Women’s History Month: Uplifting My Mom’s Immigration Story
By Kathy Tran
The narrative surrounding the Vietnam War rarely shines a light on the impacts of war and resettlement on Vietnam’s women. Countless movies and books detail the experiences of men fighting in the Vietnam War, but rarely do we get to hear from Vietnamese women, like my mother, who lived through the war, resettling in the United States years after it ended. Through her reflections of war, motherhood, and struggles to navigate a new life in the United States, her story can offer some insights into how we should approach policy advocacy.
My mom’s story starts with her upbringing in Vietnam. She was raised by a family of strong Vietnamese women who had to overcome barriers of war and poverty. Growing up, my mother and her family had only known years and generations of colonial rule and war. Despite growing up during the war and living in poverty, the values of hard work and education were instilled in my mother.
Living through a civil war between North and South Vietnam (1960-1975), my grandmother raised my mom on her own. My mom grew up during the Vietnam War of 1963 to 1975. While my father served as a lieutenant in the South Vietnamese military during the war, my mom ran her family’s butcher business. The war and all the suffering that came with it finally ended in 1975. Eighteen years later in 1993, my parents immigrated to this country through the United States’ Humanitarian Operation (HO) program, which sponsored former reeducation camp prisoners seeking to resettle in this country. It was a difficult decision, but my parents left behind everything they knew in order to begin a new life in the United States.
Little did they realize that leaving behind that chapter of hardship and war would lead them to a new chapter of struggles navigating life here. They came with absolutely no money or belongings in the hope of making a better future for their kids. This new chapter in my mom’s life would also bring new hardships of economic insecurity.
For many Vietnamese refugees, their social, economic, and political experiences in the United States are deeply shaped by how they left their homeland and the assistance they received once they arrived in this country. No matter how much my mom prepared for the journey to give her kids a better future away from war, leaving behind her mother and siblings and adjusting to a new life in the U.S. was a difficult experience for her.
When you first came here, did you receive any support? What surprised you the most?
Transcription: "I don't speak English, and I feel homesick a lot, because I lived in Vietnam for 30 years, and then I come to a new country to start all over again, and the house we lucky we have the friend to sponsor my family to come to Santa Ana, California, and we grow up in Santa Ana, and one of the churches helped us to pay for the airplane tickets for husband, me, and 2 boys, every month I pay back to the church is $20 until the balance is 0. I so appreciate the church that helped me pay the ticket that helped my family to the US. We don't have money, we just have $1000 for the whole family."
Once my family resettled in Santa Ana, my mom described the difficulties she faced trying to find jobs paying low wages with little knowledge of English. She never had the opportunity to finish her education in Vietnam because it was interrupted by the war. When she arrived in the United States, she enrolled in the local community college’s “English as a Second Language (ESL)” programs. She found newspaper clippings about Vietnamese salon owners looking to hire hair and nail stylists and technicians, so she earned a cosmetology license.
As a new immigrant she was not qualified for many jobs that required proficient English or a high school degree. As a hair stylist with a cosmetology license, she could get by with less than proficient English skills and she didn’t need a high school degree. Working as a hair stylist, she continues to work 12-15-hour days with little to no breaks. About 78 percent of salon employees are paid low wages and continue to experience challenging work conditions.
Many Vietnamese immigrant women, like my mom, also became the primary financial provider for their families. My mom has been the sole income provider for our family for most of my life. Working at a job paying low wages often meant that she had to work overtime to make ends meet.
Although my dad found a sub-minimum wage job as a security guard, he was diagnosed with Glaucoma and was unable to work. While navigating to make ends meet, my mom shared how public benefits such as Section 8 housing, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), CalFresh, and WIC helped her put food on the table and a roof over our heads. Without these public assistance programs that help to support our family at our time of most need, we would not be where we are today.
When you came to the United States, what programs or government programs helped you get back on your feet?
Transcription: “Yes, I because I came in 1993 So my first son was five years old and second son was two years old yeah and my husband started working in the small shop like, they do the dry cleaner, one of the friend gave him a job. And later, he worked a job like a security guard. He worked at the nighttime. And I worked to the daytime. Then we so we had the CalFresh to help us for the food stamps and a little money for taking care for children and buy food for children. And we received welfare for four years. After four years. So, we signed off the program because we had a job. Yeah, I went to school during the four years. I go to the beauty school to learn English and learn about cosmetologist license. Yeah, after I graduated, I had the license. I'm so happy with myself. Because I had the license to go to work. Then. Me and my husband work so we stay off the program for the welfare.”
Growing up, I watched my mom work hard to make ends meet and give our family a better life. When I was young, I quickly learned how policies and social programs can be a catalyst to support families with low incomes like ours. At the same time, I also saw how poorly structured safety nets can keep a family one paycheck away from a catastrophic disaster such as eviction, homelessness, hunger, and more.
We were always on the receiving end of both good and harmful policy decisions, but we were never in the room to influence these decisions. During Women’s History Month, I hold my mom’s life story and life lessons dear to my heart and strongly believe her story should be uplifted in the room where policymakers make decisions.