What circumstances led you to leave Vietnam?
Duc (name changed) was 19 when his aunt was able to sponsor him to America. However, Tim grew up very privileged. Both of his parents were professors and his father even left his teaching job to become the president of a bank. Oncethe Vietnam War occurred, Duc’s family did their best to keep their family together with the money they had and they didn’t escape on a boat like many other Vietnamese immigrants in the Bay Area did at the time. When the war was over, Duc’s family spent ten years trying to rebuild their lives for themselves until they’d exhausted their options.
Duc: “My immediate family and I got sponsored by our aunt to head over to the United States. There was less of an emphasis on family roles and family time. We had to all work and pitch in to make ends meet. Since I was already the oldest, I moved out on my own to start my own journey.”
Say more about changes in your family dynamics after immigrating – especially with most of you being young and growing up with American values.
Duc: “Well growing up (in Vietnam) my grandma would walk us all to school. We lived in a big house, moved around a lot, and we spent a lot of family time. We would often go fishing and get lectures from both of our parents as their jobs were to lecture children for 8 hours a day. Our lectures all revolved around the idea of learning and taking life experiences as a lesson. When moving to America, we didn’t have the same quantity of people in our family, we lost a lot of our elders. Not to mention once we moved to the United States, there was a new kind of stress. Our parents were too stressed to talk to us or make time for those life lessons.
My siblings grew older and we got into a lot of fights because of the stress put upon us that some of us don’t talk (to each other) anymore. Americans care more about individualism and that’s why some of my sisters don’t talk to me anymore, however, I still would do anything for them because that’s what I was taught. Growing up in America did make me more open-minded and understand how my sisters and my daughter have grown but I would prefer my methods of thinking that I’ve learned from Buddhism.”
With that being said, which one of your values shifted the most?
“The idea of the perfect family. Living with many other immigrants in the same shoes as me and Americans even validating my experience as a single, older, poorer man, that I don’t need a wife or to live with my daughter. Yes, I long to have a wife to wake up next to and a daughter that I can be psychically there for, but I learned that those things no longer define me as a man or a father. Not everyone is going to agree with me and many people will feel pity for me, but that’s the best I can do and I’m lucky I don’t have societal pressures pushing me into the ‘traditional lifestyle.’ I am lucky.”
That requires unlearning a lot of values that were taught to you, especially if they’ve emphasized that’s the only lifestyle. What was your biggest motivator to continue going when you were away from your family?
“When I first moved out, it was to fulfill my role as the eldest son which was to take care of everybody. I thought that if I came back stronger, then I would earn respect and take care of my family. I didn’t care if my family thought otherwise, I wanted to still be there for them. But after having my daughter, it was truly all for her. From moving back to the Bay Area where I can’t afford rent and unlearning those values to understand her. She was indeed my biggest motivator and after she graduates, I will put more focus onto my family and bringing my dad into retirement in Vietnam.”
Duc: “Do you know the last time I was back in Vietnam? 17 years ago, and I only went because my ex-wife forced me to go visit her family.”
Why so long?
Duc: “I just don’t like Vietnam. Maybe it’s because of what I associate it with…… I’m lucky to be here, many people there want to be in my shoes.”
So I’m assuming you think your family is better off here?
“I think my family is better off here, my nieces and nephews are smart and thriving. My sisters and brothers are doctors. The opportunities here are endless for them. As for me and my father, it’s harder for us because we came here older. I think my father is better off in Vietnam now that we have the money. I’m better off here because I worked hard to be an American.”
(Author’s note: Duc lives in a small room where his landlord adds walls everywhere to make as much profit as possible. Especially living in a pandemic, Duc lives with 10 people and they even have a daycare center in the daytime. His living situation makes it hard for him to cook and even relax. He’s also found it hard for him to have access to healthcare. (Working many different day-jobs) Duc is vulnerable to exploitation.)
It can be annoying to prove to people we’re American huh?”
Duc: “I have plenty of stories.”
What were your biggest concerns when coming to America and what resources did you have to overcome those concerns?
“English was the biggest concern. I was lucky because, in San Jose, there were a lot of Vietnamese immigrants that came before me because I came here around 1984 while many came during the Vietnam War. In San Jose, there were a bunch of Vietnamese people who were also struggling to make ends meet but that’s what made it a beautiful community to me. It was a familiar community that was kind to me because we understood each other.
Actually, my closest friend growing up took me in with his family till I could get back on my feet. So English was not a rush for me because it wasn’t necessary for me to learn. I didn’t need an education because I got a job at a factory that made pretty good money. I know nowadays you need an education, which is hard because I got laid off in 2008. After 2008, I was a stay-at-home dad and after my divorce in 2012, I had a hard time finding a job.
Getting an education is hard because I have to work my butt off to make ends meet but not only that but I was working as a garden cutter. It was long hours and it took a toll on my physical health. I have a bad leg and it’s been bad for years because I started my gardening job when I was overweight. I don’t have the time to go get my leg checked out and even if I did get the surgery needed, I have no room to rest and I have no one to take care of me. The bills would still be rolling in. School is hard because time is limited, it’s expensive, and I’m not very bright.”
I’m sorry you have to go through that, it sounds like a nasty cycle. So I understand you want to go into architecture right?
Duc: “Yes, I’ve always had that passion. I have a few very outdated skills and certificates but nothing to help me actually get a job in that field. I am in my 50s and time is not on my side nor is my health. When working, I feel really disrespected sometimes because people can be mean to me, especially my bosses. It feels really easy to attack the older man who can’t speak much English.
Competing with younger guys with more education than me is difficult. Even if I got my degree, I’m not sure if I would fit in with the field or if I can even land a position. Yes, Silicon Valley has opportunities but they are out of reach for me.”
If you could travel back in time and meet the old you, who is about to start their journey to America for the first time, what would you tell yourself?
“I would tell myself to not take everything so seriously. By taking everything seriously, I had a really bad temper and pushed a lot of people away from me. I would take back the things I’ve said and done. I would also make time to go back to Vietnam. Yes, I love America so much more. I understand that Vietnam is now changing and I want to appreciate my culture more and for what it is now. The younger generation is definitely a lot more smart and playful than mine.”
(Author reflection: I now have a greater appreciation for immigrants and my family. Now that I am entering out of my teen angst phase, I want to appreciate what I have for the people that helped me to get to where I am.)
The interview and narrative were done by Duc’s niece.