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Cultural Narrative: Rebuilding a Lost Legacy

My grandma passed away a year ago, which was devastating for our family in many ways. She was the historian of the family, so along with her passed our oral history. Her death was the triggering event that led me to investigate our past and salvage what I could learn so that my siblings and I could have a foundation for growth. Thus, for my personal narrative, I wanted to share what I learned about her encounter with the ethnic cleavage that occurred during the Vietnam War.

Although I did not experience the war directly, the aftermath left a lasting scar on my family, and significantly shaped the decisions I made in my life for the past year. Some of the account is based on stories my grandma told me when I was younger, and the rest is based on the family documents that she left behind when she passed away, which I had translated by the Southeast Asian Archive at the University of California at Irvine.

On the surface, my grandma lived a simple life. She was the grandma that watched me, my brother, and my sister every day after school and all summer. However, behind her stern disciplinary ways was a history intertwined with a war-torn country. My grandma told us she was the daughter of a noblewoman and grew up with servants in central Vietnam. She was gifted a substantial amount of land after marrying my grandpa as per tradition. However, at the start of the Vietnam War, a land reformation was implemented as the northern communist came to power. Not only was the property seized, but I later discovered that the date on my grandpa’s death certificate corresponded with the launch of the Tet Offensive – January 30, 1968. The war then escalated forcing my grandma to flee south to Saigon with her youngest kids, including my mom, and what money she had left. 

For several years, she tried to rebuild a life in Saigon with the help of other family members. Unfortunately, the war continued to expand and would soon hit the former capital of Vietnam. In 1975, the city of Saigon fell to the communist forces. When my grandma heard about the imminent Fall of Saigon, she took action so that she would not become one of the +200,000 citizens killed following that Spring Offensive. My grandma miraculously made it to the ships set for the U.S. with only the three kids and a satchel of family documents. I say 'miraculously' because, according to the history books, only high level officials were evacuated at that time, and I'm not sure how she got on there. Unfortunately, every time she recounted the travel across the Pacific Ocean she would break down and stop the story after mentioning how a close acquaintance she knew died of starvation on the ship.

From there I have to go by the documents I inherited after my grandma’s passing. The first stop for my grandma, my mom, and two uncles was Wake Island, which is an unincorporated U.S. territory used primarily for military purposes. My grandma was examined before continuing onto the mainland where she was taken to Ft. Still in Oklahoma, and then Ft. Chaffee in Arkansas. The media at the time painted a picture of how the Vietnamese people were subsidiary and completely dependent on U.S. support. According to the documents I have, that support mounted to relocation services to Oak Cliff in the Dallas area with a $10/person stipend. For those who don't know Oak Cliff, it is historically the most dangerous part of Dallas. My grandma added a tremendous amount of street credibility for raising a family as a single mom there. Somehow though, she managed because I exist today as a product of her courage.

The Vietnamese are a proud people and would never ask for more than the $10 given because the opportunity to rebuild the legacy we lost is invaluable. That is why this isn't a story anyone talks about even though it's more tragic than what my secondary account can convey. However, I wanted to tell it so that my grandma's story can continue. My sister, brother, and I are the first generation born in the U.S. following the Vietnamese diaspora, and this story is essentially our genesis. I cannot speak for my brother and sister, but for me this story has been a driving force in my life. Several months ago, I was thinking about the story while looking through my Instagram photos. As I browsed through snapshots of my life, I realized how incredibly privileged I was compared to my grandma. I was blessed to be able to do so many incredible things in my life because she fought through the ethnic oppression and rebuilt our family in the U.S. I am privileged to be able to view these memories from the palm of my hand, while the rest of my family history now lies in an archive. Between my siblings, we now have nine degrees and I just started on a tenth. As a medical researcher, I have five young investigator awards for my contribution and a dozen publications. Just as my grandma fought for the survival of our family, my research has always been aimed at our survival. Mental illness and metabolic syndrome are the primary threats to us now. My switch to diabetes/obesity research was not as coincidental as 3/4 of my family's current generation, including my grandma, has diabetes. That's why I continue to struggle in this career path.

When my grandma passed, I did not cry and refuse to cry. I refuse to call it a loss because to me that would admit defeat. She was a strong woman and her memory should instill that power. As long as we keep moving forward with what she started I don't believe we have lost anything. That's basically my perspective on oppression and privilege thus far.

© 2017 Holeigh J. Skyler Foundation -- All Rights Reserved.

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