Forced to flee a war-torn Vietnam, my parents both became boatpeople early in their teenage years. They sailed across the ocean in poorly constructed boats with the aspiration of finding better opportunities for their families in the golden land—America. My dad, traveling alone, lost contact with his family for almost ten years before he could tell them he was okay. My mom, the eldest daughter, took over the role of the mother in her family and cared for her four younger siblings while my grandma was still trying to find her way legally into America.
My family and my Southeast Asian heritage are the core to my existence. I remember when my dad finally completed all the paperwork to get travel visas for my grandparents to visit America. After years of filing and waiting and more filing and waiting, the day finally came when we picked them up at the crowded San Francisco airport. The first thing they did was run to my dad, hug him and cry. So whenever my parents tell me, “you kids in America have it so lucky,” I don’t doubt them one bit. Their struggles are what make me appreciate them so much and appreciate what I have around me.
Southeast Asians have been struggling a long time to make a strong presence in America. I work for a retention project on campus that provides services to keep Southeast Asian students in college. Most come from low income families who have to work during school to support their family. Others have to commute, so they can take care of their siblings while their parents are at work. Almost all have to juggle being a full time college student while providing for their entire family. What drives me to help these students is my parents—and all of their parents. They didn’t come to America for their kids to drop out of college and take on low paying, blue collar jobs. They came so their kids can work to become the world’s next big leaders.
Why do I do what I do? Because I am proud to be Southeast Asian and I want everyone else to know it. Even though our countries are stricken with poverty, our culture is rich, our people are unique and diverse, and our struggles only make us stronger.