I was raised on stories of fear, sacrifice, and loss. Every life event was somehow bookended by my mother’s stories of our refugee past. Constantly, I was reminded of the world that was destroyed and the dreams forcibly swept away by demons of ideology, power politics, and corruption. As a Vietnamese refugee growing up in California, I went to school while my parents did not have the opportunity to do so. I had a childhood while my mother had to find ways to support her family of ten in post-war Vietnam. I was taught to be apolitical because it was safer. The world in which I grew up in was shaped by the ghosts of history and a heavy sense of loss.
And from that negative space of abandoned dreams, I somehow wove a tapestry of my past. It was a past that I never directly experienced, but was made ever the more powerful through memory and imagination. There were vestiges of a world destroyed — the refugee vaccination mark on my siblings’ arms, the absence of family photos, and our inability to converse in Vietnamese with our grandparents. My mother’s response to her child’s simple questions of ‘Why?’ — ‘Why were Americans in Vietnam? Why was there a war? Why did our family leave?’ gestured towards a clear sense of right and wrong, love and sacrifice. These little remnants somehow inserted themselves between the tiny cracks that existed in my identity and temporarily provided reason and logic to the blurry picture of my family’s past.
But I’ve outgrown those temporary placeholders of explanation and narrative. Pieces of my past that never quite fit, are now more difficult to ignore. Themes of heroism, loyalty, and a common enemy are no longer enough, but they exist as constant reminders that I was raised by stories. Stories that were told to me, but never directly involved me. Yet these stories have made me into who I am and who I was to become.
Hanoi, September 2016