Taking Stock in a 40-Year American Journey
In all honesty, before sitting down to write this blog post, I have never used Asian-Pacific American Heritage month to reflect on my own family’s journey to the United States. Indeed, I often forget that, but for a few days in April and May of 1975, my entire extended family, my sister, and I would have lived very different lives.
That spring, my parents were completing their senior year of college abroad in Tokyo, Japan. They were fortunate in that they were far from the chaos of the waning days of the Vietnam War. While major United States military involvement in Vietnam ended in August of 1973, the war between North and South Vietnam raged on. Throughout the spring of 1975, North Vietnamese forces made rapid advances southward. By the final week of April, the evacuation of Saigon was in full swing. When the dust settled on April 30, 1975, Saigon had fallen to North Vietnamese troops and South Vietnam ceased to exist as a nation.
Several thousand South Vietnamese citizens escaped as part of the overall evacuation of American personnel. My parents’ families and many others, however, were left behind. After the Fall of Saigon, my mother and father became stateless citizens and refugees in a foreign land. Cut off from all communication with their families, my parents, along with a handful of other Vietnamese students studying in Japan, crowded into a college dormitory room to decide what to do next.
The United States and France both offered to take in South Vietnamese refugees. France's colonial and cultural ties to the region appealed to many, particularly since a sizeable community of Vietnamese immigrants had already been established in France. While the United States had always been a symbol of hope and boundless opportunity, the lack of any established Vietnamese community meant that the transition would be all the more difficult. Because of this, anyone moving to the United States would effectively be pioneers in a new world.
As the debate raged on throughout the evening and into the early hours of the morning, my parents decided to take a walk and weigh their options. When they returned to the dorm, they found that the group had dispersed for the night. In that moment, they turned to each other and agreed that they would travel east to the United States. While it was a truly difficult decision, the draw of the American Dream was too important not to take up.
A few months later, my parents found themselves in a stateside refugee camp. They did not speak English and had few remaining possessions to their name. From there, they were placed with a sponsor family in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. There, they found immense support from their American sponsor family who took them in and helped them to learn English, rent their first home, earn their masters degrees, obtain their first jobs, and become United States citizens.
Armed with the tools to thrive, my parents made their way to Dayton, Ohio to work as engineers and establish new lives in their new homeland. All the while, my parents worked tirelessly and secretly to arrange and fund their families' escape from Vietnam. With assistance from my parents, my father's family eventually made the dangerous journey by fishing boat to Thailand. From there, they immigrated to the United States and settled in Memphis, Tennessee. My mother's family arrived several years later as part of a family reunification program and settled with my parents in Dayton, Ohio. In the end, all were thankful to be reunited and to forge a new chapter of family history in the United States.
In the following 40-years, my parents, aunts, and uncles made their living as factory workers, business owners, and professionals. They raised their own families in a blend of culture that respects our Vietnamese heritage while instilling a love in and loyalty to their new homeland. While the journey has not been without its own set of cultural and social hurdles, my family, with the help of strangers turned neighbors and lifelong friends, were able to rise above those challenges to realize their American dreams.
In the coming 40-years, it will be the charge of my younger cousins, sister, and I to build upon this heritage. As I take stock in my family's journey, I look forward to my own.