When did your family immigrate to the US and where exactly did they move? What made them come?
In the earlier days of the “Vietnam War” and the rise of communism, my dad fled his home near central Vietnam to Saigon. On April 30, 1975, Saigon fell to the communist and my dad was able to board an overcrowded cargo ship. Traveling without his family, he eventually made it to Camp Pendelton in San Diego. With the help of the Red Cross he was able to connect with the rest of his family and relocate to Los Angeles. My mom fled Vietnam with my grandparents and her 8 brothers and sisters just before the fall of Saigon. They were taken to a refugee camp in the Philippines, where they eventually found a family in Missouri to sponsor the entire family without splitting anyone up. Saving where they could, they bought a beat up Oldsmobile and drove it to California, where a big population of Vietnamese refugees resided, and where my parents would eventually meet.
What is the first language you learned? Do you speak any other languages?
My first language was Vietnamese.
What language do you primarily speak when with your family?
When I was younger, we would only speak Vietnamese to each other. I was going to a catholic school with a big Vietnamese church population, so it was easy to keep it up. I switched schools in the 4th grade to a public school in white suburbia. I was always embarrassed to speak it, and all my friends were white kids so it went unused. My parents English got better and my Vietnamese got worse, so we now just speak in primarily English.
Have you ever visited or been back to your family's native country? If so, how often do you visit and for how long? What is that experience like? Do you have relatives there?
All of my family members were able to make it to America and most of my family have been back. I did a solo backpacking trip from south to north that lasted 3 weeks. My aunt wrote me a letter, which I read at the same port my dad fled Saigon in 1975. One of the things that stuck with me was, "Most of everyone you’re about to interact with wishes they were you and can call America their home. Each one secretly fosters a dream that everything they do will help them get closer to achieving the goal and finding a new home.” I read this after a few days of being there and it kind of shook me.
In my journal dated January 15, 2014 I wrote, “ I feel as if I’m an outsider in a country I should call my home. They stare as if I’m the enemy, stomping on everything they’ve had to rebuild, as I call the country that raped their land my home. I think about who I’d be if my parents never left or if the war never happened. Would I be a shop owner haggling tourists over 10,000 dong, or be an “American War” tour guide in the War Remnants museum, or serving drinks in a hostel to young drunk backpackers on their winter holiday? I try to understand what my parents went through to get us where we are today. The value of money and growing up with very little of it. How selfish I was to always compare the lives of my white friends and always wanting more. The life I live far exceeds what my parents had growing up, and coming here has only made me realize how much they’ve sacrificed throughout their lives for us.”
I spent my time in Vietnam trying to find myself and my roots. I visited the old homes of my parents and cemeteries of my dead relatives. I met strangers from all over the world and traveled with them south to north via sleeper bus and motor bike. I acted as part tour guide/ part translator while exploring landmarks and eating street food. I fell for a girl from Amsterdam and we’d build forts in our hostels and share stories about our lives at home. I spent the last nights of the trip in a quite mountain town just outside of Hanoi.
On January 30th, I wrote “ I don’t think I am coming back with the answers I originally sought after, but rather a new perspective and appreciation for the life I do have. I think about the possibility of my parents never coming to America….I’d like to think I’d sill follow my passions or do something that made me happy everyday and surround myself with people that I admire and love."
Describe your experience growing up in America as someone who is so closely tied to another culture. How did you feel? What things were easy? What did you find difficult?
Things didn’t get weird for me until I moved from private catholic school in Reseda, to a public school in my hometown of Moorpark. The easy part was being a kid and making friends. The hard part was being raised by eastern asian parents trying to raise kids in a western world they knew so little about.
I wanted sandwiches and potato chips like the other kids, but got leftover white rice and some form of meat reeking of fish sauce. I wanted the new gaming system, or fancy guitar that my friends had. I wanted to play music or skateboard, not study and go to church. I I had early curfews and wasn’t allowed to date til I was 18. My version if getting grounded was to watch my sisters get slapped around or kneeling on the carpet and getting one myself. My parents didn’t like having my friends over our house so I found myself spending a lot of time at my friends houses who lived on the block. I wanted to have the families that they had because they felt more nurturing and “normal”. Speaking about your “feelings” at home was unheard of and don’t remember a time where my parents said “I love you”.
It wasn’t until I got older that I realized I took their love for granted and that they took the "show, don’t tell” approach to showing affection. My mom would roam TJ maxx or Marshalls to try and dress me the skate clothes my friends had, my dad would wait in line for Black Friday so that he could afford the Nintendo 64 that I NEEDED to have. They watched me get arrested from their own home, my room being turned upside down by the Moorpark Police Department in search of graffiti paraphernalia. They didn’t once tell me how disappointed they were in me or that they re mortgaged the house to bail me out of jail. They simply picked me up, listened to me cry in shame, and had a fresh bowl of pho waiting for me at home. I’ve fucked up a lot growing up but they’ve always had my back. It wasn’t really until I moved out of the house did I realize the extent of their love or until I returned to Vietnam to get a sense of how much they’ve sacrificed in order to give my sisters and I a better life than they ever had.
What type of food do you eat at home? What are some of your favorite dishes?
My mom or dad would Almost always make Vietnamese food for dinner. We’d sometimes have cheeseburger night from McDonalds when they were selling $29 cheeseburgers on Wednesdays or pizza from Costco when my parents were too tired to cook. My parents would often make a huge pot of pho that would last us a several days, eating it for breakfast and dinner. To this day I never get sick of a good bowl of pho.
Describe your experience making friends as a kid growing up in the UNITED STATES.
Being a latchkey kid in a town with nothing to do, the neighborhood became my playground. We’d make skate videos, film each other jumping into bushes, and play music in our parents garages. Being the token asian dude in each social circle, I found myself trying to separate myself as much as possible from the stereotypical asian. I could care less about good grades and pushed myself further away from the church and Vietnamese community. The music and skate scene became my community and my escape from home. We’d share long car rides with friends searching for skate spots or watching bands play across LA, developing relationships that I still hold dear today.
Do you consider yourself as more of an American or that of your parents' native country?
With the way I grew up and my perspective from visiting Vietnam, I consider myself more American. Although I haven’t and won’t forget my roots, Western culture and influence has had more of an impression on who I am today.
Are you proud to be American?
I am a loud and proud Vietnamese American.
Do you plan to pass along aspects of your parents native culture to your children (if you choose to have them)? What parts of the culture do you want to keep if any? If yes, how important is that to you, and how do you plan on doing so?
I think its beautiful that diversity and culture is being celebrated now more than ever. Its important to know where you come from and how you got where you are today, especially in a land of immigrants. The idea of family and the traditions we share are so important, especially as we get older, and is something ill be passing down to my kids.
Are there aspects of your culture that you don't enjoy, parts that you know you don't want to pass on?
I hated going to church as a kid, and being forced into the idea of religion. My kids can decide for themselves if religion is right for them.
What's one thing you wish people knew about your culture?
How good the food is, DAAAAYMMMN.
Are there any specific thoughts / inspiration behind the way you took your photos and what you took photos of?
I’m really scared to see the photos cause I kind of forgot what I shot. I remember going into it wanting to photograph the idea of cultures mixing, something that I think is very unique about America. Its pretty rad seeing a Mexican family eating a bowl of pho together, or getting tacos catered for my mom’s 60th birthday.