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Reconnecting With My Heritage

I am a first generation Vietnamese American. My parents both fled Vietnam by boat after the war in 1980. Other relatives fled during the war. It's taken me a long time to really “hear” about my parents' and my extended family's experience with the war. My parents were born in the mid-50s, so much of their formative years was the war. Pieces of information came out slowly, but surely as I got older. I know that my parents escaped on a boat which they took to the Philippines before coming to Virginia, and that it took more than one attempt for them to escape the country. I always found that my family was more focused on the present and the future than reliving the past. They were always forward thinking. Even to this day, they stay focused on what they can do today to make tomorrow a better day. I always admired that and try to live that way as well.

Over the years I learned that my grandmother fled Vietnam during the war with several of her children, but without my mother. I think it took tremendous bravery on my grandmother's behalf to take that kind of risk. One thing I always was aware of and noticed was the incredible amount of respect my aunts and uncles have for my grandmother. She never really picked up the English language, and worked for decades in the United States as a cook. Some of my earliest memories are being in the kitchen of a Vietnamese restaurant in Alexandria, where my grandmother worked and my father was a server, one of his many part time jobs while he put himself through community college and learned English.

Until I was around 6 years old my family and four other families (consisting of my mom's brothers and sisters and their spouses and children) lived under one roof. Each family had just one bedroom for themselves and we shared the rest of the common areas of the house. My dad worked rough hours at a 7-11 while working his way through community college and specializing in IT, and has worked as a contractor for the Navy two decades now. My mother went to beauty school, and works long hours every day still. It's not her dream job (adorably, being a school bus driver is), but it paid her well and she enjoys being able to make people happy and likes the company of her customers.

Photo of me, my sister and parents

This is a photo of me, my sister and my parents.

Fast forward to today, my parents are living the American dream, complete with a white picket fence and SUV with three rows of seats. They have two children who are thriving, one who became an attorney and another with plans for veterinary school. In the past few years my parents have become much more open about sharing their life experiences and that coincides very fortuitously with my involvement with Vietnamese Boat People.

What I’ve been particularly interested in over the past few years is observing how later generations of Vietnamese-Americans balance keeping our Vietnamese heritage and culture. I see that there's sometimes more value put on fitting in rather than embracing the unique and amazing things about our heritage, only to scramble to reconnect later in life.

I found myself in that scramble. I never felt “Vietnamese” enough. I would say for much of my life I was also guilty of “wanting to fit in”. In the past few years, I began to reconnect with my heritage seemingly by a beautiful chance, and it all started in a music studio.

I would say the first love of my life was hip hop music. I shunned my parents’ “Paris By Night” cassettes in exchange for Gang Starr and A Tribe Called Quest CDs that I hoarded like they were made of gold. Fast forward to the year 2015 and in my spare time I was an up and coming hip hop producer in Norfolk, VA. I was doing paid shows regularly, putting on community events, and even had a studio that I worked out of downtown.

As part of my fascination with hip hop culture, I began collecting oral histories for my alma mater, the College of William and Mary, for their special collection that focused on Virginia hip hop history. One of my interviews was with Shon “Sparx” Parker, a member of an underground legendary hip hop group called the Jhunnipuz. Shon and I connected after being fans of each other’s work. He told me about how becoming involved with the temple changed his life in many ways, and I asked if I could join him for one of the services. With that I began a very transformative part of my life.

Growing up, going to temple was something that was reserved for special occasions and there was not much explanation given to me by my parents of what exactly we were doing at temple. I was instructed to bow in front of statues, light incense and sit through long services of chanting where I wasn’t expected to participate and felt completely lost. Still, I always knew that it was important and appreciated the sense of community that the temple brought to my family, even if I was not knowledgeable about the practice of Buddhism itself. Over time my connection to the temple became more disparate, especially after moving away from home.

When I first stepped foot back in a temple five years ago in Virginia Beach, it felt like a homecoming of sorts. In Norfolk and Virginia Beach there is not a very large Vietnamese community, and seeing the faces of the monks was something that transported me back home. All the customs that seemed foreign to me as a child were now things that I learned to understand. I learned the power of reflection and meditation, through the guidance of my monks and sangha members.

One thing I noticed was a lack of people my age who were actively involved with the temple. I came to learn that this was a struggle not only for my temple but also for temples across the country. They are struggling to stay viable, and many have to close down because my generation is not connected and carrying the torch to keep them afloat. It’s unfortunate, but also a natural consequence of the freedom that we have to be who we want to be. Learning about this definitely inspired me to want to pay it forward and do what I could to support temples.

Last year an opportunity presented itself at my workplace, WHRO. There was a community engagement initiative around the Ken Burns documentary “The Vietnam War” and I was tasked to help come up with how we could engage the community around the documentary. One thing I’ve always wanted to do was to connect Vietnam Veterans with members of the Vietnamese-American community. Often times the stories are told independent of each other and there is not much of an opportunity to connect both sides which converge here in America. I saw this as a chance to merge our mission to tell stories with the temple’s mission of connecting people through understanding and compassion.

This led to the development of two programs. The first was a storytelling program through a partnership with The Telling Project, we were able to share live monologues of four individuals whose lives have been shaped by the war. Telling their stories were two Vietnam Veterans, one a former P.O.W., a South Vietnamese Air Force Veteran, and myself, a first generation Vietnamese.

The second was an event that brought together local Vietnam veterans with members of the Vietnamese community for a day of sharing. Led by Buddhist monk, Thich Chuc Thanh. Both events were powerful because of the willingness of the participants to be vulnerable and share their stories that came from their experiences in Vietnam.

Me with some monks and the community engagement award.

This is me with some monks and a community engagement award that we received.

Since then, I've been inspired to learn more about my own family. I’ve gotten a DNA test done with MyHeritage, and put together my family tree for the first time. And to think, it all started with a chance encounter at a music studio, then my reconnection to Buddhism and now involvement with Vietnamese Boat People. I hope that my post encourages others to see that you never know what will lead you to learning more about yourself and that it is never too late to do so.


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