Nathan Dorow

Life as a Child of a South Vietnamese Refugee

Profilers: Kai Vincent, Carson Levy, Sofie Sarpa, Andrea Lee

Part I: The Escape


Background (0:07 – 0:27)

Nathan Dorow:  I’m Nathan Dorow. I‘m from San Diego, California.  I was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, and my mother was a refugee of the Vietnam War. She came over in 1974 with her seven siblings and two parents and a couple of other relatives. They landed in Guam for six months, and then they went to Lansing, Michigan where they grew up. 

Q: What were your family’s sociopolitical views during the war? (0:33 – 0:55)

Nathan Dorow: My mother was pretty young at the time. She was only ten when they escaped. So the war had been going on for a lot of her life. But my grandparents were prominent figures in the capitalist southern society and they were just fighting against communism and trying to preserve their way of life and their government and their system that they supported and benefitted from. 

Q: Was your extended family separated between North and South Vietnam at all? (1:01-1:09)

Nathan Dorow: Everyone was on the same side. They were all in the South. They all lived in Saigon so I don’t think they were split in that way during the war.

Q: What was your mother’s experience like during her escape from the war? (1:15- 2:33)

Nathan Dorow: So I remember my mom told me this story a couple of times. She was, it was just one day they heard gunshots coming into the city of Saigon, and it meant that the war was coming down into the city and it wasn’t safe. So they wrote, there was Martial Law at the time to stay inside. They didn’t really have a choice anymore. So they, they left. They went to the docks, and they brought like everything they could just get their hands on in the short amount of time they had, which wasn’t much. But I remember my mom saying that she was carrying her little brother’s medicine, his asthma medicine maybe, and she accidentally dropped it into the dock as they were onto the barge. And I could tell that like bothered her a little bit that she was, that she made a mistake during that that trying time. They floated on a barge for three days after escaping the docks of Saigon, and then eventually they were picked up by an aircraft carrier. I remember my mom saying they ran out of food and they were just wondering what was going to happen really, but they luckily got picked up by a U.S. aircraft carrier, and then they slept on the, the decks of the ship for a while. For a couple of days,  until they got to Guam and I remember her telling me that they shoved helicopters off of the decks of the ship and, like, aircraft to make room for the refugees. And about Guam, she, I don’t think she loved Guam very much. They were only there for six months. It was just sort of a stopping point in the camp for them to get in between,  like a military town.  Hot, sweaty. 

Q: Did any of your mother’s relatives stay in Vietnam? (2:39- 3:27)

Nathan Dorow: My grandpa’s brother, he stayed behind to take care of the ancestor’s graves there. And I remember that being a huge decision for the family, or my mom telling me that it would be a huge decision for the family because that would leave one group of them a little bit at a disadvantage, while the others got to escape to America hopefully. So I remember my mom telling me that her and her, her cousin were very similar at the time, like when they were in Vietnam at the time. And then decades later, when my mom came to America, and got an American education, she finally rekindled her relationship with that cousin and she was like very like far behind in life just compared to the rest, the rest of her generation, which was very sad.

Part II: New Beginnings, New Challenges


Q: What kind of a community, if any, did your family find upon arriving in the United States? (0:13 – 0:53)

Nathan Dorow: In Lansing, Michigan I don’t think there were many other, many other Vietnamese families. I think just there my grandparents like siblings, a couple of them that were there. So basically, just our family was there, to my knowledge. So yeah, I think that was tough for them a little bit. Growing up in a completely different place with completely different people. They had to learn English. My mom said she learned English in two years and she watched a lot of TV like the  Brady Bunch to learn. But yeah and then later in life, I think my grandparents, they moved to Orange County and they fell into a Vietnamese community which I think made them feel very comfortable and very at home, so yeah. 

Q: What was life like for your mother’s family as they settled in the US? (0:59 – 2:04)

Nathan Dorow: She talked about a little bit about how it was difficult transitioning over and how, you know, her family was a little bit skeptical and maybe a little protective of all the children when they were young. And it was a huge change for them as well because they came from being like pretty wealthy in, in  the South of Vietnam to coming over to Michigan and being and having next to nothing. They all had to get new jobs, my grandpa was a general in Vietnam and he went to become a janitor at the, at Michigan State University. And yeah, the kids had to work like really hard from then on and they would like help support the family in any way that they could. Growing up in the midwest, in the, you know,  70s and 80s I think she found it hard to advance in certain industry. And I think that definitely bothered her and made her eager to accomplish things on her own. Because she says that,  as a  colored woman, it was hard to like really, she worked for Ford a little bit, and she was a highly educated person. And I think she, it frustrated her that there were less qualified people ahead of her a little bit, in a sense. 

Q: In comparison, how has your experience been growing up in the US? (2:11- 2:33)

Nathan Dorow: It’s been pretty great for me. Growing up in like the 21st century I think it was probably rougher for my mom. I think she faced a little bit more of that discrimination or like just little bit of uneasiness, but for me, I think it’s been great. I grew up in San Diego mainly and there’s a lot of people of color there and like different people, so I felt very accepted in the US. 

Q: Did any conflict emerge within your mother’s family after they moved to the US? (2:40 – 3:33)

Nathan Dorow: My family in Vietnam was definitely very traditional and they all sort of followed that way of life. But when they came to America, they definitely assimilated and grew up in America and developed some of our culture. And that created a little bit of a riff between my parents and my grandparents. And that’s ev-, you can see that in like who they chose to marry, my grandparents would try to set up all of their children with Vietnamese, Vietnamese people that they knew. And when some people didn’t marry Vietnamese people, I think that upset them a little bit and created a definitely a riff between them. Like for myself, I’m half-white, so I don’t think my grandparents approve very much of my father marrying my mother, but a lot of them married whoever they wanted anyways cause they grew up in America under that culture. 

Q: Have you perceived any trauma that still affects your mother? (3:40 – 4:13)

Nathan Dorow: I think that there are like traumas over some little things or what seem like little things from the outside, but are actually big deals when it’s your life, like leaving part of the family behind. And that definitely has a little bit of trauma, you feel for that when, especially later when you see the consequences of, oh, that could’ve been me, or my family over there with less and farther behind and other things. Like I’ve told you the story of her dropping her little brother’s medicine. I think small things, like at the time, it wasn’t probably a small thing, but you know, things like that definitely have an impact. 

Part III: Post-Memory 


Q: How has your mother’s experience – and her relation of that experience to you – impacted you? (0:13 – 1:03)

Nathan Dorow: It was definitely a little bit surprising for me cause  I like when I first learned when I was a young child, because I just thought, you know, I was as normal as anyone else. But then my mom told me these crazy stories of, you know, her on a boat in the middle of the ocean for three days, not knowing if she was going to make it or not. So it definitely gave me a little bit of respect and a little bit more, a greater perspective on like who I am and why I’m here and why my family works like the way it does. Learning about her experiences and that unique perspective has made me better in a way. It’s made me more grateful for, to be where I am and to be who I am. And it’s made me appreciate everything that’s been given to me. And it’s made me work hard too because I see how hard my parents work to set me up. And I think that definitely has a huge impact on my life. 

Q: Do you see your family’s identity reflected in curriculum about the Vietnam War today? (1:10 – 2:20)

Nathan Dorow: When I learned about the Vietnamese War or the Vietnam War, it was more from the American perspective, just like when our involvement began there, which kind of makes sense. As you know, I live in America and it’s an American history class,  but I think the perspective of like what was going on before then really like the dynamics of what was going on in the country before then and like the viewpoints of the people were a little bit lost.  I, I recall learning about Vietnamese refugees in America, but it didn’t really talk about like in detail about how they got here or what it was like once they got there.  And the huge difference for like a family to move all the way across the world into an unknown territory just like pretty suddenly.  I don’t remember learning about that very much. It’s hard to like get everyone’s perspective and story out there, but I think just like a more in the educational system, there could be more of an emphasis on learning about how the different, not just Vietnamese people, but different refugees from other places or events like this, how they really have an impact on the people that live today. 

Q: Have any of your family members returned to Vietnam since the war (2:27 – 2:51) 

Nathan Dorow: Most of my family has. My mom’s, my uncles and aunts, most of them have. I haven’t personally. And I think along with the trauma question, I think my mom has like negative connotations with Vietnam now a little bit, and that maybe affects why she has separated herself a little bit from that and doesn’t want to go back. But personally, I want to go back, and I think I’ll be going with my aunts and uncles next summer, so I’m excited for that. 

Q: Does your family still follow any Vietnamese customs today? (2:57 – 3:30)

Nathan Dorow: I think my mother definitely abandoned a lot of traditional things and customs when she came to the US. And so much so that I don’t really even know what they are, maybe. But we still do have a couple of things. I think when we all get together as a family, I think we eat like, we eat like Vietnamese people. And, you know, even when just my mother and I,  we go and get pho like once a week, that makes me feel a little bit more connected to my roots and a little bit more, it lends me a little bit of perspective into really who I am. 

Q: Looking to the future, so you have any desires or plans to keep in touch with your Vietnamese heritage? (3:36 – 3:57)

Nathan Dorow: That’s a tough question. I think a lot of it’s just going to be having to keep up good relations and close contacts with my aunts and uncles and my parents. And I think that’s the best way for me. And then going back to Vietnam, learning some things and just trying to soak up as much of their stories and their knowledge and their experiences as I can. 

Part IV: Recognizing Self Identity


Q: Could you discuss your relationship with your mother and her extended family? (0:13 – 1:19)

Nathan Dorow: I’d say my mom and I have a pretty close relationship. She was very involved in my life growing up and she instilled in me a lot of values that I think reflects her life growing up. Like hard work, sacrifice, and being like responsible and organized, in a sort of sense. And then,  my relationship with my grandparents isn’t as tight, I don’t speak Vietnamese and they only speak Vietnamese and I think my mom had, has a little bit of animosity towards them because she kind of became more American than what they would’ve preferred I guess in, in a sense. She like acclimated to American culture very well and kind of, not abandoned but became more American than Vietnamese. And I think my grandparents are very traditional in that sense. So I think that had a detrimental impact on their relationship and in turn my relationship with my grandparents isn’t, wasn’t very existent. 

Q: Growing up in the US. how have you learned about your family’s identity and your Vietnamese heritage (outside of school)? (1:24- 2:16)

Nathan Dorow: I think a lot of what I know and have like accumulated is from not just my mom, but her siblings as well because that’s, I think that her, my mom, and her siblings got very close because of like the, kind of the journey they had to take together of coming to America and adjusting. And then, also having to like help raise each other cause there were seven of them. So like my mom was active in raising her younger sisters and brothers so I  think that helped them like really, their relationship a lot as the years went on. And then, so when, when I came around and my sister came around, we would get together with a lot of the family, like the older siblings and the younger ones, some that are, know more about Vietnamese culture than my mom. And I think that’s like the main way I  would, I would pick up on that sort of Vietnamese culture. 

Q: Are there any ways that you maintain contact with your Vietnamese heritage? (2:22-2:50)

Nathan Dorow:   I do plan on going to Vietnam in, next summer with a lot of my older, my mom’s older siblings so they know a lot more and they can teach me a lot more. And I think that will be a really great experience for me to get more in touch. Other than that, I think, I, I do kind of regret that my mom never taught me Vietnamese because I think that would have been really cool for me to have. And like it would’ve taught me a lot about, just Vietnam in general. 

Q: Have the cultural differences between your parents caused any rifts in their relationship? (2:56- 3:39)

Nathan Dorow: I don’t know that there is a specific instance that comes to mind. But I think that definitely plays a factor in their relationship. They clearly were raised very differently my dad’s just from Michigan, he didn’t grow up very wealthy, and my mom’s from Vietnam, like a traditional family, and they did grow up pretty wealthy. So I think that has a little bit of disconnect. I think that manifests itself, my mom is very ambitious and I think that she like wants the best always and I’m not sure my dad always feels that way if I am honest. I think he is more content with what he has. I thinks thats one of the main, I think that would be like a big factor in how their relationship gets affected by like their cultural differences. 

Q: Why do you feel that your family left behind a number of Vietnamese traditions? (3:46-4:14) 

Nathan Dorow:  I don’t think it was a conscious decision on anyone’s part to let those things go but they ended up. My parents, or my mom ended up growing up in America and just became acclimated to that way of life, I think. And kind of, sort of out of need and just had to adjust to like this style of life in order to be successful. And like get the most out of her life, I think. And I think that’s probably why those customs kind of got left behind. 

Q: Do you have any insight as to how your mother’s family was able to escape Vietnam relatively early compared to other refugees of the war? (4:19- 4:36)

Nathan Dorow:  I think they did leave a little bit earlier than other people because they knew the trajectory of the war. My grandpa and my grandma, they were both pretty high up. My grandma’s family was pretty wealthy and my grandpa was in the military. So I think that it did have, it did aid them in escaping early. 

Q: Are there any times when you feel that there are misunderstandings between you & your mother? (4:42-5:10)

Nathan Dorow: She, she definitely has high expectations for everyone to like perform well and to have like that chip on their shoulder.  And to just do everything they can to be as successful as they can. And  I like to think I inherited a little bit of that but I don’t know that  I am as driven and as on point as she is in that regard. Just because of, she like had to overcome all of that to become successful and I didn’t necessarily have to do that. 

Q: Looking back at your life so far, how has your understanding of your identity evolved? (5:16-5:52)

Nathan Dorow:  When I was younger, I, before I conceptualized who I was like racially even, I didn’t necessarily know that I was different than anyone. But I remember learning about my heritage and about my parents, my mom and I was pretty amazed. Cause it was something I had just kind of taken as a given but when I learned what she’d been through and the stories and when I came from really. And how lucky I am to be here, it definitely like gave, broadened my perspective and gave me like a new outlook on how I see myself and my family. And it definitely made me respect my mom like a lot.  

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