I met Kelly at a workshop where I was a guest speaker, and we recently shared stories over a video call.
Kelly talked about her family’s beginnings in America and how she has connected with her Vietnamese roots at church, college, and in the community. Enjoy!
// Family Background
My dad escaped Vietnam in 1985 when he was seventeen years old. He made it to Malaysia and stayed in two different refugee camps for nine and a half months. He finally made it to America in February 1986 at the age of eighteen, and lived with his uncle in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Before that, my parents both lived in the village of Ngọc Hà. My dad’s sister introduced him to my mom when he came back to visit. My mom didn't move here until September 1996. My parents wrote love letters to each other, and my dad brought my mom over when they got married. Two years after that, they had me.
My parents bought their first house when I was born. My mom told me it was really tough to support our family. My dad worked at a Chinese restaurant and at nail salons. My mom did nails, too, and she also worked as a tailor doing alterations—she still fixes my áo dài’s.
// Connecting with Vietnamese roots
Growing up, I went to a Vietnamese Catholic Church and I joined the Vietnamese Youth Eucharistic Movement (Thiếu Nhi). Because of that, I have always felt connected to my Vietnamese identity.
As a kid, I was surrounded by American culture six out of seven days in the week—but every Sunday, I was back in touch with my Vietnamese roots. At church, I was around Vietnamese people, I ate our street foods after mass, and I took classes to learn how to read and write in Vietnamese.
Thiếu Nhi is a nationwide Christian youth group that teaches kids to be a better version of themselves, how to be better Catholics, and spreads the word of the Lord. We wear uniforms—white button-down shirts and a different color scarf depending on your age group (green, blue, yellow, brown, and red).
Last year during Spring Break, I went to Florida and trained to become a huynh trưởng (red scarf). I was promoted to youth leader last Thanksgiving, so now I am able to teach the younger kids.
Outside of the youth group, I am currently the president of the Vietnamese Students Association at UNC Charlotte, and this year, I was also crowned Miss Vietnam of the Carolinas. It's an honor to celebrate Vietnamese culture and to represent Vietnamese women.
When I have my own family, I want them to be fluent in Vietnamese. I'll try not to speak English at home and I'll put my kids in classes to learn how to read and write in Vietnamese. I want my kids to speak with their grandparents in their mother tongue.
I don't want us to lose our native language.
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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.