Profilers: Halle Thompson, Jonathan Trieu, Sam Mesfin, Zhian Li
Hahn Thompson was only six years old when she first arrived in the US. Growing up in the US school system, she had to overcome a language barrier while also facing numerous racist encounters with classmates. In her teen years, she had the opportunity to change her name while getting her citizenship. With the bullying that she experienced due to her name in mind, she chose to keep her original name as a way to preserve her Vietnamese identity. For a large portion of her life in America, Hahn continued to struggle with the internal tension of her Vietnamese and American identity. As time has progressed, she has been able to find more comfort in her intersectionality between an American and Vietnamese identity.
Life Before Leaving Vietnam
Hi, my name is Hanh Thompson, my maiden name is Nguyen. I am 52 years old. I was six years old when my family and I left Vietnam, and I was a refugee to the United States.
Q: What was your life like before leaving Vietnam?
We were very comfortable in Vietnam. My father worked as a social worker, and also for the church as kind of the head honcho. Like not the main pastor, but he was up there in the administrative part. He actually made..he did really well for himself. We had a lot of money.
So, my mom was a housewife, she stayed at home to help take care of the kids.
I have three other siblings. My oldest sister was 19 at the time. My oldest brother was 17, and my youngest brother – who is still older than me – he was about 15 at the time, and I was six. All the kids all went to nice schools, were all like private schools. They were French-influenced type schools.
We lived in a huge house. We had some somewhere around 10 or 12 bedrooms and seven bathrooms. We had servants and maids. I had two nannies that helped take care of me. We had cooks, we had landscapers. And they all lived on the premises. So our home was almost an estate. It had a bridge to another living quarters where the servants lived. And they were just part of the family. We all lived under one roof. And so we were all very comfortable at the time.
Q: Okay, can you tell me about the days leading up to leaving Vietnam?
Well, from what I understand, I was six years old. So I didn’t know much about what was happening at the time. What I do recall, was that I was actually watching the news and the TV was on and I happened to be listening in on the news. And I could hear the anchor, the news reporters, saying – you know – “the Vietcong were getting closer. We could hear gunfire.” And I think I actually did hear gunfire in the city at the time or what sounded like it. And I was really scared. And I didn’t know exactly what was happening, but I knew it wasn’t good.
I remember at the – at about the same time, my mother making duffel bags. She was sitting up at night, and she was sewing duffel bags for each of the children and my father and herself. And I remember asking her, “Well” – you know – “what, what are you doing? What are you making?”
And I remember her telling me that – you know – “we may have to leave the country. To leave Saigon. And we need to be prepared.”
And I said, “Well, why can’t we just take our suitcases?”
And she said, “Well, because we don’t know if we’re going to be leaving by boat. Like going by sea, on the ocean. And if we happen to go by boat or on the ocean, the duffel bags will make it easier so they can float.”
I remember her saying that – you know – and I remember her sewing jewelry into some of the clothing. And I remember her sewing little pockets into the duffel bags and other parts of the clothing and, and I just thought “What’s happening? What’s happening? What’s going on?”
Q: So, then did you or any of your family members tell anybody you were leaving? Or was there anybody else who knew – like other family members who weren’t immediate or anybody who helped out at your house?
No one knew we were leaving. I don’t think we knew we were leaving. My father, like I said, worked with Americans. He was a senior director or at some level where of the International YMCA and he was also involved with other organizations to help people. So he worked a lot with Americans. And it was because of his connections that we were able to leave Vietnam.
But, we didn’t tell anyone because we didn’t know if we were actually going to be able to do that. My grandmother, my grandfather, my grandfather had passed away. He had two wives: first wife, his second wife. First wife was older. She was – I think already in her 80s – so she was not strong enough to even make a trip. And we had learned that his second wife was just recently diagnosed with cancer. So we knew that she wouldn’t be able to make any kind of trip. So my parents chose not to tell them that we were leaving, for reasons of sadness. And again, it was dangerous times. We didn’t know if we could leave, how we were going to leave, and if we were going to make it right, so we kept it quiet.
Q: So then how were you able to leave the country?
So my father had a connection, and his name was David. David worked for the church, for the YMCA, and he wanted to come back to help us leave.
But my father said it was too dangerous. He said, “No, you can’t….you can’t come back. I don’t know what you can do, but there’s no point. We’ll…we’ll figure it out.”
But he insisted, so he actually flew back to Vietnam. He came to our house, met up with my father, and they devised all sorts of plans of how to leave the country – which none of it was really feasible. We thought about buying a boat, we thought about, like all these things, but like I said, from my understanding of my story, none of that was going to pan out.
And then the government – the American government – said, “Hey, Americans, Vietnam is about to fall. We need everybody….you need to pack up your things. If you’re an American, you need to pack up your things, gather your, your family, and your wife, your immediate family, and get out because the airports are gonna shut down. We’re gonna about, you know, we’re about to lose, basically.”
So they came up with the plan. Davis said, “Let’s….let me” – and my sister was 19, at the time, – “I’m going to marry your daughter.” He told this to my, my dad. He said, “I’ll marry your daughter, and you are her immediate family. So we’re gonna….that’s going to be your game plan.”
But we still have to get the paperwork together. And this was very short timing. So somehow or another, I’m sure we must have – my father must have – bribed officials, who knows. But they were able to get the paperwork with, you know, to..to say that she was married to David.
So we had the paperwork in hand, we got in a car. And we still weren’t sure where we’re going to be able to go anywhere with this, right? We get to the airport, there’s only one big airport in Saigon. And this was on the military side. So there’s two, I guess, two parts of the airport. But we go to the military side, because that’s where the Americans were, or are going to go, and all the dignitaries were going to be able to leave the country.
So we get to the gate and the guards there. They look us over, and they said, – you know – “What’s your business?” basically.
And David said, “Well, here’s-, you know, I’m so and so. This is my wife. And this is her family. And we need to board the airplane…Yes, I have paperwork.”
And by the grace of God, I think the soldiers – you know – they looked us look, this looked at us. I’m sure they knew that this was not a true story, or what have you, but we had paperwork. And so he just kind of looked everybody up and down. And he said, “Okay, go on through.”
And so we…we – you know – …thank goodness, that we had that obstacle that we passed. So we got into the airport. And I remember us just waiting for a long, long, long time. I think every family was given a number to board the plane. And there were…and these weren’t just regular planes, they were just there were – you know – there are these planes were not 747s. They were cargo planes. We were on the military side. So they had huge airplanes with no seats because it was used for carrying cargo. And there were just hundreds more…like thousands of families, I could imagine, waiting to hopefully get onto a plane to leave Vietnam, and that I remember was on April 22nd, I believe 22nd or 23rd. Vietnam – or Saigon – fell on April 29 of 1975. And so we were there about a week before the official fall of Saigon.
Q: Can you tell me about your experience on the plane and what it was like?
Yeah. So on the plane, we…luck was on our side. We, we… our number was called. And I think we were the last family to board the plane that day. We weren’t the last family to leave the country by all means. But I think we were one of the last families to board a plane that day, on the 22nd.
And, I mean, it was like I said, it was a big airplane. We, we got on there. And I just remember thinking there are no seats on the plane. And we were all crammed in there like sardines, hundreds of us. We were literally sitting shoulder to shoulder. And I remember when we took off, and I don’t recall windows, but I mean, but I remember being really cold. And my mom was sitting next to me, and she’s holding me. And, and I just, I was a little scared. And I remember I had to go to the bathroom. But there were no bathrooms, right?
And the plane took off. And most planes as you know, they take – you know – when you do take off, you’re kind of on a steady climb. Well, we took off… we took off, going straight up, almost like a vertical climb.
And I was told later, excuse me, that…that was because we wanted to avoid or like to..we wanted to stay away from any kind of firepower, right, and kind of guns or missiles that are being shot, potentially shooting at us, because we were trying to take off.
Now when we took off vertically, everyone kind of slid back. But there was nowhere to slide back because we were all just…we’re just all like hunched up like together. So there was not really anywhere to slide back. And I just remember being really scared.
Q: Did you have any thoughts other than fear when you were leaving Vietnam?
You know, as a six year old, there was a little sense of excitement, like adventure, not knowing what was going to happen. I felt completely safe. Because I had my parents with me and I had my mom. She was..no matter what, I knew she was going to protect me and take care of me. So in that sense, I felt this sense of adventure, Like, “Where are we going? What are we doing? What’s happening?”
So I was scared but always, I was also kind of looking forward to seeing what was upon the horizon.
Q: And then, what did you leave behind when you left Vietnam?
Um, so my grandparents, we had to leave behind. My dogs, I had three dogs. And I didn’t know…that was sad for me because as a six year old, I didn’t know what was going to happen to them.
We left behind just all our worldly possessions. I didn’t take anything with me. Any clothes – I mean, just just the clothes I didn’t have. I couldn’t take my dolls, any of my play toys. My father was smart. We..we had, from what I understand, we had a couple – you know – we have a few million dollars. We left all the money behind because we couldn’t take money with us. It was, it was useless. Right?
So we left the money for my grandparents. But I don’t think they ever really got that money. We left it with a friend to kind of give my grandparents on a monthly basis. Some money so they could live with that. But when the Vietcong took over, they also changed the currency, I believe.
So you could only trade in so much money at a time. So and with the money they….and I don’t think they got everything. So it was, it was sad. I think they ended up – the Vietcong took away our house and everything that went along with it – so my grandparents couldn’t live there anymore. They actually left and – I think – went and stayed with friends. But we couldn’t take anything else with us.
Q: So after the initial flight out of Saigon, where did you land?
So in our cargo plane where all of us were, hundreds and hundreds of us on that plane,we flew – they flew us to Guam. Guam was our first stop. And we got off the plane, not in a terminal.
That was the first time I remember coming..coming down the stairs of an airplane. I don’t know why that’s a vivid memory but– and I remember being greeted, or everyone who came off that plane, we were greeted by the Red Cross ladies. And I remember that because they were all wearing their…their..what do you call it? Their… their headbands – you know – with the Red Cross logo. And they were so kind and they were very…they were so welcoming. I remember that. And they greeted us. And we were taken to a camp. Like it was, it was like a makeshift camp. Right? And it was very crowded.
We were…we were in Guam for just a few days. I don’t recall exactly how long would. I say like three, maybe three or four days. And we were all in barracks. They had bunk beds, and we had barracks, but I don’t remember how many families were in a barrack or anything like that. I just remember being there for a few days.
Q: Other than it being crowded and being embarrassed, what was it like in the refugee camp? Was there in Guam? Was there anything to do? Or how did you spend your time?
So I actually spent a lot of my time with my mom, like she was in the barracks. I stayed with her. Because she, she was – you know – , she was very overly protective. I was six years old.
I do remember us having to get in line to get food. So just like there wasn’t a mess hall. It was just…they would set up tables outside and we would all line up and with our trays and and we would go through the line. And they would give us a little bit of this and a little bit that. And it was edible. I don’t recall it being wonderful food or anything.
But I wasn’t hungry. And I didn’t feel scared. I felt like “Oh, this is..this is kind of cool.” They would show movies, I remember, at night, like an outdoor movie. And we would all stand – you know – we would all run, all the kids would come and my brothers and sisters would..would take me. And we would sit in front of the screen and watch a movie. I couldn’t remember…I think Charlie Chaplin. They showed us one of the movies since I would recall
Q: How are you able to leave the refugee camp in Guam? And then where did that take you?
So from Guam, we- they flew us to Camp Pendleton. And that was in a military base in Southern California. There we stayed- I’m going to say – a couple of weeks. Because I think we had to wait for our sponsor. So Dave..and I remember David visiting us at Camp Pendleton.
And at Camp Pendleton, we were all in tents. And there were cots, like just one cot right after another. Just tons of cots everywhere. And it was pretty cramped tight with other families, other refugees. And there was a mess hall. And I remember it being cold at night, but I remember going to the mess hall when I would get hungry.
And that was the first time that I ever had toast. I know, sounds crazy. But we don’t have toast in Vietnam. And toast with jam and butter was just about the best thing in the whole world to a six year old kid. And I remember my sister taking me late at night when everything was closed like there was no more food available, like buffet style. But there was also- though there was always bread in a toaster oven or one of those toaster ovens. Yeah. And..and we would do that each night and I thought that was really fun.
The other thing we- the bathrooms. It was all open space type bathrooms. There were a few showerheads, some toilets, and you know, so I remember one time too, there was a truck that came by. It was like….a…they call it. I don’t remember what they called it, but you would go… go in the back of the truck and there were – what do you call it? – flip flops. They had flip flops for everybody and I thought that was the best thing in the world because I didn’t want to go barefoot in the shower stalls or the shower. You know, it was kind of gross.
So I was so amazed and so happy when the trucks would pull up, because I would run up to the truck and then we would get in line. And the kids would, one by one, go into the back of this truck. And they could choose any color flip flops we wanted. And I was – you know – that would fit, right? And I was so excited for my first pair of flip flops.
So for me at the camps, it was…it was really fun. I had other kids to play with. And I had my mom for safety.
Q: As you were leaving Camp Pendleton, you had a sponsor. So what was that process like?
So, David Moore came to visit at Camp Pendleton, I forgot to mention. I was mentioning that- and he – you know – he also brought news of the sponsorship. We were sponsored by the Mennonite Church. So if you don’t know what Mennonites are, think of Quakers. And they’re not to the extreme of Quakers, but they live a very simple life. And it was a religion. It’s a type of religion.
And they…they were just very kind and they were…because my father had connections with them, they sponsored our family into the United States.
So we flew from Camp Pendleton. We flew to – with the paperwork – we flew to Pennsylvania. Akron, Pennsylvania. Little town that was Mennonite based. And from there, we made the news. We have…I still have clippings of the first Vietnamese family in Pennsylvania in Akron, Pennsylvania.
And we stayed…when we got there. We..we didn’t have any money yet. So what happened was we stayed with a family for a month at a time. So the Mennonite community hosted us in their homes. And that was – you know – that was just like, so heartwarming, because we’re a big family, there are four kids and.. and mom and dad. That’s six, that six of us.
And we stayed with maybe three or four families. So like three or four months. A month with each family until my father was given a job. He had a…and his job was a good one. He was helping refugee families get settled, that was part that was his job. And he made enough money where we can actually rent a home for ourselves.
Q: So what was school like in the US for you and your siblings?
I was six years old. And I just turned seven, actually. So I was going to be entering in the second grade. I- we had…we had the summer there because April was when we left. And so we had- you know – the school was out when I got to the states. So I was going to start second grade.
But the summer before second grade, I remember getting tutored. I remember someone coming to the house, and I remember learning vocabulary words in English. Like chair and- you know- household items in… household stuff. But I didn’t really know how to speak English. The only word I knew was the word, “No.” I didn’t even know the word “Yes.” I just know No.
Anyway, so we went…in second…so when school started, they enrolled me in second grade. And when we…when my dad and I went to register for school, they couldn’t…they couldn’t understand my name. Now you have to remember that we were the first Vietnamese family – you know – in Indiana at the time. In a very small rural community. And when I went to register, my name. My full name is Nguyen Thi My Hanh.
And I…when I said… she asked me what my name was. My dad said, “She asked me your name.” So I gave them my name. The secretary at the school, and she…she was like, “I can’t say that. Like what’s your name. Is it… Hi..Hank?”
And I said, “No, no, no, not Hank. No, no, no.”
I didn’t like that at all. I knew it sounded weird. I’m like, No, no, no.
So I said “No, no, no, it’s My-Hanh”
And she said “Han! Han’s your name.”
And I kinda like…Okay, that’s good enough. So I said, “Yeah, Han’s my name.” So that became my name. I was named by the secretary- even though that wasn’t- you know- wasn’t officially my name. It was what the secretary could pronounce at the time.
And so that became my name. And she said, “My han?”
And I said, “No…not My han…Because it’s… it’s My-Hanh.
And she said, “You Han?”
I said, “No, no, no.”
And I will say, she was like, “Is this your…Is this your first name?”
And my dad- you know- my dad’s like, “No, no, no, it’s a middle. It’s part of her first name.”
And so she said,”Oh, you mean the middle name.”
So anyway, long story short, the secretary named me. And my name became Han. M-Y, My became my middle name. My middle name is actually Thi, T-H-I.
But that all got kind of confused. So on record, my name became Han, and my last name Nguyen. So that was kind of a start to a language barrier. I didn’t…I didn’t understand a word of English. I didn’t speak- I think- for two years. I was in my listening-learning stage when I came to the US.
With many refugees, this is…this is normal and typical. And I remember that when I wasn’t scared with all the children when I entered. I was bewildered that it was so different and that there wasn’t a lot of kids. I was used to having 60 kids in my classroom. At least 50 or 60 children. And we were all- you know- sitting in rows. I remember standing up to do the pledge. And I remember thinking, “What are all these children saying? What is this? -You know like- what are they saying?”
And I remember so hard trying to remember…or trying to learn the words so that I could say the Pledge of Allegiance.
I played on the bars; we didn’t have bars in Vietnam. It was like, very interesting. All these things were new to me. And they were exciting.
But it..it was also hard. So- you know- when you don’t…I didn’t have any friends because I was different, right? And I didn’t know how to really be like…I couldn’t….I wasn’t talking yet. So I didn’t…I couldn’t really relate to anyone.
I was really good with math. That was the only thing that- you know- because I was…I’m used to being the one of the top students in my class. So I couldn’t do the English part, But math I was really strong at. And I remember that math was so easy in the United States compared to where I came from. So that was…that was interesting, too.
And I remember when I got hurt, and I didn’t understand anything. I remember a friend trying to help me when I fell down and she said, “Are you okay?”
And I looked at her, and I didn’t know what that meant. So I said – the only word I knew was no- so I said, “No, I…no.”
And she said -you know- “ *gasps* Oh.” She didn’t know how to respond to that.
And when I got home that night, my sister asked me, “How did” – you know – “…how did things go at school?”
And I said, “Well, I think it was okay.”
And she said, “Did anything happen?”
And I said, “Well, I fell down and somebody asked me a question. And I said, No.”
And she said, “What did they ask you?”
And I said, “I don’t know. She asked me something.”
And my sister explained, “She probably asked you if you were okay. And you probably should have answered Yes, you were okay.”
And at that point, I’m like, oh, maybe I should learn the word Yes. So that was the start of new things at school.
But when I got older, I was picked on a lot. Third, fourth grade, I was bullied a lot. Because people hated us. And I didn’t understand why. I didn’t understand why I was being teased for being Fresh Off the Boat. They would call me names. They would make you know, a Chinese, Viet- Asian slurs and Asian eye-slants.
And I remember being really mad. So so mad. And I wanted to just…I wanted to cry. But I didn’t…I didn’t know how to handle that. It was just…it was awful.
I remember walking home one day in fourth grade. And Billy. Billy, Billy was a big bully. He was bigger than me. Blonde kid, tall kid. He followed me home. So I was walking home. He followed me home that day. And he was taunting me from behind, calling me all these names. Calling me – you know – saying “Chinese, Japanese.” I don’t know, like all these things, and I just remember being really angry.
And I turned around, and I said, “Stop.”
And he laughed at me. And I tried to hit him. And- because I was just so mad- I just had it. And he kick…he kicked me or he punched me in the stomach. Knocked the wind out of me. And from then on, I knew to not challenge that anymore. And – you know – I had to take a lot of the… the taunting. But from that day on, something else that changed in me that I kind of rejected my culture, and my me being Vietnamese. And that was sad.
So I wanted to be more American. So I wouldn’t get teased. So growing up was really tough.
Q: Was rejecting your culture – and having a hard time adapting to American culture – the biggest challenge that you faced when you came to America, or was there any other hardships that you struggled through?
I think that was the hardest thing, because that started in fourth grade. But it…it got worse, as things went along. I mean, high school I- I never felt….Like, I was always trying to reject being Vietnamese, And I grew up in a town where I was the only Vietnamese person until…until I was a senior in high school.
Up until then, I lived in a very- uh not a small town. It was a big town…is big, but it was more rural. More, more American. And I tried to fit in. I was a tomboy when I was little. I played all the sports, adapted to -you know- baseball, volleyball, what have you, I was also very smart. So people saw me as a smart Asian kid. Not so much as..- but I was never part of any kind of group.
They liked me, but they didn’t include me. So that was a difference. And then when there was another Vietnamese kid that moved in, his name was Hau. And I didn’t like this. Because even though I was the only Vietnamese kid, I was able to survive being the only Vietnamese kid for a long time.
And now with this new Vietnamese kid, you would think, Oh, I have…I have someone to kind of share my- you know- share my sorrows or whatever. But no, they teased us even more. When Hau came along, it was like, “Oh, are you guys married? Are you” -you know like- “are you cousins?” And it seems…it was…it was awful. You know, like, “Oh you guys are gonna get married now, have a kid even in high school.”
It was hard. It was hard just being always not fitting in because of the way you look or because of the color of your skin.
Q: Were you able to get your American citizenship?
Yes. So American citizenship started when I was younger. My parents- I didn’t have automatic citizenship because I was the child. So when my parents passed the citizenship test…you have to take a test. You have to be in the United States for – I think – five years. And then you had to take a citizenship test, which was not that easy. And my mom didn’t have…she…her highest education was eighth grade, all in Vietnam. So she didn’t have any English, and she had to go to night school to learn English. She had…she passed her GED even though she didn’t have any formal education. She studied real hard for that. And then she studied for the citizenship test. And when she pass that…when both my parents passed that, I became an automatic citizen because they had passed that. I was little.
Now my dad- as I understand- he…uh was… it took longer to become a citizen because he … one of the requirements for becoming a US citizen is that you have to give up or denounce your other citizenship. And for someone who loves their country, my dad was – you know- we all love Vietnam. We all love…that was our Home, that was our home. And he…he had a hard time with denouncing that.
So it took us, I think. eight years before he could actually come to grips and come to the acceptance that Vietnam is no longer going to be his home. That the United States is now his home. And so it took us longer to get our citizenship. But once we did, we were sworn in and I was a part of that process.
Q: What did it mean to you, and, or your family when you all became American citizens?
I think, for my parents that… well for me, I didn’t know that- you know- I was young. So you know….for me..
Oh, I remember. For me…once we got the word, okay, You can now… we get passports, right? from the United States, and you could change your name. And I remember, at my age, I was 16, maybe? maybe younger? No, I was maybe 13..15. 15. 16. And they said, Well, you can pick any name you want. And I thought, “Oh my gosh. I can pick an American name. This is what I’ve wanted, right? To be an American So I won’t be teased anymore. If I have an American name. That’s one less thing that they’re going to tease me about.”
Because boy, I got so much flak for my name…for being Han. They would call me Han Chewbacca, Han. Who is that….the Star Wars at the time. All sorts of, of names. But now I can choose the name. And I remember thinking…I remember going through all different kinds of names in my, in my head. But in the end, I think Carrie was actually a name I was going to choose. I don’t look like a Carrie.
But in the end – I don’t know why- but I decided to keep my name. Because as much as I wanted to be an American, I was also Vietnamese. And, I was growing up and I had come to accept that. Like, that’s part of my identity. And I didn’t want to give it up. Even though it was hard growing up, and being teased and being different, I still didn’t want to give up that piece of my identity. So I kept my name. So that was that. So that was one thing of being a citizen was that I got to choose my name. But I kept my original name.
Now, for my parents. For my mom, I know she was relieved. Because now, everything is official. And she had told me that she was very happy that we were in America because of all the opportunities, and had we been in Vietnam, we wouldn’t have been…we may not have had all these opportunities that we are given now. So she was very happy.
Q: Was there any time you felt regret coming to the US or thought that your parents were in the wrong for forcing your family to move?
Well, I didn’t know life really, outside of being in the US, right? I was very young. So my life in Vietnam was very short compared to my life here in the US. So I don’t feel any regrets. I- it was, as a young child, it was an adventure for me. And it continued to be an adventure in the US, seeing all the different wonders that the US had to offer.
I was amazed the first time I tasted Kentucky Fried Chicken. Amazed! I was like blown away when you can eat sugar like donuts and cereal for breakfast. And I could watch Saturday morning cartoons. We didn’t have any of these things in Vietnam. In Vietnam. I played outside, I rode my bike. I did all those wonderful things that kids should do. But I didn’t have any of these…any of these things that we take for granted in the United States. So, I would say I have no regrets. I just have an… all wonder of the adventures growing up here in the United States.
Q: Is there anything that you wish was different while you were immigrating? Or coming over to the US?
I don’t know if there’s anything I would change because I just don’t know – you know- any different experience, I- to me as a child, everything was an adventure and everything was new and exciting. And I felt the warmth and comfort of my mom. And I don’t think…I think things would have been a whole lot different had I not had family and if had I not had my mom taking care of me. I didn’t…we didn’t…I never saw any of the, the brutalities. Or any of some of the horror stories of coming over on a boat that other refugees had. This experience. I experienced a- I’m sure it wasn’t easy – but I had an easier time flying over on a plane, right? And, and experiencing a pretty easy transition from one country to another country. I never…I was never hungry. I was always clothed, and I was always loved.
Q: Do you think your life would have been better? Had you stayed in Vietnam?
Well, I think…I mean, we definitely had… like I said, we definitely had it good in Vietnam. But I think with the war and how things were progressing, I think things would have changed drastically, right? And if there was no war, who knows what that might look like. But, you could tell that things were not going in the direction that we wanted them to go. And Vietnam compared to the US, even though we had all the luxuries and all the wealth in Vietnam, it still doesn’t compare to what we have here in the United States. This truly is the best country that anybody could live in. With all the freedoms and uh…and all the um, like I said, all the wonders and the things we take for granted.
Q: Have you been able to return to Vietnam since the war?
No, I have not. And I’ve had opportunities. If..if I said -you know – if you had asked if I had regretted anything, I think the one thing I do regret is not going back to Vietnam when I had the opportunity to go with my brother and his family a few years back. And I…I was working, I was busy. So I decided not to take that trip, and I have my family. So…and the kids were too young at the time to make that trip, in my opinion. So we didn’t go.
But I have not gone back, and one of the reasons why I suppose is fear. Fear of not having it be to my expectation. So I want to kind of preserve the memory of Vietnam through the eyes of a six year old. And I think going back almost, in my mind, may ruin that because I am…I am American now.
My family…I…I’m married to someone who’s white. I don’t know how that would be accepted in Vietnam. So because of all these reasons- and my kids are half white and half Asian- I don’t know how that would be received. If I go back to Vietnam, how would I be treated? My family and I, as a tourist. But- you know- being judged. I -you know- I think being here in the United States, growing up in the United States, I was always judged because I was Vietnamese. Going back to Vietnam, even for a visit…I don’t want to feel, to be judged as an American, if that makes any sense.
So, so no. I haven’t gone back. And I’m still…I still don’t know if I’m going to. The only way I would go back is if I go back with my mother or someone in my family. And there are no plans about doing that in the near future.
Q: Have any thoughts or feelings that you have had towards the war changed over time?
This was…this is hard because I have this love-hate relationship with the war. I hated the war because it tore Vietnam apart, right? We…we had to leave our home and…and basically run away from violence. And so, I hated the war for that.
But if there wasn’t a war, I wouldn’t be here. And I…this is my home. This is my home now and I’m American. My family’s American. So that’s why I’m…I’m…I’m torn because as much as I hated the war, I’m thankful that because of it I’m able to live the life I have now.
Q: Is there any advice that you would give to your younger self as a refugee on how to deal with the war or adapting to life in America?
I think for adapting to life in America, I would do things a lot different. I wouldn’t push away my culture and my heritage as much as I did growing up. And I would – you know – it’s hard to do when you’re growing up, and you’re in the situation where everyone is – you know – making fun of you, or bullying you being mean to you, or what have you. But I wish I was stronger at that time, to see how special I was. To be who I am. And I wish I knew how to handle it better. I wish I was stronger and that I embraced my identity more. Because I…it took me a long time to…to embrace that.
Even in college, I was still denying my…my true identity, right. And even when I started working as a teacher, I was a bilingual teacher. I was supposed to take care – you know – my main job was to help new Vietnamese kids to the country assimilate and fit in. And, and as much as I love doing that – and I still keep in touch with these children – at the time, it was hard for me because I didn’t want to be labeled as a Vietnamese teacher. I didn’t want that. I wanted to be American.
So I struggled with that identity for so, so long. And if I could go back in time, I would change that. And I would embrace my identity, because I know how important that is. And how much more…how much stronger I am because I have both identities.
Q: And then do you have any final thoughts about either your story of coming to the US or anything else you wanted to reflect on? That you want to share?
I- I’m just – you know – I’m just really happy that I am here – you know – and that America is my home now. But I’m so fortunate that I am still teaching and I love my job.
And new families from Vietnam continue to come and I have the opportunity to help children from Vietnam learn the language, be able to fit in, be able to see the wonders I saw when I was a child. So I think that’s all. The- you know- that those have just been my final thoughts.