Writing my Own Counter Narrative

25 Jan

Growing up, I thought that my family was an anomaly. I thought that it was strange that my parents were born and raised in Vietnam, yet my younger sister and I were taught Cantonese at an early age and fed traditional Chinese food. As a teenager, I chose to identify as second generation Chinese American, not really considering my family’s roots in Vietnam.

It wasn’t until I took an Asian American Studies class at UC Berkeley that I began to question my ethnic and racial identity. The class was taught by the first Cambodian woman in the United States to earn her PhD. She challenged me and 20 other 1st/1.5/2nd generation Southeast Asian American students to think critically about what the mainstream media had told us about the Vietnam War. In her class, I learned to deconstruct this mainstream narrative and create a new narrative that was more reflective of the experiences of my family and other refugee families.

My dad fled Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon in 1965. He was only a teenager then, just barely out of high school. He left behind his parents, my grandparents, and paid for his journey out of the country with the family’s life savings. He was a “boat refugee” because he, like so many others, fled the country by boat. These boats were not the steam ships that immigrants from Western Europe arrived to America in. They were small fishing boats that were often attacked by pirates or torn apart at sea. My dad made it to a Malaysian refugee camp where he waited to be granted asylum. He was able to come to the United States and eventually start a life with my mom.

I tell my dad’s story because I recognize that although my family is Chinese, we have ties to Vietnam that cannot be ignored. My family’s story is part of a larger, collective refugee experience that is unique to the Southeast Asian American community. This understanding has shaped my consciousness as an Asian American woman. Today, I think critically about America’s policy decisions, particularly in regards to immigration and foreign policy. Although America granted my family asylum, this nation also played a role in civil wars and deaths in Southeast Asia after the Fall of Saigon.  My family’s story continues to sit with me as I think about how policies have real impact on communities.

For me, my family’s struggles and triumphs have brought me to Public Allies. In this journey, I hope to gain the skills and tools to one day be an effective policy maker. I hope to share more of my story with you and learn yours as well.

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