Five Vietnamese Families Tell Their Stories of a New Life in a New Land

Orange County’s residents of Vietnamese descent comprise the largest community outside Vietnam. Refugees from the Vietnam War began arriving in Orange County in the mid-1970s, and most were escaping the new Communist government. We spoke with multiple generations and five families and asked them to tell us their stories of identity, what it means to start over, and what’s important in their lives.

All photos by Priscilla Iezzi

An Identity Pivot
Irvine resident Jack Toan, 46 years old and a vice president and community affairs manager for Wells Fargo, was 8  when he left Vietnam by boat with his family. They lived first in South Carolina, moving to Orange County in 1987. He is of Chinese descent but was born in Vietnam. His 15‑year‑old daughter, Rhiannon Toan, attends Samueli Academy Charter School.

Jack: When we got to Orange County, my parents told us to begin identifying ourselves as Chinese, and they switched from speaking Vietnamese to us to Chinese—they wanted us to avoid any anti-Vietnam War sentiments. It’s why I can’t speak Vietnamese today, but I can understand it still. I can speak conversational Cantonese. My job has been to engage the Vietnamese community, and it has really helped me to reconnect. I had to give a speech to the Vietnamese community as an executive for Wells Fargo, and I thought I should do it in Vietnamese, so I memorized the entire speech phonetically. Because of all the pressure from my parents’ expectations when I was in school, I tell my kids now that it’s more important that they find something that they’re truly passionate about in life—success will come.

Rhiannon: I tell people I’m half-Chinese, half-Mexican (her mother is Latina). I identify myself as Chinese instead of Vietnamese because that’s what my grandparents would speak to me. I can understand it more than my little brothers. I don’t really have an interest in learning how to speak Vietnamese, but I am taking Spanish class in school. We visit our grandparents every week, and my grandma speaks Cantonese to me. I really want to get her to show me how to make her special egg rolls. … I like to draw and write poetry. And I’m trying vegetarianism for a year because I really love meat, so this is an experiment to see if I have the discipline. I also love makeup and watching YouTube makeup tutorials, especially the ones by Michelle Phan. I sometimes do my mom’s makeup when she goes out, too. Our family volunteers at our church on Wednesdays, so I teach cooking to younger kids, and I really like that.


Persistence Pays Off
A 60-year-old mother of three, Jacquelyn Mai came to America in 1977, settling first in Iowa. She disliked the snow and moved to Orange County in 1978. She lives in Santa Ana, as does daughter Nia Lieu Johnson, 40, a pharmacist who has a 2-year‑old daughter.

Jacquelyn: I worked a variety of jobs, whatever it took to provide for my family: as an electronic technician, then running a small business selling undergarments in Los Angeles, to working at a law firm, to dabbling in commodity businesses—where I made a lot of money—to owning a couple of neighborhood minimarts. When the big crash of the New York Stock Exchange happened in the ’80s, I lost my house, all my money. Actually, I lost everything three times. Every dollar I made (I then lost)—from bad business decisions to getting greedy investing in the stock market. Each time I had to start all over, and we’d be poor again. But what got me through was my faith and prayer.  That’s the beauty of life here in America. You can fail and lose everything, but if you’re willing to not give up, you can start over again.
Nia: I remember we moved around a lot, every two years, from city to city. We were poor—my mom sewed all our clothes, and we went to a lot of garage sales. My mom and dad separated shortly after they arrived to the U.S., so my mom raised the three of us by herself. I had a hard time fitting in at school because of all the moves. I was at another new school in the fourth grade and couldn’t seem to make friends, so I just started eating lunch in the bathroom. I remember eating sandwiches in the bathroom stall. My mom drove us to school every day and picked us up; she insisted on that even though we were just one block away from school. I knew we were the most important things to her. She worked hard to send us to private Catholic schools. Even today she continues to sacrifice for us. She still owns the same minimart and works regularly. She helped us buy our first home, and she is the world’s most devoted grandmother.


Coming Full Circle
Dung Cao came to the U.S. in 1975, living temporarily at a Camp Pendleton refugee camp. She met her future husband there; they married two years later and eventually bought their first home in Santa Ana for $77,000. The Irvine resident is 71 and a retired lead forewoman for Rockwell International in Newport Beach. Her son Paul Cao is 37 and chef-owner of Burntzilla and Burnt Crumbs. He lives in Tustin.

Dung: We worked so, so hard from the first day we got to America, always saving, saving, saving. I just retired last year after 36 years with the same company and only because my grandson was born. I put both of my two children through school at UCLA and am very proud that we were able to do that. I was born and raised in Vietnam, but I think I am different than my other Vietnamese friends. I recognized early on that we have to adjust to a different lifestyle in America, and I was exposed to that because all of my co-workers were American—I think that helped me to learn and assimilate faster. So I wasn’t taken aback that my daughter had mostly non-Vietnamese friends and will likely marry a non-Vietnamese. When my son, Paul, declared he wanted to forgo his finance job to pursue his dreams of becoming a chef, I was angry at first and told him: “You waste my money!” But I realized that everyone has their own life. Now I’m very proud of him and have a new purpose in life: my first grandchild, who brings me so much joy.

Paul: Our family moved to Irvine in 1985 before Irvine became famous for its safety and schools. I remember we hated it when we first moved here; we thought it was so boring. It was all just orange trees. It ended up being the best thing my parents did for us—we wound up being in one of the best school districts. My parents weren’t hard-core Vietnamese like my other friends’ parents. Of course they instilled that fear and expectation that we had to do well in school. At home we spoke only Vietnamese and ate Vietnamese food. My dad’s other rule was that we had to be home by 5:30 every night for dinner together. But every Friday night, they took us to get American food. We’d go to Chris’ & Pitt’s, Sizzler, Pizza Hut, and McDonald’s. I’m starting to feel like our family story has come full circle: We moved to Irvine, shopped at the one shopping center that was around, and today I own a restaurant at the very same shopping center.


Pursuing Community
Phuong Pham, 42, came to the U.S. with his father, followed later by his mother and sister. He lives in Orange with his wife and three children and is a corporal in the Westminster Police Department. His oldest child, Lauren Pham, is 12 and a student at La Purisima Catholic School in Orange.

Phuong: My parents were married just a few years before the Vietnam War ended in 1975. My dad, who was a high-ranking South Vietnamese government official, was imprisoned for six years when I was 2 years old. When he was released, the plan was for us to escape by boat first and connect with my mom and sister later. When we finally got to reunite in the U.S., too much time had been lost. We weren’t able to form a strong family foundation and structure—we became fractured. The time apart made us strangers. It’s something I’ll always regret, but I don’t blame anyone. It was just the circumstances of the aftermath of the war. I think that’s why I gravitated toward becoming a police officer here in the heart of Little Saigon. I wanted to feel like a part of my community, among people I can identity with and interact with and help.

Lauren: I went to Vietnam for the first time with my family three years ago. I got to see where my dad grew up and got to meet my great-grandmother. Vietnam is nice but way too hot. I liked the beaches there. There are a lot of poor people, and it’s not as clean over there as it is in the United States. It made me appreciate my life here. … I speak more English (than Vietnamese) since that is what I do at school, and my parents speak to me mostly in English. … I want to know about my culture and learn about certain traditions such as Tet, what li xi is for, why there are dragon dances, and things like that. I like to build Legos—building things relaxes me. I also like to draw, swim, and play video games. Sometimes I play the piano, and I want to learn how to fish.


A Universal Language
Born in Vietnam, Thanh Nguyen stowed away on a boat in 1982 and lived in refugee camps in Malaysia and the Philippines, where he became pen pals with an Australian aid worker who eventually became his wife. He was 25 when he made it to Orange County the following year. The 58-year-old lives and works in Garden Grove and is a math teacher at La Quinta High School. His daughter Monica Nguyen, 24, lives in Orange and works as a lab research assistant at Chapman University.

Thanh:  When I finally got to America, I was so happy to become a student again. Within six months of arriving, I got my GED at Santa Ana College. My brother took a picture of me in my cap and gown and sent it back to family in Vietnam. My dad saw the picture and thought that I had succeeded in becoming a lawyer in just six months. He was so proud. I transferred to UC Irvine and got a degree in computer science. I also got my math teaching credentials. Turns out that teaching math was perfect—it’s a universal language that comes easily to me. Because of all the English I learned while studying in Vietnam, I didn’t have any language problems here, and I was just so happy to be here. It’s been a dream come true for me. … Orange County isn’t just where my job is, but it’s where the Vietnamese community is—I feel at home here.

Monica:  I identify as Vietnamese-American or hapa or a mixed kid, but I often get mistaken for Latina. I’m OK with that, too. I have grown out of those days when I felt like I had to prove my Asian-ness to the world.
I know the parts of my identity that I cherish, and that’s good enough for me. … I’m not sure how much of what my father taught me was motivated by his desire to pass on traditional Vietnamese values, but I know much of what I have learned from him stemmed at least in part from his childhood in Vietnam. I learned from my father to be resourceful and not to waste, to respect teachers and elders, and to have a responsibility to my family to work hard and be grateful for what they have done for me. … I know how hard my father worked before he came to America, and I know how hard he worked once he got here. That is the only motivation I need to continue working to improve myself and the community around me.

The editors wish to thank the Vietnamese American Oral History Project at UC Irvine for their assistance in identifying some of the people interviewed in this story. Visit their site at Vietnamese American Oral History Project at the University of California, Irvine

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