My name is Minh-Hoa Ta. I identify as Chinese-Vietnamese. I was born and raised in Saigon, Vietnam, particularly in Chợ Lớn, which had a very big Chinese community. Chinese was my first language, and because one of my grandmothers was Vietnamese, I also learned how to speak Vietnamese. I currently work as the Vice President of Student Services at Ohlone College in Fremont, about 20 minutes outside of San Jose, which has the largest community of Vietnamese outside of Vietnam in terms of numbers—Westminster in Orange County has the most in terms of percentage.
I had a happy childhood. I grew up during war time but I was fortunate to be from a family who did not have to worry about having a roof over its head or food on the table. I was given the opportunity to receive a good education and I knew I was loved. Both of my parents were very adventurous and so we traveled a lot. Every weekend we would go to the beach, and my mom took us to delta regions like Mỹ Tho, Cà Mau, Rạch Giá, and many other places. We had this Ford 10-passenger van and each trip all my 8 siblings and I and other family members and friends would cram into the van, but we had a lot of fun together.
My mother was very active in various charities, and was very involved with Chùa Minh Hương in Chợ Lớn. Around 1970 as the war intensified and more and more people were evacuated, she and other women in the community got together and raised money to purchase rice, clothes, and food and brought them to refugee camps set up in Củ Chi. In the summer she turned all of us kids into her little troop: we packed rice into little individual packages the night before, got up early the next day, loaded the trucks, journeyed to Củ Chi, acted as security to ensure that everything was orderly and supplies were being fairly distributed, and passed out food. Afterward my mother rewarded us by taking us to small local farms for things like bamboo shoots, watermelons, corn, or sweet potatoes. We would then throw everything into the van and we ourselves climbed on top of the van—there were no seat belt laws or anything like that in Vietnam. When we got home, we distributed the food to the neighbors. My mother would also often take us to the orphanage in Biên Hòa. Many of these children were there because they had been abandoned or their parents had passed away. My mother would bring rice and money to the orphanage and then we would all spend time playing with the babies. I remember having such a hard time leaving each time because of the bonds we formed with the children.
There were also darker times in my childhood, like when my brother got drafted into the military. My mother cried so often and worried about my brother. The oldest brother got drafted because he did not pass the university exam. My uncles were also in the military so I have a lot of military family. They say that every family in Vietnam probably has an uncle, cousin, nephew, or son in the military and so all families experience some form of heartache. Every family was worried. So growing up in Vietnam as a young child, you become mature quickly and you begin to understand life early. You don’t take life for granted. You appreciate people around you. You see and you understand suffering at a young age and understand the meaning of separation.
As an ethnic Chinese, you always know that you’re ethnic Chinese because people would tell you and remind you that you’re ethnic Chinese: “Oh! Người Việt gốc Hoa (Ethnic Chinese)!” Or sometimes they would call you người Tàu, which is a derogatory term. And when they would look at my last name, which is Ta, they would easily be able to tell I’m Chinese. Also, during that time, every family had a household identification or certificate. Whenever a security guard came to draft people at night or even during the day, you would have to show your household certificate so they would know not only how many people exactly were in the house, but also your ethnic identity. I lived in Chợ Lớn, District 5, where you couldn’t survive without speaking Chinese because most of the residents there were Chinese. I also remember how my mom told us about how my father was trying to build his business at that time and move us into a particular neighborhood, but because we are ethnic Chinese, we were not allowed to live in certain neighborhoods. Therefore, we could not purchase certain tracts of land or properties.
And being Chinese, there were also political circumstances that made life difficult. You would not be encouraged to join politics and you often got reminded of the consequences for speaking up. I lived a block away from Ton Tho Tuong, and there was a wealthy Chinese man named Ta Vinh who was shot and killed at point blank because he and the vice president were competing over a piece of land. Ta Vinh did not realize he was competing with a person in power and the vice president ordered someone to shoot and kill him. That sent out a very strong message to the Chinese community that they better not speak up or go against the government or else there would be consequences.
When I moved to America, I learned about how the Vietnamese people were discriminated from Chinatown, and I realized that discrimination happens everywhere, and not just on a racial level, but also the socio-economic level.
I went to a Chinese school where I learned Chinese (Mandarin) and Vietnamese at the same time. I actually went to Catholic schools for most of my life—first in kindergarten and middle school, and then I came to America and went to public schools, and then returned to a Jesuit school when I went for my doctorate. So somehow it was all very full-circle!
In 1975 we had permission to leave the country, but the permission only extended to 3 of us—we had 14 people in total. In Vietnam, you never thought about leaving your family to another province or city, let alone another country. This was our home. So when we were given the choice of picking 3 family members to leave, everyone said no, that we were going to stay together. We stayed for another 2.5 years, but things got so bad that we had to escape. In late 1977-1978, there was a lot of anti-Chinese sentiment and all Chinese businesses and even houses were taken away. We were then forced to stay in one place, my parents could not keep their businesses, my brother and uncles were sent to re-education camps, and we knew that if we stayed any longer, my younger brother would be drafted to the Cambodian War. So there were a lot of turmoil surrounding my family, and also seeing how the Chinese were not welcome, my mother began planning our escape. For the first attempt, my mother planned an escape for just a few of my siblings, but it failed and they had to go to jail. After they got released, my mom then planned for a second escape with everyone in my family, except for my grandparents who were too old to take the journey, and my father, who was staying behind so that in case we did get caught, because if we did get caught, there would still be someone to bail us out from jail. With the second attempt in 1979, my mom was in contact with someone who had a small boat and they put together the escape plan. The boat sailed for 14 days directly to Indonesia and it was a long journey, a nightmare journey. We successfully arrived in Indonesia, but we had to leave my father and my grandparents behind. I think the decision to leave behind her parents was one that my mom could never forgive herself for because she was an only child, and unfortunately, we never saw my grandparents again. My grandfather passed away a year after we escaped, having died of a broken heart. My mother held onto my grandfather’s letters and pictures in her wallet every day when she was in the the U.S., carrying them with her everywhere she went. My grandfather passed away at the age of 79 and I remember my mother telling herself that she would never want to live past that age because of the guilt that was eating her alive every day, and sadly, she actually did not live past the age of 79.
When we arrived at an island in Indonesia, we were sent to another island, and then finally arrived at a third island where there was a refugee camp called Tanjung Pinang. We stayed there for 5.5 months before we got transferred to a refugee camp in Jakarta, where we stayed for another month. We were lucky because at that time, anybody who arrived in a refugee camp before a certain date was automatically admitted to the U.S. without a sponsor. And if you belonged to a military family, which we did because of my brother, as long as there was a church that was willing to sponsor you, you could come to the U.S. We were ultimately sponsored to Oakland, CA. I have a sister who left Vietnam before everyone else did in 1979, and she actually arrived at the same island in Indonesia that we would later arrive at, but was already in the U.S.—in Oakland!—by the time we got to the refugee camp. So we somehow had the same escape route and journey to the U.S.! However, she had to change her identity and claim someone else’s family as her own so she did not have to stay behind in the refugee camp by herself. Luckily, that family had their household certificate which still listed the name of a daughter who had passed away, and my sister was able to assume that identity. When she arrived in the U.S., she parted ways with them and went to live with an American minister’s family who took her in because she was only 18 at the time and still considered a minor. However, when she found out that we had safely arrived in Indonesia, because of her assumed identity, she was unable to sponsor us, but luckily we were sponsored by a church and so did not require family sponsorship. She came to the airport to welcome us when we arrived to the U.S., and her host family saw us, they immediately knew we were related because we all looked so alike! So similar to the Paper Son and Paper Daughter phenomenon back in the early 1900s, my sister became a modern-day Paper Daughter. Many people in the community, including myself, also had to change our birthdays or birth years in order to survive. In Vietnam, many people tried to avoid the draft and so made their oldest sons younger on paper, but that also meant that the rest of the children had to have their birth years adjusted accordingly. My brother had his age changed back in Vietnam and it was listed on his military ID, so the rest of us had the years changed on our records when we came to the U.S. to match the legal record.
Overall, it was a very tough time in my life, one that I would not want to relive. I was 14, almost 15 years old when we arrived in the States on February 14th, 1980. The school semester was already in progress so we could not be enrolled in school yet, and so I went to Berkeley Adult School in the meantime. I remember studying with all the adults, how fast-paced the material was, and how diverse the student body was. The teacher was very nice, which helped make the transition a little easier. The following September, I was admitted to Albany High School. Our sponsor said that since we had a lot of young women in the family, Albany would be a safer city for us to live in than Oakland, and so they helped us find a 2-bedroom place for the 8 of us. I remember whenever we heard that the landlord was coming, we all disappeared because we knew that we would get in trouble for having so many of us living under the same roof. Even when the water heater broke, we didn’t dare tell the landlord because we were afraid that would mean they would drop by, and so we had to find ways to pay someone ourselves to come and fix it. I slept on the sofa, which was actually my bed for 10 years.
We didn’t have any family in the United States besides my sister so we didn’t really have an extended network to rely on. My mother was in her late 50s when we arrived and it was so hard for her to find a job, and so my oldest siblings had to immediately find work to support our family—my oldest sisters worked as in-home babysitters and so were only home on the weekends, and my brother, who had never washed dishes in his life, worked as a dishwasher in a restaurant washing hundreds of dishes at a time. I still remember how when one of my sisters got a job in San Rafael, before that bridge was built, she had to take several buses to get to work: from Albany to San Francisco, from San Francisco to Marin County, and then from Marin County to San Rafael. My oldest siblings never had the chance to go to school, but because of our ages, two of my sisters and I did have that opportunity. But we still had to work too; during high school I delivered newspapers, worked as a housecleaner, mowed lawns—everything. But seeing how hard my siblings worked and the struggles they had to go through, I never complained. It was so hard living with the fear of the landlord suddenly coming in and busting us, that worry of not having enough to eat, the stress of peer pressure since we always stood out with our Salvation Army clothes and shoes, the stigma of being on welfare.
But I was very fortunate to have such caring teachers at Albany High School. Because of the language barrier, we didn’t hang out with most of the other kids and the teachers allowed us to stay in their classrooms to study and to ask questions, and they protected us from classmates who made fun of us or screamed at us. Their kindness meant a lot to me and I still kept in touch with them long after I graduated.
We were always so happy to go to Oakland Chinatown. We didn’t have a car so we rode the bus everywhere. Chinatown was only two blocks long when I arrived, but now it’s so big! The Southeast Asian community in Oakland was also very small then; the majority of merchants were ABC (American Born Chinese) and it wasn’t until a bit later that we began having Vietnamese merchants or products. I remember how excited we were to get bok choy and bean sprouts, but nothing like bittermelon, mint, Thai basil, or tamarind was available yet—the only way we could make canh chua (sour soup) was to use vinegar. There wasn’t a lot of fresh produce at the time either, meaning we ate a lot of canned food. I still have memories of us buying melons and sacks of rice and carrying them home on the bus. I also remember when we were at the Berkeley Adult School, my sisters and I would have 20 cents for the bus (10 cents each way), but sometimes we would debate over whether we should take the bus or walk instead and use the bus fare for Coca Cola.
Going to San Francisco Chinatown was always a treat, but it was expensive to get there. I also remember getting lost. We were supposed to meet a friend but ended up getting lost and just going up and down Market Street. We had the address but had no idea how to get there. We ran into a sponge cake delivery man who told us that our destination was actually in Daly City, but luckily he was headed that way and could drop us off. We had no idea what he was saying but we piled into his delivery van of cookies and cakes and helped us find our friend. I think people were much friendlier and trusting then. Here was this man who saw these five Asian women, which included my mother who was in her 60s, who were clearly lost, and yet he went out of his way to help us.
There was definitely a lot of culture shock. We came from a culture that is not very affectionate and suddenly we’re in a society where people hug, have friendly conversations even with strangers. I remember a neighbor said hi to me and I said hi back; he said hi to me again and I said hi back. Then I ran away because I had no idea what to do! And we were very shocked to see how open dating was. In school, it was new to me to see students talking back to teachers, being loud, or even yelling at the principal. Going from one room to another for different subjects made me feel like there was no structure; in Vietnam you stayed in the same room while the teachers rotated. P.E. was also difficult for me because playing sports like football made me very uncomfortable. All these people, guys in particular, are suddenly coming at you and making contact. There was this one game when somehow I had the ball and my teammate told me to run, but when I saw all these guys running at me, I quickly surrendered the ball. Football, handball, golf—these weren’t sports we had in Vietnam, and some sports, like soccer, were not sports played by Vietnamese women. All these things—the language barrier, the class background differences, the cultural differences—made me feel like I didn’t fit in.
Everything ties back to my accidental fall into Asian American Studies. When I got accepted at U.C. Berkeley, I was actually planning to major in computers. Because I was good at math, I had never dreamed of going into the social sciences; you want to major in something that you are good at. However, I really disliked programming, and I remember just sitting in class one day and feeling lost, unhappy with the field I was in. I bumped into this woman who told me to come with her to the Asian American Studies class she was in and thought I might like. I didn’t know what Asian American Studies was and so I went with her and sat in on a lecture by Dr. Ron Takaki. He is such a dynamic instructor and the way he talked about Asian American history and the Asian American experience changed everything for me. It was the first time I saw myself reflected in the curriculum—the parallels between what other Asian communities went through and what my family went through, the discrimination we all faced, the struggles we had to overcome. Asian American Studies allowed me to find myself, my voice. But I also had doubts about what I could do with my major. My family was waiting for me to graduate and make a living and I knew that I did not have the luxury to major in something just because I liked it. Since I speak several languages, someone recommended that I major in Social Welfare, another field I had no idea about. But I knew what a social worker was because one had helped me and my family, and I thought that it would be pretty nice to work with newcomers. So I ended up double-majoring in Social Welfare and Asian American Studies with the thinking that I could use my background in Asian American Studies and the unique perspective from American society. It makes me a social worker who was not only effective, but also empathetic and knowledgeable about the diversity of this country.
Asian American Studies also led me to question my views on U.S. intervention in Vietnam. I remember hating the Communists and blaming them for everything—my parents being forced to separate, never seeing my grandparents again, the suffering my family had to go through. But after understanding U.S. intervention and learning about imperialism, capitalism, communism, socialism—all the -isms—everything was put into perspective. I became a community activist because I wanted to champion for social justice, especially for at-risk youth. So after I finished at U.C. Berkeley, I went to work for Asians for Job Opportunities as a Social Worker Aide, helping newcomers with things like going to the doctor and filling out forms. Then I worked for the International Institute of the East Bay where I started an afterschool youth program at Westlake Junior High, and later at the Oakland Probation Department as a translator for at-risk Southeast Asian youth, accompanying them to Juvenile Hall, visiting them there, presenting them at court, getting them out of pool halls, keeping tabs on them. I didn’t make much money, but I was doing something that I really liked and was beneficial to the communities around me. And I didn’t have any fear. At that time, East Oakland and West Oakland were really bad neighborhoods where people would be selling drugs left and right, but I wasn’t afraid that I would get shot or get harmed. I think this fearlessness had to do with having a good understanding of why people had to do the things that they did and how they ended up where they were, and communicating and supporting people from a position of respect and empathy. I spent a lot of time in the housing projects in West Oakland and the heart of the ghetto in East Oakland because that’s where most of the Vietnamese refugee community lived. I remember walking around trying to find the youths who had skipped out on their court dates before the police did, or else they could get locked up for even longer periods of time. The work I did was tough, but it was an important time for me to learn about myself and the diverse communities in the East Bay. I made connections to Cambodian New Generation, the Vietnamese Fishermen’s Association, Catholic Charities, Women’s Inc., Asian Community Mental Health, and many other community organizations. These were people who put their heart into helping newcomers, women, seniors, and people who were struggling or marginalized, and we were constantly having conversations about what we can do to make our communities better, how we can work together to create change. I remember how we all pushed the Oakland Police Department to hire Robert Sayaphupha, the very first Southeast Asian police officer in the department. We argued that in order to build trust, we needed someone who looked like us and who understood the community. So we formed the Southeast Asian Community on Crime to address issues within the community, to build relationships between the community and the police, to educate police officers about our culture. For example, in a lot of Asian cultures, corporal punishment is a common practice, but not in the U.S. When parents would hit their children, the children would call the police and then the parents would get locked up. So we had to be advocates for both sides, educating the parents about how parents aren’t supposed to hit their children here and the judicial system about the need to consider cultural differences and that locking the parents up is not the answer. There were also a lot of cases about cạo gió (coining) because while its a traditional medical practice in Asia, it isn’t in the U.S. and so many child abuse claims were made. These are just some of the issues we talked about when we brought the community, social agencies, and law enforcement together in these meetings.
As a Chinese-Vietnamese,it was very obvious to me when I was working in the community that the majority of the community organizations were led by Vietnamese people, and most of them men. They would still use terms like người Việt gốc Hoa or người Tàu and I knew they still see me as an outsider. We as a Southeast Asian community got lumped together after the war, but our struggles were different. The ethnic Chinese in Vietnamese in reality were forced out by the regime and we suffered deeply between 1977-1980 — because ethnic Chinese were classified as a minority in Vietnam, all our properties were taken away, many of our family members and friends were taken to re-education camps or the New Economic Zones, we were not allowed to participate in politics or go to law school. Many turned to business because that was the only way to make money, which you needed in order to buy safety. In America, we are seen as Chinese by the Vietnamese community but Vietnamese by the Chinese community, but according to the general public, there is no difference between Chinese or Vietnamese because we are all just seen as refugees. So we were like people who were “in-between,” struggling with an identity crisis. My father always said that he felt like a deaf and mute person because he couldn’t understand what people were saying, we couldn’t have conversations with others, and he was helpless like an infant. There was so much unfairness for my parents’ generation, many of whom had to leave China for Vietnam, only to be forced out again later but this time from Vietnam to the West. While they had hope for their children, they often had little hope for themselves. So upon seeing how the Chinese-Vietnamese experience was never represented in any of the research, I felt like that there was a need to give a voice to this community for my dissertation.
I interviewed 6 participants and I asked them questions like where were they born, what their life in China was like, what brought them to Vietnam, what their life in Vietnam was like, and what brought them to the U.S. I was exploring the fact that they were twice a minority, first in Vietnam and then in the U.S. These interviews demonstrated the range of backgrounds of the community, like how some were very educated while others never had the opportunity to receive an education, and how not everyone’s reason for leaving China or path to the U.S. was identical. I remember this one interviewee who talked about how they went from China to Cambodia to Vietnam and then to the U.S., just constantly fleeing war. These interviews also gave me a better understanding of how others in the community think about topics like fate, the concept of past lives and karma, and gender roles.
I was also inspired to do this research because through all my community work, I was meeting all these elders who had these incredible stories that weren’t being told. I remember meeting some of their grandchildren afterward and them telling me how appreciative they were of me for giving them the opportunity to know their grandparents’ stories. Many of them had never had this type of conversation with their grandparents or even their parents. Some of the elders ended up living out the rest of their years peacefully, but there were a few who could never quite recover from the tragedies and losses in their lives.
I feel so privileged and blessed to have been able to be a part of the creation of the Vietnamese American Studies Center at SFSU. The experience was amazing. Being the co-founder of the Vietnamese American Studies Center allowed me to not only get Vietnamese American Studies added into the CSU curriculum, but it also gave me the opportunity to work with scholars here in America and in Vietnam. This experience allowed me to understand the people in Vietnam for the first time; I finally understood the country that I was born in. It didn’t matter whether someone was from the North or the South. I learned about why the North behaved the way it did and how the South ended up the way it did, and how we, as a nation and as a people in Vietnam, for so many years had been dictated by outside forces about who we were and how to think about each other, corrupted and imprisoned by them. I find it so sad how so many young lives were taken away in their prime. The war was so unnecessary but we didn’t really have a choice. The country became so messed up and it had to do with so many years of colonization, whether it was the Chinese, the French, or the Americans, and then fighting internally with each other. For years and even right now, the leaders are corrupt themselves, influenced by those outside forces. But regardless, it gave me an opportunity to realize that we are not that much different when we put politics aside and and actually look at each other as human beings — we actually aren’t that different from each other, and if we can work together, we can learn so much from each other.
This opportunity allowed me to go to Hanoi, where I was able to feel, touch, and see everything over there and reconcile with the anger that I had toward North Vietnam for so long because of the suffering that my family had to go through. And also, it gave me an opportunity to be in South Vietnam where I was able to see the impact and aftermath of the war.
The first time I went back to Vietnam was in 1992, before the opening up of U.S. and Vietnam relationships. My work also gave me the opportunity to go back again in 1996 when relationships had already begun normalizing. I have continued to go back regularly since, maybe close to 30 times now. I have now gotten to know people in the North who I would never dreamed of meeting but who are now my friends. The program also allowed us to touch lives on both sides: students from both the North and the South have come over and stayed at my house, and I have watched them get educated in the U.S. and continue through life. It put me back deeper into the community and no longer see myself as just a Chinese-Vietnamese, but rather just a human being who tries to do the right thing. My philosophy is that if I can help just one person, that would be enough. I’m not dreaming of helping hundreds or thousands of people, but if someone crosses my path and I can make one difference in that person’s life, I will. This experience also helped me recognize the importance of addressing the gaps between the Model Minority Myth and the realities so many in the Asian American community face, many of whom are underserved. Not all of us are model minorities, rich, good at math, or Ivy League or UC-bound.
When I was at CCSF, I felt like there was a need for me to speak up for the Asian Pacific Islander population. If I, as an Asian American person, did not speak up for my community, then who will or should? I fought for the APASS retention center at CCSF to address this needs of the community. I had the best time working there—it was such a happy place to be and everyone was excited by the work we were doing.
Family Tightrope by Narli Kribia
The Cold War, A New Oral History of life between East and West by Bridget Kandall
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures by Anne Fadiman
Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora by Andrew Lam
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Monkey Bridge by Lan Cao
Distant Road by Nguyen Duy