The Recollection of Thao Tran
Profilers: Khai-Ly Tran, Farrah Kojok, Ashley Beers and Jack McHenry
Part 1: Introduction and Early Childhood
My name is Thao Tran, and I am 59 years old, and I left Vietnam, or I came to the U.S. in 1975, October.
0:19 – What were your earliest memories in Vietnam?
What I remember about Vietnam is being driven around a lot by my dad’s chauffeur, basically my Dad’s Army driver, so wherever I go, wherever I went, I was driven around everywhere. A little bit of protection because my dad was the three-star general for the South Vietnamese Army.
0:58 – How many siblings do you have?
There are six of us, I am the youngest, three boys and three girls. And, I’m the youngest but the pretty distant youngest, like the next sibling is five years older than myself. So, growing up, I felt like it was just only me.
1:27 – What did your daily life look like in Vietnam?
Pretty normal, from the standpoint of just being a kid. I didn’t get to go out as much as other kids because of security reasons, and everywhere I go I have somebody with me. Go to school, get picked up, go home, and stay inside.
1:53 – What was it like to have security with you all the time?
It just felt like I had uncles, many uncles, around me, because I called them uncle. We had a lot of people working for us. We had a chef, we had a gardener, we had cleaners, we just had many. It felt like we had ten people every day in the house. And then, you really feel privileged when you go outside because whenever we go into a restaurant, you can tell the restaurant owner will cater to us, really cater to us, and we really feel like we were somebody.
2:40 – Who were you closest to in your family?
I would say my stepmother was the closest to me because my parents were divorced when I was born. And, my brother who was five years older than me, and that’s really it although I had other siblings, but they were not around.
3:10 – As a child, did you know anything about the war?
Not really, because it was so sheltered. We knew there was a war, but we were just so protected. Just one experience in 1969. In ‘69, the Tet offensive, that’s when the North Vietnamese armies attacked the capital, and I saw a soldier walking in front of the house. And there were gunshots, and other than that I wasn’t scared because they didn’t come close to hitting us.
4:00 – How was your relationship with your father?
I was very close to my father, I would pretty much see him all the time, most of my life. So, I was very fortunate that I was the youngest and I came when his traveling was very limited. So he was around a lot.
4:30 – Was your father active during the war?
His activity was not war-related, it was more of international relations as a three-star general. I think from ‘68-’72, in that time I’m five years old to eight years old but I see him a lot.
4:58 – Did you interact with any American soldiers?
Yes, we get a lot of, there were a lot of receptions at our house. So, when there were receptions at the house, you know, my dad always wanted me to come to pay respects to, whether it’s another general or another high ranking officer or American officers, I got the chances to see from different countries. Korea, Japan, Australia, as well as the U.S. And that was his job in Vietnam, that I know, was international relations so he met with a lot of foreign diplomats and officers.
5:55 – How did American soldiers treat you?
Oh yes, it was always nice. Everybody was always nice. The nice thing is they always brought gifts. Candy, food, to little toys because they kind of know ahead of time that the general had kids so I made sure I was available to receive them.
Part 2: Leaving Vietnam
0:04 – How did you leave Vietnam? Who did you leave with?
I see it as two steps. Meaning the first step, my dad was retired as a general. Then the President gave him an ambassadorship to Thailand in 1972. That’s when he moved us, meaning just me and my brother next to me, and moved to Thailand. And my stepmother. We lived there from ‘72-’75, well the end of the war, so we were already out of the country. My dad tried to live in Thailand after the war, but it was way too close to Vietnam, so the new Vietnamese government had people following us, even in Thailand, so my dad felt it was safer for us to go to the United States.
1:12 – What happened to your biological mother?
My biological mom, or I call her my mom, she was very rebellious, and she was with a group of people somewhere in the mountains trying to overthrow the government at that time. So, she was like a rebel. But, we lost contact early on.
1:43 – How did you feel about leaving Vietnam to go to Thailand?
So when we left from Vietnam to Thailand it was kind of exciting because we got to go live in a new country, and you know my dad had a job as an ambassador. So, that job there was a similar job that he had when he was in Vietnam but now he’s in Thailand and he’s meeting a lot of foreign diplomats. And, we had a bigger home and the same arrangement with the same help. He was able to bring some of his army people to come and basically support us. So our Thailand experience was very pleasant. I got to go to school, and I went to an English school. You know, I think it was the first time I got to make friends and had a few friends and that was interesting for, you know, an eight-year-old. Up to that point, you know, I didn’t get to go out so I didn’t make any friends, didn’t have any friends. But it was the first time I had a few friends from school, that was interesting.
Part 2.5: Thao’s Birth Mother
0:06 – What was your birth mother’s name?
Her name is Lam Thi Ngoc Diep
0:15 – Did your birth mother leave your family for political or personal reasons?
I think mostly personal reasons. They were not getting along. You have to understand I was very young when they were having problems so from what I know, it was mostly personal. I think my mom had a strong personality, and I think they were just constantly fighting when they were together. You know, Divorce is a big deal in Vietnam. I spent the first five years with my mom because they split when I was born. I was with my mom, but for some reason I don’t have a lot of memories of living with her the first five years. I just have vague memories of things that are so irrelevant. I don’t remember my mom at all. I don’t remember her face until I see a picture. I don’t recall having any memories of her, or spending time with her. But, I have memories of my older sister taking care of me, giving me baths and so on. But I don’t have a lot of memories of my mom at all.
1:46 – Do you recall the name of the rebel group she was a part of?
No, just that it was a group that tried to overthrow the government. It was a group that intended to fight and overthrow the government. That’s pretty radical to me. But you have to remember, I don’t have any direct experience or any memory of my mom, but I’m just hearing it from my sisters. I have three sisters and when they get together I would hear about her. Because otherwise, we don’t talk about her. And of course my dad, I don’t think I ever hear him talk about my mom at all.
2:41 – How did she get involved with the rebel group?
My sister told me that she joined the rebel group right after the war, after ‘75. The purpose of the rebel group was to overthrow the North Vietnamese army. I guess they were hidden in the mountains and that somehow she got caught a few years later. I don’t know how, but I learned that she was caught and thrown in jail until her death in 1987. She had quite a tragic experience in jail. My sister told me that she died of bone cancer in jail, so I can imagine it was very painful
3:48 – What role did your birth mother have in the rebel group?
I wouldn’t know.
3:56 – Was she part of the NLF?
I can’t confirm that because I don’t know.
4:03 – What was your older siblings’ opinion of your birth mother?
I would say the first three oldest siblings have a lot of memories of my mom. I mean, I’m the youngest and the distant youngest, about ten years older. More of being a radical person, a person that’s very temperamental, just do things her own way.
4:31 – How did your older siblings learn about your birth mother’s passing?
They keep in touch with the aunts and uncles that were living in Vietnam at the time.
4:46 – Do you miss your birth mom?
I’m sorry, I don’t have a lot of emotional attachment or emotional memory. It was sad though, when I learned of her death back in 1987, maybe a month after her passing. I remember receiving a call from my oldest sister that my mom had passed away. It was a bit sad, it’s a strange feeling that I lost my mom.
Part 3: Coming to America & Reflection
0:05 – How was it coming to America?
Yeah, so my dad landed a job with Air Siam. It’s an airline company, called Air Siam. And they flew us to Redondo Beach, California. That’s where we landed. We landed at LAX and then that was where the office was, and so that was where we entered. It was very easy, it was just like traveling today. We didn’t have to go through a lot because a lot of paperwork was already arranged. We lived in a small apartment. It was easy from a standpoint compared to other Vietnamese refugees because we had it pretty good. There was a little bit, I mean I wasn’t afraid, but definitely I knew my parents, especially my dad was afraid because now he’s no longer a three-star general or an ambassador, now he’s a refugee. So, he had a lot on his mind and a lot of hardship. From my experience, being twelve years old, I was more interested in joining first class and coming here with all the free amenities. It was as simple as “am I not going to be able to eat Vietnamese food again because I’m coming to the U.S.? Is that the end of fish sauce and rice?” You know? And that thought kind of scared me a little bit.
2:02– How did you acclimate to America?
It was very rough because Redondo Beach in 1975 was very Caucasian-oriented, and here’s a little small Asian, or Vietnamese kid, and I had never been exposed to… I didn’t get to go out a lot. But here I am, walking to school, you know, my first experience in school is… I got some kids coming up calling me racial names. And I’m like what the heck, you know. It was the first time I had been bullied and then eventually get beat up. And that’s very traumatic for a twelve-year-old that’s protected pretty much all his life until he’s twelve, and then… but you know I don’t know. I learned fighting was a good thing, a way for me to make friends. So I’m glad I was bullied but then I’d kind of fight my way out. Kids who bullied me, we’d fight, I’d get beat up, but then a week later, you know, I’d feel like I gained a friend. It was really twisted, right? We moved a lot, so whenever we’d move, I’d deal with the same thing so I’d get into fights. And I’d know that through that fight I’d make friends after that. I guess they’d respect you for fighting back, even though you’re small. My dad was pretty hard on us. Three-star general, are you kidding? Pretty strict. When we’d dirty our room, he’d line us up on our knees and make us eat paper because we would litter all over. In a way, the way he raised me kind of prepped me even though that experience can be very traumatic.
4:16– What were your perspectives on the Vietnam war?
I was just thinking, like, through my eyes living sort of under my dad’s experience. He was such a powerful man that I see his struggle. I see his power at the same time I see his struggle in the U.S. and it shaped me as a person. It shaped me how I live my life and seeing how much he struggled and that pride and that ego alone can really hurt you, and it hurt him for a long time when we came to the U.S. you know. Going back to my perspective of the war, I thought the war was tragic because we no longer lived this beautiful life that we had. You know, so it was bad. Next thing I knew we were living in a two-bedroom apartment in Redondo Beach. We didn’t have anybody to take care of us anymore, to drive me around, cook for us, clean for us. So in my perspective, the war was bad.
5:39– What about from a North vs. South perspective?
We were always afraid of the North because the North, it’s the enemy. But the whole time, for the longest time, we felt that the North is coming, but it was a matter of time. They’re coming because they’re winning the war it’s just a question of when. So the whole time that we were there, ever since I was little, we were losing the war. Since I was born we were losing the war it’s just a question of time. And that time came I guess, you know, twelve years later.
6:21– How did the war affect your views on life?
Well being a refugee definitely made me work harder, made me value life a lot more. And yes, we don’t want to be poor, we want to have our savings but then we appreciate the simple things as well. Because I look back and we didn’t have a lot. And then now, being where we are now, life’s wonderful. The U.S. is definitely the American dream.
7:35– Have you gone back to Vietnam since?
I went back to Vietnam in 2006. I thought… I wanted to see if there was any opportunity for me to do business in Vietnam, as an American-Vietnamese. We went there in 2006 and realized that I’m pretty much raised in… I felt like I’m pretty much American born, or at least feel like one so I don’t think that I could function very efficiently and effectively in Vietnam. So that was a business that I felt hey, I’m not cut out for that. Then in 2007 we went there, we took the family there, our whole family visited in 2007. And I forgot in 1998 we went there, before you were born. Your mom and I, we went back there in 1998 and that was a wonderful vacation for us, adn it was an amazing experience to visit Vietnam like that. So we went back there three times. It felt like… like time… we landed in an airport in Hanoi, North Vietnam, and there was only one Russian plane and our plane. It was really strange like we moved back in time. And we landed, and walked, and the whole experience felt like time just stood still. And that whole experience just being so appreciative of our life in the U.S. and seeing how poor the country was at that time in ‘98.