By the time I started at Yale in 2016, it had been around 40 years since my parents had fled Vietnam. In that time, they had gone to college, gotten married, had three kids and settled down in Southern California.
Most of the stories I grew up with revolved around those 40 years — I heard about how my parents met at Disneyland (later revealed to be a cover-up for the less exciting blind date that actually brought them together), the Southern accent my dad developed during his years in Georgia and misadventures in California’s Little Saigon. But that lost time in Vietnam and the turbulent years readjusting in America were largely an unspoken mystery.
Of course, I knew the broad strokes. My dad left Huế in 1975 with his uncle. The unexpected opportunity to leave the country came so suddenly that there was no time to tell his parents. In the same year, my mom left the capital for a camp in the Philippines, just days before the Fall of Saigon.
Little anecdotes here and there helped to further sketch the outlines of their time in Vietnam. But for the most part, the stories my parents chose to share were only those that could conceivably be passed off as jokes. When my sisters and I were in search of games to play, my dad would laugh about lying on the grass in Huế and counting the bullets whizzing by. When we let our candy wrappers pile up on our beds, he accused us of living like refugees. He dropped these hints of his former life with more humor than self-pity, and we never quite knew whether to laugh along or just fall silent.
That was the status quo — some sly references to horribly violent situations but never a real discussion about the grief or sorrow that lurked behind them. It often seemed like they wanted to leave that vulnerability behind — after all, they had survived, and what more was there to say?
With the onset of the pandemic, however, I’ve noticed a difference in the way that my parents discuss their pasts. Midair during my flight back for spring break, we all received an email telling us not to return to campus for the next month. When I landed at the Burbank airport, my mom hugged me at baggage claim and said, “Everybody leaving so suddenly without warning — this reminds me of 1975.”
I was taken aback by the analogy — after all, the trip from Connecticut to California was certainly less fraught than the trip from Vietnam to America. But over the next few weeks, memories of Vietnam crept more and more back into our house; the pandemic seemed to have unleashed this need to not only remember, but also communicate that trauma. The sorrow of those years was shared more boldly and honestly than I had ever remembered.
A few days ago, my mom came into my room and sat on my bed. Already, I was primed for something serious. (She generally only comes into my room to bring cut-up mangoes or yell at me to wake up.) She said she was sorry that I wouldn’t have a graduation and added, “When we left Vietnam, it was right in the middle of the school year. I thought I would never see any of my friends again — but I did, and you will too.”
After that, I realized at least part of the reason why my parents were suddenly so ready to remember Vietnam. For them, sharing their experiences was a deep form of empathy. Not only towards me — a way to say, “I know what you’re feeling. I made it out, and you will too” — but also toward themselves — “This is hard, but we made it out before, and we’ll make it out again.”
I never want to claim that my time in isolation, filled with Netflix and cookies, can compare to their time as refugees. But neither will I deny the beauty of throwing a lifeline, of baring yourself and your life in order to connect with others in hard times.
We all now find ourselves in a period of tremendous anxiety. Facebook obituaries seem to multiply daily, a form of public bereavement in a time without funerals. We worry constantly about where we will get food and whether or not we can afford to, about protecting ourselves and our community from illness.
When this crisis passes, as it someday must, we may find ourselves wondering how to explain this all to our children. Our grief is ours to share how we see fit, but I would advocate for the path my parents chose. Suffering, with the blessing of time and understanding, can turn to empathy: We will say, “I know this is hard, but I made it out, and you will too.”
MICHELLE PHAN is a senior in Pierson College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .