Post-War Silence: Growing Up With Many Questions About My Heritage
Profilers: Emma Manucharyan, Julian Hernandez, Ria Mandaokar, Sam Marler
Q: Tell us about yourself and your experiences growing up
A: My name is Kathy Tran. My pronouns are (She/Her/Hers). I am a community college instructor. I really like working with students; it is something that I’ve been very passionate about. When I told my parents I wanted to be a teacher, they were not big fans about it. They tried to push me into a profession that was much more traditional, you know: lawyer, doctor, something like that. But they’re actually really happy and supportive of where I’m at now. I was born and raised here in Southern California. My parents arrived in California in ’76 probably because they escaped from Vietnam in ’75. My brother was born in ’76, my sister was born in ’78, and then, I was born in ’80, so I’m a little ’80s baby. My family is all still around here in California. My dad’s side of the family, the paternal side, they all are here. They escaped, and then, my mom’s entire family is still back in Vietnam.
In Vietnamese language, we refer to our paternal relatives by certain monikers; as well as our maternal moniker. So, I actually never used those until I was an adult and went back to Vietnam for the first time. The maternal side is the ngoại side and I never actually referred to my aunts and uncles by cậu and mợ, which are again the maternal side; until I was in my 20s so I thought that that was really an interesting experience, being an adult for the first time using those maternal words to describe my family. So growing up it was just my Mom, my Dad, my brother, my sister, and I; we originally lived with everyone because that’s what we did growing up. All of the aunties and uncles, it was my grandparents’ house, and everyone was under one roof. We moved around a lot when we were kids. I remember at least 4 or 5 different apartments and houses, having roommates that we referred to as aunties and uncles, but I don’t think that they were actually related to us. My parents worked a lot…a lot a lot. They weren’t home as often as we would’ve liked, but we got to eat all the pizza rolls and watch all the cartoons we wanted when they weren’t home.
Growing up in elementary school and high school, in elementary school, I was one of very few Vietnamese students there and I remember originally being put in ESL classes because obviously look at me. So that’s where they put me and then when we got there, my sister and we were put in the same ESL class together, I remember on day one they started just asking us to like look through… and my sister had taught me to read at home so when I entered school and I just started reading to them in English they’re all like “oh sweetheart you don’t belong here”; and I’m all like “duh, yeah, I told you”. So then we got to be in “normal classes”, and with that, we did get to celebrate some cultural days with the ESL classes but I grew up in a very homogeneous, very white, very not people who look like me.
In high school, it was much more diverse and more welcoming but it was interesting because all growing up I would explain to people how my parents escaped Vietnam in 75’ and that was how I referred to it, and it wasn’t until much more recently within the last probably 5 years or so that I started to refer to them as refugees. I think that a lot of what was going on politically, it never occurred to me that that was the right word until I started having more conversations like that. But um, it was very interesting growing up because all of my friends were much more mixed and diverse, and then I think as I got older I started gravitating towards, wanting to be closer to my culture and having more Vietnamese people around me. But I married a white guy, he’s a giant 6’5” white dude and I’m 6’ tall so somewhere along the line we’re just tall people who met each other but we got two little kids and oh my gosh they’re going to be giants. But growing up it was a very unique experience and I can talk more about how I felt growing up too because I think that has a lot to do with who I am today.
Q: Were you often curious about Vietnam and if you weren’t, why?
A: I was very curious as a child and whenever I asked them about the war I was shut down, just completely, unanimously shut down. I think because I persisted…when I was very little our history books, our social studies class, maybe the Vietnam War got a paragraph at best but I really had no idea what was happening. How or why we escaped. I remember… it was just my Dad and me and I remember asking him one day – like again I was very young I don’t remember how old – how did the war start? What happened? How did we get here? I remember my dad saying something along the lines of you know it just starts with one or two people fighting in the streets and then it becomes something else altogether. I think that what he was doing was trying to make something that I understood, like two people fighting in the street as an access point for me to understand this much greater, abstract concept of war. So, I think that was him trying to answer my question but more often than not my parents were very tight-lipped, and the rest of my relatives were as well.
And I think that what happened was, when I was 18/19 I took a class on the history of the Vietnam War. I loved my instructor, Christina Regenovich. It was a history class, and when I took this in Orange County I was the only girl and the only Vietnamese person in the class. It was very white and I am going to go ahead and say that there was a very, very Neo-Nazi vibe in that class. The teacher came in right away and kind of squashed that and said hey this is not about who killed who with what weapons; this is more about the origins, the political ramifications. Students stood up and walked out – and this was in like 1998 you know. So when I took this class I started asking my parents more pointed questions, and they didn’t offer me new information but they did confirm stories. Like I’m like oh my gosh this is what happened in Vietnam during the war, like this is unbelievable, I can’t believe that anyone would do something like this. These are civilians, women, children – I can’t believe this would happen. My parents were like yeah that happened, and that was it. My access point to the war was a classroom.
Later on, I remember pursuing a little bit more of our family origin story. I asked my grandfather, I wanted to record our history because I wanted it to be passed on generationally. In Vietnamese culture, it is very important for tradition and culture and narrative to be handed down from oldest son to oldest son to oldest son. I’m the youngest daughter so I wasn’t as…I wasn’t a good person to tell the story to. So when my grandfather got sick, he passed away a few years ago, when he got sick – we, the extended family – were taking care of him. I had deferred grad school, so this was what I was doing, this was a role I wanted to do. But so I was there for a majority of the time and oftentimes aunties and other people would drop off food and check-in. And I remember that’s when I finally start getting stories, that’s when I finally started getting details about just what life was like in Vietnam – before the war even.
My family was there the day that the embassy was getting evacuated, when the helicopter got shot down they were on the roof. There are a lot of stories that I’m glad that I got to hear, and I hope to be able to put them down on paper and again my parents are still very tight-lipped about the situation. I actually know that if they were to find out that I’m sharing these stories they’d probably be very upset and I have been very conflicted with the American side of me that wants my narrative told and shared vs the very Vietnamese… I don’t want to say secretive but it is much more of a face thing I guess. It’s something about like you know as far as family, that business is private. If there is a problem, if there is an issue – that is resolved within the closed doors of the house. That is not something you share, that is not something that you know put on an interview up on a web page or anything like that. So it’s hard but I think something that is traumatic for my parents, painful for my parents. I’ve often thought about why they don’t want to tell me and obviously, I think that they wanted to protect me, they want to protect all their children. They escaped Vietnam for a reason and one of the reasons was that they wanted to save us from that trauma so I think one of the reasons why they aren’t sharing their stories is because that they don’t want us to feel the pain that they feel. In a way, they were trying to cut that part off, amputate it basically. I mentioned that when I was a child I was very curious about it because it was so inaccessible, it was forbidden, that curiosity as an adult grew into like yearning. A passion and desire to understand that part of me that I didn’t have access to.
Growing Up in America
Q: What do you think about the American perspective of Vietnam? How have you learned about the culture of Vietnam through the war?
A: Let me go ahead and fill you in on a bunch of the racist stuff that happened to me while I was growing up in a very white Huntington Beach. A lot of what I think Americans perceive of the war can be summed up into movies like Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now and a couple of other notable movies about the war. I remember not even being in the double digits yet, maybe I was 8 or 9 years old, and having someone scream out their window as my sister and I were walking down the street, like “what do I get for 5 dollars?”. I was a child. I did not understand what that meant until much later on in life obviously. I worked at a coffee shop after high school and I remember someone coming in and he’s all like, “what are you anyways?”. I’m all like, “what are you talking about?”. He’s all like, “Well what are you? You aren’t one of them Vietnamese are you?”. [I said] “Actually I am”. He went on to rant about how he remembered what Westminster was like before “all of us” came over. I was like, “buddy I didn’t solicit this, why are you picking on me for this?”. My whole life I’ve been complimented on how well I speak English. I’ve been alluded to my exoticism and sexual prowess and all that. That’s all been just dumped right in front of my face as conversation pieces – as getting-to-know-you fodder. Kind of par for the course but incredibly infuriating. I didn’t realize that it was sexism or racism again until I was an adult and all of this stuff was like “gosh this is really weird why do people keep on saying these things to me? Why do people keep on talking to me in this way?”.
Between all that too, I realized that I also met a lot of “white saviors” growing up too, a lot of people who think that they’re doing the Lord’s work by helping me navigate. How to survive in this world that is against me, and they’re so proud and they always pat themselves on the back for that. It’s very different because I think that I am a pleaser so I tend to just let a lot of stuff go, but I look back on it and replay everything over and over again, and that ends up driving me crazy because I end up dwelling on things. To be honest, I have put up with a bunch of casual racism. I can say that the family that I married into, I definitely put up with a lot of racism directed at me, I am the only person of color in the family I married into. But I think that now that I am a Mom, now that I have 2 little ones who look very much like me too, I am much more protective and aware of it now so that once inklings of racism start bubbling up I try to stop that as soon as possible. I know that my kids are going to experience that. It’s weird because sometimes they really are half me – half my husband, they really are because sometimes I look at them and I’m like aww look at those white kids playing in my yard but sometimes I just see them and I’m like oh you got my eyes. That’s where I guess I definitely want to share with them as much of our family history as possible and I want them to know that their grandparents and great grandparents, they came over here and I want them to know why.
Q: Did you notice any difference in the way that your parents raised you?
A: Growing up, I think I had mentioned this, like you know not being American enough not being Vietnamese enough. And as an adult now, I can reflect back on that and think of how lucky I was to have one foot in both cultures; to be able to celebrate both. To be able to have access to all of these different things. As a child growing up I felt displaced, I think that’s the best word for that. Now, I am all like oh I possess duality, but like no as a child I just didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere – I felt like a black sheep but just beyond the family black sheep. Everywhere I went, I didn’t look like my classmates around me but you know I wasn’t Vietnamese enough either. My Vietnamese skills are bad, I used to speak much more as a child when I was around my grandparents more but my Vietnamese skills are bad and really that is a huge deal within the generation that still speaks Vietnamese. I have a lot of hesitancy about what I can and can’t share because again I am just torn between you know honoring my parents and you know saying what’s right by me. I wasn’t ever able to, you know, feel comfort from my parents when I was little. I wasn’t able to feel like I belonged and I think that is really important. Like, I didn’t even feel like I belong to my own family. I felt displaced, and then the question was like, you know, how am I going to raise my kids differently?
I actually have a fear of being different than my kids because I’m 100% Vietnamese; my husband is 100% white – I think Welsh, maybe some Danish, maybe a little bit of German in there too. But he’s 100% white and our kids are not 100% of either one of us so I have this fear that they, like me, are going to feel this displacement, of not being fully one side of the family or fully of the other side of the family. I don’t want to project that onto them so I want them to feel loved and I want them to have access to both sides of their family as much as possible. It’s really hard because COVID happened in 2020, like my parents were very concerned about, you know, safety precautions. So, my son was very young, maybe like 6 or 7 months old, and then we didn’t see my parents for over a year and a half, so they had not seen him longer than he had been alive so that to me was very very sad. We Facetimed them a lot but it’s just definitely not the same. So I don’t know what I can do to kind of mitigate this sense of this lack of belonging with my children but I’m trying really really hard to get them…books: they love books, they love turning, the pages of books they love reading; so I am trying my best to get them fairy tales in Vietnamese. They love Shang-Chi, thank you Marvel for finally putting out an Asian superhero.
The Lunar New Year just happened and we had a lot of Lunar New Year books for me to teach them about traditions and stuff. This moment kind of broke my heart, Christmas is a big deal in this household. Christmas was not a big deal for me growing up like my parents didn’t do Santa. [But] because Christmas was such a big deal, we were making the Lunar New Year, trying to make it a big deal. My husband decorated and I was so excited. I was telling them all the things that we were going to do, the food we were going to have, the games we were going to play. And when my 4-year-old, when he was going to bed one night, and I was telling him “Tết is tomorrow, this is all the fun stuff we’re doing!” and he was like, “Mom I don’t like Tết, I like Christmas.” [I responded] “Oh that’s fine, Tết can be just as fun!”, Tết can’t be just as fun, Tết doesn’t come with a mountain of presents. So it kind of broke my heart a little like he’s 4, he’s allowed to like Christmas more. As much as I’m trying to immerse them in Vietnamese culture, it’s just really hard because there is way too much American culture present and I’m fine with that, I have to be because that’s just the way it is.
Q: Have you ever been to Vietnam? Would you ever consider taking family over to Vietnam to learn about the culture?
A: 100% yes. I went to Vietnam for the first time in ’98 and I loved it. I loved it so much – I can’t even begin to explain. In a former question I had mentioned feeling like a black sheep, like I didn’t belong. When I went back to Vietnam in 1998 it was the first time I felt like I belonged in a family. It was the very very first time that I felt accepted, that I felt like these people loved me and wanted to be around me. And I know that my parents did the best they could. I know that I was loved – I felt loved, but there was just something about making this connection to this family that I really felt seen and whole for the first time in my entire life and I was 18 years old at the time.
I’ve been back a couple of times since. My husband and I, we’ve talked about going back a lot. Every single time I talked about going back my parents are resistant. There is always like oh there’s this reason why you can’t go or there’s this other reason why you can’t go. I totally understand right now that my kids are a little bit too young and I want them to be old enough to be properly vaccinated in order to go back, and also I want them to survive the plane ride and be able to appreciate it as well. My youngest right now is going to turn 2 in a couple of months so we’re definitely talking about it and I definitely want to take them back to Vietnam. I wanna go back there to eat, I wanna go back there to eat all the food and I want them to be able to meet their relatives and just to be able to see how beautiful the country is too.
Q: How would you recreate your experiences in Vietnam for your kids to learn more about the culture?
A: It was very important to me to know where we came from for my own sense of identity and I think that even self worth is tied in there too like again because I didn’t feel really accepted until I had gotten there, like I felt valued when– this is gonna sound really silly but I have two older siblings: my brother is the oldest and my sister is the middle child who is, I’m gonna go ahead and say, the favorite. It’s fine, I’m fine with it. But in America everyone likes her more which is fine but my nickname growing up was mặt nhăn nhó, which means kind of like grumpy face, that I wasn’t the most pleasant person to be with but my sister she was công chúa, she was the princess, she was the one that just got along with everyone. So when we were in Vietnam as a family back in ’98, I remember my relatives asking me to go to the mall or go to the grocery store or something with them and I’m like awesome and my mom is like “oh no no, she doesn’t want to go, you want her sister.”. And then they’re like, “No, we asked her to go – we want her to go” and my Mom’s like that can’t be right. My Mom couldn’t fathom a world in which someone wanted me. I remember one of my aunties, we were walking down the street and she was holding my hand and she was looking up at me and she was just so proud, like I’ve never had that before. I’ve never felt that before. I just loved my family so much over there so because that was such an integral part of my self discovery and my journey, I just want my kids to be able to meet their relatives. I want them to experience love and I want them to be accepted in this place even though they are not fully 100% Vietnamese; I want them to know that they are loved all over the world.
About Parents’ Migration to America
Q: Could you tell us the story of how your parents migrated to the United States?
A: I did want to talk about how my parents got over here because I feel that’s a really really interesting story. So my parents, they got married in ’74 I think and they were in the South in ’75. Then my grandfather was a government official and he was able to secure them spots in the embassy to be evacuated with everyone else. I remember my aunties told me this story about how when they were driving to the embassy, my grandfather put four of the youngest kids in the back seat of the car and covered them with a blanket. Told them just to be quiet, not to look out because there was rioting in the streets, i mean the embassy had people climbing up the walls trying to get in. Then because he had the right paperwork he was able to get them through the gates and they were on the roof when the helicopter was shot down. The American soldiers kept on telling them more helicopters are coming back, they’re gonna come back for you and then they all left; and then my whole family was waiting on the roof all night long until dawn. That’s when they knew that the North Vietnamese Army was coming and they left scared, telling me stories about how soldiers were shedding their uniforms and leaving their boots in the street for fear of what was coming next. That was in April of ’75. My parents left on a fishing boat in October of ’75; it was overcapacity, they didn’t have enough food, there was fear of pirates– and that was a very valid fear. They were discovered by a Danish fishing boat originally, and the fishing boat was like okay well we don’t have enough space to take everyone back with us, so this half of you will come with us and this half of you will get on the next vessel that we encounter and the next vessel was an American ship. So, I had a 50/50 chance of being American or Danish so there we are.
My parents, I don’t know how they got to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania but that’s where they ended up, was in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. It was the middle of winter, they experienced snow for the first time. They were handed parkas as they came off the airplane and I remember finding this parka in highschool not realizing what it was and just thinking that oh cool, like so retro. I wore it to high school and it was like a really really cool jacket and afterwards once I realized what it was I was like oh my God I can’t harm this. It’s so important like it’s just a part of our family, my parents still have them. Then after in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, they were there for a little bit and then they were sponsored by a Catholic family in California to come out here and they basically settled. They moved around a lot, as I said growing up we moved around a lot but then they settled in Westminster and that’s where they still are. There’s a lot of stuff that happened in between there too that was difficult as far as what was happening inside the family.
I think that a lot of things that didn’t seem like they were related to the war like family relationships and how they were treating one another within the family. I think that a lot of it stemmed from, originated from the factors from the war. I’m not purposely trying to be secretive, it’s just again I’m trying to honor my parents as best I can. What I think I want to say is that the refugee experience didn’t end for them when they came to America, I think that they continued to experience a lot of what I can call racism but they would just say no, we knew this was coming, this was part of the course. We signed up for this. We knew it was going to be hard, we knew assimilation was going to be hard and I think too that’s why they wanted to shield us from why they escaped. I think that they wanted us to assimilate and to not have any problems with assimilation. I think they wanted us to be 100% American so that we wouldn’t have to endure all of the obstacles that they were enduring in their assimilation process. I understand the intent behind that but no matter how hard we try: no matter how perfectly we spoke English, no matter all the traditions and customs that we upheld, and all the idioms we knew we still were never 100% American enough for everyone else who were able to view us. So yeah, I just wanted to share my parents’ immigration story, so that’s all.