Ngoc Tram's Journey From Vietnam to California: A Child's Perspective
Profilers: Nathan Sparks, Awatif Alharbi, Emily Lai
Life in Vietnam
What was life like for you in Vietnam?
Well, I was born in 1970, and so, what I can remember about my time in Vietnam before leaving the country was very specific things about my family. I remember sitting on this ceramic white elephant that my grandmother used to place me on and then feed me snacks and meals and basically take care of me. And I also had a nanny who was taking care of me and my sister. I don’t remember a lot of details about the countryside because I left when I was four years old. So, all the things that I remember were about my family.
As a kid, who was living during wartime, do you think that you and other children of your age understood the magnitude of what was going on?
I really did not understand what was going on in the country and the devastation for our people. I think that I understood, based on what was happening to my mom, because she was severely depressed and it was partially due to the war. There were other contributing factors, but I was told, some years later after leaving Vietnam, that my mother– I would always sit next to her and try to comfort her, and say, “Oh, don’t be sad, Mom. Everything’s going to be okay.” So, I don’t think I ever understood –while I was there– the magnitude of the war, but I certainly saw its effects on my mom during the war and in the years after the war.
Mm. Right. So you think that, at least from your experience, some of the experience –and in some cases, the trauma– that was experienced by people in Vietnam during the Vietnam War, do you think that that was passed down generationally? Both through experience, through the kids?
I absolutely do. I am no expert on this topic, but I know that books have been written about generational trauma. And it wasn’t until I was an adult that I came upon this line of thinking and research and writing by authors who were not Vietnamese, but basically of any kind of racial group in America that has experienced oppression. And I remember thinking as an adult when I first heard about this concept, and it kind of– it clicked for me and a light bulb went on in my mind. And I put the pieces together and saw that the trauma that my mother experienced –and my father as well– that was all a part of my formation as a young person growing up in the middle of the war and after.
Departing Vietnam & Life in the Refugee Camps
What was your departure from Vietnam like?
The only things I remember about the day that we left… was the plane. I didn’t know that it was a C-130 cargo plane until I was an adult, but I remember it being very cold and crowded. And I don’t specifically remember being scared, but I think that just the entire experience surrounding that departure, there was a lot of anxiety and a lot of unknowns. And I remember my mother telling us stories about how we were afraid that we’d be separated as a family, because my last name was the same as my father’s, but her last name was, of course, her maiden name, which is traditional. And, when the names were called for us to depart that day, I think there was a lot of anxiety around that. So, yes, that’s all I remember is being flown out. And it was two days before the war ended, so that was pretty fortunate for us that we were on the list of Vietnamese who were flown out or taken care of –quote unquote– by the Americans at that time.
Why were you given this ability to –well, you and your family– why were you given this ability to be evacuated?
That’s a great question. And my best answer is to say that, I imagine it had to do with the fact that my father worked for the CIA, something that I did not learn about until I was well into my thirties, because it was a family secret that was so well-kept. Nobody knew anything, including his children. And I was told by my grandmother, and others in my family, that had we not been flown out that day, he was– my father was definitely someone that the new government in Vietnam was looking for. He would have probably been one of the first to be executed.
After departing Vietnam, where did you first go?
We went to a refugee camp in Singapore. And those memories are quite vivid for me. I remember, again, very specific things about that experience. I remember walking up the hill one night to ask the American soldiers for a can of Pepsi. For some reason, I always remember this can of Pepsi. We must have really been thirsty that night. And, I also remember not feeling well and going to– my father bringing me to the outhouses. Actually, they weren’t even outhouses or porta potties or anything– it was just, basically, a line of holes cut out from wooden planks. And again, a very vivid memory is walking by and seeing a bunch of people huddled on these things. And one man was –you know– he smiled at me and I remember feeling very creeped out about that. But, I guess, looking back, he was just thinking, “oh, who is this little girl? What’s she doing?” because I was four years old at the time. So, I do remember those experiences quite well.
After you were in the refugee camp, where did you go next?
We settled in Okinawa, Japan, on Kadena Air Base, since my father was obviously working for the Americans. And that’s where I went to school, and I became friends with the other children on the air base. There were some Russians who were there, who were a couple of my best friends, and some Japanese children. And, I had quite a happy childhood there when I was four until I was eight years old. And like any grade school person, rode my bike, and played under the trees, and made tree houses. And my first music lessons were in Okinawa, my first piano lessons were there. So, it was, I think, a more stable existence –at least from what I understood from my parents– than the life in Vietnam, where there was so much struggle –from what I understood from my parents– in terms of just getting enough food and providing for the family.
Did you feel safer living in Okinawa?
I felt safe. I don’t remember feeling any kind of danger, or certainly not the same anxieties that I remember feeling in the refugee camp, about the unknowns and not understanding the surroundings because we had a home there, so it felt stable to me. And I felt safe, yes.
Life in America
I think you said you lived in Okinawa until you were eight?
Yes. And then, where did you live after that?
We went to the Bay Area. Unfortunately, due to my father’s experiences in Vietnam, I imagine in large part due to his involvement with the work that he had to carry out for the CIA– he was a translator, as I understand it, but, I am sure I don’t even know a tenth of what he had to go through in his position. So, anyway, when we were in Okinawa, I think that some of the trauma of those experiences were manifest in some mental health difficulties, and my father became violent. And, I didn’t know this at the time, but, I only remember one instance when I remember him being physically– physically assaulting my mother, not to the point of any danger, but I just remember seeing it, and being alarmed, and trying to protect my mother, as, I guess, a seven and a half year old– eight year old at the time. But, it was recommended that my sisters and I leave Okinawa with my mother to go to the Bay Area, where I had an uncle who was an architect and who is very well-established. And, we went there to live with him in the El Cerrito area.
Once you were in the El Cerrito area, what was it like growing up there with your extended family?
Again, I remember being really happy with my friends at school. The only unhappy memories from those years when I was between ages eight and ten related to bullying, because I was Asian, and I remember kids picking on both my sister and I. I remember a nickname that she was given –a really cruel nickname– and I think it stayed with her for years, but they would call her chong chong chicken. We just always had to be careful on the playground that we didn’t go near certain kids, because we knew that we would be picked on and bullied. And… I don’t remember actually being hurt physically, I remember being afraid, because one time I believe I was pushed up against a fence. And just being scared, not knowing what was going to happen if I was going to be punched or, you know. I think one time I was verbally threatened. This is what I can remember: a kid in school said– made a threat like, “oh, I’m going to punch your lights out!” and I didn’t know what he meant. But generally, I was a happy child. I continued with my piano lessons, and solfege lessons, and singing at a children’s choir, and lessons in Dalcroze Eurhythmics, which we were so fortunate to receive as scholarship recipients at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. So, mainly my life during those years between ages eight and ten was filled with music, and practicing piano, and getting to know some of the students at the conservatory, spending a lot of time with my uncle, and my two sisters, and my mom.
The Experience of Asian Immigrants
How do you think that the experience of immigrants of Asian descent has changed since you first came to America? And how has it stayed the same?
Hmm. Those are such good questions. I think that… I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s changed for the better, because I’m hopeful that our society is making room for people whose voices have historically been suppressed. And I’m hopeful that in 2023, the next generation of immigrants is treated with more generosity than those in my generation. At the same time, I feel that we were extremely blessed as a family because we– because of my uncle and my aunt who are already established. So, they were naturalized citizens, they could guide us in making a new life here, so I feel like our experience as immigrants was a little bit different from many others who came to this country not knowing anyone. So, in terms of staying the same, I still think that –to an alarming degree– we are still making boxes and categories around people. And there are so many preconceived notions about people who look different from the predominant culture, which is white, to the extent that, when I was in my thirties and teaching at a college in Iowa, one of the first questions that was asked after –of course, you know– people greeting me warmly and welcoming me to their community, I was asked a few times or it was stated, “oh, your English is so good!” kind of like, “oh, did you just get off the boat and learn to speak English?” And I remember thinking, ‘wow, I don’t think of myself as being so different and so… on the perimeter of the society, because I basically grew up here and I was college-educated in this country.’ But, those comments really reinforced to me that there are still a lot of barriers for Asian Americans today.