Stories from the Son of a Vietnamese War Refugee

By Gia Hoa Lam, G&A Institute Sustainability Reports Research Analyst Intern

Vietnam in 1982 can only be described as turbulent. My father, Loi, who had grown up during the war witnessed his family’s wealth disappear under the communist regime and the death of his first wife to tuberculosis. Faced with low prospects for the future, my father looked to America for opportunity—but this journey would not be easy.

From the 1970s to 2000, Vietnamese war refugees escaping by boat totaled one to two million — with an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 dying on the journey from being lost at sea, starvation, pirate raids, and storms.

Loi took some of his family’s remaining wealth in gold, bought a boat with several other refugees, and attempted to escape. He was caught, jailed, and had his gold confiscated. Unfazed by this setback, Loi attempted again—only to repeat being caught, jailed, having his gold confiscated. On his third, my grandmother—desperate to aid her son—went to the town fortune teller for guidance. The fortune teller told her to take the picture of Loi’s first wife out of his wallet because her spirit was holding him back in Vietnam.

This third attempt was Odyssean. This boat of refugees did not have a captain and so Loi was chosen to be the navigator because he was one of the few young men onboard. With only the speedometer, a map, and a compass, my dad steered a boat for the first time with dozens of refugees on a thirty-foot fishing trawler.

A typhoon left Loi at the wheel for 24 hours as massive waves threatened to capsize the boat. The boat was lost at sea for two days following the storm before a container ship managed to spot their vessel. If they had drifted at sea any longer, they would have sailed past the Philippines into the open ocean, far away from land or help.

The container ship brought the refugees to a Malaysian Red Cross camp from where Loi was able to immigrate to the United States. He found a job in the Bronx, NY as a pizza delivery driver before finding stable work as a machine operator. Loi enjoys karaoke and watching How It’s Made. His favorite singer is Michael Jackson.

I didn’t know about my dad’s immigration story until I was 16 years old. Part of me believes it was borne out of trauma rather than a means of shielding me from fearing the world. For most of my life, I had only known my father for his work ethic, strict sense of discipline, and distrust of others. Knowing the journey he took and the life he lived prior to meeting my mother provided the context to why he was so protective of us and why the pressure for success was so high for me and my brothers.

The sentiment for high expectations and low tolerance for deviance is shared among many Asian immigrants as the model minority myth. Oftentimes used to drive a wedge between Asians and other people of color, the narrative that Asian-Americans outperform other minorities because of their diligence and assimilation is a false dichotomy. The model minority myth turns stories such as my dad’s into ammunition for racial division, it fails to recognize the generational and systemic discrimination of black and indigenous people of the United States still perpetuated today.

Redlining and zoning laws have powerful effects on communities, leaving massive wealth gaps between races and ethnicities. Even in liberal regions like Boston, the average net wealth of white residents is $247,500, compared to the average net wealth of black residents, $8. Marginalized communities are often last to receive infrastructure, access to recreation, public transportation, and policy consideration.

Not only does the model minority myth simplify the nuances of systemic racism in the United States, but also it treats Asian immigrants as a homogenous group. Asian-Americans have the largest income distribution in the U.S. with median incomes for Indian-Americans at $119,000 compared to $44,000 for Burmese-Americans.

In Boston’s Chinatown, a vast majority of residents make between $14,000 and $30,000 a year. Drawing these divisions between minorities also deteriorates the collaborative work being done to uplift and support each other’s community.

In 1978, Bayard Rustin, a black civil rights activist bought an ad the in The New York Times with the signatories of 80 black civil rights activists publicly stating their support and campaigned for the admission of Southeast Asian refugees. In Rustin’s 1978 plea to the American public, he stated,” the black struggle for freedom is intimately linked with the universal struggle for freedom, whether it be in South Africa, the Soviet Union, or Indochina.”

Two years later, the Refugee Act of 1980 codified a means for war refugees, such as Loi, to immigrate to the U.S.

Today, I watched a video of Afghan refugees chase after evacuating planes on the Kabul tarmac. A sight eerily similar to the fall of Saigon. 40 million peoples are displaced annually because of conflict, violence, and disasters. My dad’s story is one of millions, and one of the few with a happy conclusion. My dad’s story is equally about strength and courage as it is about sound policy and global cooperation.

While I have told you the story of a Vietnamese war refugee, I have not told you mine. My goal in life is to show our increasingly polarized world that we have the capability for collaborative and compassionate action. My family’s struggle for freedom is therefore intimately linked with Afghanistan, Syria, and Palestine. I urge everyone to recognize the debt we owe to each other and our duties for compassion in the face of the universal struggle for freedom.

This article was originally published in Columnas – The Honors Program Newsletter at Bentley University in Fall 2021.

ABOUT AUTHOR
Gia Hoa Lam,
G&A Sustainability Reports Research Intern
Gia Hoa Lam, a G&A Institute Sustainability Reports Research Intern, is currently pursuing a B.S. in Economics-Finance and Sustainability with a minor in Public Policy at Bentley University. Due to his previous work as a corporate sustainability intern at Ceres, a sustainability nonprofit, Gia Hoa has sustainability consulting experience across multiple industries from sustainability planning for the apparel industry to analyzing human rights policies for banks. On campus, Gia Hoa is a founding member of Bentley University’s Green Revolving Fund, facilitated Bentley 2026 Sustainability & Climate Action Plan, and is currently advocating for endowment stewardship.

Gia Hoa centers people in his sustainability work with a deep passion for climate justice, DEI, and climate refugees. Initially interested in psychology, Gia Hoa realized mental wellbeing was directly linked with access to environmental and social resources. Thus, he began his journey to be a change leader through stakeholder engagement and facilitation. He believes the corporate world has the capacity for compassion and collaborative change.