I have always admired how my uncle, Cậu Tiến, balances American and Vietnamese cultures. His ability to bridge backgrounds often makes him our family’s representative at important occasions—engagements, weddings, holidays, etc.
Below is an aggregation of email exchanges between him and I, where we discussed his childhood memories of war, his family’s journey to America, and his perspective on balancing cultures. Enjoy!
[Edited for grammar and brevity]
// Identifying as a refugee
When a person asks me how and why I came to the US, I always say I'm a Vietnamese refugee. The author, Viet Thanh Nguyen, explains it best:
"I was once a refugee, although no one would mistake me for being a refugee now. Because of this, I insist on being called a refugee, since the temptation to pretend that I am not a refugee is strong. It would be so much easier to call myself an immigrant, to pass myself off as belonging to a category of migratory humanity that is less controversial, less demanding, and less threatening than the refugee." -Viet Thanh Nguyen
// Childhood memories of war
I was a young boy during the “Tết Offensive” in 1968—it was the first time I saw so many casualties from the war.
On the night of the attacks, communist soldiers shot their mortars from in front of our house. After every round, the sand kicked up and ran down our metal roof. Thank God the South Vietnamese Army refrained from returning fire, because we civilians were being used as human shields.
The war was too close for my parents’ comfort, so the next morning, we left that village for the city. This was the second time my parents became refugees in their own country. The first time was in 1954, when the country was divided, and they left North Vietnam.
In 1972, we were sheltered from the “Summer of Fire,” when communists made a concerted attack everywhere. As I sat in my classroom, I heard bomb explosions in the distance.
I thought to myself, “a few more years and I will be out there fighting. I was born in this war, I will fight in it, and I will end up dying in it.”
// Leaving Vietnam with no money
As the communists advanced southward, my parents planned their final escape, and we made our way to sea. When South Vietnam collapsed, we were on one of several naval ships leaving the country.
I remember one of the other naval ships headed back to Vietnam with sailors looking for their families. As our ships were about to part ways, my dad threw a suitcase filled with money to the other sailors. All that money—it took him a lifetime to accumulate—but he said they needed it more than us.
Resettling in America was the third time my parents started from nothing. They were grateful for this country and the freedom it provides. Nothing was too big or too small or beneath them. They did anything to provide us a better life, and sacrificed their own ambitions for our education.
My dad had the chance to open a shop in Orange County, California. He knew that if he opened any business, he would need his kids to help him due to the language barrier. So, he passed on the opportunity. He told us that it was more important that all of his children focus on school. He could have been a millionaire many times over, but to him, money was not the most important thing in life.
He often said, “Being rich is nothing more than keeping wealth for the poor. Share it with the poor, it is not yours.”
// Balancing cultures
I have always believed America is our country. I don't think it is right for me or my kids to forgo what this country has to offer by only engaging in the Vietnamese community. We have to be the best at everything this country has to offer in order to be competitive and successful.
For me, I have lived in America lifetimes longer than I lived in Vietnam. We have been here for over 43 years, and our family has integrated fully in American culture. Our children have volunteered to defend this country and we contribute greatly to the U.S. economy and society.
Truthfully, Vietnamese heritage will further dilute with each generation. It is a personal choice if and how you want to maintain your roots—some of us feel strongly about it and some do not.
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.