Our Parents Wouldn’t Tell Us Anything
Profilers: Stephanie Balais, Alice Huang, Jonathan Coons, Allison Holliday
What is your name and your relationship with the Vietnam War?
My name is Vivian. I am currently a USC student. I was born in America, but both of my parents were refugees from the Vietnam War. My entire extended family fled Vietnam to flee the war.* Most of the stories I have heard have come in tidbits from my dad, but mostly my aunt.
Can you give us a linear story of your dad coming over here?
When my dad was eighteen, at the time, his dad had just passed away from cancer and Vietnam was fighting, I believe it was Cambodia at the time. My dad, had a very large fear of being drafted into the army to fight against Cambodia.* At that time, his older brother and his younger brother, he and his two brothers that were closest to the age of being drafted, decided to flee Vietnam. And then the plan was for the rest of his siblings and his mom to follow after, after they had some sort of establishment here in America.
What happened is he spent a short amount of time in a refugee camp. For him, his experience was much more moderate for a refugee. It wasn’t the same as some stories where some people would have to hide out in a jungle before getting on a boat. For him, it was much easier to get on a boat afterwards.
He came into America and he landed in Richmond, and while in Richmond, he and his brothers all worked at fast food joints for a little while before collecting enough money to move to California. When he moved to California, he became a busboy and he also started going to community college as well.
Around this time, they were able to find another sponsor in order to bring the rest of the siblings to come over. In about groups of three or four, he had his other siblings come after him. [Siblings on Vivian's father's side left Vietnam staggered by age. Vivian's father, eldest aunt, and eldest uncle left Vietnam in 1978. Her third eldest uncle and second eldest aunt left in 1979. Two middle uncles left in 1982. Vivian's grandmother and two youngest uncles left Vietnam in 1986].
Vice versa, for my mom, she came over, I think, after the Vietnam War had started but it was before it had become too serious. [Vivian's mother left Vietnam before Vivian's father left.] And they, I believe, they flew over by plane instead.
Secrecy of War Memories
Can you tell us what your family’s experience was?
My dad fled before the Vietnam War actually broke out.** The reason why he fled was during that time, Vietnam was fighting Cambodia and he was very scared of being drafted into that war because he was eighteen at the time.* My grandpa—my paternal grandpa—had also just passed away from cancer, so he and two of his other siblings had decided to flee to America. He was the first out of nine siblings to come to America. He was in a refugee camp for a little while and then he became a boat person before landing in Richmond, Virginia, where he lived at for about a year. And then, eventually he settled in California.
My aunt had also followed after. At the time, she was just married and she had just had her first child. She went to a Malaysian refugee camp before also becoming a boat person and coming to America. They were all sponsored by a family friend that had lived in D.C. I just found out about this family friend a couple of years ago when he had passed away. Beforehand though, my dad had not mentioned anything about him to me. To me that was very common among children of refugees that their parents will most often not tell them anything about their times [during the Vietnam War]. They will either laugh it off or downplay it a lot.
I never really understood this until one point when I was at a [Lien Doan Chi Lang] scout meeting. [Lien Doan Chi Lang is a scouting organization, where Vietnamese cultural learning is emphasized, with chapters in both the Boy Scouts of America and Girl Scouts of the United States of America.] All of the scout leaders, almost all of them, were refugees from the Vietnam War and they came back and they had formed this Vietnamese community and they had started their own scout troop as well. One of the scout leaders, at the time, just one morning gave us a long, half hour talk about what had happened in the war. For us, for the most part, none of us really knew anything about the war because our parents wouldn’t tell us anything because they wanted to keep their children from having that heaviness weighing them down.
He said, “We want you guys to be successful, there is no reason for us to burden you with our problems.” He went on to tell us about how he, particularly in the Vietnam War, had a best friend who had died by jumping on top of him to save him from a bomb. That was a story that I believe that his children did not know and that they had found out for first time at that meeting. It was only one of many memories and from then on he also didn’t really speak about it again.
For my dad, particularly whenever I had asked him about it, he would laugh. I just called him the other day asking, “Dad, would you ever tell me about what happened when you were a refugee from Vietnam?” And his first reaction was to laugh. He said, “Oh, you know, it was just like everyone else’s.” And I said, “But I don’t really know what everyone else’s story is because nobody will ever really tell me.” He said, “Oh, you hear bits and pieces and that’s fine. That should give you enough to give you a vague idea of what happened. You don’t ever need to know the details of it.” And whether or not it’s casual or I outright ask him, he will always avoid the question.
My aunt is the same. But ironically, she has told me more about her refugee experience than to her own daughter. She was the one that went to the Malaysian refugee camp and her daughter at the time was, I believe my cousin was two years old. She had very severe diarrhea and they were scared that she was going to die because the likelihood of her dying was very very high. My aunt carried her all the way from the refugee camp to another camp that was approximately two hours away, right across the river. And even then she was not able to find medical help for my cousin.
And the fact that my cousin is alive today is honestly a miracle because they were in full honestly expecting her to pass away while in the refugee camp. But the thing is, my cousin still today does not know that she had almost passed away when she was two, and my aunt will never tell her that. And she explicitly told me not to tell my cousin that as well.
Can you tell us why you think she doesn’t want to tell her own daughter?
The reason why my aunt never told her own daughter was because when I asked her this question, I said, “Why did you never tell me that? Why did you never tell my cousin about this experience?” And she told me, “Because there is no need to. All it would do is trouble your cousin for no reason when your cousin is very healthy, very successful today.” And my aunt just never saw the need to tell her something that could honestly put her through stress for a little while.
Refugee Experience in America
What was it like for your dad coming to America?
For my dad, coming to America was very very difficult because he couldn’t speak English. He came to America. He came to Richmond, Virginia to work for money. He worked at a Church’s, it was a fried chicken fast food joint. He worked there for about a year before coming to California with his brothers. From there, he and his brothers all went to school. They started off at community college and my dad would both be working part-time or full-time, depending on the time period, while he was a student as well.
He studied to become an engineer, and he is now an electrical engineer for the navy. But for him, he only became an engineer because it required him to not have a fully extensive vocabulary, and it also made the most money as well for someone who did not know English that well. It’s also a similar reason why my mom became an accountant.
But for my dad—I asked him recently—he honestly, he does not like his job that much. He only became an engineer because he had such limited English skills. If he could redo it, he probably would’ve studied some sort of philosophy and gone into writing or something similar like that. But because he had to be so focused on finding money for him and his brothers, and in order to secure a stable job for the future, he ended up pursuing a career he doesn’t necessarily enjoy it today.
Can you talk a little bit about your dad’s experience versus your mom’s?
My mom had an easier time. My mom left Vietnam before my dad did. I believe she left during the war. My mom, in Vietnam, was very well off. My grandpa was a dentist and my grandma was a professor at a college. For my mom, my mom definitely had an easier time coming to America than my dad did because she was very well off in Vietnam. My mom herself was super successful. She went to the number one high school in Vietnam that is still very very difficult to get into today, while my uncle went to the second-best high school in Vietnam. The reason why they left though is that they also got scared of the war, so they came over here, but I believe they came by plane as well. For them, it was much easier to come over. When my dad came over, in the end he became very successful financially.
My grandparents had the opposite experience. While in Vietnam they were very well off with their careers. When they came over to the states, it was too late for them to restart with a college education and my grandpa obviously couldn’t become a dentist over here. His English skills were too limited and the techniques used over here are different than techniques used in Vietnam. He ended up working for a pizza delivery place while my grandma worked for a nail salon.
For them, to be honest, it might have been better for them to have stayed in Vietnam, but they came over here because it was better for my mom and my uncle to be here. They sacrificed a lot to come here for my mom and my uncle when in actuality, probably for themselves, would have lived a much more comfortable life in Vietnam.
My mom, when I was little, would tell me stories about how during the war they would have these bomb shelters. It would be a little dome, kind of like a concrete dome. When she was little, she would have her dolls and she would just play inside that little hideout. And she remembered that sometimes that they actually would use the hideout. They would hear bombs dropping sometimes and then she would always run in there, crying sometimes, and eventually though, she kind of, I guess, got desensitized from it as well. That was my mom’s side of the family’s experience.
The New Vietnam
How has your family adjusted culturally to live in America?
Culturally speaking, my parents have tried to keep me connected to my roots to the best of their ability. That’s why I speak fluent Vietnamese; I used to visit Vietnam every year. And especially my grandparents are very much into keeping up with Vietnamese traditions and superstitions. But at the same time, while they want me to keep my culture, my language, and a couple of traditions, my dad is very adamant that I don’t have to keep every single tradition. He is much more in awe of Western culture than he is of Vietnamese culture because he feels that Vietnamese culture, in a lot of ways, is very backwards. While he keeps his culture, I think that if he were to go back to Vietnam, per se to go back to his cultural roots, he would be very unhappy.
Also, not just because of that, but because Vietnam today is very different from the one that he grew up in. Their values have changed a lot recently, and someone has told him that if he should move back to Vietnam, he would not recognize it. He might recognize it a little bit, based on his tourist experiences, but to live in Vietnam, he would not recognize it.
I think because of that, he feels lost sometimes because he doesn’t fully have his culture here, but even if he were to go back to Vietnam, he wouldn’t have his culture over there either. The people who best have his culture are those that have become refugees over here, and even that is a very small community.
What has have your experiences been visiting Viet Nam? How has it changed since your family left?
For how it has changed, my dad grew up very very poor in Vietnam. He was in deep poverty over there. His family struggled to provide food for everyone. Going back now, he already views it from a different perspective just because he has been so successful in America as opposed to over in Vietnam.
For instance, we were passing by a hotel one day, we were visiting my dad’s hometown and we were passing by a hotel, and he was mentioning to me how as a little kid, he had always thought that hotel was so fancy and he had always wanted to stay in that hotel one day. It was maybe a hotel that costs about 30 dollars a night and he was telling me, “Yeah, I always thought the richest people went to this hotel and now that I’m back here, forty years later, I wouldn’t even want to stay in the hotel even if they offered me a room for free.”
Vietnam is different from the way that it is perceived now based on, just economically, it is perceived differently. But the country itself is also very different. It has a lot of tourism now, and that has definitely made it better off. But, the economic disparity over there is very very significant.
Within the different districts, you can see a huge gap in economics. There is one particular district in there that is called Phú Mỹ Hưng, and it is right basically where all the wealthy people live. If you wanted to go to one particular spot where you could find all the CEOs of the companies, all the shop owners, all the people who have inherited money from their parents, they most likely will live in that particular district. But the immediate surrounding area of that district is very very poor and not well off at all. And that is prevalent. Even in a big city, most of that city is not well off.
But everyone thinks that everything is getting better at the same time though. There is noticeably less tension. My dad has told me there is noticeably less tension for him to be in the south in that city even though there are still officers on the street at all times with their green uniforms. He has said that the tension is definitely low now because people have started to accept the outcome of the war. There is obviously not a 100 percent happiness, but people have started to cope with the current government.
Family in Vietnam and America
How does your extended family in Vietnam perceive America, the war, and your family being here?
I still have extended family in Vietnam. They are my maternal grandparents’ siblings and their children. For them, the way they perceive America is that they still perceive it as a place where you can make lots of money easily. To them, it is a very ideal land of opportunity and because of that, they are always expecting my grandparents to send them back money. For my grandparents, that is also very hard because they haven’t been doing as well in America as they had in Vietnam. So, the perception on both sides is a little bit distorted.
For instance in Vietnam, nobody ever has the perfect picture of it. They don’t know for sure how well off it is and they don’t know for sure how bad it is, because you will hear terror stories about people robbing others and cutting off other people’s hands just to rob them. On the flip side, you will see communities where it is very affluent. Over in Vietnam, when they look over at the American side, they see it as a place where it is very easy to make money, so why can’t you send money to help out your family [in Vietnam]?
As for the war, like I said earlier, it is something that has been very much accepted at this point and just adapting to it. But they tend to just exploit my grandparents a lot in order to help them adapt [to post-war Vietnam].
How has the war affected you and your aunt’s offspring differently?
My oldest cousin is now thirty-eight, almost thirty-nine, and she was born in Vietnam and she lived in Vietnam for about a year or two before coming over here, but to be honest, her experience is probably exactly the same as mine. The only difference is that I would say that her Vietnamese is probably a little bit better than mine, but other than that, her experience is the exact same. My aunt has kept from her most of the tragic stories and because she came over at such a young age, she doesn’t remember being a refugee, therefore, she has none of those negative memories to weigh her down. She went through school and her career as if she was born here.
How do you think your family’s experience has impacted you?
For me, it has definitely made me a lot more grateful for what I have in life, just because even though I know what my dad has gone through, it is very very hard to wrap my head around the fact that my dad used to be so poor that he could barely afford food, and that now, he is very very well off. He’s retired now and he’s basically just spending his days out looking at the ocean or helping out his siblings with whatever business they have. It’s hard for me to realize that my dad has not always been like this, that in actuality, my dad was at one point very close to being homeless as well.
It brings a different dimension to life. It gave me a lot more respect for my dad. It caused me to look at him in a very different light. The idea in America is that if you work hard enough, you can make it. While I don’t think that is always true, for my dad, he is the living embodiment of that. His hard work was able to bring him to where he is today. He literally persevered with nothing to help him out.
* Vivian’s family on her father’s side left Vietnam to avoid complications with the new Vietnamese government.
** Vivian’s father left Vietnam after fighting for the Vietnam War ended.