When I was first asked to share my story and what connects me to VietnameseBoatPeople.org, my initial response was, “Well, I don’t really have a story.”
My ethnic background is a mix of European (English, Irish, German, Italian) and Vietnamese. I know what you’re thinking, “Wow! That's a really diverse mix," but as a result of that diversity, I was left feeling like I was not a perfect-fit for any of those ethnic boxes. I don’t look Vietnamese, my grandmother’s maiden name is Saccardi, and my last name is Williams.
So I decided to go on a mission to define who Anna Lee Williams is; how did my story start?
I sat down with my ong ngoai (maternal grandfather) and my mom to discuss their experiences of coming from Vietnam to the United States. I'm not going to lie, the conversation itself was a bit tough. It wasn't just the language barriers, but I was also asking questions about things that had been buried for many years -- memories that had not been shared with me before.
After the Vietnam War had ended, my grandfather talked about burning all of his photos of friends that he had served with. He was scared that the Viet Cong would see those photos and incriminate him or people he knew. My mom recalled that a few of her friend’s parents were locked up or punished by the Viet Cong because they served in the war.
There was genuine fear of retaliation after the war ended and this fear permeated into a food crisis and severe rationing, which are often results of war. My mom described standing in long lines for sweet potatoes, barley, and yuca cassava. Rice and meat were often not an option. To this day, my mother will not eat barley because it reminds her of those times.
Criticism of the government was illegal and that is still a hard reality for me to grapple with. There I was, sitting with my ong ngoai and mom listening to their stories of fear and suppression, and as a born and raised American, we often take the importance of freedom of speech for granted.
Before the war, ong ngoai was in school studying to be an attorney. It made me realize that his interest in politics and understanding of the world has passed down to me. Today, I am studying political science and anthropology and lead the Association of International Relations organization at Rutgers University, Newark New Jersey.
My mom left Vietnam at the age of seventeen. When she arrived in the States, it was winter. She had never seen snow before and had disembarked the plane in flip-flops and shorts. Even though she was a senior in high school when she left Vietnam, in the States she had to enrolled as a freshman, not knowing a stitch of English. My mom is my inspiration and is constantly guiding me to strive for more. This a photo of mom (on the right) and my grandparents and uncle in 1980.
Fast forward 28 years, my grandparents have four grandchildren and hundreds of photos of us to share. Though this initial conversation allowed me to uncover bits and pieces of their past, it has opened the door for me wanting to learn more. It has also encouraged me to improve my Vietnamese to better connect with my grandparents. The picture below is of me, my parents and little brother.
A personal goal of mine is to better understand others, connect with different groups, and have an impact on people’s lives -- that is why being a part of VietnameseBoatPeople.org has been so influential. When I first heard of VBP, I felt like it was the perfect community for me. It is an organization where I can embrace my heritage and the mission of giving back. I’ve had the opportunity to listen to other people’s stories (some which are similar to those of my family), connect with the Vietnamese culture, and work with fellow students all around the world. I may look ethnically ambiguous, but my heart and my history are in the right place and this is just the beginning of my story.