Leaving Vietnam and The Journey to America
Profilers: Patrick Castillo, Veer Juneja, Tiffany Jung, Jonathan Kim
My name is Thien Ho. I am 45 years old.
Can you describe your family life during Vietnam?
Okay, so as I mentioned, I was born after the war, right? I was born in 1977. So it was after the war. I can definitely talk about my early life, just know that I came to the US when I was six. So any memory I have in my early life was either based on stories my parents shared with me, probably some subconscious memory of things like certain smells will bring back memories. For me, even to this day the smell of smoke always reminds me of my grandmother’s kitchen. Although I don’t know if I’ve been there, I just have a very soft spot for any kind of, like, smoked foods or smell. It just brings me back to a place that I can’t even describe to you.
So in ’77, the war was over. My parents, my dad came back from reeducation camp. My dad fought in the South Vietnam army and what happened after, you know, communism took over was, uh, he had to– he and many of the men who fought in the war and many of my uncles did too, went to reeducation camp. By the time I was born, he was already home. Life, as described to me was that it was (we were) very poor, my family. My mom’s family came from a more affluent family, but that was all taken away when they redistributed wealth and commerce and all that stuff after the war was over.
So they were, you know, they were merchants, my grandparents. My grandparents were herbalists and also fish sauce sellers. So everybody was just a merchant, you know, my mom made porridge sold on the streets, she learned how to resell, import, export stuff just to make a living. I can’t really say my dad actually had a job, I think the whole intention of the reeducation camp was to strip the men of that generation of the ability to provide for their family. That is what I was told was really to impact 2,3, 4 generations down and that was really the purpose of re education camp, right, these POW reeducation camps.
So early life I, you know, other than what was described to me in Vietnam, seemed pleasant to me, you know, I just, I was five. My sister was… my sister was eight, my brother was about to be born. So I had adventures, my dad was always there for me. The memories that he shared with me were fond, you know, going up and down the street on his bike. Any memory that my parents shared with me about my childhood was always pleasant, sweet, and included my family. The only memory in terms of early life was their retelling of how we escaped Vietnam. That, I think, may be something you may be interested in hearing, where this is when my parents decided they were going to escape.
We were boat people and my dad had several opportunities to leave the family to come to the US, but he decided not to do that for various reasons. One: leaving the family. Also the risk behind that, because he was also in the Navy. So, you know, if he got caught, it would have been worse than a civilian getting caught while they were escaping. So that memory– Again, certain things like I can’t be in the ocean, I don’t like being near water and I just realized that maybe like in my 40s why I don’t, because escaping required us to sneak out at night. We were on this very small fishing boat. It’s very typical. I mean, like, a very typical story of, of families of my generation escaping Vietnam like this. We spent about three days in the ocean and then the British, we were by Hong Kong, so the British government, and they’re there. They had a boat, a large boat there. They found us there. We stayed in the refugee camp in Hong Kong and then we went– actually to the Philippines, where we stayed there in the refugee camp for a long time as well and then we finally made it to the US. So that’s kind of Vietnam related early childhood life. If that helps your question.
What were your feelings as you were leaving Vietnam at a young age? [05:12]
Yeah, you know, I mean, it’s, again, my memory is based on what was told to me and what I, sometimes, feelings that come up. Because I smell something (or) I hear something. Lots of subconscious, like, therapy. Like, yeah, that comes out, right. So what was… what was weird to me was that I didn’t, I personally did not want to leave Vietnam and I didn’t know any better at the time. I was five, remember, but something about the experience and knowing and probably I’m an empath now that I’m older, I understand, like, maybe I’m an empath, and who knows what I was like at five.
But based on what my parents told me that I knew something was going on. I went to school that morning and I came home. Yhis was all secret and might know that like, anybody who escaped from a boat, my parents didn’t have the luxury of saying goodbye to their parents, right? So they knew they were going to leave and never see them again. But they couldn’t express that, right? So know that, just like that that day. My dad picked me up from school and for whatever reason, I just said, ‘I’m not, I’m not going, I’m not’ and I’m screaming, I’m like, ‘I will stay home with my grandparents.’ They were freaked out because they didn’t tell us anything. If any of the Communist Party heard me saying it, they would actually ruin the whole trip for everybody. A major risk. So I knew that that day, I did. For whatever reason, my parents told me that I did not want to go. I knew something was wrong and they tried to bribe me into staying quiet to go. So that’s that’s the memory that I was told about the day we left.
Do you remember any stories that your father told you? [07:20]
I love telling the story about my father. He’s the best person for having gone and seen everything that he’s seen. He is the kindest, most affectionate (person) and all my friends will say he’s the first person to hug them when they come into the house, which I think a lot of Asian men of his generation are not affectionate. I received love and confidence from my father because of who he is.
Has your father discussed any of his specific experiences of the war? [8:00]
I think that’s really rare too, for my father. He was very open about his feelings but in a very intellectual way. I’ve never seen him cry. I’ve never actually heard him talk badly about anyone. He wishes pretty matter of fact about it. But my dad was a naval officer in the war. He helped to navigate, you know, the boats and ships and all that stuff. But everybody was in the war. He had a brother who died in war, whose body they never found. His older brother was in the war. He was a journalist in the war. He’s now here with us in the US.
One of the stories that stood out for me my dad shared was that there was one time he was having, you know, he was eating with some of his, some of his friends, some of his– I’m not a military person, so I don’t know all the terms of it. But you know, with his unit, and he was actually supposed to go patrol a station, but for whatever reason he was late or there was some miscommunication and he didn’t go and it turned out that the people who did go, they were killed because there was a bomb, where they were, right. So he talked about that.
I remember when we were younger, we would go to a lot of– in Vietnamese, it’s called Hải quân, which is like part of the navy. That’s how you call naval officers. The Navy, they would go to– there were these reunions whoever made it to the United States, there were like these dinners. We would go, and they would all wear uniforms and they would meet and there was a lot of love and appreciation that I sense from them that they saw there.
I also remember, I also remember when my parents talked about my dad going off to prison, that, as a POW, after the war was over. He was sent to a mountain POW camp, or they call it a reeducation camp and just remember him, my mom remembers him wearing very thin pajama clothing. He would be sent off to the woods or like to the jungle to do hard labor. She remembered my sister yelling at the communists, soldiers, like why are you taking my father as my sister was younger than me. So it was– and then she would, my mom would visit. My mom was a teacher in Vietnam and so she would, you know, ride her bike there to visit him and just remembering that he was always fed like MSG and rice. That was how, you know, that was just the meal.
Yeah, the way my parents talked about it, I don’t think they are as emotional as I am about retelling the story, which is always fascinating for me and my dad just being such a loving person, you would never have known that he went through all this. I can’t even imagine what he went through. Because he doesn’t contextualize it as suffering right? Or being punished. But I don’t, I wouldn’t have guessed that he had gone through all that. Just by the good nature that he is and how positive and just loving he is.
How was your perspective changed after coming to the U.S?[12:04]
I think now, and in a lot of it me thinking back, It’s… I’m really reflecting on, one just conceptualizing the history, right. So my mom and dad came here, no English. They had three kids. We ended up in Echo Park, Rampart, really, of Los Angeles. In a predominantly Latino community, we were close to Chinatown. But we didn’t have we couldn’t stay there. So the community that we live in was more like MacArthur Park. Rampart, and mostly Central America. Again, first generation and everybody just came here… so I can’t even imagine… you know, because I have kids now, I can’t imagine two very young people with three very young kids coming into… escaping trauma and all that coming into and living in a community where they didn’t have the language. On top of everybody in that community having some kind of trauma, some kind of… they’re escaping something. Right.
So my first experience coming here, I was five, the community that I was in actually was it so this is really more a story about identity and finding common language when you didn’t have a language to speak or call. You know, you have some kind of commonality, but you don’t have the common language. So I actually didn’t have enough room in my elementary school. So they shipped me and my sister I say ship, but they bussed us out to a school, closer to South Elton more on the west side, which was that Culver City actually, before Culver City, it was more like Baldwin, it’s actually Baldwin Hills, predominantly black community. So you right out, right, like from the get go, It it’s… We were not English speaking. We’re only Vietnamese. We, we live in a community where we didn’t understand Spanish. We were probably one of the few Asian ones. And then we went to school and spent eight day… eight hours a day in the community that like was completely foreign at the time.
To me, it was as I look back at that time, it was really finding commonality amongst groups of people that had nothing in common and not like, no language to express ourselves. Right. And so I wonder what kind of impact that had on my choice of career in terms of communications and storytelling and… and choosing the career path that I did, but I may add a fantastically strange childhood, right? Like it was very common for us to see drug use and like, shooting and I like, for a long time I couldn’t like handle Halloween because my sister and I got held up during Halloween by gunpoint. But it was like, you know, it was just, it just is, right. Like it just didn’t like… It was just, you knew worse things happen to other people and worse things happen to your parents and like, it was a really rough neighborhood where we grew up, and it just was, but it wasn’t bad. Like, I wouldn’t never trade that at all. In fact, it was very strange for me to be in safer neighborhoods, right. So the finding of commonality and physical safety and psychological safety was something that I try to look back at now that we didn’t have, but we didn’t know any better. Which makes a lot of sense for my career choice, I think.
But that was early childhood, you know. It was my parents who worked like crazy. My dad never really held a longtime job. My mom was the breadwinner. As many, as many Vietnamese women of my mom’s generation were because the father just could not hold jobs and not that they couldn’t, but because my dad couldn’t really hold a job. He was kind of the caretaker and I think that’s where like, I found my closeness with my dad. He was the one to take me to the library. He made me breakfast and he made sure that the school lunches or the field trip, like I had the weird lunches to take on, like field trips, and, and so that’s I look back and I think that my mom traded security so that my sister brother and I can be close to my dad, because he was at home, he was the caretaker, whereas that my relationship with my mom was more like transactional and it was authoritative, whereas my dad was more of the caring and loving person, but that was at the cost to her. So that’s that was childhood, where we grew up.
Did you face any difficulties integrating into U.S. culture? [17:14]
I don’t think so. I didn’t know any better. I think we were just all poor. We didn’t, you know, like I we were just all poor. I don’t I think it would have been stark if I grew up in a really affluent community. My mom was a seamstress. My dad was a gardener. She was you. My dad worked at, you know, fast food place. My mom was, essentially, she was a nail (technician). She worked at a nail salon for a long time. My dad did too. So had we grown up in… So to me, I didn’t know the difference because we were all economically on the same level. Culturally, we were not, right, but the economic status of everybody just kind of level set everything, like, because even if we didn’t speak the same language. My parents were on welfare, just like the neighbor’s parents were on welfare. Right? We were both going to like the clinics, same clinics in the neighborhood. So that kind of evened out for us.
So I didn’t feel, honestly, I didn’t feel any different. In fact, I probably didn’t relate to the Vietnamese community as much as I did to other communities because of where I grew up. I felt more connected to the Vietnamese community once I started at USC, quite frankly. That’s when I really discovered and tapped into like, the Vietnamese identity and understanding like, what really happened during war and how it impacted the way I grew up and who I am as a person, joining VSA at USC and then obviously I had Professor Viet as a… as a sponsor for a year. Yeah, just like discovering that part of the culture really was more college. I didn’t see the difference in me and a black classmate or a Central American classmate. I grew up with a lot of Filipino Americans and so it just… we were all poor.
How did education and learning about the U.S. perspective on the Vietnam War has changed your perspective? [19:23]
I… that really opened my eyes to that because I only knew it from my dad’s perspective, right? I only knew war from a very… I knew war from a very personal experience. I didn’t… I wasn’t educated enough when I was young to understand war from a political standpoint, like I did. But so… my… my education first started with what war is from a personal stake, from a personal perspective. And I knew what it took away, you know.
I mean, it took away, really my dad’s confidence and my mom’s psychological security… Safety, right? My mom, if you knock on her door, she would still freak out to this day, I have to text her to let her know I’m here. If you knock on her gated door, it will… it just triggers her in a certain way. Right? So that’s the cost of war from a very personal standpoint, and obviously, financially, like, you know, I didn’t really understand war from a political standpoint, until college, obviously, when I was studying it, and I was studying socialism and communism, and, you know, even my dad explaining to me that Ho Chi Minh try to reach out to the US, right, for help, and was turned away.
And there’s that perspective, that was something my friends and I really tried to dig into when we were in VSA, the Vietnamese Student Association that USC and having conversations around that, that and then just philosophically what communism is, but in practicality, what communism is. It’s, it’s hard to say things like this in the Vietnamese community, because, you know, but just understanding that from a intellectual standpoint, that was part of the journey.
And then understanding it from a… from a political standpoint, I like to, for it to be called to hear that it was called, I think, Professor Viet I mean, even to this day, I’m still learning from him that, like hearing him say that it was the American War. I never thought of it that way. Right? I never thought that we were a subject of a bigger political issue that like, we were thrown into and had to defend. So I, my perspective on war has changed now that since I became a mother, and it shouldn’t, but I would just, you know, my parents and talk about it that way for me to understand. So those are the three different perspectives on how I view the war.
Later on, have you ever revisited Vietnam? [22:19]
Ah, okay, so I love telling this story. The first time that I went to Vietnam, I was 18. Right. So I was about to graduate high school. I went back because my parents went back. And that was the first time and you, Tiffany, you asked me if I felt othered basically, like when I was younger? And my answer was, no, I didn’t.
But when I went to Vietnam for the first time, that was the first time I felt I didn’t have to– that was the first time I felt a sense of community that I didn’t have to explain myself. Right, because everybody spoke Vietnamese. I didn’t have to explain that you need to take off your shoes, when you come into the house, like my biggest nightmare, when I was younger, was to take off my shoes in school, like in my classroom. I always had these recurring dreams that I would take all my shoes in the classroom and people would laugh at me but that’s just culturally what we do. Right.
So my first experience, going back to Vietnam, I celebrated my 18th birthday there, that was the first time I met all my cousins, that was the first time I experienced having grandparents because I left when I was five, so I didn’t have any, like, grandparent memories. And I remember being the super brat with my grandmother, like, oh, ‘you need to buy me food.’ And like, I would never recommend for our child to be a brat like that, but there was something about being able to be that way what your grandparents, like I’ve never experienced– I’ve never had anybody favor me in that way that’s like, ‘oh my darling, let me get you this.’ I didn’t grow up having that experience and having like a grandmother and just, it was amazing to me to not have to feel like I have to explain myself. For the things I did is just like I was just, I needed no explanation. And that’s the only time I felt I was othered, but not within Vietnam, but when I came back to the US.
Throughout your education, was there anything you learned that surprised you? [24:31]
Yeah, I think one of the things that my dad taught me or in our conversation, right, my dad was just the best person to bring up conversations and so, but he mentioned that, you know, the North and South… In our mind, when we have a civil war like that, it felt like one versus the other, right? But I think that what he brought to my attention was that we were all pawns in a political situation. We have brothers and sisters and uncles and aunts, from the north and in the south. But when that line was divided, we became enemies. And it’s so much that way, in many civil wars, so I think that concept of being subjects of a political tug of war was eye opening to me because I thought it was just black and white, like the North hates the South, but like, oh, wait, I have uncles there. I have aunts in the south. We’re one Vietnamese people we got divided for whatever reason, that actually really impacted me in terms of like understanding politics, and that it is a tool in so many ways to control people versus really like, its ideological control and so many ways for me that I was like, oh, okay, well, I gotta look deeper into issues than what I see.
Do you think your relationship with Vietnam has changed because of the war? [26:14]
I was not taught to harbor issues or hatred towards the country because I– that’s a good question. Um, so we were never taught, when I was young, to harbor any ill will (or) hatred towards the country [Vietnam]. I think we were taught about the party that divided the country, and the war that divided the country, but the country itself? No, because we have so many relatives. I mean, basically, most of my family were still there, are still there.
So I think my sentiment on Vietnam is that especially now that I understand the politics behind so many– the politics behind everything… I’ve almost… I don’t.. I separate the whole thing, you know, I separate the war, I separate, because if you look at it politically, if it’s truly a, you know, communist country, it doesn’t operate as such, right? It really doesn’t. So, and I have to say Vietnamese people are probably some of the most industrious, entrepreneurial people, business minded people ever. So I think from that point of view, I don’t look at it that way.
But I look at it from understanding my parents like… I’m fascinated by the life and the people they were before the war and before they became parents. Who are these amazing people who.. My mom went to college, she went to the dorms. I mean, my mom was just like a firecracker. My dad, you know… Like, I’m fascinated by them as people before the war turned them into somebody else. And I think of it from that perspective, my sentiment in Vietnam… I’m so removed from it as a homeland. I used to call it home, right? In Vietnamese, when you refer back to like, ‘Oh, I’m going to Vietnam,’ like I refer to ‘I’m going home.’ I recently stopped thinking (of it) that way. You know, like, maybe five years ago, I recently stopped mentally thinking of it as home. I recently stopped counting in Vietnamese. So I see myself now, obviously as Vietnamese American, I’m reminded every day when I’m in corporate America of that but I don’t have this romanticized idea of it as a homeland to me. Because, yeah, I just don’t. But I don’t have a view.
And I mean, to answer your question, Jonathan, my view of Vietnam has not changed in terms of like, oh, I went from hating it and loving it. Yeah. I think my journey is more about understanding Vietnam, understanding the people and the impact of it, and also understanding the politics behind it was more powerful.
Is there any advice you would tell your younger self today after learning what you have learned? [29:50]
I think I would have told myself to operate sooner in life, from the space of abundance versus from the space of scarcity. So I think when you come from, and this is probably like, just passed down from my parents DNA, of having gone through war and having gotten to trauma, there is a sense, and I think with a lot of immigrant kids, or, you know, first generation kids, there’s a sense of, like, I gotta do all this stuff, I gotta, you know, like I, and it’s, it’s out of scarcity, rightfully so because you don’t have it right and you want to be able to do that.
But that caused a lot of stress and tension, for me personally, where it was, I think it was helpful with my career, like, just, you know, trying all kinds of stuff and feeling like, oh, I can do all this. But I would have been more intentional about the certain things I did. Like, I opened four businesses while I was pregnant, while I was like, having a corporate career, and my husband was the artists like, you know, like, I just did all this stuff, because I was like, I had to do this before I die and like, I want to, I want my parents to see me succeed. And me like, I was doing all this and I didn’t really take time to like, probably enjoy my 20s and my 30s. Like, really experience it the way I would like my children to experience life. But in terms of like just how I treat people and what is more valuable to me.
Now, I wish I had known that when I was younger, and that was really operating from a space of scarcity, because I thought I didn’t have the chance to do it. Now that, if I take a step back and look at my finger, that there is abundance there that I just feel is better to operate and live that way, you know.
Is there anything else you would like to share [32:01]
Perspective wise, like so my kids are half Mexican. Well, I say this, they’re Mexican, and Vietnamese. My husband’s from Mexico. I’m from Vietnam. They don’t speak Vietnamese, which, you know, I thought, growing up, I said, my kids, whatever they do, they barely speak Vietnamese and then they come out and they don’t speak Vietnamese, right? I wondered from, you know, how they’re going to continue understanding the culture too, because what, what we’ve taught them is that they’re not half or half, right.
They’re full of both things, of both cultures amdI hope they can carry on at least the value the, the understanding of what it meant for their grandparents to leave, or basically saying goodbye to their parents without saying goodbye. I don’t think they can imagine that world but I want them to appreciate that. So one of the things we always teach them in terms of money, you know, like it, my mom was a manicurist for a long time, right for basically all her life. I always look at it like, okay, so if you want to buy this coffee, that means equivalent, my mother, your grandmother, did somebody’s manicure, two manicures equals, like one coffee. Alright, so understanding really like the struggle, I think that was important for me to make sure they know, but also the joy of it as well. That’s a really lasting memory for me, because I’m still in it and I’m still trying to cultivate that for my children to really understand and appreciate what their grandparents are.
I mean, it’s not about, yeah, who cares about me at this point. But it’s really like they need to understand that part to carry it on. Then as I get older, right, I see 45… my parents were like, in their early 30s when they came here. I just think when in my early 30s how different my life was, and what privilege I had, and they didn’t. That really, like, motivates me and sticks with me a lot. I see them they’re frail, they’re like my mom’s gray, but she’s still feisty, and my… Yeah, like just like, all this stuff about my parents, and how beautiful their relationship has actually, like, blossomed to be how much they love and care for each other, in a very old people kind of way. It’s very cute. Were like, Yes, I appreciate that and I just can’t imagine what kind of life they had during and before and after the war. So it it motivates and hurts me deeply in some ways, you know, to know that they’ve experienced that but that’s yeah… that’s my journey.