The Privilege of Being American :: 40 Years and Counting

It’s a Sunday evening, and I’m running the gamut of mommy worries. What are we eating this week? Baby girl is going through a mental leap. Is she going to sleep through the night? Groan. Look at that mountain of laundry! Do I have any unwrinkled clothes to quickly slap-on in the morning?

Let me rewind. I’m running the gamut of FIRST WORLD mommy worries. It’s a stark contrast of the mommy worries my grandmother and mother had as moms.

I am second generation American. I am the daughter of Vietnamese refugees. We don’t get to choose where and when we were born. For me to be a citizen of Houston, Texas, and the United States of America is a privilege. I have been afforded these luxuries thanks to the sacrifices made by family and our entitled liberties in the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Now that I am a parent, I have a greater appreciation for this reality.

This is my maternal family’s story. The Dinh Clan refugee story.

Forty years ago, my mother, her parents, her 3 brothers, 5 sisters, and 2.5 nieces {1 toddler, 1 infant, and 1 in utero} started their Vietnamese American journey. That’s 13.5 people if we’re counting. 13.5 people who had no choice but to immigrate from Vietnam with nothing else other than the clothes on their backs, photos of the past, and dreams – the American Dream.

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My maternal grandfather, Pho Dinh

My grandfather believed in the following non-negotiables :: God, family, and freedom. If any of those virtues were compromised for anyone he knew, he fought for them. He helped them and took them into his home when they did not have one. In his eyes, the Communists threatened all those things for the people of Vietnam.

It was April 1975 and South Vietnam was overtaken by the Communists. The Americans were gone/leaving, and the Vietnamese who fought the Communists had two choices: {1} leave, or {2} stay, get captured, and then sent to a reeducation camp where one will most likely die. My grandfather’s businesses, occupations, and civic affiliations all had one thing in common…ANTI-COMMUNISM. He also faced the binary decision to leave or stay. He chose to leave.

Hearing about all the changes to the escape plan made my planning brain spin. First, there were no plans to leave. Then, there were plans to only send part of the family. Or maybe just my grandfather should go and arrange for the rest of the family later. Ultimately, my grandfather decided it was best for the entire family to escape together. He chose to leave behind the country he loved, his mother, and his special needs sister in order to provide his family the non-negotiables :: God, family, and freedom.

April 30, 1975. Saigon fell to the Communists. Tanks rolled the streets and gunshots were fired into the air in celebration of the new Socialist Republic. Quietly, my grandparents with their 9 children and 2.5 grandchildren weaved through the alleys and jumped over dead bodies to hide at a family friend’s house before the big escape. My mom recalls “guts spilling out” onto the streets. She was 14 years old when she witnessed this. {When I was 14, I was worrying about what dress I was going to wear to the Christmas dance and whether my hair would still smell like chlorine from daily swim practice. Wow!}

My mother {15}, aunt {9}, cousin {~10 months}, and uncles {12 and 13}

May 4, 1975. Because my grandfather had helped a fisherman in the past, that man had no problem returning the favor by offering his boat as an escape vessel for the Dinh Clan. The 13.5 of them and 39 others squeezed onto and hid in that 13 foot fishing boat and headed to The Philippines. Yes, that’s 52.5 people on that tiny fishing boat.

The waves were rough. Seasickness took over. The engine of the boat died and the boat drifted for 2 days. Other boats passed-by refusing to help. The current took them north, and by the grace of God, they were rescued by a Taiwanese fisherman who later got into trouble with the law for doing so.

The Dinh Clan went from one refugee camp to another in the span of 4 months — from Taiwan, to US Naval Base Guam {where my cousin was born 2 months premature}, to Camp Pendleton in San Diego.

Camp Pendleton was where things really started to come together. My aunt and her 3 daughters were reunited with their fighter pilot husband/dad. Also, a gracious family from Fort Worth, Texas was able to sponsor the entire Dinh Clan. Our family was very fortunate. No one was lost along the way. There were no pirate raids. They settled in the United States as one complete family unit.

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The Dinh Clan circa 1978

The family moved to Fort Worth where the 15 of them lived in a 4 bedroom, 1 bathroom house. To this day, the Dinh Clan is still rooted in Fort Worth. And that, y’all, is how I got my Texas roots. My Vietnamese-American Texas roots.

The relevance of the Dinh Clan refugee story

Reflecting on my family’s story is a big serving of humble pie. The life I lead now is probably reflective of what my grandfather dreamt for his family when he left Vietnam 40 years ago. I’m not saying that to be a boast or brag; however, a little perspective can go a long way and my first world mommy problems really are not that serious. It’s a life where I can go {or not go!} to Mass with my family without any worries of persecution. It’s a life where my daughter has met her great-grandfather, sees her grandmother daily, and is loved every single second. It’s a life where I am free.

Growing up, I had no appreciation for the sacrifices made by my family. Looking back on it, the Vietnamese part of me started to fade away in small pieces when I was a teenager in order to adapt and thrive in suburbia. Now that I am a mother to a little girl who is half Vietnamese, I’m rediscovering the importance and value of my heritage which is also her heritage.  It’s my duty to ensure she understands how much her culture and her great-grandfather’s non-negotiables will mold her into the woman she will become.

Kara with her maternal great-grandfather

Kara with her maternal great-grandfather

I hope that my daughter inherits some of her great-grandfather’s fight which I also see in my mother and in myself. I am hopeful for the future battles my daughter will choose in order to make the world a better place. Whether it be gender and wage equality or battles for other equally important marginalized groups {minorities, LGBT, impoverished, etc}, I hope that she knows what her non-negotiables are and will stand by them for herself and for others. But at the same time, I want her to remember the battles already won before her time — the fight of her ancestors to get to this country, the fight of this country’s founding fathers to establish the basic human rights she takes for granted such as freedom of speech and religion. I hope she recognizes the privilege she has of being an American.

Post Script :: Houston has the 3rd largest Vietnamese population in the United States. Chances are likely that every Vietnamese American has a story, but not every story is the same. If you would like to hear more stories, check out these profiles on PBS from the Academy Award nominated documentary, Last Days in Vietnam

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2 Responses to The Privilege of Being American :: 40 Years and Counting

  1. Lindsey April 30, 2015 at 7:29 am #

    This story brought tears to my eyes because it is a personal look into how much so many families have had to do to keep their families safe, and also how convicted they were to protecting and fighting for their beliefs. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  2. Marianne
    Marianne February 5, 2017 at 9:11 pm #

    My childhood next door neighbors were Vietnamese refugees. The family had two sons of their own as well as an adopted daughter. At the time of their escape, she was a toddler and had lost her parents, so they took her in. That is love. I do think as Americans we take advantage of the privilege we have – a privilege so many of us were born into. We have never known differently. But refugees, like your grandparents, know what it is to fight for life and for freedom. And I think only they know the true meaning of the American Dream – of reaching for an ideal. For so many of us Americans, that dream has just become a mundane reality. We live it every day. We expect it. But these outside perspectives can teach us so much about ourselves and who we are as a nation.

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