I was around 4 years old, so life was pretty easy. I played and went from our little shack to my grandparents with my cousin Cammie. There was a hammock in front of grandparents’ house that we would sleep in and take naps in. I had to take care of my younger brother Trinh and hang out with him.
Even though things were hard because everybody around you was suffering, you as a kid, you don’t have the same responsibilities You don’t know that there was another world. For me, life was fine and I would get to go with my dad to the city where he would go work there. My dad’s mentor would take care of me and let me eat balut, so I never knew there were issues.
My dad was a mechanic for boats, since we lived in a fishing village. I think he went to the city to get parts and stuff, and sometimes he would sell odd things. He would collect scrap metal, and sometimes go and sell the scrap metal. I remember my mom saying that like, basically because everybody was poor, it’s not like they would all pay my dad in cash. Sometimes they would pay him in fish or rice or something else when he fixed their boat.
Was the war over?
It was long over. My dad wasn’t even in the war, because my dad was around 16 or 17 when the war was going on. So luckily for him, he was a tad too young and didn’t have to go.
How old were you when you immigrated to the U.S?
We left when I was around 4, and we got to the States when I was 7. So in between, we were in Hong Kong and the Philippines.
Do you know what prompted you and your family to come to the U.S?
I think that my parents were desperate to find a different way to live. My parents were doing pretty decent when we left, like they actually started to have a little bit of money. But, they knew that living and staying there was a dead end for their family, so they just wanted an out to have other opportunities. They also noticed other people leaving, so I think they thought, “Okay you know what, other people are taking the chance and leaving, we have to too.” At the time for both sides of our family, nobody had left yet. Somebody has to get out or else nobody would –
My dad ended up going with one of my brothers, Trinh, his two sisters, and your mom. Then, we were stuck behind because we couldn’t catch the boat in time.
The way that it goes is basically you hope to get lucky out at sea. So the boat – you need to find somebody that can read a compass and then you have this big idea that you’re going to try and go to Hong Kong, or Malaysia, or Thailand, just somewhere else and hope to get rescued. You don’t actually think you’re going to make it to Hong Kong, you just sort of know you’re going in the right direction. On the way up – basically what happens is that normally, a lot of people, they end up either in – they bank in Thailand or bank in Malaysia and keep going.
Or they can run into a big navy ship or some kind of international ship. I think international law guarantees that they have to do something about it, they can’t leave you there stranded. There had been ships that would go out and if they saw people, they would pick them up. I don’t know what happened to my dad’s ship, like how or where they got picked up, but my mom and I got picked up a few months later with Dai. I think they towed our boat along in the back and we all climbed onto the ship. There were actually other people they had already picked up too, so the ship had a bunch of people.
You basically are out there floating at sea and you keep going and at night you would go dock into some random village. In the afternoon you would go and ask for food, beg for food. When it’s good again, you would come back out and you would go again. You would try to avoid the pirates. You would hope that there’s a big ship nearby and you would flag them down. If they see you, they’ll most likely come over, drop down a ladder, and they’ll come down and start to bring people up to the big ship. The ship takes you to – i don’t know which island it is, but there’s a tiny little processing area that’s not in Hong Kong. You would stay there and they process your paperwork and you’re only there for a few days.
Then, they take you to this other holding area – I’m not sure if it’s somewhere near China, but we were there for a few months. In that area, they have an area on one side for newcomers and on the other side were people who have been there for a while. It was a coincidence that my dad and my brother were on the other side. Somebody told my mom saying, ‘I think we saw your husband and son on the other side.’ They tell you, they’re like, ‘Okay, whatever you don’t have on your body already, they’re probably going to toss and throw away. So whatever you want to keep, you better find a way to keep it because everything else gets thrown out.’ I think I wore two sets of clothing and I think my mom hid, if she had any little bit of gold, she would hide it somewhere. Once they find out that your family is on the other side, they interviewed us and asked if those people were my dad and my brother. We said yes, and then they let us go to the other side with my dad and we stayed there until they finished our paperwork.
What was the paperwork for?
We were seeking asylum. The paperwork is to seek asylum to relocate to a different country. We stayed there, and then we went to Hong Kong. At the time, Hong Kong was still under British rule, so you’re basically as if you’re in the UK. So there, they asked you again, ‘Where do you want to go? Where do you want to relocate and live?’ People can choose Australia – there’s a bunch of European countries. I think one of my mom’s friends went to Denmark. My parents said America, your mom said America, and so I think it was either going to be Australia or America.
Because my grandpa was in the Vietnam War, we had the right for asylum because we were considered at risk for being abused or being attacked by the Communist government. That’s when my dad had your mom be his actual biological sister because – our grandpa on our mom’s side didn’t have any military affiliation. He was just a fisherman, so if your mom tried to seek asylum by herself, she wouldn’t get it right away or get a good choice. People who had military backgrounds had priority.
How did you travel to the U.S?
Yes, so we flew from Hong Kong to the Philippines. You stayed there and they tried to go and get you to learn English, so Cammie and I would go to Kindergarten together. We were there for around 7 months. Then, they ask you, ‘Okay, where do you want to go in America?’ Because your mom had left a couple months before us, she was following your dad, and your dad was following his brother. So then, my mom followed your mom, so then she said, ‘We’ll go to Massachusetts.”
A non-government organization would give micro-loans to families to buy airplane tickets to come to the States. I didn’t know at the time it was a loan. I didn’t know how we go the States, I just thought maybe the American government flew us. Up until I was an adult, that’s when I received a letter stating, ‘Hey, so you’ve been in America for 20-something years, now would be a good time to pay back that loan that you took for your plane tickets to come to America.’
What is your earliest memory in the U.S?
I don’t know about earliest, but my most vivid memory was not being able to say ‘cereal’ because I thought it was ‘C-O,’ like the letters C and O. The clerk at the little convenience store was really confused. Actually, yesterday I was telling Lincoln (daughter) about how my mom didn’t know that little girls needed underwear, so I didn’t have underwear until one of my older cousins, who had been in the States a little longer, came over and found out that I was in second grade with no underwear. She was like, ‘You need to tell your mom to buy you underwear.’
The cold weather in Massachusetts was not for us, so in the winter, I would always heat up my pants on the coil heater. There was a coil heater in the living room. I would take my clothes out there when I would first wake up, probably not a safe thing, but I would put my clothes on there, go get ready for school, and come back out to put those clothes on because it was really warm. We didn’t have the right clothing because everything was bought second-hand from Goodwill or wherever, so I would wear two pairs of pants. One pair was just too cold. It was the first time we had to wear beanies and mittens. I remember falling all over the ice. Probably didn’t have the right shoes.
Yes, so we were in Massachusetts. We didn’t live there for very long. We were there, I think in August of 1990, and I think by January or February of 1991, we left because it was too cold. We spent summer, fall, and winter and then we left.
We went to Northern California, but I’m not sure where. I assumed we were in Stockton or near Stockton. My parents were basically working in the field picking tomatoes, and my dad would find – somehow he’d go to the grape farms. I’m not sure if the grape farms were for drinking, to make wine, or if they were for eating. But, he would grab the grapes and told the people it was for his kids to eat, and go and have me sell the grapes with him at the market. I think people would probably buy them out of pity because I’m pretty sure they were not good. So, we stayed there for probably a year, and then we ended up down in San Bernardino.
We didn’t settle in LA until I was in fifth grade. Between second grade and fifth grade, I never finished a school year at a school. We would keep moving around. Less than a year, we would be gone. Sometimes I would be there the first day of school and leave 2/3 in. Other times I would be there at the end of school and hang out for the summer and start new somewhere else.
Did you find it difficult to assimilate into American culture/society?
It wasn’t too bad because I was still young. It’s a yes and no because we – I was content with being around people who were just like us and in the same situation, so everyone had the same difficulties. It made it normal, but they you also knew that you were the kid who had only five outfits and the kid who doesn’t have the extra money and extra toys. You understand you’re not like the other kids, but you take comfort in being around your own kind, and I think that was good about not being isolated. I was like, ‘Well, you know, everybody else eats the same things we eat, do the same things we do, and I always considered myself lucky because it felt like my parents gave us just a little bit more than everybody else.
I think everywhere we went, we were around other immigrants. We were never in an area where it was largely populated by privileged people. When we got settled into LA, my parents were sewing for a living, so I would help them sew. Before I started sewing for them, when they would make dresses and things that had ties and stuff, we would have to flip them inside out after they sewed it to put it on the dress. My siblings and I would be the ones doing all the boring work that doesn’t involve any skill. When I was in middle school, I started sewing. I hemmed the pants and the back pockets.
My parents have done a lot of things. They’ve farmed, my dad did landscaping, I think at some people they were shoving envelopes, my dad has worked at a buffet before, and I think then they finally stopped doing stuff – so when they would sew, and then after they sewed, they bought their liquor store and that was the last thing. But, then my dad also did some construction work, like helping people remodel their homes and odd jobs. They did a lot of things.
What have been major personal and family milestones since coming to America?
I think we’ve hit all of the milestones. My parents being able to buy their house was a big one for them. My major milestone was being able to take a family vacation will all of us, that was a big deal because we had never been able to take a family vacation with everybody. That was when Jordan (son) was 2, and it was to Mexico in 2015.
Did it take a long time for your parents to save up and buy their house?
Yes. So, the problem was that they had to buy their liquor store business, and they owed a lot of money. It’s a very communal group, all the immigrants. They would lend each other money to start businesses. When you start a business, it’s not like all that money had been saved up. Instead of taking a loan from a bank, because they didn’t have the credit to take loans from them, they would lend each other money on good faith. Once you make monthly payments back or paid it all back, then after you would start saving again for other things or take out another loan – there’s a whole system that they do.
It wasn’t the loan on the house, that wasn’t the reason it took them so long to get it. I think it was because we were on public assistance, and so they – being on public assistance, they assumed that you could not be a home owner. I’m not sure if they could or not, but they assumed that if you wanted to own a home, you would lose all your benefits. So for a long time, my parents didn’t own a home because they were afraid that we would not get financial aid for school, that we wouldn’t get food stamps for food, that we wouldn’t get Medi-Cal for when we would get sick. Basically, they didn’t buy a house because they were worried they would lose all the government aid.
What have you been able to do in America that would not have been possible or difficult to do in Vietnam?
Schooling. If I were lucky, I would have finished high school. I don’t think I would have been able to go to college, for sure. That’s probably the main thing. I probably would’ve been married and had children 10 years earlier than I did.
Did you ever face any discrimination when you came here?
I’m sure I did, I just don’t think – you know being a kid, you don’t register it. Typical stuff from school, kids calling you names and making fun of the fact that you have an accent, or kids being kids and being cruel.
Has Vietnam, in your opinion, changed a lot since you’ve left?
Yes. When I went back, I was very shocked at the density of the homes in the village. I don’t think that was the case before. The homes have definitely gotten sturdier, they’re real homes. There’s actually brick and mortar homes, instead of my home which was made out of bamboo leaves. It’s a straw house versus now, an actual house. Technology-wise, it’s very developed.
Do you think it’s changed economically?
I think it’s very much the stereotypical, the poor people are still poor and the rich have gotten very rich. Vietnam has a lot of money flowing through it and it’s started to become a tech hub because the workers get paid less. It’s beneficial for the companies to go there. Tourism has definitely increased in Vietnam as well, so money is flowing in, but not everyone is getting it.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned?
You have to advocate for yourself. If you’re not going to go and speak up for what you want and need, you won’t get it, nothing will get done.
The interview and write up were done by Mylinh Duong, the cousin of her interviewee, Kim Nguyen. Mylinh is a student at a Bay Area college.