Navigating The Vietnamese-American
An Open Letter To Our Children
Nguyen Huy Vu is an accomplished journalist with the Seattle Times. He wrote this exclusively for the children of Chao Ban!
When I was growing up in Southern California, I always felt like an outsider in the Vietnamese community. My olive skin, broad nose and almond shaped eyes told everyone I was "from" Vietnam but I spent most of my life inundated in American culture.
Like most of you, I am Viet Kieu, a Vietnamese person born or raised outside of their homeland. I didn't know the language well. I only had a basic understanding of the culture. Asian kids at my high school would make fun of me and call me "banana" or "Twinkie" --- yellow on the outside and white on the inside.
For most of my childhood and teen years I just didn't want to know where I came from. It wasn't until I was in my twenties when I started to ask questions.
My family's journey to the United States, like most Vietnamese immigrants, was a perilous one.
My father drove his wife, his five-year old brother and me - his 2-month-old son - in a military Jeep through sniper fire past the dead bodies of friends and relatives to get to Tan Son Nhut Airport in the waning days of the Vietnam War in April of 1975.
My mother carried me over barbed-wire fences as my father took off in a stolen cargo plane, cramming in as many people as possible, to escape certain execution. We flew to the Philippines and were taken to Camp Pendleton near San Diego to start a new life.
We were among the first wave of Vietnamese immigrants to make it to the United States, but life wasn't always easy.
I remember watching my parents trying to adjust to their new surroundings without being able to speak a lick of English. I remember my dad taking a job in Arlington, Texas killing rats beneath people's homes just to make ends meet.
I remember when my family moved to Southern California in 1979 because the eternal summers reminded my mother of Saigon. I see my parents - too proud to take food stamps and welfare checks - struggling every day to put my brother and me through Catholic school.
America has been good to our family.
Mom owns a successful business in the Little Saigon district in Orange County Calif., the largest enclave of Vietnamese-Americans in the United States. Dad serves as an aid for a local state senator. This country welcomed us, and we have prospered.
For many of you, you don't have the luxury of finding out your family's history and how you came to the United States. I am sure some of you, like my younger brother, aren't interested. For others, like me, it may take years before the questions your parents can't answer well up within you and overflow.
I am still a "Twinkie" and "banana" because I don't speak the language as articulately as I would like, but like all of you that grew up in the U.S., we are changing what it means to be Vietnamese-Americans. For me it means to eventually go back to Vietnam for a year and study the language, inundate myself with my homeland and hopefully answer all the questions my parents couldn't answer.
Today I am a journalist in Seattle working to hopefully return to Orange County to cover the over 150,000 Vietnamese-Americans that live in a 20 square mile area. I work because I want to help my community hopefully move past the scars that generally older Vietnamese-Americans have never been able to let heal.
You don't have to follow in my footsteps, but if you have questions you would like answered, pick a route.