Tracing My Parents’ Footsteps

In this three-post series, Hoai Huong reflects upon her life as in the United States and how she comes to understanding her own identity while living in France.  Here in the first post, seeking to understand what her parents had gone through as refugees in America, Hoai Huong goes to a self-imposed exile in France to trace her parents’ footsteps.

I have spent most of my life in America—although I was not born in this country. When Saigon fell on April 30, 1975, my family escaped from Vietnam and eventually sought asylum in the United States.  My parents were in their mid-30s, and I, the oldest of their 4 children, was 8 years old when we resettled in Victoria, Texas in October, 1975.

After living in the United States for 35 years, my memories of our struggle to acculturate into American society have long since faded. While we must have experienced fear, insecurity, uncertainty, and a sense of alienation—feelings that are common among many immigrants, especially non-white immigrants arriving in a country where they neither speak the language nor understand its culture—I only have a distant memory of it. Certainly, I was a mere child when we immigrated to the United States, so my experience of acculturation differed tremendously from that of my parents’ who had confronted it as adults.

As I began to edit my manuscript about my family story, I developed a burgeoning need to understand my parents’ journey during those first few years in the United States as they attempted to acculturate into American society.  I wanted to feel their frustrations of not being able to speak or understand the English language—to be seen as deaf or mute and to be perceived as being stupid in the eyes of the American people. Moreover, I needed to experience their struggle to be heard and understood. I felt compelled to experience the anger, resentment, sadness, anguish, and pain that they must have felt. They experienced a total loss of identity as they were forced to give up their careers, abandon their families, their homeland and culture in order to seek freedom for themselves and for their children. In essence, I had a great need to walk in their shoes—if only for a moment—realizing that I could never truly replicate their journey. In an attempt to understand and recapture some of their experiences, I boarded a flight to Paris on May 30th and landed at Charles de Gaulle Airport on June 1, 2011.

My choice of living in Paris for a month was both an easy and complex decision. Paris is one of the most beautiful and livable cities in the world. Its superb metro system would dispense the need for a car. Because of its compactness, Paris itself is quite accessible by foot. I had learned French in high school and college and while I am not proficient with the French language, I could manage with my rudimentary French— although spoken with a rather strong American accent. Certainly, the pièce de résistance would be the mouth-watering, flaky, buttery croissants, the fresh-baked baguettes, and the delicious goat cheeses found in every corner of the city. These attractive features made Paris an easy choice.

Yet as an American of Vietnamese descent, living in Paris had the potential of unraveling my psychological and emotional well-being as well. Paris, the heart of the French empire, has the capacity of evoking powerful emotions in me because the history and personal relationship between France and Vietnam that began in the mid-19th Century. Under Napoléon III, France colonized Vietnam in 1862. By the beginning of the 20th century, the French basked in the glory of a dominated Vietnamese society.  Although they garnered enormous profits from a subjugated Vietnam, the surge of economic growth did little to encourage a national economy or improve the living standards of the Vietnamese people. Under the constraints of French colonialism, the Vietnamese of my grandparents’ generation lost their sense of purpose and self-esteem and fell prey to both the spoken and unspoken racist colonial propaganda which depicted them as inherently inferior to even the lowest member of French society.

Although Emperor Tự Đức ceded Vietnam’s soil to France in 1862, the Vietnamese people continued to struggle for independence until 1954 when they defeated the French in the Battle of Diên Biên Phu. The French left ; however, Vietnam (divided at the 17th Parallel) continued to wage war with each other. With assistance from the United States, South Vietnam fought with its northern brethren until April 30, 1975. After the fall of Saigon, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese fled the country and sought asylum around the world. Many went to France, North America, and Australia. My family could have sought asylum in France, however, my father chose America. This decision had far-reaching repercussions for me and had determined the current outcome of my life. The possibility of alternative life path had we immigrated to France instead of America, as well as my lifelong hatred of the French for their ruthless and rapacious exploitation of Vietnam, made Paris a very complicated choice.

In 2007 as I stood in front of the ghetto in Paris’ 13th Arrondissement that many French Vietnamese called home, I was confronted by a frightening thought. Had my father sought political asylum in France instead of the United States, I could have been one of the many French Vietnamese living in those ugly tenements. Because of the social/structural discrimination that pervades French society where wealth, prestige, family connections, and lifestyle determine one’s social position and opportunities in life, I probably would have never gone to college—let alone have had the opportunity to earn a doctoral degree from an American Ivy League university. Instead, I might have worked as a chambermaid in a nearby hotel or a clerk at the mall next to the ghetto. My mind had reeled from these disturbing possibilities, but as a tourist whose visit to Paris was brief, I didn’t dwell too deeply on this at the time. Instead, I returned home to America, safe and secure with my social position and achieved status. Returning to Paris would force me to open a Pandora’s Box—one that I had carefully buried in the deep recesses of my mind.

My decision to return to Paris was not unlike the decision made by Captain Jean-Luc Picard from Star Trek: The Next Generation, who made the difficult decision to return to the same Borg ship that had captured and transformed into one of these cybernettically-enhanced humanoid drones. Like Jean-Luc, I felt compelled to return to Paris and live in the heart of the colonial empire that had dominated my country for seven decades. In truth, I no longer wanted the burden of the past, so I had no choice but to confront it head-on.

Hoai Huong was born in Vietnam, escaped in 1975, spent time at a refugee camp in Hong Kong, and finally settled in Victoria, Texas, with her family. Later, Hoai studied at University of Texas-Austin and finished her Ph.D. studies at Cornell in 1994.  Currently, she is a market research consultant in the Seattle area and is working on her first novel. For more of Hoai’s writings, read her blog.

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  1. Nice article. This paragraph is very appealing: “I wanted to feel their frustrations of not being able to speak or understand the English language—to be seen as deaf or mute and to be perceived as being stupid in the eyes of the American people. Moreover, I needed to experience their struggle to be heard and understood.” I can well relate to it.

    I am interested to learn more about the exile experience as it is the inspiration for my art. If you are interested in further sharing your parents’ and acquaintance’s experience, feel free to contact me.

    Best wishes,
    Hoa Le


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