Cynthia Nguyen

Between Two Worlds: Navigating Identity and Trauma as a Vietnamese American Child in the United States

Profilers: Alissa Silva, Sophia Akhavan, Zachary Yawata

Part 1 – The Vietnamese American Experience

(0:10) Introduction

My name’s Cynthia and I’m a 21-year-old college student, and I was born in Fountain Valley, [California].

(0:18) What was it like growing up in Orange County?

I think my experience growing up in Orange County is a little bit different than most just because I’ve always felt as if I had a double life. Because even though I was born in Fountain Valley which is close to Westminster and Santa Ana, and that area is known as Little Saigon, I grew up in Aliso Viejo and that has a more predominantly white demographic. And so during the weekdays I would go school in my area, but on the weekends my family and I would always travel down to Little Saigon, and that’s where I felt more close to my culture. I think compared to a lot of Vietnamese people in Aliso Viejo and in Southern OC in general, it’s hard for them to keep in contact with their culture because there’s not as much of a Vietnamese demographic compared to Little Saigon. And it’s actually really interesting because I think a little bit about how in Vietnam there is the Northern, Middle, and Southern regions. And even though it’s all one country, everybody’s different depending on what region that you’re from. I know my mom just had a whole rant where she was like, “people from the south” which is where my family is from, “are nicer and they tell you the truth, but the people from the Northern region, they’re fake.” Just letting you know.

I found that Vietnamese people from Westminster are different than Vietnamese people from Irvine or Vietnamese people from Aliso Viejo. I think part of it comes from being able to be surrounded by people from your own demographic. From what I’ve known, Vietnamese people from Westminster are more outspoken and more confident compared to people, or Vietnamese people that are living in Huntington Beach or Aliso Viejo where there’s not as much Vietnamese in general.

(2:09) How was it when you stepped outside of Little Saigon into a more American culture? How did it affect you?

I think OC has a very kind of a particular aspect about it, in that, it’s weirdly segregated- I think compared to other metropolitan cities like Los Angeles or San Diego where you’ll find different communities intermixed with each other. OC is weirdly grid-locked, like, I told this to everybody when they ask about Orange County. All the Vietnamese people are in Little Saigon, all the Korean people are in Koreatown, all the Japanese people are in Costa Mesa, all Mexican people are in Santa Ana. And so this is more so an issue that a lot of people go into that we don’t necessarily realize. For me, it was very hard growing up in a place that didn’t necessarily have a large Vietnamese population, just because…

So it’s hard to put my finger on it why but even growing up in my own school all the Chinese kids would be together, all the Japanese kids would be together, all the Korean kids would be together, and there wasn’t that many Vietnamese people, so I would just be by myself, and it was difficult because I never felt quite at home growing up in Aliso Viejo. There weren’t that many people that could understand a lot of the culture that I had back home, and also the way I was raised. That’s why when I did come to know some Vietnamese people in that area, we were able to connect better on our shared culture. Most importantly my parents were able to connect with their parents over their experiences growing up as Vietnamese. [For] minority kids, it’s very easy to feel like an outsider. But what I think helped was having that little community in Little Saigon, be able to reconnect with culture. 

(4:07) How would you say that the Vietnamese community impacted you growing up?

For the longest time, I didn’t realize I was growing up in America, which might seem really weird because my parents never taught me English until I went into kindergarten, so I had the biggest whiplash because everyone was speaking a different language, and I was like, “Wait, what’s everyone saying?” on my first day of kindergarten. And I was like, “Y’all, something’s wrong, something’s off” and I remember going back home and being like, “Mom, everyone’s speaking weird, why are they talking like this”? And my mom was like, “Yeah, just letting you know, we live in America where people speak English and not Vietnamese, so you better catch up.”

And, for the longest time, it was really hard for me to kind of fit in with a lot of my classmates, because one, I didn’t know English for the start, so I had to play a lot of catch up in kindergarten. But also, there were so many American things that I didn’t know because my parents had immigrated here, but they always lived within Little Saigon, and so we never really integrated into American culture until my siblings and I arrived. 

I didn’t even know things – it wasn’t until I was in fifth grade when people would tell me like, “yeah we listen to the radio in our car” and I was like, “wait, you listen to the radio in your car?” and they’re like, “yeah, there’s music in the car”. And that was so weird to me because my parents and I never did that. I remember telling my parents about that, and they were like, “wait, you could actually play the radio in your car?” and it was like a whole new cultural movement in my household. But also things like Christmas or Labor Day. We never celebrated that, and it was so weird because I would see everyone at school get festive and be like, “oh my parents always do this tradition like when it’s Thanksgiving, we get together and eat”. But I never really grew up with that, so for me, I always had a big culture shock growing up in Aliso Viejo because I think me being the first child in my family, it was a lot of me learning more about American things and then choosing not to care. 

(6:11) Can you tell us about your childhood and upbringing?

It’s kind of hard because I’m like, how much do I want to throw my parents under the bus for this segment? Because I was talking to like one of my Vietnamese friends and was like, Vietnamese parents are lowkey kind of traumatizing.

So I grew up with like a relatively well [off] childhood where my parents fed and clothed me and everything, but there is a really big difference between the way my parents brought me up versus parents’ [upbringing]. And I think part of it comes from culture. My parents aren’t necessarily people that are very direct with their words, like we don’t say “I love you” or “we’ll hug you” but we’ll do that with other things. Like the common experience for Asian kids is that, if your parents are mad at you, and you have an argument, they don’t say sorry, just give you a plate of fruit and everything is fine.

So my parents have always raised me to be as best as I could be. My parents were very strict. Probably just because I was the first child and the difficulty of like, raising a child is not only figuring out what you as a parent need to provide but I think the difficulty for them was also raising a child within the American school system or going through the world. Because it was a lot different for them growing up and one thing that I often think about is that…this we’ll probably connect on later in the interview when we talk about the Vietnam War, but I always grew up thinking that I was poor. Like my mom, when I was little, would be like, “any day now we’re gonna lose our room” or “we can’t go out to eat because that’s too expensive”. Things like, “Oh, I couldn’t get whatever toy that I wanted” or that we always had to be frugal and that we had to use everything up. That whole idea that, like, you have to finish your food otherwise it’s all going to go to waste. And for the longest time, my parents always raised me with a scarcity mindset that things are going to run out.

It wasn’t until I talked to my other friends that I was like, “wait, we’re not actually poor, we’re middle class” and it was just that my parents have this notion that this sort of stability is going to leave whenever. I think that kind of stems from their experience living in Vietnam because when the Vietnam War happened and the fall of Saigon followed right after, they lost everything. And so for a lot of Vietnamese parents, there’s always that sort of scarcity mindset that you always need to use whatever, or you can’t let any sort of resource go to waste. And I think that’s something that they passed on to me. And it’s still something that I do a lot now, like, I conserve money, I don’t like spending it. I think it’s kind of good for my bank account, but at the same time, it’s kind of hard to let away the notion of – yeah I can buy stuff for myself or I can like get more luxurious experience or if I want to eat out, that it’s alright and that I’m not wasting away money. 

(9:03) How did your family adjust to life as refugees? Would you say they’re satisfied with their current situation?

I do think that for the most part, they’re very satisfied with it. I think what helped them the most was that California has the biggest Vietnamese population compared to other states. And so for a lot of refugees at the time, it’s just helpful to be able to have a community of your own. Especially because one thing that I’m very aware about is that there aren’t that many things that are accessible to the Vietnamese population, especially towards older Vietnamese Americans, older Vietnamese immigrants who might have trouble understanding English.

There’s a reason why older Vietnamese immigrants will go to a Vietnamese doctor or a Vietnamese dentist, or go to a Vietnamese grocery store. And I actually had this conversation with other people who aren’t of the Vietnamese community, they will be like, “Why do you guys always stick to yourselves? Don’t you want to help fit into the American community?” and it always makes me feel a certain way, as I once had an older woman who wasn’t Vietnamese come up to me because I was talking about how the church that I go to has Vietnamese mass, and [she] asked, “Well why don’t you guys go to the English mass? Isn’t it all the same? Why do you guys have to separate yourselves?” and it’s not a matter of separation. I think what a lot of people don’t understand is that the Vietnamese community needs something in their language, in their own culture, in order for it to be accessible, and so that’s something that I realized about, especially when it comes to politics in a way. I think a really hot-button issue within the Vietnamese community and within a lot of immigrant communities as well is that there aren’t that many news sources or media outlets that show information in their own language, and that’s really difficult especially when you’re trying to talk about really big issues. 

And that’s something that affects the Vietnamese community because most of the news information sites or reports are knowledge conservative and the reason why I point that out is that the Vietnamese community, especially the older Vietnamese community, are known to be conservative. And I think that’s for several reasons. One which would be that it’s a part of assimilation of wanting to kind of fit in a little bit better within American society, but I think the second of which is that there aren’t that many media outlets that are in Vietnamese that give a more diverse set of political opinions. And the hard part about this is that that’s why there are so many people within the Vietnamese community that will believe in conspiracy theories or like, wack news like the election was rigged, or that like, Trump getting Covid was like a democratic attack, it’s because there’s all this misinformation on Facebook where a lot of Vietnamese people get their information from, and no one’s correcting them about it.

But I think what’s also difficult is that… I think my parents have adjusted into life well, but there’s also a lot of events where a lot of times their time in the war affects the way they address certain issues; like, when Covid hit, there were a lot of Vietnamese people that were trying to get as much supply as possible from grocery stores compared to when people were telling everybody like, “Hey, don’t buy all the toilet paper in the grocery stores. We assure you you’re fine.” And I had a conversation with my mom about this, because she was talking to me about how Vietnamese people are sometimes a little bit more selfish sometimes, and I asked her, I was like “Why is that?” And she said, “Well, most likely because they were reminded of the wartime when everything was scarce, and so their first thought isn’t “Oh, let’s help everybody out,” it’s, you know,  “I need to protect my family, I need to protect my kids, I need to get everything possible to make sure I make it through.” And that’s just one of the instances where the Vietnamese community still shows these trends of not wanting to repeat what happened during the Vietnam War.

Part 2 – Involvement With the War

(0:04) How did you learn about your family’s history?

It was my dad who told me, but it’s… I never really know if it’s a taboo subject to talk to about with my parents, just because they don’t necessarily voluntarily share about it all the time. Most of the time, it’s either I ask a question about them and then they share. And I don’t know if it’s just because they don’t necessarily like opening up about their entire lives. Especially because when my dad was immigrating, he was only twelve years old, and that’s already a lot to go through. And the next several years of his life, of his adolescence, was spent trying to reunite his family together. So, he’s never been particularly open or necessarily had an open conversation about it. And probably because it’s a little bit of a downer in a way. 

But they were able to… My dad was able to share his story to me. I hear about it from little glimpses when I talk to my mom. But if you meet any Vietnamese Americans, like, I grew up in a Vietnamese church. It’s just very normal that everyone has a story about how they immigrated, how they managed to escape the Communist regime. And for a lot of people who aren’t necessarily in the Vietnamese community, it might seem very new to them in a way. But for us, it’s almost like, well what happened last Saturday? This is what happened. It’s so common that, I think for me, it’s just a part of who we are and so, even now, I still find more stories about how my family was involved in the war, how they were able to save themselves from the Communist regime.

(1:50) Can you tell us about your father and his involvement in the war?

Yeah, so I also speak about both of my parents’ sides, because my grandfather was a Vietnam general, and I was talking to my mom about it, but she doesn’t have a lot of experience knowing what her dad did, because he wasn’t really present in the household with her. All I know is that he didn’t kill anybody, but he ordered other people to kill people. But when the fall of Saigon did happen, he did have to flee, and he ended up leaving the rest of his family in order to save his own life and the reason he was able to escape to America is because his wife who is my grandmother, well technically my step-grandmother, was residing in America and if you have any sort of spouse or family, then you are able to become a US citizen, or it’s a little bit easier for you to. 

And so, he fled to California and that’s where he tried to reestablish himself and make his own life again. From what mom said, she told him that he wasn’t like a cool general, like if you try to look up his name Đặng Văn Hoà, you won’t be able to find him, but he was involved in the war whereas with my dad’s side, it’s a little more extensive. The fall of Saigon hit and my dad’s family didn’t want to live underneath the Communist regime so they had to flee and a common path for a lot of Vietnamese people to flee was by boat. And so, my dad’s family was made up of, let me count my aunt’s… so seven kids and two parents, so a family of nine. And at the time, it was extremely dangerous to travel as a large group, so instead they sent out groups of their family to escape. And so, at the time, the first group to escape was my dad including his older brother and his younger brother, and they escaped into a refugee camp in Cambodia. And there, they stayed for quite some time because unless you know someone from the US, you probably aren’t guaranteed to immigrate there. And so he told me that he stayed there for a year and every day there would be these officials that would give them numbers, and they would do a little raffle and whoever had the number would be able to immigrate there, back to America. And so, it wasn’t until the year that they were finally lucky, and they were able to immigrate to America. And so, my dad and his two brothers were able to move to Texas.

And there, they had to figure out a way to get the rest of their family there. And so, my dad and his brothers had to look for a sponsor, and that’s how the rest of my family was able to get there, because they were able to find a church that was able to sponsor the rest of their family. Meanwhile, the next group of my dad’s family was my grandpa, my oldest aunt, and my uncle and they also went to a refugee camp, but they ended up in Canada. So that’s where they are. And then the rest, which includes my grandmother and my younger two aunts, went into a refugee camp in Thailand. And so it was a big process of trying to find everybody, especially because they were scattered all over. And so my dad was able to find a church sponsor and through them he was able to bring his mom and his younger sisters to America. And it was a process.

After they were reunited, they then went through the process of having to find the others, my aunt and my uncle who were in Canada at the time. And that was a whole process of looking through newspapers and everything, just asking around. And luckily they were able to be reunited and then they all came together in Texas. And they lived there for several years and then they moved to California where they resided for the rest of the time.

Part 3 – War and Its Everlasting Effects

(0:04) What are your current views on the Vietnam War and have they changed over the years?

Ah… Sometimes it’s a little bit hard for me to say exactly what my thoughts are on the Vietnam War just because I honestly think that if the Vietnam War didn’t happen then I don’t think I would be here, to be honest, and that’s kind of weird to think about, where it’s like… both of my parents met here in America, so they didn’t meet back in Vietnam. And it’s different than other Vietnamese parents who might have met in Vietnam and then escaped together, because when my dad moved back to California, my mom also moved in the same neighborhood as him. They lived probably about, maybe like a block or two apart. And I think it was because of that distance that helped my mom and dad meet. And so it’s weird when I look back into retrospect because I did ask my mom this question of how had the Vietnam War not happened what would have happened to us? And she said, well, most likely my family and I would all be back in Vietnam. But also, I realized if that was the case, then my mom never would have met my dad and I wouldn’t be here. So, it’s hard because it’s like… I don’t really know what would have happened if the war didn’t exist at all. I honestly don’t think I or my siblings would be here. 

But it’s hard because a lot of Vietnamese people including myself have a lot of pride in our country, and it does hurt in the way that there’s so much poverty within our country and there [are] so many times where we don’t necessarily feel safe going back because of the way that the government is. There are times when I went back to Vietnam and my parents would warn us, don’t say certain things, or don’t let other people hear you say… like… okay, my siblings and I were [laughing] singing these, like, Vietnamese – not the current Vietnam national anthem but like, the old Vietnam national anthem of the Democratic Republic, because we were forced to sing it in school, and so my siblings and I were singing it as a joke and my mom like immediately reprimanded me and she was like, “You can’t sing that here, because if anyone hears that they’re going to throw you in jail.” And the thing is, that’s actually a common… that’s actually a common occurrence in Vietnam, if you say anything against the government you will just disappear like that, so you have to be very very aware of what you’re saying. 

But… also… I think for a lot of Vietnamese people we want to see a unified Vietnam, but we also want to see a Vietnam that’s very prosperous, and I think that wasn’t… that wouldn’t be possible underneath the communist regime. It has gotten better in the last 12 years, but there’s a lot of times where I wish that it wasn’t communist and that it was a lot more prosperous. And I think for a lot of Vietnamese people honestly, like for me for example, I look at South Korea for example who had a similar conflict between the communist and democratic side, and the way that South Korea was able to flourish compared to Vietnam where we all became one, and it’s hard because it’s like… I still have family in Vietnam and for their standards they’re considered very rich, but over here they’re still considered very poor. And so… it’s hard because I think there’s a lot of trauma caused for all Vietnamese affected by the war and I don’t necessarily have a positive opinion of what happened during the war but what I can say is that I’m very proud of the sacrifices that my parents have taken to make something out of such a terrible situation.

(4:08) What are your thoughts on the newer waves of Vietnamese immigrants?

Yeah, I think there’s definitely a different mindset with newer waves of Vietnamese immigrants coming in. It’s not the same sort of mindset of, “We just came from war and we came from nothing and now we just got to start from the ground up.” Um, a lot of times when they meet Vietnamese immigrants, especially when they’re young students, most of the time they come here to pursue a better education. And so, it is a little bit different.

Sometimes it’s a little bit of a culture shock because I actually work at a Vietnamese restaurant and there’s two chefs in the back who immigrated from the south of Vietnam, but they came from the more rural areas, and so it was a big shock to me when they told me things such as, “I can’t read,” or “I dropped out in 9th grade”. It’s so weird for me because their way of thinking is so different and it’s… it’s kind of crazy because like… It’s, ‘cause like, at least here it’s very… at least in my opinion like very easy to get an education, and so to not be able to read, especially like… when these chefs are maybe like 30, 40 years old and there’s like writing all over, like it’s still something that’s very hard for me to fathom. 

The reason why I talked about the new waves of immigrants is that one thing that I like to talk about within the Asian community is that Asians are considered the model minority because we’re one of the so-called groups that earns the highest. But that’s only half true because the word “Asian” encompasses so many different groups, such as the Filipinos, Koreans, Indians, and not each group has the same experience immigrating or assimilating here because even though Asian Americans are one of the highest earning groups, we also have the biggest economic disparities within our communities because Indians, Japanese, Chinese people are known to earn… you know, a higher wage compared to the rest of the groups in America, but groups such as Vietnamese, Hmong people, they’re known to experience higher poverty rates. And I think part of that is due to the difference in our immigration waves, because there’s a difference between someone who’s immigrating here for a better education because it shows that their family had the financial means to send them to a different country and to be able to pay for a tuition that’s probably a lot higher than usual compared to Vietnamese refugees who came here out of necessity with nothing. And I think due to a lot of Vietnamese people immigrating from the war I think that’s why we experience a higher poverty rate than other Asian Americans.

(7:10) How do Vietnamese refugees and their American-born children differ?

I think the biggest differences between Vietnamese refugees and their American born children is, the culture that they have. And I say that because for a lot of Vietnamese kids, including myself, we have a hard time understanding the way our parents are the way that they are. I think part of it comes from the difference in culture but also I think it’s a difference in mentality. For the longest time I’ve wondered why my parents weren’t necessarily as nurturing, or as open, or as communicative as a lot of my other friend’s parents. But I think when I actually look back in retrospect, it’s all about a frame of reference. Because for me, my parents provided me with food, shelter, and education. That’s probably more than their parents were able to afford and so it’s a little bit hard to bridge the gap because a lot of differences I have with my mom comes with our culture.

And the more difficult part is that there [are] a lot of Vietnamese parents that have a lot of untapped trauma from the war that they bring into their own lives now, that they carry onto their children. And it’s things like a sort of a scarcity mindset or the idea that you can’t necessarily talk about your feelings because for a lot of Vietnamese parents, well they went through a whole war and so things like I’m struggling in school, I don’t necessarily have the best friend group, or things like oh well I’m having difficulty seem very minute compared to going through an entire war.

For a lot of Vietnamese kids who I’ve talked to, have a lot of difficulty expressing that to their parents because it’s not the same. It doesn’t seem it’s on the same weight. But I do wish a lot of Vietnamese refugees could recognize that it’s a different time now and their children are going through different circumstances, and that they were more open that their children are going through certain struggles. I think also vice versa as well, for a lot of Vietnamese children to recognize why their parents are the way that they are. Because for the longest time I never understood why my parents were so militant on me until she told me about her grandfather, as who I’ve mentioned was in the military and she was just as strict on her as much as she is to me. I think it’s just a sign of the generational trauma that happens within the Vietnamese community. But I think it’s getting better as younger Vietnamese people are able to recognize these patterns.

(10:12) Would you ever want to go back to Vietnam?

Yeah! I’ve been wanting to visit Vietnam for such a long time, it’s just that because of COVID it just really messed up any type of travel whatsoever. For me, I would love to be able to go to Vietnam because it is changing at such a rapid rate. The amount of Westernization that’s happened – which is a good thing, our economy is still building up, but I also feel as if it’s not the same Vietnam as I visited when I was maybe 5 or 6. And so for me, I just want to be able to get closer to my culture, especially because I think for a lot of people that go back to their home country for the first time, it’s just this instinctive feeling that I’m where I’m supposed to belong. And for me, it’s always been difficult to keep close to my culture especially because there [are] so many more things associated with tradition that I just don’t necessarily have access to compared to being here in California. And so for me, it’s very important to be able to go back and just immerse myself again in my culture and my heritage.

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