The Vo family - staring directly into the sun - at a rose garden.

I have spent many years trying to quantify what I lost when Saigon fell on April 30, 1975.

Overseas Vietnamese have come to call this day “ngày mất nước,” or “the day we lost our country.”

My parents fled Vietnam by boat after 1975. A country boy from a village by the Mekong Delta and a Chinese girl from Saigon, they met at a refugee camp in Malaysia. And after several years of separation, reunited and married in the United States.

Between 1987 and 1992, they had four children.

For a while, that was all I knew about how I came to be Vietnamese in East Anaheim. So like many second-generation kids, I lifted smells, flavors and details from Little Saigon and newspaper clippings and imagined my own Vietnam.

My sister Vy, in blue, and me in red, in front of our childhood home in Anaheim.
My sister Vy, in blue, and me in red, in front of our childhood home in Anaheim. Photo by Nam Vo.

Now, at 23, I have a much broader knowledge of what my parents and other refugees went through, but in some ways I’m still no closer to understanding the grief and loss that seems to soak the refugee experience.

In recent weeks, with the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon approaching, I asked other young Vietnamese Americans if and how they have come to understand the indelible imprint of the Vietnam War on their lives.

Pauline Nguyen, a 22-year-old recent graduate of UC Berkeley, said it wasn’t until she started taking classes in college about the refugee experience and joined a Southeast Asian student group, that she started to understand the political and personal significance of her family’s history.

“I spent 21 years avoiding my family in Vietnam. My mom would webcam with my grandma and cousins and I would literally hide,” said Nguyen.

Although Nguyen was active throughout her childhood in a Buddhist youth group at Duoc Su temple in Garden Grove, where she took Vietnamese language and history classes, she still felt a cultural disconnect.

“In high school I felt a connection to the language, food and customs but I didn’t feel like I had a proper framework for understanding what it means to be the daughter of refugees,” Nguyen said. “It was more like, me playing out a role, but not understanding what role I was playing.”

Learning about the war and its impact on her parents, especially when it comes to mental health, helped her “make sense” of her parents behavior and family life, Nguyen said.

Her father, a former soldier in the South Vietnamese army who was imprisoned in a Communist re-education camp for seven years after the war, was uncommunicative and could become irrationally angry. Nguyen said she started to recognize what could potentially be signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

“My relationship with my dad is a lot better. Instead of getting frustrated when he would yell, I started to do what he asked, or compromise,” Nguyen said.

Nguyen said understanding this aspect of her father’s experience, and how it affected her family life growing up, has helped her understand how the war has also become a part of her American experience.

“I understand the purpose of Black April is remembrance of suffering, but it’s very selective about what’s being remembered. It doesn’t open up the conversation to how the war continues to affect the [second] generation,” said Nguyen.

Kay Thao Nguyen, a graduate student at Columbia University who grew up in Detroit, said that while the Vietnam War is in some ways central to her Americanism, she’s not included in that story.

“The only reason I’m sitting in an American school is because of the war – but at the same time, I had nothing to do with that,” Nguyen said. “When I meet new [Americans], they say ‘that war never should have happened,’ and I never know what to say. I don’t have anything to apologize for.”

Kay Nguyen’s father came to the U.S. by plane when he was 12. Her mother arrived later as a boat person. They met in the United States, where she was born.

Nguyen said that the political ideologies of war refugees — a fierce anti-communism and South Vietnamese nationalism — might define her parents’ generation, but it doesn’t define her, and certainly not new immigrants from Vietnam who have lived under the Communist regime.

“‘The day we lost the country,’ that ‘we’ really doesn’t include me, I don’t think,” said Kay Nguyen. “I feel like that’s the wrong thing to say…But we all go back to Vietnam. It’s not like we’re boycotting the country. And at this point, there’s so much more to the Vietnamese community abroad.”

A Break From the Past

Some young Vietnamese Americans have also pushed back against the fervent anti-communism that has long dominated ethnic politics.

That generational divide was on full display in February when Garden Grove mayor Bao Nguyen, a 34-year-old refugee who has spent nearly his entire life in the U.S., refused to sign a letter protesting Riverside for its sister city relationship with Can Tho, Vietnam.

Many refugees viewed Nguyen’s refusal as not only a sign of disrespect, but as betraying both those who suffered during the war and those who continue to suffer human rights violations under the current government.

Meanwhile, the second-generation Vietnamese Americans who turned out at a Garden Grove City Council meeting in March to support the young mayor — some at the request of Nguyen’s campaign manager — voiced a perception that the focus on anti-communism has long stifled young voices and awareness of other problems in the community.

Some of those diverging political sentiments have found a home at colleges and universities, where students like Kim Chu say participating in student groups and ethnic studies classes has broadened her view of the Vietnamese immigrant experience.

Chu, a senior at UC Irvine, said her Vietnamese American professors, who belong to the 1.5 generation (those born in Vietnam but immigrated young) have challenged her to view the country’s history beyond its struggle against communism.

She doesn’t follow current events in Vietnam and says her connection to the country is “more of a macro one — the political significance” of being a part of the overseas community.

While many of her parents’ generation are thankful for U.S. intervention because it aided the South Vietnamese Army and resulted in their life in America today, Chu criticizes the U.S. and other western powers for using Southeast Asia as a “political testing ground.”

“It was about power plays and who can dominate and control the area for land and resources,” said Chu. “That’s where that sense of loss comes from for me — to know the land where my parents came from was used as a game. It’s kind of infuriating and frustrating.”

An altar at a Buddhist temple in South Vietnam. Photo by Thy Vo.

Pauline Nguyen, meanwhile, recently returned from a four-month independent study trip in Vietnam, during which she met her family in Da Nang for the first time. She was disoriented by the feeling of being a tourist in her parents’ mother country.

“The first few weeks I felt like I didn’t belong. Being American, there’s just so much privilege that comes with that,” said Nguyen. “It changed when I visited my family. I got really comfortable with them really fast, and asked a lot of questions.”

While some Vietnamese, those who didn’t have relatives in the United States, told Nguyen she was “lucky” to be in America, Nguyen said her relatives were offended by that notion.

“They said, ‘you’re not lucky – the only reason you were able to come over is because your father endured five years of war and seven years of imprisonment,’” Nguyen said. “Being an American doesn’t redeem the fact that my family went through what they did.”

Coming to Terms

My mother sits on sacks of plastic bottle caps at her mother’s cramped home in Saigon. Her mother, younger brother and wife flatten bottle caps for a nearby factory, with each bushel selling for about 1 US dollar. Photo by Thy Vo.

On her way to Malaysia, my mother spent four days at sea with two hundred people, floating aimlessly after the engine of their cramped dinghy broke, until they were rescued by a Dutch ship. At one point, Thai pirates looted their boat — yanking a necklace from her neck.

These were more virtuous pirates, she said. While some pirates would rape and kidnap young women, these men were just robbers.

My father worked for his brother-in-law for one year, ferrying other boat people from the shore out to a larger vessel that would take them the remainder of the journey. When it was time for him to escape, my father and his nephew paid their fare by helping to steer and navigate the boat.

He has never given me details of the journey itself, but I know he does not like going to the beach, because seeing the vast ocean reminds him too much of aimless, hopeless drifting, and the sound of dead bodies hitting the surface of the water.

I owe everything to my parents. Despite being torn away from their family and homes as young adults, they are thoroughly good and loving people who have grown and thrived despite their hardship.

My father reclines while his younger brother serves him tea and dried, pressed bananas during a 2011 visit to his hometown of Sa Dec, Vietnam. Photo by Thy Vo.

My father, one of 18, was the first in his family to go to college, and works as an aerospace engineer. My mother, whose empathy, craftiness and scrupulous penny-pinching fed and clothed our family, went back to college after having four children. She earned an associate’s degree in early childhood education.

All four of their children are college graduates, and two of my siblings are pursuing advanced degrees.

Yet, throughout most of my childhood there was an unspoken sadness, lacking logic or reason, which spilled into many aspects of our family life. When I was young, my father flew into blind rages, and I would wonder what I had done to provoke that wild look that washed over his face.

Sometimes my mother, despondent and depressed, would go on long drives to escape the chaos of home. I worried about why she didn’t seem happy and often feared she would never come home.

Between moments of tenderness, my father’s behavior was erratic, frightening and sometimes violent; driven by trauma, it often did not make sense.

Self-hatred and strained family relationships seemed so common among my Vietnamese friends that I started to think there was something wrong with our culture.

When I left Orange County to escape that chaos for a college 3,000 miles away, I took with me an intense depression, and a deep shame of the ways I couldn’t repay my parents and how I had hurt them in my clumsy adolescence.

In college, I happened upon a news article about psychological trauma among Vietnamese refugees, and only when it was laid out in front of me was I was able to see the ways in which the war had left a deep imprint in my parents’ lives, and mine.

My mother and father have grown from the young, struggling parents they were 20 years ago, and our relationship has become more open and honest.

The four years away from Orange County gave me the space to become stronger, while the past nine months of reporting on Little Saigon have helped me better understand their experience.

But I’ve also grown even more independent, and I realized that I had to leave the family home. It was more emotional for my parents than I had expected.

When so much of your family is torn apart by war, you hold tighter those you still have.

“When I came to the U.S., I had nobody. I was totally alone with nobody to fall back on, and I’ll never forget that feeling,” my father said to me. “I don’t want you to feel that. If you need it, your home is always here.”

Contact Thy Vo at or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.

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