I was introduced to Kavi’s poetry through a friend (thanks Paulina!), and we got a chance to have a conversation in Atlanta.
Kavi told me stories of how her family was separated while leaving Vietnam and their reunion in America, her life on their chicken farm in southern Georgia, and her passions in activism and spoken word. We are so honored to share her stories. Enjoy!
// Coming to America
My parents tried to leave Vietnam when they only had one young daughter—my dad almost drowned and my sister almost died. Then in 1988, they had another opportunity to leave with my aunts and uncles, but they stayed because my mom was pregnant at the time. Instead, they sent their two daughters to leave with my aunts and uncles. My sisters were four and six years old.
They island-hopped on small, dinky boats and ended up in Palau Bidong, Malaysia. They stayed there for six months. My sister told me little things she remembered from that time, like being given number-two pencils and being allotted one bucket of water per person per day. Even though she was young, she got a bucket, and it added to the family water supply.
They finally arrived in Orlando, Florida. My great-aunt and -uncle were already in America and sponsored them. But after some years, my mom thought that she had lost her two daughters, so she had two more children—me and my brother—and that's why we have such a big family.
When my parents, my brothers, and I were able to fly to America to be reunited, a photojournalist from the Orlando Sentinel was there to document everything for us. I found the article in the news archives. One of the photos was at the immigration center, and in the background, it says, “Welcome to your new country.” When I saw that picture, it gave me chills.
// Writing Contest
I entered an essay contest at school, and my prompt was “What makes the U.S. great?”. I wrote about my family’s experiences and about “being free.”
I remember bringing it to school and my teacher changing what I wrote—it felt like she was taking out things that she felt were “too foreign.” At the time, I liked her edits because I thought “well, she’s a white lady...she knows what it means to be American.” But when I look back on that experience, she was wrong.
Now that I have the language down, I rewrote the whole essay. This is the essay I wanted to write in the third grade.
// Early days in America
I came to America when I was two years old, so I don't remember Vietnam at all. My first memories were of the government projects in Orlando.
I remember on Saturday mornings we would line up for free breakfast. My parents said, “It's free. Go get it.” We got picked on a lot because we were Asian. The other kids would steal juice from me and my siblings. Our parents came with us to get breakfast once, and asked us why we never grabbed any juice. But we did...the other kids just stole it every Saturday.
My parents tried a lot of different jobs—like making hamburgers or housekeeping at hotels—but in those jobs, if you don't understand English, it's so much harder. But in the nail industry, because there are so many Vietnamese people, you don't need to know English. We got into the nail business through church. My parents saved up enough money to buy their own nail salon.
Then, we left the projects when I was in third grade.
// Chicken farming in Georgia
My aunt found out about the chicken industry and she thought it would be similar to our lives in Vietnam as coffee farmers. When you're a farmer, you work really hard, but you are your own boss. You set your own schedule. My parents wanted a simple life.
So, we moved to the middle-of-nowhere Georgia when I was ten. Our family got a chicken farm with six houses. Each house was as big as a football field and held 30,000 chickens. We all worked on the farm, except my sisters who were already in college.
My dad cared for these chickens day in and day out. He got to the point where he could walk in, feel the air, look at the chickens, and know what they needed. He’d say, “the water needs to be raised” or “the window needs to be opened two centimeters.”
I think my fondest memories on the chicken farm were after disasters, because that’s when our family really bonded.
One time there was a bad storm, and my dad woke us up to check on the farm. There always has to be electricity because chickens need ventilation and little chicks need a lot of heat. On that night, the power went out and the generator didn't kick on. Usually when you walk into a chicken house, the chickens are lively and drinking and eating. But when my dad opened the door...it was silent.
I could feel my dad’s heart break. 60,000 chickens died—not just in one house, but two houses.
It was ten o’clock at night. We called over our uncles and our neighbors to help us bury the chickens. We all just started grabbing chickens and throwing them on the tractor. By 3am, we weren’t even halfway through one of the houses. Still, no one went home, no one felt like they were too good. I remember there was this moment when my dad looked up and was like, “No matter what, we are going to be okay. We are all here. We are a family.”
From the farm, I went to college, joined the Vietnamese Students Association (VSA), made Vietnamese friends from across the nation, and started performing spoken word. Before I knew it, I graduated and I had all these Asian friends. It was the opposite of my life on the chicken farm—I had no Asian friends back then.
Then one day, a lawyer reached out to me and said, “I want to get the Vietnamese community to be active and vote. Can you help?” At that time, I wasn’t doing any activism, no voting, none of that, but I was volunteering a lot in the Vietnamese community. I agreed and we received a grant to fund a series of videos to help the community learn the basics.
In Atlanta’s 2016 election, there were 6,000 Asian Americans registered to vote, but only 200 voted. That’s only a 3% voter turnout—for context, the national average is closer to 40%—so we were trying to get that 200 number to increase. After our first series of videos, Atlanta went from 3% to 20% in voter turnout among Asian Americans.
Our first season was focused on Atlanta, and our second season focused on Georgia, which was better because we were reaching all these out-of-town Asians. The voter turnout went from 22% to 44%. We definitely can’t take credit for everything, but I like to think we did something.
Next season, we want to focus on Census. It’s coming up in April 2020. Census is so important because Asian Americans are always undercounted. It’s going to be a big battle.
// Photojournalism and Spoken Word
Years after we came to America, I sent a thank you note to the photojournalist who took the pictures of our family's reunion. Her article was less than 500 words, but I learned so much about my family’s history. And because of her, we have pictures of my sisters and parents learning English and us waiting for our green cards at the immigration office.
It was just a regular day at work for her, but I wanted her to know that her career changed our lives.
It wasn’t a coincidence that I studied journalism in college. In one of my classes, we watched Def Jam Poetry, and after that, I thought I was a rapper. My first piece was a letter to my mom, telling her that I’m not doing pre-med at all. I thought it was just this regular piece, but when I posted it on Facebook, so many people resonated with it. From there, my friend submitted it to a spoken word contest, and my performance career began.
A lot of my pieces are about my mom and her struggle and her resilience. I think it’s about identity and figuring out this weird double life that I feel like we all live.
I want my children and grandchildren to retain our resilience and resourcefulness. I think Vietnamese people—because of the shit we’ve been through—we have really grown from mud, like a lotus.
I want the next generations to remember that we are well-equipped to make beautiful lives with what we’ve got. And of course, always remember the finger-measuring method to make rice.
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Do you have an experience you would like to contribute? We would be honored to hear it—send your stories to firstname.lastname@example.org.