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Lessons of Intergenerational Trauma

Anger helped raise me. As a child, I felt my dad was always angry. He has propelled into a yelling fit over dirty cups in the kitchen sink, my friends calling the landline to chat with me, and my inexpressive face at the dinner table. Endless and seemingly meaningless things would throw him into a seething episode. I developed an anxiety that everything I did was wrong and that he would find something innocent to explode over.

I never understood why he was so angry and would shut down out of fear, too afraid to ask. In the scattered moments when he was calm and would try to connect with me, I wouldn’t be able to reciprocate because I was accustomed to making myself small around him. As I got older, my anxiety worsened, and I felt a lot of anger towards myself and others. I was quick to self-blame, lash out at my brothers, or withdraw from friends without telling them why I was upset, or that I was even upset at all. I was repeating my dad’s cycle of rage - weaponizing anger without introspection or communication.

Me at 13, anxious and insecure.

During high school, I became involved in a local grassroots organization led by Asian Americans. It opened the door for me to embrace and learn about my first-generation Vietnamese American identity while advocating for social justice. Through learning about the Asian refugee experience, I learned more about my dad than he had let me in on. I started questioning the layers underneath his anger. Maybe he was just facing the typical Vietnamese refugee experience - stressed from working an 80-hour week at the laundromat; suffering from a cultural identity crisis; and grieving his role as the traditional patriarch to rely on his children for basic tasks, such as translating English. Facing these challenges alone without an outlet due to the cultural stigma towards emotional health struggles. Understanding the Vietnamese refugee experience was pivotal in my relationship with my dad; it planted the seed for empathy.

My brain does this trick where it tends to focus on the negatives more than the positives. It’s easier to reflect on the times when my dad was angry. When those memories float into my head, I try to make space for the positives too. There was never a day where he’d send me off to school without a homemade turkey sandwich. After a long day at the laundromat, he would volunteer at my school’s bingo night to help supplement my Catholic-school tuition. We lived in section 8 housing and on food stamps, and I was never left wanting more. Both of my parents worked hard to ensure that my brothers and I had full bellies and access to education. They put us first, which meant that they put themselves second, along with their trauma.

Me at 30 during my first trip to Vietnam

Anger eventually became too heavy of an armor and resentment wore me down; I needed to unlearn its pattern. Within the past 3 years, I’ve found my outlet through therapy, mindfulness, reading, and engaging in other activities that bring me joy. Holding my generational trauma with care has been profound to my emotional and mental wellbeing. Slowly, I’ve been learning to forgive myself and to be kinder to myself. Resiliency helped raise me, too. My hope is for my parents to find the same peace. Until then, my intentions are to honor their experiences, appreciate the lessons they’ve taught me, and to forgive my dad.


Jenn (she/her/hers) is a native of Boston, Massachusetts. She enjoys reading books by Vietnamese authors while curling up with her Pomeranian Milo. She’s a firm believer in mental health, Black Lives Matter, LGBTQIA rights, and wearing a mask in public. Connect with Jen on Instagram @peachy.jenn


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