Born a second-generation Vietnamese-American, my life path was laid out for me before I could even walk. Not wanting me to suffer as they did, my parents subtly but consistently reminded me to work towards a good, respectable, high-earning job, towards what they believed to be a happy life.
My father, Mr. Hoang (Joseph) Nguyen fled Vietnam at the age of 19 in a small fishing boat and settled in the United States as a refugee in Honolulu, Hawaii. With a new name, surrounded by a new language, and thrown into a new culture, he tried hard to fit in, go to college, work, and provide a decent living for our family. My father’s greatest regret was not finishing his Electrical Engineering degree, and I guess that idea subconsciously stuck with me as I got older. My family survived on my father’s sole income as a taxi driver. He was always on call and had to drive
odd hours of the day to earn a living.
My mom did occasional babysitting jobs and took care of me and my two elder brothers at home. With our family’s growing needs, it was hard for my father to keep up with the expenditures. My parents looked for ways to provide a bright future for their children and jumped on the bandwagon of various business ventures, which unfortunately did not work out. My parents struggled with money and did not want me to share a similar future. As much as they tried to shield me from the hard life, I was already very accustomed to it. I had learned of deprivation and sacrifice at an early age.
Heading my parents' advice, I studied hard to become a software engineer. Today, they proudly acclaim me in front of our relatives. My dad proudly stands shoulder to shoulder with my high-earning doctor uncle and tells him that his son, Anthony, is now a software engineer, who makes a six-figure salary and gifted them the shiny car parked outside their house. My dad does not like showing off, but hearing him say that to my uncle who had belittled us, particularly assuming that I’d be one of those spoiled brats smooching off of my parents, I stood tall and beamed with pride.
Being able to create a safe haven for my parents where they do not have to worry about the next house move, the next business venture, or next month’s payments, I felt I had fulfilled the meaning of my existence. “We finally made it.” Equipped with a stable job and secure income, I had fulfilled my parents’ goal for me. Yet in the back of my mind, I kept thinking, what about my own goals? What about my own fulfillment?
The first thing I ever drew was at the age of four. Till today, I vividly remember the drawing and the sense of accomplishment I felt that day. My mom was painting her toenails on the kitchen floor of our small apartment. I could remember her applying a juicy, ruby red paint with a small brush and the smell of rubbing alcohol filling the air. Each brushstroke was decisive, following the same direction and slightly overlapping the last. Wanting to join my mom, I grabbed my composition notebook and pencil and drew the contours of her feet. Seeing that I was trying hard to capture her movements, my mom encouraged me through my repeated attempts to copy her brushstrokes with my No.2 pencil. Afterwards, she showed the drawing to my dad and older brothers, who praised and encouraged me to draw more. My mom would boast that I had her delicate hands, while my dad proudly claimed that I had his dexterity. This moment of affirmation sparked a fire in me and drawing became my language.
When I was 11, I met an art teacher, Mrs. Mitsuda, who recognized my language. She helped and encouraged me by having me enter numerous art contests. One by one, the awards swarmed in. But moreover, I was flooded with a sense of belonging and pride. A proud teacher, Mrs. Mitsuda, told me that she would be looking for my name in the credits of Disney Films. I was groomed for this shared dream of becoming an artist at Walt Disney Animation Studio. My parents, too, were supportive of my art and happy with my accomplishments. Those were simpler times for our family, and my trajectory seemed so clear and attainable. Unfortunately, I soon learned that plans change. Sometimes there’s an unexpected turn in the course that we think we’ve set for ourselves.
My dream of being an artist in the animation industry was nipped in the bud as my parents moved from Hawaii to Texas. Our geographical location changed, and so did our priorities. Finding ourselves in a new place, my parents encountered additional difficulties. Seeing my parents work hard, I realized I, too, had to work harder for them. My focus shifted to my studies. I never was a good student, but I studied relentlessly to achieve that 4.0 GPA, chasing the then trending career path towards becoming a software engineer. Over time, art slipped out of my life.
Falling into a 9 to 5 work routine, I felt the stress pile on while my need for creative expression remained neglected. My passion for art never left, lying dormant inside of me, and I was always looking for a time and place for my creative side to flow. Though I stopped creating art while I worked as a software engineer, I was still constantly learning about new mediums and different forms of art that I wanted to create. Eventually, I found myself experiencing a constant battle between my mind and my soul, engineering versus painting, job security versus uncertainty. I felt like an imposter for having a heart in art but making a living as an engineer. I was always on high alert, fearing that one day I’d be found out by my peers. This life of duality took a heavy toll on my mental and physical health over the years.
In my early engineering career days, I spent a good amount of time with my grandparents in Hawaii where I went to college and worked. One day, I was late driving my grandfather and told him that I had lost track of time due to some work-related issue. With his vigorous and calm composure, he told me, “If a man is taking more time than necessary doing something other than being with his family, perhaps he’s not good at what he does. Or (jokingly) has another family to attend to.” Although I did not agree with what he said at the time, I felt afterward that he was trying to tell me something and that he saw right through me. Deep in my heart, I knew something needed to change.
My career as a software engineer did indeed bring pride and happiness to my parents, but it left my soul paralyzed. My inner 8-year-old self repeatedly asked if this was his real future. Speechless and numb I would always nod in silence. Not long ago, I dared to pursue my dream and started painting again. Although I could not make a swift transition from my engineering job to full-time painting due to my financial responsibilities, I continued to persist.
After each long day of work, I gather and push myself to create a painting a day. It was a little rough at the beginning. I had a lot of catching up to do as an artist. My creations initially seemed subpar next to my contemporaries. It took me a long time and lots of patience to be satisfied with my work. I treated this period as a learning experience, teaching myself and experimenting with different facets of the art industry, honing my craft, and discovering the purpose of my art. The process itself made me happy, my soul fulfilled. That 8-year-old boy could not stop smiling.
Over the years, I have come to realize that the complete form of art expression is making something that rings true to me as an individual and hoping that it touches the heart, mind, and soul of others. It’s a challenging endeavor but one that makes the journey that much more enjoyable and worthwhile.
I grew up hearing my father’s journey of how he escaped Vietnam. He was in a small fishing boat, with more people than it could carry. With fear in their eyes and hearts beating as loud as the splash of the ocean, they all despaired if they would make it out alive, bound together with the same anxiety and hope. The thunderstorm hits you differently when you are warm and cozy in your bed and when you are at the sea defending your life. My father’s stories of his journey had chills running down through my spine. I have carried his story with me all my life and have been searching for an opportunity to share it with the world.
Picking up my brushes again, I came up with an idea of combining my passion for art with my cultural identity. I want to create a book to compile hand-painted portraits along with stories of the Vietnamese boat people. My hope is that this will give me a platform to satisfy my creative itch and create a pathway for me to one day earn a living doing what I love. Ultimately, I hope that this project resonates with the Vietnamese community, that the expression of shared history and memories can bring us closer together and me closer to my roots and to my parents.
To learn more about Anthony's work, visit bewatercolorist.com