My story and why REFUGENE exists

Hand of Hope statue in Camp Pendleton, California. 

Hi, my name is Jimmy and I am a Vietnamese American who was born and raised in North Carolina. I started printing REFUGENE shirts to connect with my heritage.

As a father and as a minority, I worry our cultural identity will fade with each generation. The REFUGENE project exists to keep our heritage from disappearing. Everything we make and do will connect us—and our posterity—to our cultural roots.

My parents were refugees, and their story is like that of many other Vietnamese people: they survived war, left everything behind to escape, and worked tirelessly for better lives in America. I coined the term ‘REFUGENE’ to describe their extraordinary resilience.

When I wear a REFUGENE shirt, I am reminded to seize the opportunities that were made possible by my parents’ sacrifice and perseverance. As a second-generation American, I have the opportunity—and duty—to make our heritage accessible to future generations. I am doing just that through the REFUGENE project.

Years ago, I wrote ‘The REFUGENE Manifesto’ as my interpretation of what it takes to be successful, and I kept it in my wallet as a personal reminder. You can read it here. My parents’ hardships put my own struggles into perspective, and it pushed me to work harder at my job and in my life. After writing the Manifesto, I came to realize how little I knew about my parents’ actual experience as refugees.

  • When did my parents escape Vietnam?
  • What were the details of their journey?
  • What was it like at the refugee camp in Arkansas?
  • How did they first earn a living in America? 
  • How did our family end up in Charlotte, North Carolina? 
  • What are the biggest differences between Vietnamese and American cultures?
  • What should never be forgotten about Vietnamese heritage? 
  • Have they balanced Vietnamese and American cultures in themselves? Have I? Have others?

    So I set out on a journey to find some answers. I have recorded hours of conversation with my parents, and obsessively Google’d Vietnamese history. I’ve talked with family, friends, and others in the community to better understand the plight of displaced people. I reconnected with my parents’ sponsoring family—from whom I got the name ‘Jimmy’—after losing touch over time. I received clearance to visit Camp Pendleton—one of four refugee camps that America organized in 1975—where I tried to comprehend the daunting responsibility of beginning again.

    My biggest fear now is that I might forget what I have learned about our culture, so I wear REFUGENE shirts to remember. My designs are inspired by cultural references and stories from the diaspora. For example, one of my first designs was the Tael of Tales. The aesthetic is inspired by gold bars I received as an engagement gift from my mother.

    Here is the story of this heirloom:

    Before my mom's family escaped Vietnam, my grandfather used his life’s savings to buy gold bars (a.k.a. taels). When they reached the coast to leave by boat, my grandfather gave each child those taels, and he quietly explained to them the risk of their escape. “There’s a chance we’ll be separated and never see each other again. If that happens...use this gold to make a life where ever you end up.”

    Every time I wear the Tael of Tales shirt, I'm reminded where I came from. In 1975, my family ended up in America, but over four million Vietnamese people live outside Vietnam. What are their tales? I envision becoming home for our stories, and I see our shirts as artifacts of our diaspora.

    Making shirts is part of who I am. I’ll put it this way—if I could sing, I would perform. If I could cook, I would feed. But I love printing shirts, so I will clothe. As a kid, I noticed a lot of brands at my parents’ dry cleaners while I played hide-and-seek in the clothing conveyors. In middle school, I used iron-on letters to personalize my hand-me-down shirts, and in college, I taught myself how to screen print. My first job out of graduate school was at a big sportswear company, where I learned the nuts-and-bolts of the apparel industry and where I witnessed a brand's power to unite a community.

    I envision the REFUGENE project bringing people together under the common goal of preserving our cultural identity. As a descendant of refugees, I see myself as heir to our heritage, responsible for passing on our stories. Sometimes, I imagine my great-great-grandkids will wear REFUGENE to feel a sense of connection to our cultural identity. I would be fortunate if this project were to outlive me.  

    Nowadays, I feel a sense of urgency to act because time is against us. The Vietnam War ended over forty years ago, and the window of opportunity to document stories from refugees is narrowing every day. In Vietnamese, we say “việc hôm nay chớ để ngày mai,” which means, “don’t leave for tomorrow what you can do today.” The sad truth is, my grandparents passed away before I had the idea to ask them about their journey to America, and that regret motivates me. It pushes me to share more stories, and to encourage others in our generation to ask their elders about the defining moments in their lives.

    If you are still reading this, then you probably feel the urge to preserve our heritage too. It's a big mission, but I'll end with a story that my dad told me. 

    A traveller comes upon three bricklayers and asks the first worker what he's doing. The first worker says, "Can't you see? I'm laying bricks."

    Then, the traveller asks the second bricklayer the same question, and the bricklayer responds, "Can't you see? I'm putting up a wall."

    Finally, the traveller asks the third worker what he's doing, and the bricklayer stands with arms wide open and says, "Can't you see? We're building a cathedral!"

    Let's build.