Perhaps my absolute favorite class to attend in college was a course on the Vietnam War by the renowned historian Thomas Schwartz. Taught by a professor whose intelligence, passion, and ethos I aspire to emulate, this class was another stepping stone in my pursuit for a deeper connection with my Vietnamese roots — with my Vietnamese father.
Born in the central province of Phú Yên, Papa grew up as the eldest of eight children in the Vietnamese countryside. His height of five feet, two inches explains his relationship with his large yet tight family: as he scavenged for food for his younger siblings, he was often times left with very little to feed himself. Having toiled through the brutal ending of the Vietnam War and the repressive start of the totalitarian regime, he took advantage of the scarce opportunities available for him and his family to exploit. After seventeen incredibly exhausting years, Vietnam, he thought, has only given him sorrow, despair, and an unending sense of hopelessness. He chose to seek refuge elsewhere.
I personally don’t know too much about Papa’s story leading up to his journey in the boat. I can only infer that he would rather leave those episodes of pain in the past. The bulk of the story he’s narrated to me begins with his arrival, alone without his family, in his new home in the Philippines, in the island of Palawan. For years, he’d always tell me, his main mode of communication was through pointing, nodding, and smiling. The adversities he faced in Vietnam were no different in gravity than the ones he now confronted in the Philippines. But the biggest difference he felt was in his perception of being “free”. In the Philippines, he felt that he could realize his capacity to rise through the ranks of society’s socioeconomic pyramid; the suffering, then, was only temporary in his eyes.
Papa’s target destination was always the United States, but he had no control over everything in between. He did not anticipate spending the next seventeen years in the Philippines — he certainly did not anticipate starting a family in his adoptive homeland. After having me and my younger brother two years apart, he took another leap and decided to reach his original goal of restarting his life in America. When the opportunity to resettle finally landed on his hands, he accepted it. It was a truly difficult decision; resettlement only applied to him, the refugee. As a three-year-old, I still remember seeing him walk up the steps into the plane at Tagbilaran Airport in our home island of Bohol, not knowing it would be years and years until I’d be able to hug him again.
With Papa having immigrated to the United States, I was essentially stripped of the only source of connection I had with my Vietnamese heritage. Everything and everyone around me was Filipino — there’s a reason why I am fully fluent in two Filipino languages, but am unable to even order phở and bánh xèo at a Vietnamese restaurant. When I reunited with Papa seven years later, my cultural experience saw a paradigm shift: almost overnight, I went from seeing signs in my native Cebuano language to seeing signs in Vietnamese, as I and the rest of my family settled into our new home in Little Saigon in Orange County, California. For years, I felt illiterate — from cuisine to mannerisms, I was far removed from being immersively Vietnamese. In technical terms, I am Vietnamese, but in more abstract definitions, I lacked the necessary attachment needed to truly say I am Vietnamese.
I have since been on an ongoing pursuit of a sincere connection with my Vietnamese heritage. I’ve led Vietnamese-American organizations, assisted in running the largest Tết festival outside of Vietnam, and engaged in meaningful dialogues with Vietnamese people of different generations and ideologies. As I ventured into college and into Nashville, Tennessee, I stumbled across a class at my university regarding Vietnam — the Vietnam War to be specific. I’d attend office hours with Professor Schwartz as much as possible, as I aimed to not only learn more about a culture and history I’ve once been dissociated with, but also share my own personal story regarding the topic. When the opportunity arose for me to craft a research paper in that class, my mind immediately gravitated towards Vietnamese boat people. It was a topic I knew everything about and nothing about at the same time. I heard so much from Papa and his fellow boat people family, yet was unable to synthesize what I’ve gathered from them. The hours and days and weeks that I dedicated to the topic were perhaps the most worthwhile times I have ever spent.
I was fortunate enough to have it named as the best paper in US history for the 2021-2022 academic year at Vanderbilt University. Although I appreciate such a prestigious accolade, what I was truly rewarded as a result of my paper was what I can proudly claim as my first experience in being immersively Vietnamese. For so long, I have always been ashamed of my absence in that realm. As I move forward with my young, young life, my drive to become immersively Vietnamese is only growing by the day.
I would not be where I am today, with a surplus of opportunities to attain, if it wasn't for Papa and his insanely courageous heart. He gambled his existence at a chance for a better life for not only himself, but for the family he always wanted to cherish his time with. Thus, I can attribute the uniqueness of my existence, identity, and story to Papa — a proud Vietnamese boat person.
An aspiring lawyer for the impoverished, the immigrant, and the environment, Jan Niño Nguyen is an undergraduate student at Vanderbilt University studying Economics and History and Cognitive Studies. He calls Little Saigon in Orange County, California his beloved home. You can follow him at @jaaaaaaan_nin on Instagram to see how much he loves the beach and his đẹp gái girlfriend!