Samantha Tran

Reflections on Life as a Vietnamese Refugee in America

Profilers: Charlie Nguyen, Maguire Wentz, Myunghoon Jung

Early Childhood in Vietnam

Q: What was your childhood like in Vietnam?

A: Well, I was born after the.. right when the war ended, like 1975, so I don’t, I don’t have the pre-war experience, but I have the post-war experience. So, when I know things is like when I was about 7 or 8 years old, so around 1975 plus 80 something 81 82. That is when I begin to know things, and that’s why I… my family is a family of my mom my dad my brother my sister, and me and we don’t always live together. I was sent to my relative house to live because my mom and my dad are looking for ways to escape from Vietnam, because in Vietnam there was not a life there you know. everything we do we were like being watched because of our background. My grandpa was a landlord and we are considered… the Vietnamese term is tư sản (rich people/capitalist), or something like that, like people who have land and own slave or something like that and have people work on the farms and they consider that tư sản (rich people/capitalist) that mean that… I don’t know how to explain the term. But they hang up my grandfather when he was, you know, way before 1975, so I have not have a chance to meet my grandpa-, but that’s what my dad told me. My grandpa got hung because he was a lord. He owned land, and he pieced it out to the peasant who worked on his land. So, because of our background, our life in Vietnam are very hard.

They watch us, and they watch us every move, and so, our family plans trips to leave Vietnam. First started with my uncle, my dad’s oldest second oldest brother. He escaped from Vietnam first and then my dad’s next older brother also used a boat to take his family from Vietnam, and so, my dad also thinks that maybe it is time for us to leave Vietnam because it is not a life over here. Everything is so hard. We don’t even have rice to eat. We eat rice mixed with yam every day, and there is no meat. There is no fish, just rice. And I remember life being very hard and then while my mom, and my dad, and my brother, and sister are traveling on a boat so that the, you know, local officers, the Việt Cộng knows that we are, living on a boat. That we are making a living there so they don’t think twice about us because, at that time, everybody who has a boat who lives on a boat is consider a risk that they are going to escape from Vietnam. So my mom and my dad and my brother and my sister had to live on the boat for like two years. They send me to live with a relative. So, after two years we planned a trip we planned it on that certain day and my mom come to my relative and pick me up and so we escape, you know. In March 1983 is when we do the escape. And so we, is that… do you want to add more to that or no?

Q: Yeah, I want to know more about your relationship with your family or your parents. What was your family like while you were growing up in Vietnam? Did you all live together or it’s open-ended you can explain more about the dynamic.

A: Yeah, we don’t live together. I live separately, I don’t live with my mom and dad, oh maybe I live with them up until I am like… oh, when I was small I live with them but we have to.. we live…I think the first two years of my life I was told that we live in Saigon, that is Thành Phố Hồ Chí Minh City right now. And then at three to five we move up and live at Bình Thủy that is, that place is a forest where my dad is coal mine he chop up the wood and burned it in a {intelligible} kind of thing and he burn it up so it turned it into charcoal to make a living. We live in the forest for like two years. Then after that six to eight we moved down to Rạch Giá (countryside) and live in Rạch Giá (countryside) for like a good part of my life up until I was ten and that’s when, you know, my parents decided life is hard, there is no life here for the kids, so then, because we keep moving from one place to another it is not a stable life and so that’s why we buy a boat and plan the escape. And then the last two years of my life I did not live with my mom and my dad I live with my aunt, who then I begin to know how to sow and stuff like that. But, and then they, are living on a boat trying to think of a route plan a route to escape, yeah.

Q: And I know that you said that you had to learn, or you learned how to sow, did you at a young age learn a lot of new skills to help support your family, or, how was the financial aspect of your life, mostly growing up?

A: Well my dad my mom, have to make a living on the boat like they buy, the vegetable or the furniture from the city and bring down to the countryside and sell. And then they buy the stuff from the countryside and go into the city to sell. And also they want to make the route so many times so that the local officers think that these are really merchandise people, they are not trying to do an escape, so we have to pretend to be merchandise people. For me because I stay any relative house, my cousin, who has a tailor shop, so she sewed clothes for other people. And so when I live there I have to help her out, I don’t pay for rooms or whatever but she, she took me in and I just help her out and then she teach me a trade because these days this is a good trade to learn. So, she teach me how to make pants and shirts and áo dài and, and a lot of stuff. That’s why right now you ask and I make halloween costume for all my kids growing up, every year. I make a lot of things, I make the window curtains I even sewed a school bag when I come to here and I don’t have a bag I, sewed a bag to go to school, that’s how, you know I’m pretty handy. Because the two life that I live, the two years that I live with my cousin who teach me how to sew.

Vietnam War Memories from Parents

Q: I’m curious more about, maybe, the experience of your parents, what you’ve heard from them about the wartime?

A: Yeah, so the war, I guess that after the North took over the South a lot of people are panicking and the wealthy are trying to flee the country and the poor cannot leave the country because they have no means. We are like a middle-class people, you know. So we are always trying to look for ways to leave the country. But life is really hard. You know, the political local công an, they call it công an that mean the police. But the local công an or local officer always come to our house and harassing us, like you have to do this certain thing certain way and then every time we have to do something we have to bribe them. That is what my mom and dad say, we bribe them we buy our ways into everything. And so, we sometime we have to be friend with them, make sure we have to get along, but all along, you know, we are thinking up a way to leave, you know, that’s how it was like. And in the beginning, I told you, my grandpa, on my dad- my dad’s dad, right, he was hung to death by the northern Vietnamese when they took over. So, we were really there then not… the local official in Vietnam, công an always look into our family watching us. And so that’s why all of my brothers, my fathers’ brothers and sister they all leave the country one way or another, that’s why all of us are here, you see how big of a family my relative is, that is because they all escape from Vietnam, one way or another. My, I think my third uncle says that he rather die in the ocean than have been caught. If they get caught in the middle of the ocean trying to escape, he tells his family to jump into the ocean and die, and not come back. Yeah, that’s how I think we did not really like the life after the war in Vietnam.

Q: Were you aware of what was happening to your country, Vietnam, when you were a child?

A: No I wasn’t aware, you know, eight years old or ten years old, you don’t know what’s going on. All I know is that I move around a lot I move from one place, one city to another, from one household to another, we move a lot and so I and don’t know what’s going on. You know, we are kids we don’t think a lot about the war and how it affecting. I heard my cousin, I mean I would sit there you know the two years I spent apart from my mom and dad I live with my cousin, all the time whenever we have the spare time she would sit there and complain, she would curse the công an, you know, she would curse the government. I would sit there and listen to her and I did not understand what she is talking about but she curse every day, you know, how life is, before and after, she talks and I just sit there and listen patiently, but I didn’t know what she was saying up until I grow up and learn a little but, they I know that’s what she was talking about but at that time I had no idea why she was so mad, yeah.

Q: And to end off on this segment, my final question to you is what was the most memorable experience of your childhood in Vietnam?

A: Mostly the time that uh, that I travel on the boats with my mom and dad from country to country, so we would go from Saigon to Rạch Giá and along the way there some things that we stopped, you know, every place there’s a market, we stopped by, and most memorable thing I remember was, you know, we would park the boat there at the marketplace. Every day at 5 o’clock there would kill a pig. At 5 o’clock they would slaughter the pig so that they could cut the meat of the pig up and then sell it to the people. So every day at 5 o’clock, we would witness the pig killing. It wasn’t fun but you know it was kind of interesting. We heard the screaming of the pigs and then you know and how it is and how we would come and buy it. It was kind of you know for, for a little kid it was exciting and fun, not you know, not scary, a little bit interesting.

Flee Vietnam

Q: That’s a wonderful memory Amanda thank you for sharing. To start off this next segment we are going to talk about more of your journey to America, more of your experience as a boat person. To start off, can you share your memories and feelings about having to flee Vietnam.

A: Yeah. So I remember, you know I was in like Saigon when my parents says from three days from now, they are gonna escape right. The plan was three days from today the escape start. So, my dad tell my mom to go and pick me because I was not living with them. So my mom went to Saigon and pick me up. When we come on, we were on my mom go up there we drive we take the bus down. So it take one day for my mom to go, one day for us to come back, so and then maybe a day to gather up everybody and prepare and leave. However, on just the second day, I don’t know what happened but the local police knows about the escape. That means they got to leave right away.

So, oh, I forgot about a part, a little part. When my mom come and pick me up she she tells my cousin, take me to go meet down at the site then we can all go together. However, on the second day, the police all knows what we were planning, so my dad said that we have to leave my mom behind. So, we took off in the middle of the night while my mom is still traveling down with my other cousin. So, that was that, you know, it was scary because we leave one day earlier than what was planned and everything was not ready, and me and my sister was like six and my brother was just two years older than me, he was 12 I think. And we go with my dad and we are all asking, why don’t we wait for mom, why don’t we wait for mom, where is mom, why are we leaving mom behind? We were all very scared, but my dad said we got to leave now or everybody gonna get arrested.

So, you know,there were 21 of us, my family of 4, left, leaving my mom behind, my other cousin it’s a boat full of relatives, we don’t have any outsiders, it’s just all relatives all my cousin on the boat. So there was 21 of us so we start, sailing from that night and we don’t reach land until three days later, I think, was two nights and two days in the boat and then we reached Thailand. But then before we reached Thailand, we were encountered by the Thai privates, when we were traveling on the very-, on the third day, right. We saw, on the ocean far away there was a little boat, so we sight the board so we wave, we wave, we wave, make sure we think it was an international rescue ship or something. So we wave for them to come over and rescue us because we don’t want we want to be rescued by a bigger boat, not a small little boat here. And by the time they come over we recognize this is not the international rescue boat, it is rather, the Thailand pirate.

So, they jump over and then they search the boat for jewelry and gold, and they and when they are doing that they throw all of the food into the ocean, all the pork we had on the boat to for us to eat, however, for however long we were on the boat. They throw everything in the ocean looking for gold, and when they didn’t find any gold they were thinking about taking women but they didn’t have time because, at the time, lucky us there was another boat begin to appear and this is not, obvious, this is maybe a bigger boat from maybe international rescue boat, or something, and the once they saw that boat the left in a quick hurry. So, lucky for us no women was being kidnapped or taken away by the Thailand pirate.

So, when we see the boat we wave, we wave, but they didn’t see us they drove away. But then thank god, you know, we were saved by that boat. We drove, we sailed for another maybe half a day then we spot land and everybody was so happy, and then everybody was screaming. So when we landed, at the one of the village in Thailand, right? So, that night the people are very friendly they took us in and feed us dinner, they pour our bowls in, and while they were taking us to their houses to have us take showers and making meal for us. There are people outside there were people looking for gold, you know, look everywhere and look to see if we have anything valuable that they could take, but we had none, so they broken up the boat into pieces. Also, that very same night they, took us, took all of us, 21 of us into a school building. It was a school during the day time, but at night time it’s empty so they turn. So, they told us to stay one night at the school buildings and so that tomorrow morning there was someone is going to take us to the refugees camp, so we stay there.

But, in the middle of the night I heard, we heard noises, I heard noises and because my dad woke me up, my dad say “Hey the building there is someone wanted to break in,” and so my, my dad, my uncle, and my cousin, who was men at the time, you know. My dad probably was in his late 30 early 40 my uncle too in his late 30 and my cousin hes in his 20s he is like a grown gentleman. So we, they are trying to break into the building and take the woman, take, they already walked in the building and take some of my cousin who is like 16, and 18, and 19, and 20 years old. They took the woman into the rooms already. By the time they touch, they come and grab my uncle’s wife he fought back. He fought back and everybody, all of the men start fight back and we scream. We yell, and we make noise. We scream, we scream, we scream so that, you know, all of the people in the village can hear us, and we scream so loud and we break their heads and whatever.

I even remember my dad was have a crack right in his forehead because he fight back and they hit him on the head. Anyway he got a scar right here too {points to forehead}. Up until now. So we fight back and we scream and all the village people come over and then, all those people ran away, and so once again, we were so blessed we were saved, nobody was being raped, you know, because we fight back. And so we wouldn’t feel safe, so we stayed together and we stay up all night, and then the next day the Thai officials send someone and take us to a refugee camp it’s called Songkhla. I think I write that down in one of my questionnaires, Songkhla the refugee camp.

The Songkhla it is really fun I really like it there, you know, I really like to visit there if I could. It’s like the camp is on a beach. So, every day I got to go and swim in the ocean and I get the clams on the beach shore, and I guess the time at the Songkhla is very, very nice, like I was a kid I don’t know nothing. I don’t know what to future hold, or what it means for me, you know. But, all I know, is that, you know we play all day long, we didn’t have to go to school, we don’t have to do anything, we just waiting for them to move us from Songkhla into a CQ, the CQ is a formal like a refugee camp the Songkhla is like an in transit, you know. They process you and they send you to a CQ. After time, there nobody cares about anything we just enjoy and relax and looking forward to the day so that they can transfer us somewhere.

So, six month later we got transferred to the CQ the CQ is bigger. It has, I forgot how many buildings but there’s a lot of buildings they call it barrack. I am in building 18 building number 18, and one building it can hold like, probably five hun- six hundred people. It was just you were given a little slot right here, one slot is a family, and so, it’s a big building and they giving us slot to each family. And so, it was very crowded and life in the CQ was hard. I think they give out food two times a week and every time they gave us some rice, some canned, food, some meat, the meat would only last us one meal, but mostly the canned food I think the fish canned food I forgot what it says, what’s the name of it, but it’s like this [makes a shape with hand] and it’s red cá mòi (sardines), so this fish in a can with tomato sauce. We eat that almost every day almost every meal because that’s all that we have. So, I think that was it.

One of the thing that I liked there was that sometimes we have a movie night. I think that the, some charity organizations they bringing like you know how you go to the flea market and watch movies, the drive-in, right, they would have a big screen TV like that and they play movie all night long and before they come, we would try to make food, like we would flours and we fried it up and make some kind of dessert, and we would stayed up all night long and watched, and they do what maybe, the one year and a half that I stayed there, I had a chance to do that twice, they do that twice, so maybe they do that once a year or twice a year. I don’t know I can’t remember that was a fun part of it.

They also have a school they have us to go to school, I remember I went to school, and my sister go to school, and my brother go to school, and my sister got honor award. I think I even have a picture until now. If you want a picture I can send you that picture too. We got an award, we go to school, and the.. oh, ok… at 7 o’clock everyday we have to rise up and salute the Thai flag. So, 7 o’clock you have to be ready get up and go in front of the building and lay there up and do the salute flag, if you don’t, if you are not up, the police in the camp, they would come and inside the building and anyone who’s sleeping or did not hear that, or did not come outside and salute, they got beat up. So, there’s a couple people who didn’t hear the bell or didn’t wake up, they got beaten up so bad. So that’s the thing.

Let’s see what else is like in Sikhiu, and they have a church, we went to church. They even have restaurant for people who have money, and to go and eat too the restaurant is operated by one of the refugee. If you are refugee and come there and you have money, something that you bought with you from Vietnam, then you open a shop and you sell stuff, you can do all that it’s like a normal you know, like here, you know. If you have money, you open a shop and you sell, no problem. And so some people who, who, escaped with money the opened shops and they sell coffee and they sell soup and they sell noodles and they sell rice, but people, to people who has relatives in America who sends them money, you know, we only have one relative in the United States that escape before us and, you know, he cannot be sending, he just got there too, and he have to take care of family. He don’t have much left to send to all of us in the refugee camp, so he once in a while, he send us 100 dollar, and then all of us will split that up among us. And so we can sometimes we can have some money but most of the time we don’t have money and we don’t have food we just eat rice with the canned food.

Journey to America

Q: And I do want to ask you more about the initial fleeing of Vietnam. What was the goal to go to the United States if America or was the goal just to leave Vietnam and go to any other country? What was the main deciding end goal?

A: Yeah, I think at that point we don’t have a main destination in mind, we just escape and we think about it. Escape- whoever want to take us in, we go with that country. Yeah. As long as we leave Vietnam we are safe, that’s what was the thought process of my mom and dad.

Q: And so with that thought process you guys ended up in Thailand, and obviously how you are in the United States, I want to know more of that transition from Thailand, how did you end up into the United States?

A: Okay, so when we go to Thailand we went and they processed the paper work for us, they ask us who do we know in the foreign country, and we, my dad said he has an uncle who escape and he’s in San Jose, and so that’s why my uncle sponsor us to go to San Jose, California. And the reason why my uncle was in San Jose was because when he escape and he got to the Malaysia, he got to Malaysia the refugees camp, not Thailand. We, we end up in Thailand but they end up in Malaysia, and so when he got there, he, he had a judge from San Jose California to sponsor his family as a charity into United States, San Jose California. And so he turned around and sponsored us and the rest of his brother and sister, that’s why we all end up in here.

Q: Great. For more so on that path to America where were you guys? Did you guys apply.. how to make an application? Did you have to go through a resettlement process in which you had to learn English before arriving to the United States, thats opened ended? How would you explain?

A: Yeah, of course, the paperwork was done, you know that we have to process, they processed the paperwork asking our family history: brothers and sisters, how much, how many brothers sister my dad have, and then we list out everyone’s names, all my relatives name, and they processed the paperwork, they checked the background, I think. And then, you know, that was their part, their requirement that they have to do, all we do is follow whatever they want us to do. So they asked the question, we give them the answer, but we don’t know how to fill out the application, they do that. They ask the question, we answer.

Anyway, so, because they have the school for us in a refugee camp. And that school they teach us, you know, like a regular school, math, language, English. So we learn a little bit of English, but the real training doesn’t begin until we come to the Philippines, after we stay in the CQ camp array. And then we’re waiting for the either United States, Australia, or any other country who will come and interview us. Once we got accepted by a country, then they move us to another camp. Okay. So after my paperwork was done, and my uncle send the paperwork to sponsor us, the US Embassy interview us and make sure everything was aligned. Make sure that he’s my brother. The uncle was my brother, my father’s brother. Every paperwork is done that he said okay, I accepted you to enter into the United States. And then they move us from the CQ camp until the Panat Nikhom camp and then Panat Nikhom camp is a camp that we wait another six months until we go to the Bataan camp which is in the Philippines.

When we got from Panat to the Bataan camp, the Bataan camp is a really training place before you go to the America. So in the Bataan camp in Philippines, we learn in it, my dad go to school every day for the six months he was there to learn English and we learned in it. Make sure that we go to school and learn English there. That’s all we do, I remember staying in Bataan for six months and all we do is learn English so we can pick up the life in America easier.

Q: That’s great. Your dad the transition process they prepped you for it. I would like to know more about your personal thoughts about leaving Vietnam. Just to wrap this up, like, what did you think about what you left behind and especially like did you miss anything about Vietnam, compared to these other experiences you had?

A: I guess I was too young to remember what, what I would miss in Vietnam because I was a kid you know so nine, ten years old kid. I mean, I don’t know a lot about the country I left behind. The only thing that feel bad was that we sad that my mom was still behind. That’s the only thing that we were sad about. We left my mom behind. We don’t know when we’re going to see my mom again. Me and my sister was like six years old. I’m like nine, ten. So we were like kids, and we said oh my gosh, man, my mom love us very much. You know she took care of us.  She’s a very good mother. Anyway, so that’s the only thing we miss our mom and, and the times that we are from refugee camp to refugees camp. It was fun, it was like it was hard but it was like, you know your kid you don’t know how much you don’t think about the future that much to not to be worried about it.

So but, I have, I remember I have this thing. I have this. I’m thinking in my mind at that time that when I come to America, life must be great. I will live in this big huge house, and with two story with a big staircase, and I would wear this long gown, you know like the one that they see in the movie. The you know the industry people who wear the big dress. I think that once I come to America I would live in a mansion and I would wear the long beautiful dress jacket on the floor. I will walk into the same way, you know, I wouldn’t be very, very nice. Life would be very great. That’s how that’s what I think before I come to America.

When I come to America, you know reality hit. Me my mom, me my dad, my brother and my sister the four of us rent one room in a two-bedroom apartment. It was like, like 9ft by 9ft or we did all we did was squeezed two queen beds in the room. I don’t know why there was a queen or full because that time I don’t know what the difference between a full and a queen but one bed was for me and my sister one bed is for my brother and my mother. And we would if we put the two beds into one small room, it would fill all the room. There’s nothing else, and one radio. We have two beds, one radio, the radio we would put the cassette tape in there and then I would have one hour to listen to whatever music I like. My sister would have one hour to listen to what music she likes and my brother would have one hour to listen to what music he liked. That’s our pastime, one radio and each would take turns for one hour.

And we would live and then on the weekend, we would come to my uncle’s house. Of course, his house is a four-bedroom house, but hold off his family and they have six or seven kids. They have seven kids and plus his and his wife and two grandkids and they are squeezed into a four-bedroom house already. We can, they cannot squeeze us in there too. But then they It’s my house. It’s their house and they have a TV and they have those renting movie you know that Chinese renting movie since the 80s they have a lot of renting movies there. So every weekend we all, we look forward was look towards the weekend is to come to my uncle house and watch Chinese movie on the on the TV because we don’t have a TV in our apartment. Yeah, my thought about the mansion and dresses all gone. Now I am, we have to squeeze into this one bedroom and we would live like that for probably a year.

After a year, then we move, we might was some of my other cousin come, also from the camp. Also from escaping from Vietnam. They come and they say hey, why don’t we rent a house and then we share? You have two bedroom and I have two bedroom. So that’s when you know we move from that one-bedroom apartment into a house that we share with my uncle, my other uncle. So we have two rooms now me and my sister have one room and my dad and my brother have one room. So life is becoming better. We are able to buy a TV and maybe a bicycle for my brother to drive around the neighborhood. Yeah. So that’s is the transitioning from the camp to the US

Q: Right. And at this point how old are you?

A: I was, when I come to the US I was in second-grade level how old was I? I’m not sure. Eight, nine, very young. Yeah. Was it? Second grade, fourth grade, maybe fourth grade. I can’t remember but it was like 10. Let me count back the steps. I come here in 1985 end of November 84. So let’s 85 was born in 1975, 10 years old. When I come to the US I was exactly 10 years old.

Journey to America 2 & Beginning in America

Q: Did you have to grow up quickly, like come to realization that life is very harsh or have you always know of this hardship? And it’s just grew apart?

A) No, I guess once when I was small, you know well, like in the refugee camp. I have, you know, dreams about having a good life in America like, live in a big house and you know, beautiful dresses. Once I settle in America and we have to squeeze in this apartment. Then I realized, you know, life is not like a bed of roses. You know, you have to work hard too if you want life to become better then you have to work hard. So as soon as I think I start working very, very early age, probably at 14 I go to the you know the big flea market on Berryessa road. I got hired to stay there and sell T-shirts every day. There’s a man and a woman. He hire me. He pays $20 a day, all day long. Because we don’t have transportation. He come to our house, pick us up drove us to the flea market. And we will work from like six o’clock in the morning, put up the 10 and this and that for the t-shirt. And he said four T-shirt for $1 for $10. And we do what we do all day is fold t-shirt. The customer would come in and they pick it up the t-shirt. They drop it down. They pick up another one they look at the design.

So well I spend in the Flea Market from like six o’clock in the morning up until seven o’clock and folding clothes. They make a mess. We closed up just like right now when you go to the department store customer would come in and search for their size and they leave a mess and somebody have to fold it up. That’s what I do all day. I would get for the two weeks, the weekends that I have grown up. And then I work in the flea market for like maybe two years. My brother to me and my brother and my sister I think I was too young. She didn’t work in the flea market. Just me and my brother work in the food stand so he didn’t work in the t-shirt place. My dad, he is born a handicapped man. So he could not look for work. He I don’t know if you know that. He has no toes. He’s born with no toe. He had no toes at all. So really he does not have a good balance. He doesn’t stand long for a long time. He doesn’t walk very fast. He’s very unstable, so he cannot look for work. So he is a disabled man. So he doesn’t make any money. When you come here, he receive SSI money and that’s how it is.

So if I want to go and buy something, I have to go make money and save myself. You know growing up being a teenager girl and a teenage boy without money. You know how tough it is, you know? You can not just dress up, weird clothes to go to school. People will laugh at you. So we have to go and make money buy our food, my own shampoo and conditioners. My dad didn’t and man he doesn’t you know, know a lot of other feminine needs for a young girl. So I sort of like have to, you know, grow up and then pick it up. And then I have some person who said that, you know there’s some things that you do I do you know and some things they teach me the you know the woman stuff I learned from my cousin who was a couple of years older than me, because my mom wasn’t around. My dad, you know, very uncomfortable for my dad at his generation to talk to his daughter about you know, you know, a girl in the teenage age.

But anyway, so that’s how I go to work early, make money buy my own needs. And so same way with my brother, we would walk everywhere we go or take the bus. We don’t have a car until like 10 years later, because my dad cannot drive. He’s very his leg is weak. So he, every time he take the driver license test, he fail five or six time. So we don’t have a car until like 10 years after we come to America. Not 10 year, maybe seven, six or seven years. So during the six, seven years, I took the bus everywhere I walked I took the bus

Q: And you started working at 14 I’m most curious about how would you adjust to life in America as a teenager? Did you go to school? Or did you just only work? What was your experience adjusting to the culture?

A) No, we go to school, I think that I was admitted. I wasn’t a fourth grade. I think now remember fourth grade. My sister was in the second grade, and I was in the fourth grade when I come to America. And the school that I first go to was Franklin McKinley on McLaughlin. Anyway, so I went to school on a weekday at for, for like, and I didn’t start working at the flea market until a couple of years later. Though, until I was 14. So four years later, I worked in the flea market but the first two year we just stay you know home and don’t have any money. I don’t have any. My dad doesn’t have much to provide for us. So we were just very we look very poor. We don’t have money to spend, we don’t have money to dress up. We’re just looking very poor. Yeah, growing up I think. That’s why I value money, you know. I said you know you have to earn hard for your money. So I’m very careful with my money.

Q: And when were you able to call the US your home officially?

A) When? Oh, well. Um, it’s so nice we settle in and we say that this is going to be a home for the rest of our lives. So we I guess at that age, I don’t think much about home or my home, my country, my home country or new country. Or whatever. All I know is that we’re here we’re living here. Let’s make the best of it. Let’s improve our lives so we don’t stay poor forever, you know, so, but as I grow up, I begin to appreciate the life here. I said, Oh my god. The people, the American, in general, are very nice. I see that they are very kind and helping people. You know, for the Asian they are by themselves but for American, they work extend help, if they could. You know not in terms of money and they don’t give you money, but they would help and they’re very kind and they’re willing to help everyone that they can, you know, different from the Asian people. I don’t, I think that they shouldn’t be they worry about them, their family their kids only they don’t worry about any other ones. But the American have different. They are more kind I think. Yeah, and I really do appreciate being in here that I gotta be here. I got to given the opportunity to have this life and my kid being born in this country with the freedom and luxury that they have. Yeah.


Q: Thank you for sharing your thoughts on that. I do want to go more into your identity, I want to know more when you look back over the years–and you’ve been in the U.S. for maybe over a few decades, and I’m curious on how the Vietnam war has influenced your life now. Obviously, you have a strong sense of identity working hard. Can you talk more about these experiences and how the Vietnam war has shaped you into who you are?

A: Yeah, well the Vietnam war ends when I was born and we escaped from that because we were looking for freedom, we were looking for freedom and a chance, to, for a better life, okay. Most of us, I don’t want to say, are escaping from Vietnam for not political reasons but for economical reason, most of us. A few are for political reason but most of us are just mainly looking for a better life for their kids. A life with freedom and opportunity, okay, so when they come here they are given huge opportunity and I know when I talk to some of the people from my generation they appreciate that they got here and got the chance and opportunity that were given to then and they did grasped it and make it happen, so, that they have the life they have right now. They, I think they mostly the talk of the day was that we value the freedom and opportunity that we got from this country that we would not have gotten from Vietnam if we have stayed there.

If I had stayed there I would have died already because of starvation, you know, or whatever. But, when we are here we are given opportunity that we would never have. Everybody was given the same opportunity here. Opportunity, and some people’s success some don’t, some fail. People who feel they got up and they try again and again until they success is not where I am where I am today. Not, not, I didn’t have a very I have a tough life getting where I was for the 30 years I’m here right now I have like I have two or 3 houses and I’m well off, I’m making 6 figures salary; I’m an accountant in a company right, but I did not do that overnight. I didn’t just say okay you know, everything went smoothly for me to get two houses, it was a struggle up and down. I was poor I rented house and then I bought my first house I remember in 1996. My first time I bought was in 1996, and that time I was involve- 2 years later I was involved in a car accident and the person she wanted to sue me for everything that I had because I have a house, and I obviously was no pay off there was a mortgage to it, but I had a house but she wanted to sue me for 500,000 so I did before the court fight I said let’s sell the house and move to another place and start over.

So I sell my house and I still go to court and court has not final yet I still go to court but once her lawyer saw that I do not own a house anymore dropped the case, and she would not be able to hire another lawyer so the case dismissed the, judge dismissed the case after, maybe, 2 years dragging out because now I have no attorney she has no attorney and she wants to sue me for like 5000 or 10,000 then it goes to small claims court and she would have gotten it, you know, but she wanted to sue me for 500,000 in 1996 or 1997, you know, and she has no lawyer and the Supreme Court, not the Supreme Court, the Superior Court says this case is going nowhere. There is no attorney for both sides so they close it up so I was able to, you know, I did not have to pay anything for that accident, you know, and she did not get anything for that accident. I in turn I sold my house and I lost my house and I moved to Oregon for 2 years after that because I got a job offer over there and then I stay there for 2 years I missed my mom and dad over in San Jose and my sister.

I said “okay” let’s move back to San Jose, so I moved back to San Jose and I stay at my sisters house because, you know, moving back and fourth you don’t have money and my family, at that time, I had three kid already, Emmy, Aileen, and Emily and me any my husband. Again, we squeezed into one bedroom my of my parents rented house, so my parent has a rented a three bedroom they stay in one, my sister stay in one, and they leave one room for me. So, the 5 of us squeezed in one room again, just like when I first came to America in 1985. Anyway, so, after that I got a job and I remember I was very happy in the year 2000 I was hired for a general accountant at a company that pays like 60k a year, that was pretty high, so and my husband got a job in Sysco, you know, not the Sysco electric company the Sysco deliver food for restaurant. A Sysco spelled S-y-s-c-o, right.

Anyway, he was making decent money and after two years like I said you know the main thing with us was buying a house. After two years we gather up enough down payment to buy ourself, not the first house, the second house so we bought a house on somewhere on Malafling road and we live there, we move in, that’s 2003. We got we move from Oregon in 1998, we stayed there until the end of 2000, we move to San Jose at the end of 2000, right. By 2003 we bought another house and so it’s a 4 bedroom house we are very happy, all the kids are happy they have a big tree in the backyard we do landscaping I work so hard I do everything ourself, we landscape we do gardenings and that we make it a home and so and then after that we begin to, equity on the house I think that I don’t know if you know at that time house grow every year. So we get the equity house, and we buy another house, and we rent it out, and we buy another house and we rent it out, and at the after time of the housing bubble in 2007 in 2006 or 2007 we have four houses one we live in and three we are renting out and so we are thinking we are doing well now and we are happy.

Boom the housing bubbles, everything collapse. My husband quit his job and the Sysco and he become a construction, he work in construction now, and then when the housing goes down everything goes down the construction goes down, everything. So he didn’t have a lot of job I only had one job that I have, in fact I still I have that job until here now. So I worked at that job from 2000 until now which is maybe 23 years now, one job. Anyway, so we begin to sell one of the house and we foreclose three house and after a couple years my, I guess, I need to be honest here, so that you can know the whole story. Since we don’t have enough money my husband think about win gambling. So that we can meet the mortgage the more we gamble the more we lost. We gamble we lost, we win some we lose some. So finally, we are at the point that we owe three months mortgage at the very house we are living in, because we sell one house, we foreclose two house and we only have the one house that we are living but since we because we could not keep up with the mortgage and then we keep gambling I end up losing my house in 2007, July 2007 they took my house they foreclose it, and we got evicted.

And so I told my mom my dad, “ok we got to move,” and so at the same time I didn’t talk to my sister about my situation, but my sister also bought her own house too so we end up moving my whole family to her house, which is also a four bedroom. We squeezed our family my family of five and my parents, up to the 7, and she has shes married to Ryan and she has a daughter that’s three so we squeezed all into her house and we live there for from July, 2008 until December 2000-, no July 2007 until July 2008, is when we save up money and buy house again. Me, what’s important to me is that we have to have a house to raise up my kid. I cannot squeeze my kid all into one room again. I do whatever it takes to buy a house to buy a house for my children. So by December 2008, I saved up money to buy house. I have to beg my brother-in-law and sister-in-law on my husband’s side to sponsor the house for us. Put their names in because our credit was bad.

So they put their name down to buy the house for us I have to borrow my cousin, 5000 here, 5000 there, 5000 from its just my cousin. We gather up 120k for my 401k withdrawals from my saving from borrowing people. But, I need to buy a house to live in. So in December 2008, we bought our 3rd house, also the only house because the other one be bought but we sold we bought but we lost, right. This is the third house that I bought, so we bought the house that is the Woodside house that you visit us, you know, the one, the 8 bedroom there. And then, we bought the house and then we live there from 2008 up until 2016 that’s when we move here, because my sister owns another house with a big piece of land and she says let’s go and build a house so that we can be close together. And so, I was say okay let me sell the other house to get the money to build this house but I think that, you know, what the thought process was, you know, once you sell the house the money, you know, would just be gone why don’t we try harder.

I think that what is good about me is I try hard I pull in I stretch out I do not feel like, okay, you do not just have to do just enough. I wanted to do more I want to stretch out. So I said, okay, why don’t we do a construction loan and build a house and rent out this house and buy a trailer and live in the back of my sister’s house so we don’t have to pay rent? We don’t pay $3000 in rent for anything and we also collect the rent from the house we live in before, so we thought that renting out the house we moved into the trailer and we live freely in my sister backyard for one year while we build up this house that’s how we save money. The three of us squeezed into one trailer and then my kid being 18, 20, 20 years old already they cannot live in the same trailer, small trailer, with us so we start building the sheds, like a small tiny house. We build each of the one tiny house for them just to put in a bed and a few belongings. And so, Emily and Aileen have the tiny house. Me and husband and Marley live in the trailer, and we live like that for maybe 14 months and we finished building our house and we move in. This is the house we moved in and like the house that you knew it, you helped me with some of the activities like carrying the woods inside in the house carrying the mater- tiles to the roof to the saw, and yeah.


Q: That’s great to hear how money was a driving factor in your life and how so many ups and downs and how you stayed persistent and resilient in those moments. It’s great to hear about those experiences, and I do want to know more about your Vietnamese heritage. Do you feel connected to your Vietnamese heritage or culture?

A: Uh, yeah, yeah, I do think that I as growing up, my because my whole relative is here we have gathering every year like đám giỗ the dead anniversary of my grandfather or my grandmother. Every year we gather up and we celebrate it’s like a family gathering so we know family values from the, traditional family values from the Asian, you know. We have very close family ties, so, every year, I think, every March we would go to visit all of the dead people in Oak Hill (cemetery in San Jose) its called thanh minh that’s when we go from one grave to another to visit them and cleaning up, you know, that’s one of the heritage that we carry with us.

Another thing is đám giỗ, all year every year every death anniversary all of us would gather up at one house and, you know, eat and talk and remember. On New Year we would dress up we would decorate the house like, you been to my house when New Year, right? We decorated the Vietnamese style and we wear the áo dài the Vietnamese cultural dress and we would go from one house to another house to greet. You say “happy new year” and get the red envelope and every autumn festival, like the meet, the autumn festival, we would buy the moon cake and give it to the relative. That’s carrying on the heritage so that we don’t forget. Every New Year the younger generation would buy something for the older generation. My dad would receive a lot of things from my cousin like bánh tét, flowers, food, moon cake, every occasion they would bring something for my dad and I would bring something to my uncle as carrying on the cultural and tradition the heritage and so I think that all my kids have seen that and I think that they would keep that traditional things going on after I’m not here, I think.

Because, you know, they see how things were done they live with me all their life so they would know Tết. Every time New Year come what is expected from them. They have to clean the house, they have to clean up their room, normally they can be messy but when it’s New Year let’s clean up the house, let’s clean up the room, we don’t sweep the house on the first of the New Year, you don’t cook you and do anything all you just enjoy. The first of the New Year you don’t sweep the house, you don’t clean up, you don’t do anything and before the New Year begin you have to take a shower so you don’t shower on the first of the New Year, things like that those are the traditional ways.

Q: How do you feel about the current state of Vietnam and the way the war is remembered?

A: I guess the people in Vietnam forgot the war and the impact, before and after, already. All of the people who care have already left, the people back in Vietnam right now are the people who, you know, this is just my thinking my, feelings only that they don’t care. They just say okay, life before Vietnam they don’t know, life after Vietnam this is the life after the war. And then living it they were okay with it they don’t know how it was like before. The people who knows the difference left Vietnam already have passed, because it was like years ago, right? They are old now, they just die, either they die or they move out, move to America-, migrate to a freedom country, already. So, I don’t think the people in Vietnam knows or cares very much. The people over here I think they still care I think there is nothing they can do, over there they just bribery everything.

For me, if you ask me if I would consider going back and live in Vietnam, because people say, oh you should move back and live in Vietnam if you met that certain money like if you retire and if you have like $1000 a month you would live like a king and a queen over in Vietnam, because you would hire people for cheap labor and they would do everything for you. It is a very good life over there, but I would never consider going back to Vietnam because, you know, there is a lot of reason why to not to move back there. First, the healthcare system sucks over there, you know, you have money they bring you to the hospital, they treat you, you don’t have money they let you die in the hallway. I have a few cousin who don’t have money to pay for the up front they let the die in the hallway. So, healthcare system in Vietnam is terrible, you got money you get service, you don’t have money you die in the hallway.

Second, if you do business you have to bribe people, you don’t have money for the local officer, they have people coming over and creating all kinds of problems for you. So, whatever you do you have to bribe, bribe, bribe so all your money gone away everything is bribery. Third, the people in Vietnam are not very honest when all they care is money, you know, they don’t have.. let’s say kindness anymore. I think they are very materialistic right now, you know. They don’t have the good and value anymore, I don’t think so, all they cares is, that when I come to Vietnam, all they care is come over to see if we give us money that’s it. They ask for money they keep asking, for money asking for money, they don’t think that, okay I come back to visit and let’s go have tea, you know, and just be like that.

Vietnamese, we come over from another country everybody come over, all they want is gift and money gift and money that’s it. So, I don’t like the way that the people behave in Vietnam at least from the people I have to deal with when I first visit. The only time I visit Vietnam. Anyway, so, that’s my thought on it I will not go back and live there and don’t think that, that way would change unless, unless there’s some huge happening, these all the people in Vietnam the government people died and some of us over here is willing to come back there and change totally 100%, then maybe life will be different but right now it’s not, you know, the rich would get richer and the poor will get poorer over there.


Q: Do you think that your experience affect those around you such as your children?

A: My experience, yeah, I think that, I think that my kids sees that is struggled all my life; I think that Annie, Aileen, and Emily, you know, when they growing up they didn’t have much, where Molly have her later so she, she has a lot of things because Annie and Aileen they now have a jobs and they buy Molly everything, but before they didn’t have much because all the time that they grow up all, you know, the timeline I laid out for you right. Ups and downs ups and downs, and very unstable so I do feel bad that they did not have a very stable childhood but I do provide them clothing, whatever they want they have phone when they junior high, I gave them cell phone because, you know, they want to I work had to give my children the best that I can. Not the best that they want to have, but the best that I can but I do provide very, all, most of the things that they need. And they know that me and my husband work very hard for what we have now. And they appreciate that, yeah.

Q: Do you see yourself still being affected by the Vietnam war, today? If so in what cases?

A: No I don’t think I was, besides, if there was no Vietnam war, then I would not have lived in the United States my parents would have lived in Vietnam, we would not have escape. So, it is one way it is impacting my life, my mom, my parent life, my life it completely changed our live around, the Vietnam war. But, from another point that if it does really because, not because of that, then you know, there is really no impact, you know, the North won and the South lost. Really it’s, it’s the one driven force was to leave Vietnam, but I don’t think I don’t know if I’m making any sense but it does not really have an impact on me politically it is just because there’s a war and we have to leave Vietnam and our lives change forever, yeah.

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