Today marks Asian Pacific American Heritage month. Last month, I saw Pulitzer-prize winning author, Viet Thanh Nguyen speak at an Asian-American Writers’ Workshop in New York. Two years earlier, I saw him holding court at the Nourse Theater in San Francisco. I went home that night to read about Nguyen, and I came upon an interview where he said: “I am a refugee—present tense,” Nguyen said. “Although long ago I made the transition from refugee to bourgeoisie, I claim present tense because my earliest memories began as a refugee when I was 4 years old.”
I am the proud daughter of two resilient Vietnamese boat refugees, one generation removed from Uncles missing in action, Aunts who lost love and opportunity, and parents who left their dreams by the wayside to simply survive.
My Daddy – the one sporting the dashing smile on the far right – was a handsome devil in his youth. My Aunts would always tell me stories about how, as a young man, he was up to all sorts of mischief. He loved swanky establishments and he possessed an intuitive understanding that life was poetry in motion. He knew how to read people and he managed to talk his way through anything and everyone. Growing up, my Dad had a massive cassette collection and we became accustomed to the sounds of soul, funk, jazz, folk, classics and disco floating in the air, mixing tenderly with the wafting smells of banh xeo and com chien. We were all taught to karaoke with pizazz and flair, and no visit to our home was complete without our esteemed guest belting out a song of choice. When he goes to weddings, the first thing he says when he comes home is: “You and your brother need to have a live band at your wedding to entertain the guests. Don’t ever have a wedding without some good music!” I think it’s code for “I would like to serenade your friends and be the entertainment.”
In another life (if the war didn’t happen), he probably would have been an exacting surgeon or a prodigious businessman. Instead, at the cusp of his youth, my Dad went to war. With his charisma and incredible aptitude for precision, he ended up in working in the Intelligence bureau.
My Dad never spends any money on himself. All of it went to the family. He still wears Polos from the 90’s and he has a knack for fixing anything that’s broken. He can build anything, and he just finished remodeling my Mom’s dream kitchen with his own two hands. In college, when I was traipsing around Europe having a ball, my Dad would always call me to ask: “Do you need more money? Don’t tell your Mom that I’m sending you more!” One day, he came home with this umbrella with a Renoir print on it. When I asked him where he got it from, he said he had purchased it from a homeless man on his way home from work. He taught me that being poor is not a crime or a cause for shame, and that one should always reserve an openness and kindness to difference.
My Daddy came to Canada with $50, two trousers and a handful of shirts to his name and he raised me, a daughter who had a full-page spread for “Best-Dressed” in the high school yearbook. A daughter who grew up with the sound of striving when at the crack of dawn, the coffee machine began to drip its vanilla bean aroma throughout the basement suite that my parents rented. And, when my Dad and my Mom became landlords, they would always rent to those who were overlooked or systematically disadvantaged by the credit system. Asians sometimes hold very backwards beliefs about colorism and classism, but because my parents knew what it was like to begin anew in a country without family, they rented to the Kenyan film school student, to the Korean psychology student, to the Colombian family seeking asylum, to the Aboriginal family, and to the single Mom with her son. My Dad showed me that the humanity is built upon seeing people for who they can be and helping them arrive there. And the greatest lesson of all? He taught me not to be afraid of anything and that laughter would always carry me through life.