I tend to keep my family life private. Just a few scrapes of the surface here and there, but nothing that would help you understand my family. You can ask my best of best friends and they’ll tell you the basics. It’s not that I’m not proud of my family, it’s quite the opposite. It’s hard to put into context how I feel about my family. A lot of things have been triggering for me on this trip. From Trump’s refugee ban, to seeing the street vendors of Thailand, to seeing people fight each other to buy dirty clothes. I keep taking these moments of reflections to thank my family every day for everything they’ve done so that I can have the privilege of traveling the world and following my dreams and goals.
Now I’ve never really had a normal family…. But let’s be real… normal is overrated. I didn’t really recognize the things that my parents have done throughout my childhood that have really been impactful to not only me but others around me. My parents are both Vietnamese refugees who fled the war on boat. They are the true “Fresh off the Boat” people. Now this term has been used as a slur/ slang that even I throw around every now and then, but I realize that this wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Imagine leaving all your belongings behind to get on a boat and sail across the Pacific Ocean in promise of a better life. I can’t imagine having to do something like this. These treks were real and hard. People died.
Let’s take a step back. Both my parents have about 8 brothers and sisters. So starting on my Mom’s side, she comes from a well to do family, who put education first. My grandpa was put in a reeducation camp while my grandma had to figure out how to get all of her 8 children out of Vietnam. I don’t know how she did it, but she did….. she got every single one of them out and somehow managed to get my grandpa out of that camp. She left her wealthy life behind and moved to America with literally nothing in her pockets, but she still had 8 other mouths to feed.
On my Dad’s side of the family, it was a whole different story. My grandma was one of those street vendor ladies who sold Bún riêu… ironically enough; it has always been my least favorite Vietnamese dish. My grandpa is a piece of work, but basically, my grandma raised the kids on her own. My dad’s side of the family was literally dirt poor. He was a village boy who was lucky to be the oldest boy in his family. He won the luck of the draw. My great uncle is a doctor and had the means to get tickets to America. He had one ticket left and that was for my great-grandma, but she loved my dad so much and wanted to give him a chance to live a better life that she gave her ticket to my dad. This wasn’t easy for him either, leaving his whole family to go to America with nothing.
Now the idea of coming to America is the ultimate American Dream. The dream that the whole rags to riches story is possible. My parents had this idea that when my brother and I were born, that we would be raised to be as American as possible…. Whatever that would mean. Strangely enough, English was my second language. My parents did everything they could to make sure that my English was without any foreign accent. I had the hooked on phonics, I had the education shows, I was encouraged to talk to the kids at school. Everything they could get for me to not show an ounce of my Vietnamese tongue. I had then played into this model minority role in my town, proving that the American Dream was real.
My parents never pressed on me that I had to retain my Vietnamese heritage. They wanted my brother and me to assimilate to the American culture as easily as possible. So they sent me to those roller blading lessons, or those ice- skating lessons, or those tennis lessons (which ironically turned out to be the most Asian thing you could do). My parents hate Santa Ana (dubbed little Saigon). It’s a mini Vietnam that is densely populated with a large Vietnamese population. We would only go down there maybe a few times per year, but stayed away as much as we could. Which is probably why I ended up growing up in a predominantly white city. I grew up not having any Vietnamese friends. It wasn’t until high school that I realized that I was Asian and had a completely different culture than the kids in my town. I discovered race when my house was vandalized twice with the word “CHINK” spray painted on our garage door. (This is a longer story to tell one day)
This came at a time when my father was sponsoring all of his brothers and sisters and their families to come to America. So as any brooding teenager, I was angry. I didn’t understand what was going on. All I knew was that I had lost my room and was now living with my parents and brother in our master bedroom. I didn’t want to embrace any part of my heritage…. once again… another story for another time… fast forwarding to college when I really embraced my Vietnamese side of things. Looking back, I have a new found respect for my uncles, aunties, and cousins. They left their lives behind to come to America and I was the brooding teenager who had lost a bit of privacy….. I realize the privilege that I had now. I’m lucky that I’ve retained being bilingual in English and Vietnamese considering the fact that all of my younger cousins either can barely understand it or don’t understand it at all.
Looking at these past experiences have really shaped how I viewed my parents. They struggled and they struggled hard. That is something I will never be able to experience thanks to the both of them. My parents have sacrificed a lot to be where they’re at and I can’t thank them enough. It really hit home with me when a few days after we received our photo with President Obama, my dad wrote me an email expressing his thoughts. In his broken English he told me. “Our family is so proud of the event that having a life time dream to be in the White House and shake hand with President of the United States. For the person from a poor family such as mine, I never dream of one day to be able to shake hand with the POTUS. But, you did it, and I am so proud of you!” He then went on to tell me to enjoy my trip and come back refreshed and ready for the next challenge. It was the honor of my life to be able to introduce my Vietnamese refugee parents to President Obama and it was a moment I will never forget.
So going back to the grannies in the street, seeing her squatting in the dirt to sell the cakes that she woke up at 4am to make just to get 1 buck out of you, only to have you haggle it down to 50 cents. It’s been disturbing for me to witness. Now I’m all about the thrill of a great bargain and the back and forth with the haggling, but I draw a line when I know how much work was put into it just so that they could barely feed their families. I constantly think that the granny sitting in the dirt selling off her hot cakes could have been my grandma. She worked herself to death, passing away just after I was born before I was able to meet her. So when I haggle the prices, I will take the higher prices with these ladies. Because $3 means I won’t have that coffee, but to them it means that they can put a roof over their heads.