When our sociology professor, Dr. Patricia Gibbs, assigned the Made into America assignment to the class, I immediately knew who I wanted to interview for the assignment: my mother. My mother is named Vivian Hang Nguyen. My mom immigrated to America from Vietnam in 1986. When I was young and caused trouble, my mother would always tell me how her life was arduous when she was young in Vietnam. Being young and naive, I ignored her stories as I “believed” that they were irrelevant. Years have passed, and I am ready to learn more about my mother’s past and how her past shaped who she is today and who I am now. This is her story.
As we prepared to start the interview, I noticed Vivian was calm and collected, almost as if she prepared to reveal her past to me long before the interview. On the contrary, I was nervous as I rarely had intimate talks with Vivian, thus I was unsure of the outcomes of the interview. I took a deep breath and asked Vivian to take me back to when she was born and describe her life during the height of the Vietnam War.
With no hesitation, Vivian began to reminisce about her beginnings and childhood in Vietnam. “I was born in 1968 in Saigon, Vietnam, 7 years before the end of the Vietnam War.” Vivian recollected what her mother told her about the hospital conditions when she was born. “The hospital housed patients that were both civilians and soldiers. The conditions in the hospital were abominable according to my mother. My mother was next to a severely injured soldier and a civilian who was extremely sick from chemical weapons,” Vivian explained calmly.
Within the first five minutes of the interview, I was dumbfounded. Before I was able to comprehend her beginnings, Vivian continued to talk about her childhood between 1968 and 1975. My mother described, “I was the second youngest child out of eight children in my family. My siblings and I would wake up at 5 AM in the morning to help my mother set up her vegetable stall. From there, we would all walk two miles to go to school. Along the way to school, we would witness Southern Vietnamese soldiers carrying wounded comrades. The injuries can range from bullet wounds to missing limbs. Despite the atrocities of the war, my siblings and I became numb to them and accepted what we saw as normal.”
Imagining the grotesque imagery my mother had painted, I was speechless. The moment my mother was conceived into this world, she was already living in hell. Yet, my mother remained composed while answering my first question to her.
Vivian was seven years old when the Vietnam War officially ended. Naturally, I asked Vivian about her life after the Vietnam War. Vivian uttered one word.
Vivian’s once calmed composure became visibly angst and uneasy. She cupped her hands together and looked down at the dinner table instead of my eyes. The ambiance of the room immediately became tense. I understood immediately that my mother was still encased in a shell of trauma derived from the cruelties during and after the Vietnam War. I clasped Vivian’s hands, reassured her, and told her that I am thankful for her to put time aside from her day to participate in my interview and educate me about her past. I offered Vivian some time to collect herself. After a long pause, a huge sigh came from Vivian and she continued her story.
“Life after the war was difficult,” said Vivian quietly. Vivian began to list the struggles she encountered after the Vietnam War. Vivian began the list with the loss of her father. Vivian’s father was a Southern Vietnamese Soldier who fought bravely during the war. Unfortunately, he lost his life during combat. The news was brought to Vivian and her family a few days after the Vietnam War by a fellow colleague who was well-acquainted with Vivian’s father.
“I was too young to comprehend the death of my father. My father rarely came home to see us. The last time my father came back home was when I was four years old. Therefore, I have very few memories of my father. I was sad, but not as sad as my older siblings who spent more time with our father”. A single tear slowly trickled down, emphasizing that the loss of her father was one of many obstacles Vivian had to endure before her immigration to America.
Vivian continued to describe the adversities she faced. “After the war, the Vietnamese government began to take land from the people to pay off the war. They took some of our land, thus, we were always low on food. There will be days when everyone in the house gets less than half a bowl of rice and scraps of vegetables. We were all hungry…” Vivian’s voice cracked and tears rushed down her face.
Witnessing Vivian crying in front of me made me realize the privilege I currently have. I have food on the dining table every day. Not once have I ever needed to worry about starvation. I cut the question short and gave Vivian some time for herself as it pained me to see her traumatized by her past.
Some time passed and Vivian and I regrouped to continue the interview. Although Vivian’s eyes were swollen due to the sobbing from the previous interview, she came back to the interview with a calmer demeanor. I sympathized with Vivian about her past and asked her about her immigration to America.
“I immigrated to America in 1986. I was 18 years old.” Vivian explained that her family was sponsored by an American soldier who had an affair with Vivian’s aunt, her mother’s sister. “My mother begged her sister if the soldier can sponsor our whole family to immigrate to America. My aunt was a very kind-hearted person and agreed to arrange the sponsorship so that my family would be able to go to America.” I followed up with another question to Vivian asking her about how she felt to finally immigrate to America. “It felt like a dream”, Vivian commented. Vivian began to narrate her emotions while waiting for her flight to America at a Vietnam airport. “I was very nervous as this was the first time I would be on an airplane. Yet, I felt so relieved. Years of pain and suffering on my shoulders were finally being lifted off. I felt lighter and, for the first time in my life, free.”
The once tense atmosphere at the beginning of the interview slowly dissipated. Vivian’s expression became more jovial. “I knew that immigrating to America was my true first step of being happy,” exclaimed Vivian. Vivian had a one-way flight to San Jose, California.
Vivian’s joyful expression brightened the kitchen and the air felt lighter than ever. I was relieved for Vivian. Despite the hardship she faced during her childhood in Vietnam, she still believed she could achieve the happiness she deserved. I continued on with the interview by asking her about assimilating into American culture and society.
“It was very hard to integrate into American culture and society because Vietnamese and American culture are very different,” explained Vivian. Vivian expanded her explanation with an example. “In Vietnam, barely anyone drives a car. Most people drive on scooters or motorcycles because they are cheaper to buy than a car. However, in America, most people drive a car. So, I was shocked to see so many cars in America. I thought everyone was rich in America”
Vivian and I giggled at her funny example. After a few laughs, I asked Vivian if she was discriminated against when she immigrated to America. “Of course! I had my fair share of discrimination. It was very prominent when I attended high school in America.” Vivian explained that the discrimination she faced was primarily due to her ethnicity and language. Although America does not have an official language, the most commonly used language is English. Vivian only knew Vietnamese when she immigrated to America.
“My classmates would yell racial slurs at me, tell me to speak English, and tell me to go back to my country so that I could not spread communism in high school. Embarrassingly, I would smile back at my perpetrators because I did not understand what they were saying.” Vivian showed a guilty expression, knowing her bullies’ true intentions. “It was not all too bad. I found other Vietnamese students like myself who recently immigrated to America and did not know any English. We formed a friend group and did everything together from hanging out to studying and practicing English together. I am still friends with them to this date.”
I asked Vivian how she got her Western name and why she chose Vivian. “My English high school teacher named me Vivian!” exclaimed Vivian. Vivian’s real name is Hang Nguyen. The name Hang is primarily a female name of Vietnamese origin that means Moon. Vivian explained that during her time in high school, some of her classmates taunted her name and used her name in a negative connotation. “Some people would tell me to hang myself. I did not understand what they meant, but I knew they were using my name in a hurtful manner.”
Luckily, Vivian’s English teacher witnessed the constant verbal abuse and decided to step in and act. “My English teacher sat me down and told me she
overheard the harmful words my classmates were shouting at me and apologized for not stepping in to help me. She said that she would help me brainstorm a Western name for me. We went through a list of names and saw Vivian. I really liked the sound of Vivian so I told my English teacher that I wanted my name to be Vivian.” From that day on, Hang Nguyen became Vivian Nguyen.
I asked her how she felt having a Western name. “It felt liberating. I was not sacrificing my Vietnamese traditions and cultures. I still kept my Vietnamese name as my middle name. However, I felt that I was fitting more into American society and norms.” Her remark reminded me of an expression: turning over a new leaf. Vivian was accepting her new life in America by adopting a Western name into her identity.
I asked Vivian if there was anything she had done in America that would have not been possible if she still lived in Vietnam. “When I graduated high school, I attended community college to obtain an associate degree in accounting. I would have not been able to attend any college if I still lived in Vietnam.” Vivian emphasized to me that there were gender norms in Vietnam during her time. The responsibilities of males in Vietnam were to be the head of the house and attend college to pursue higher education to find a suitable, high-paying job for their family. The responsibilities of females in Vietnam were to be housewives. Thus, the highest education they can achieve is a high school diploma as a college education was not necessary for their role in the family hierarchy.
“Although my primary reason to immigrate to America was to escape from my war-torn country, my short time in America and the support I received from my high school friends and teachers made me realize that I can do more and I am able to achieve more.” Vivian smiled while answering. It was a smile that I do not see quite often, despite me knowing her my whole life. It was a smile with zero regrets. Vivian was able to earn an associate degree in accounting at Mission College in Santa Clara, California and became an accountant.
The next question I asked Vivian was if there was a time that she wanted to go back to Vietnam when she immigrated to America. “No, not a single time that I wanted to go back to Vietnam.” I asked her if she missed Vietnam. “Yes, I did miss my country, as many of my relatives and childhood friends were still in Vietnam, but I did not want to go back.”
I pondered about Vivian’s answer and thought about my experiences away from home. I attended UC Davis for my undergraduate studies. UC Davis is roughly 1.5 hours away from San Jose. Although UC Davis was not far from my home, I would occasionally get homesick and go back to San Jose. Based on my experiences, I assumed that Vivian would feel more homesick compared to me and had at least considered going back to her home country while she was living in America.
I asked Vivian to go more in-depth with her answer. She simply responded, “I did leave behind loved ones in Vietnam and I missed them dearly. However, I was a victim of war. I left Vietnam to move forward with my life and leave the pain and suffering that the war has imprinted on me. I immigrated to America for a better life for myself and my family. The place I once called home, is not my home. America is my home now.”
After finishing her response, I realized that Vivian visited Vietnam in the summer of 2020 and stayed there for a month. I asked her how she was convinced to visit Vietnam despite telling me that she had no intentions in visiting and how she viewed Vietnam now compared to when she immigrated. “My sister-in-law convinced me to go visit Vietnam and offered to pay for my plane ticket and hotel in Vietnam during our one month stay. Who would say no to a free vacation?” Vivian and I laughed at the fact that she was bribed to visit Vietnam.
When the laughter ended, Vivian began to recount her adventures in Vietnam. “It was fun and nostalgic. I saw relatives that I have not seen for over twenty years. They asked me about my life in America and whether I was married and had a family. I visited my home village. It became urbanized however and my home was not there anymore. I visited different landmarks and tourist attractions. I had a great time in Vietnam.”
I asked her how much Vietnam has changed since she last left. “Vietnam is more modernized. People use slang more frequently for different things so it is difficult to understand them. But there are still some aspects of it that were still present when I still lived there. For example, there were still more motorcycles than cars on the streets of Vietnam. People still sold produce and food on the streets of Vietnam. You get your fair share of the past and present.” I asked Vivian if she would go back to Vietnam again to visit. “Yes, I would go back, but this time with the whole family.”
The interview has reached its final stage. I asked Vivian one last question before concluding the interview. I asked her what is one important lesson I should gain after learning about her past and stories. “Be resilient,” said Vivian. Vivian explained that although she and I lived in different times, born in different locations, and had different life experiences, our struggles do not differ. “Yes, I struggled throughout my life, but my struggles should not overshadow your struggles too Anthony. You are the oldest son in my family. You have responsibilities that I never had since I was the youngest out of all my siblings.
You want to pursue a Ph.D in biomedical research. If you pursue one, then you will be the first in the family to pursue graduate studies.” Vivian truly believed that both her and I are equal. “You are a reflection of my resilience Anthony,” concluded Vivian.
The interview of his mother and subsequent narrative were done by Anthony Tran, a student at Mission College.