This is the story of Jeff who came to the United States from Vietnam in 1987. I was tremendously curious about so many things that my interviewee mentioned. I had so many questions that I felt needed an answer. It was absolutely fascinating to hear what an actual immigrant had to say about what he went through, what he saw, what he heard, and what he felt at that moment in time when he moved from Vietnam to the United States.
The idea of immigration stopped being some statistics that I heard about in the news or read in an article. Hearing how the immigrant process occurred through an immigrants lens showed me how real it was and that it wasn’t just another story, it was someone’s life. Just like the person I interviewed, so many other people out there were forced to face so many difficulties during their journeys, and many faced the death of family members or even faced their own death.
Even if this did not directly apply to my interviewee’s case, this also opened up my eyes to the fact that events such as wars and discrimination only made life harder than it already was. No matter where my interviewee was, there seemed to be unsanitary living conditions, crowded housing which meant “liv [ing] in a small apartment with a bunch of other men,” more men involved in jobs than women, lack of a good education, “barely getting paid enough to make a living,” and so many more factors that simply made life not worth living. After doing some research around the time period my interviewee immigrated in, I found that were so many issues going around, such as the Vietnam War which ended in 1975, which means that his family must have been recovering from the war at the time their family was growing up.
However, while there were definitely difficulties, such as when he had to deal with the deaths in his family where he said his “mom got sick not long after [he] left Italy and came to America” and “about a year later, she was gone.” Also, he discussed how “one of [his] two other siblings died of cancer.” This proves that challenges emerged for many immigrants, including my interviewee, but if the immigrant was determined to make it for themselves, it helped them develop as people. It taught them that they couldn’t mature and grow if things were simply given to them, but they could mature and grow if they have to fight for what they believe they deserve.
Let’s start by giving a bit of background information about your immigration experience. What year did you arrive at America and if you don’t mind saying, how old were you ?
Uh… I believe it was 1987 or 1986, somewhere around there. I think I was… 19 years of age.
And were you alone, or did you have someone to accompany you or did you at least know anyone that lived in America ?
I was alone and I did not know anyone in America. I had no choice but to leave my family behind.
Why do you say that you had no choice ?
My mom had high hopes for me, that I would come to America, get a job, and be successful, and my brothers and sisters were either too old or had already made families, making it hard for them to come to America just like that.
So you’re saying that your siblings had no chance of coming to America and being successful for several reasons ?
Well, okay. What do you mean when you say that they were too old ?
Alright, well … they were an age that may not have actually been “old,” but the thing is, if they had come to America at that age, they would have faced more difficulties than usual along the way. It would have been hard for them to get a job at the age they were at.
Okay, I see. So… when you came to America, what languages did you speak ?
Hm … I know Vietnamese was one for sure. And Spanish and Italian too.
Interesting… So, you say you spoke Spanish and Italian, but you are of Vietnamese origin, so how did you learn those languages ?
Yes, I may not be Hispanic, but for all of my life, I have been into learning new languages. But of course, I didn’t get the opportunity to learn Spanish and Italian in Vietnam. I learned it after I had left Vietnam to go to Spain, then Italy.
Really ? You went to Spain and Italy before you had arrived at America ?
Yes, that is correct.
What reason did you have to go to those countries ?
Coming to America was difficult, but I thought if I had adapted in another country and learned the ways of the world, things would be easier and I would understand better and faster. I guess it all just kinda happened.
So, where did you go to first ?
And, what was that like ? Was it everything you expected it to be ?
I would say it was not as terrible as I had thought. I found a job at a bakery and became something of a waiter. Like most things, it was very difficult at the start, but I eventually found this man, sweetest man I have ever met, and I don’t think I would have made it without him. He eased me in and taught me Spanish. He didn’t speak Vietnamese, but he did speak a bit of English. As did I. I also caught on to some of the phrases said by the workers and from there, it wasn’t hard to understand what the workers were saying.
Learning Spanish from a man who spoke no Vietnamese and only a bit of English, how was that even possible ?
I know, I know. It sounds practically impossible. But he knew a bit more of English than me and I was determined and he was caring. As long as we had all that, there was definitely a chance. And I will admit, I definitely did not become fluent in the language, but it was good enough for survival.
Oh, okay. And you went to Italy when ?
Soon after I had went to Spain, I decided to go to Italy. I believe I was in Spain for a good 3 months.
And you went to Italy because … ?
It was time for me to move on, and I had learned a bit of Spanish and English and I ready for more.
How was it when you went to Italy ? Was it the same as Spain ?
Actually, I had similar job in Italy. I worked in this little pizzeria. There, I met this woman, who was the sister of my boss. We would meet up around twice or three times a week for her to teach me Spanish in exchange for me to teach her Vietnamese. It was hard to communicate, but we both knew English pretty well at that time after I became better in speaking and understanding and whatnot. At work, I used my Spanish skills to understand what was happening cause Spanish and Italian are not far off from one another, so it wasn’t that hard. By the time I had left Italy, I was proud to say that I was fluent in Spanish, much better in English, and was making great progress in Italian.
Wow, what a spiral of events you went through.
Yeah, well, if it weren’t for that, I don’t think I would be the person I am today.
You previously said that you felt the need to come to America, because you seemed like the practical person in your family who could take on that challenge. Is that right ?
Well, besides that motive, was there something that drove you to leave your home country?
Actually, yes. Me being the naive teenager I was, I thought that I could come to America, get a job, make a bunch of money and go back to my country to bring my family with me where I would support them. But life doesn’t work like that.
So, have you ever gone back ?
I wish, but what I didn’t know that that last time I saw my family would be the last time. My mom got sick not long after I left Italy and came to America. And about a year later, she was gone …
I’m so sorry that you had to go through that… (I gave him a moment to recover) How did you deal with it at the time ?
I just kept the memory of my mom in my head and that motivated me to go further and further. No one ever believed in me as much as she did and that was more than enough to keep me determined.
And your siblings… ?
Well, three of my siblings continued with their families and stayed in Vietnamese to take care of them and one of my two other siblings died of cancer and the other stayed for his own reasons. To be honest, I never really fully understood what those were exactly.
Oh, wow. That sounds really difficult to handle. So, you never seen them ever since ?
No, not exactly. I like to stay in touch and I mainly talk to my brother cause the other three are busy with their families.
Best wishes to your family back in Vietnam. So, when you arrived, how did that go ? What was your first impression ?
At first, it was more or less a sigh of relief. But, as time went on, that feeling kind of dissolved as I had no choice but to live in a small apartment with a bunch of other men. My life was going to and from work, which barely paid enough to make a living, and at the end of the day I came to sleep in the corner of a room in an uncomfortable position. I may have been alive, but I surely wasn’t living.
Was it easy for you to transition from Vietnam, Spain, and Italy to America ?
Surprisingly, I would have to say that transition was not as difficult as one would have thought. I mean, I spoke a bit of three languages, so at least I knew what was happening, which is more than I can say for most, and I started to adapt to similar conditions back in Spain and Italy anyways. The conditions there were not as bad, but, still, bad.
When you were coming to America, what was your idea of the “American Dream?”
Ha (in a sarcastic tone), “American Dream,” that’s such an interesting term. Well, at the time, my idea of the American Dream was getting a good paying job, having a home and later on, the opportunity to go back to my home country and provide to bring them with me. As time went on and when my mum died, I learned that was practically impossible. My siblings were already bent on staying in Vietnam, because of their huge families and bringing them here might make the kids sick and for so many other reasons. Later on, I had the idea that the American dream just meant being happy, even if I am not the happiest I could be, happy is good enough. After getting married and having my two lovely children, I feel like everything fell into place from there.
So, would you say your “dream” was achieved ?
No, but I am glad it wasn’t. I may not have gone back to my country, but perhaps it is for the best. I could have gone back and brought my family with me and they could have gotten sick. And maybe I did not get a great job right away, but it’s the fact that I overcame many hardships that made me the hard worker I am today. So, my “dream” didn’t happen the way I imagined, but at the end, I am happy. Even if I am not happy in the way I initially wanted, I’m happy and that’s what matters, and thank god there were obstacles in path, because if there were no obstacles in my path, how could I have truly known that my path was leading anywhere ?
Mona Shadded '21 (BHSEC Queens)
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