Sprouting from Ashes: The Journey of Linh Dang
Profilers: Maria Bacci, Juan Martinez, Elise Shea
The War “Ends”
My name is Linh Dang and I was born after the fall of Saigon in 1975.
So, my family is actually very wealthy in Vietnam. So, after the fall of Saigon, when I was born in 1975, and that’s actually when the communists took over, and what they wanted to do was wealth redistribution, so my parents are placed in reform camp because they refused to give up their property.
So basically they are—this is what my mother told me—she was put in a reform camp, it’s kind of in a very rural area on the countryside, and then there’s like no electricity and no lighting. She was there with my dad. It was somewhat similar to a refugee camp where they actually—you were limited by the amount of food. It’s a little bit like being in refugee camp or even somewhat in prison. Basically, she was pretty scared because she didn’t really know what would happen to her.
I actually didn’t really get to see my mother that much because they were in reform camp. But I was young, I was like, you know, one or two years old. And then the whole time, I was pretty much staying with a nanny. There was no milk, like I wouldn’t be able to have my mother’s milk, or even—even formula—so I was pretty much drinking rice water.
As I mentioned before, the government—the guards—are pretty corrupt. Before the fall of Saigon, the currency wasn’t worth anything anymore, so my parents actually bought a lot of precious metals, such as gold. They were able to buy their way out [of the reform camp]. But they actually went back to Saigon, so, that’s where I kind of grew up.
This whole time we were somewhat in hiding for—let’s see—ten years. Yeah, so I never got to go to school. I didn’t really learn to read and write. It’s like… when you grow up in a bad situation, you don’t realize that you are really in a bad situation. Right, so basically I thought life was normal. Pretty much, I lived with my parents, and then we kind of had—I actually had—a nanny. I would actually be able to go out, but I never had any friends, so the majority of my time was just interacting with my parents. I never really had any other children to play with, so I thought that was just the normalcy of growing up. When you don’t have something you don’t know what it is like to have something.
Two of my uncles escaped by boat. They were carrying a bunch of gold with them, and then one of them was rescued by Taiwan and the other one was rescued by the US. The scary thing was that they actually had to purposely sink their boat to be rescued and pretty much end up in whatever country that [they] were rescued by.
This whole time, we were actually waiting for the government—the US government—to accept us as refugees. So, we applied for that and then the uncle that made it to the US ended up sponsoring us, but that actually dragged out to many years before we actually got our acceptance letter.
It was a difficult transition for me because I didn’t know how to speak English because and they put me in a bilingual school and then in a Spanish class. So I actually thought, you know, “buenos dias”,”como estas”, “muy bien, gracias” was “hello”, “how are you”, “thank you” in English. And then, at the same time I was not really able to get—because I was placed in sixth grade, right—so it did seem to be very impossible to miss so many years of school and be able to catch up. And it was kind of difficult for me to make friends, because I didn’t really speak the language. I felt—you know—somewhat, like, alone? And I have a younger sister, who’s six years younger. And when we got here, since we were on Welfare, both of my parents had to work. So we were pretty much left home, like just the two of us. My dad worked in a liquor store and my mom worked in a restaurant. So it kind of forced me to take on responsibility of caring for my sister. So I was forced to become an adult, or you know, have the independence even though I’m not really ready. The hard part was that, both of my parents—you know—they don’t drive. And even today, they don’t drive. So we had to walk everywhere or take the bus. It’s somewhat scary to be that young and not having adult supervision, so there’s some incidents that I have encountered—an adult male was like following me home and like asking weird questions and stuff—so I kind of had to find a way of finding him off.
What is Gained
So, um, I actually went to UCLA and I studied chemical engineering because for me what really mattered was getting my parents out of poverty, and I looked at this engineering major and chemical engineering had the highest salary so that seemed to be the most practical major at the time. I decided to work for a defense company which is Northrop Grumman because I felt like “I want a way to pay back my country,” and because I really felt like, you know, I won’t be any good, you know, in terms of serving my country, whether in the military or the air force, but I could actually use my engineering skills to create one of the top system, you know, to help, you know, soldiers on the ground to fight, you know, in the war. I think the positive thing, I think, to really come out, [being a refugee] taught me mental stamina, so I felt like I have lived through worse, so I naturally willing to, you know, take more risks in my career. Other than the mental stamina, in terms of my career…So I love both David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell, I don’t know if you guys have had a chance to read that. So basically, he talks about how people that actually come to a disadvantaged family or single parent family are actually, are very successful in their life. There’s like a higher percent of them being successful, because they are put into challenges that they have to solve, all from a very young age. So, so the thing is that there is actually a lot of struggle with a really wealthy family because how do you raise your children and give them the same struggle and develop the same skillset versus somebody that comes from a disadvantaged family. So I think that was a very good point from this book and I just want to point that out.
What is Lost
It has been easy to talk about my experience, but it has been hard to talk about my father because he was like a very, he still is… he had a stroke recently. He was like a very intelligent man, very sharp, until he had a stroke recently. So I just felt very bad for him that throughout his whole life, like, he never got to enjoy the world or to travel because right now, he cannot really travel. So it’s been difficult for me to talk about my father. So I have been back to Vietnam five years ago with my parents and my sister. And a lot of change and there was, like, a lot of new development, and you would see an old building and next to it there would be a new building. So, at the same time, I don’t know whether I still trust the government. So just even going to immigrations, the guards actually, you know, asking for a bribe, you know, from my parents, or they, you know… they somewhat threatened that they would withhold our passports and stuff. Like not, like, outright but, you know, hints of that. At the same time, it seems like if, you know, like, there’s no traffics law there. Like, people just don’t stop at red lights, and people, you know, just go into your lane. So it’s actually very hard to cross the street. And if you get stopped by a cop, you have to bribe your way out. So there’s still a lot of bribing going on, and, and I’m just glad that I don’t live in Vietnam anymore.
Lessons From the War
So when I was in high school, when I learned about the Vietnam War, it was really, I think, somewhat distorted. It was mainly about Woodstock and people protesting and, you know, that this is something that we shouldn’t do and something we made the wrong decision on. We sent our men overseas and many, you know, died because of that. And then there isn’t really much about refugees so I think I’m really glad that your class is actually doing this; part of it is about bringing out the suffering of the war. You see images and stuff but it doesn’t really talk about it and it doesn’t really talk about the conflicts of, you know, it seems like it’s just the Vietnamese involved but there’s actually the Cambodians, the Laos and the Chinese who were involved as well. And I didn’t really learn that in the Vietnam War because later on I learned that the suffering in Laos and Cambodia was actually much worse than the setting in Vietnam. So there were other parts going on that was not covered.
I think part of it is that the U.S. thinks that they can easily go in and win the war, right. They didn’t think that with The Viet Cong, these jungle fighters, that they would be defeated. I think that part of it is, um, part of it is that it is hard that those are the people that know the land and you know they are fighting for their country. So I think in a sense, that when you actually send militaries in, they’re just doing a job. I don’t know whether that makes sense, instead of really actually fighting for your country or for your survivability and for your land.
Um, so in terms of going forward in the future I think war can be prevented. I think that I am a big believer that if you were just to understand, because I think that there is a very, I guess, mis-cultural perception of other countries by the U.S. in other countries. For example, Afghanistan, we only know one part of it and we never really get to see the other side and be able to, I guess, what is the word for that? What do the people in that country actually feel about the U.S. coming in and fighting a certain war? So I think part of it is really being able to communicate and talk about problems before you have to fight. I think it is similar to relationships as well right? If you want to prevent someone from a fistfight, both sides kind of have to sit and talk honestly and transparent with each other and figure out where the miscommunications and misunderstandings come from, then find a peaceful solution. I think the U.S. can be much more diplomatic in terms of reaching out to other countries and having that open communication with other countries and I guess, talk more I guess.