why don’t you speak English anymore?” It was always the traditional view versus the modern view. And I think it was more so my parents were trying to acclimate to how kids in this new generation grow up. I think they were trying to raise me and my sister the way they were raised, but it just doesn’t work here anymore.
Us: Do you have a brother?
Cassandra: No. Just two daughters, so I think that kind of tied into it too.