“Thầy có bao giờ buồn không?”

The snow was falling, light and flaky. It must be winter time, but I didn’t know what month it was. Pennsylvania was flat and desolate. I was walking along a main street of the camp, looking at the falling snow flakes, and watching my breath. I didn’t know how long I’ve been walking. With no particular place to go, it seemed time was not relevant.

There was a Buddhist temple by the side of the road. There was no one inside. As I stood there gazing at Buddha, a monk came out to greet me. “Thay co bao gio buon khong?” I asked. He looked at me and then smiled.

I was taking classes while staying at the camp. My English was not good enough to understand my teacher, but it was a good way to occupy my time. I spent several months in that camp before they sent me to Washington State. I had some relatives and an older brother living in Washington State. The church that sponsored them also sponsored me to come to Washington.

Capital High School

I was staying with my uncle’s family in Olympia while beginning my schooling at Capital High School in the 10th grade. It was difficult in the beginning, but toward the end of the school year, I was able to understand my teachers completely. I remember feeling so excited when I read my first book in English from cover to cover. I understood most of it, and that gave me a sense of accomplishment.

My living situation at home was not a happy one. There was so much conflicts in the home as we all lived in a tiny apartment and tried to adjust to life in America. My older brother also stayed with my uncle. He didn’t like school and had gotten into fights at school. He finally dropped out, hung around with the wrong crowd, and ended up in prison. I was placed in a foster home with a white family during the 11th grade. I moved back in with my uncle’s family during the 12th grade.

Like most immigrants, I wanted to fit in and to become an American. In fact, I convinced myself that I was white. I changed my name to a white American name. It is no coincidence that immigrants of color would change their names to white American names instead of other ethnic sounding names. When was the last time you heard of a name such as: Julio Wong, or Kunta Kinte Rodriguez?

I began to reject Vietnamese women, and all Asian women in general. I thought the ideal of beauty was white. I was ashamed of the Vietnamese language and culture. I even thought that Vietnamese food, which I ate all of my life, was not good. I was more than willing to stop speaking, reading, and writing in Vietnamese. All of my friends, including my best friend, were white.

I became like most other American kids. I joined the swim team, and the cross country team for after school sporting activities. I took classical guitar lessons, and I joined the school choir. I took all of the required courses to graduate from high school, including United States history, but there was nothing about the Vietnam War. There was a collective amnesia about the Vietnam War both in the school texts, and in social discourses.

Western Washington University

The five years I spent studying at W.W.U in Bellingham after high school were the lost years. I lost myself by trying to fit in. Most of the time, I was trying to overcome my own insecurity. Now I realize I was insecure because I didn’t know myself. How can anyone be a self assured and confident person, when he is trying to be someone other than himself?

I was innocent, naive, and vulnerable. A lot of girls liked me, but most of the time I was too naive to know about it, or too insecure to act on it. And for the few Asian girls on campus that liked me, I generally just ignored them. The girls thought I was cute and nice, and my male friends thought I was honest and sincere. In a way, it is true that “ignorance is bliss,” but I was in an environment where everyone was about the same age, and we didn’t have any worries except for getting good grades.

One day some friends and I went to the “Coconut Grove,” a tavern off campus, even though we were under age. When I went to the bathroom, one guy I didn’t know followed me into the bathroom. He asked me where I am from, and I told him I am from Vietnam. He said he’s a Vietnam Veteran, and threatened to do bodily harms to me unless I leave the bar. I just remember feeling confused.

I majored in Business Administration. I was an average student, since I didn’t have much interest in my area of study. Most of my friends studied Business, and that was the reason why I majored in Business.

I was in a serious relationship with a white girl from a small town during most of my senior year. I didn’t think even once about our bi-racial relationship. We lived together off campus for most of my senior year.


We moved to Seattle and got married soon after from college. With a B.A. in Business Administration, but the only job I could get was as a Management Trainee at a retail store. My white friends who studied in the same program all got high paying corporate jobs. I never got promoted to a management position. I was mostly a cashier, and the store manager would tell me to sweep the floor. I told my wife about it, and she gave me a silent look. I felt she thought I was less of a man.

A black female employee took me aside one day and mentioned something about the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), but I didn’t really listen to her. I was ignorant and in denial. I thought I was white.

I worked in retail for about a year-and-a-half, about the same length of time my marriage lasted. I never knew why my ex-wife wanted a divorce. She never told me why either. I assumed it must had been my fault since she wanted a divorce and I didn’t. She soon married a guy who worked in her office.

Heartbroken and depressed, I decided to change my career. I went back to school to study education because I wanted to help children.

The Evergreen State College

I got accepted into a two-year program in Teacher Education. It was a very challenging program. A lot of my classmates had graduated from Ivy League colleges, so I was in a program with some very bright people. I also had an excellent teacher. He was a product of an Ivy League education, but he wanted to create a program that would produce independent and critical thinkers. Educators that would reform the public school system. I admired him very much. He was the best teacher I’ve had.

I loved the learning environment at Evergreen. We didn’t compete against each other for grades, but worked collaboratively in the search for knowledge. I became one of the best students in the program. Evergreen was a place of progressive white liberals who believed in cultural diversity, or so I thought.

During my second year, I moved into a house off campus. There were three other Evergreen students living in the house, but one student was in Alaska fishing for the summer so I didn’t have a chance to talk with him before I moved in. I didn’t know he doesn’t like Vietnamese people. One day when I was sitting on the floor eating and watching television, he called me a “Gook” and sucker-punched me when I wasn’t looking. One other housemate broke up the fight. It wasn’t much of a fight since I didn’t have a chance to defend myself. I called the City of Olympia 911 number, and filed a police report. The other housemate also gave a witness statement of the assault. The one who assaulted me didn’t get arrested. He didn’t get jail time. He didn’t get a fine. He didn’t even get a record. And I still thought I was white.

I got offers to teach at the San Diego School District and at Portland School District. Both of these districts were actively trying to recruit minority teachers. I also had excellent recommendations.


I taught for the San Diego School District during my first year of teaching. I was trained as an educator who was on a mission to reform the public school system. One who was dedicated to creating a democratic classroom, in the tradition of the educational philosopher John Dewey. I wanted my students to be able to think critically, and to question authority. I wanted them to become empowered. I failed miserably.

I quit my teaching job half way through the school year, just before Christmas break, and traveled to India. I wanted to focus on meditation, a fascination I have ever since I was a child. I also traveled to Nepal, and trekked in the Himalaya. I traveled and meditated for about six months.

I returned to the United States and taught for the Portland School District the following school year. I learned from the mistakes I made the previous year. I established some structure, as in classroom rules. However, I let the students become actively involved in deciding the appropriate rules and the appropriate consequences during the first week of class, and we then stayed with the established rules for the rest of the year. I was well liked by the students, and the year was pleasant. Although, I still don’t know if I have taught them anything.

I decided to move back to Seattle when the school year ended. Portland School District wanted me to continue teaching there, but I wanted to move back to Seattle. I think I wanted to return to Seattle because I still had not gotten over my ex-wife.

For three years, I kept applying for a teaching position with the Seattle School District. I had a good placement file and great recommendations, but I couldn’t get a job interview with the Seattle School District. I couldn’t even get on the Substitute Teachers list.

There were a lot of Vietnamese students in the school district, and I was one of the few certificated bilingual teachers who spoke Vietnamese, but I couldn’t get a teaching job. There were Japanese-Americans on both the school board, and in the school district administrative office.

In 1997, I decided to move back to Olympia, to be near the school I loved and a teacher I admired.

But I Didn’t Make a Threat

I had been doing casual reading about the Vietnam War for the past few years. I wanted to find out what really happened, and the reason why I am in the United States. The difficulties I experienced in the United States, in the form of both overt and subtle discriminations, finally made me question my own identity. I read as many books as I could find in the public and school libraries on the subject of the Vietnam War. I found out a lot of books didn’t tell the truth; or worse, only partial truth, and that only made the subject more confusing. I realized about the propaganda conducted by the media, and books are certainly a form of propaganda. I had to put into practice what I have been teaching my students: to think critically and to search for the truth.

I applied for a teaching position with the Olympia School District. I had a lot of spare time, so I began checking out books from the Evergreen State College about the Vietnam War. The library there had books that other libraries didn’t have. I read “On Genocide” by Jean Paul Sartre. I read “My Lai 4” by Seymour Hersh. I read “Our Great Spring Victory” by General Van Tien Dung, a book translated from Vietnamese into Italian and then into English.

For the first time, I realized the extent of the atrocities committed by the United States against the Vietnamese people. I did further research by reading microfiche of popular magazines during the time of the war, to find out what the public opinion was at the time. I found out about the public support for Lieutenant Calley, and how he served only for a short time in a privileged barrack, and then he was pardoned. I found out about Nixon calling on the silent majority to support the war in Vietnam, and I found out the United States withdrew only when they knew they couldn’t win the war in Vietnam.

It became clear to me the relationship between colonialism and racial discrimination, and I finally understood the nature of racism in the United States.

I felt angry and I needed to talk with someone, so I went to the Evergreen State College’s counseling office. I spoke with a counselor for about half-an-hour. I didn’t get another appointment or a referral to another counselor. A counselor there recommended a book, A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America — by Ronald Takaki. I went to the library right after speaking with the counselor to check out the book, but it wasn’t available, so I placed a “hold” on the book then went home.

One week later, four policemen and a community mental health counselor showed up at my apartment. They said the counselor at Evergreen told them I made a threat to shoot school children. They delivered a “No Trespassing” order and told me I am banned from the Evergreen State College, and the Olympia School District, and all of the surrounding school districts as well.

The Olympia newspaper ran a story about me the next day about the “threat” I made. The Olympia School District sent letters to all of the parents about me. They circulated my name and picture, along with what kind of car I drove, to all of the schools. The parents demanded my arrest. The community mental health counselor told me to be careful, and that my life was in danger.

It was then that I learned of white people’s fear and hypocrisy.

Community Activist

I moved back to Seattle and dedicated myself to applying my knowledge toward becoming a community activist. I joined all of the major Asian-American organizations, and an African-American organization, in Seattle. I wanted to empower the Vietnamese people in Seattle, but there wasn’t any Vietnamese organization doing the work that was needed to get the Vietnamese people involved in the political process. Most of the Vietnamese organizations were still about teaching English as a Second Language, or helping Vietnamese people pass the United States Citizenship Test.

So instead of helping the Vietnamese people, I was volunteering a lot of my time for other minority organizations that were using me as a mouthpiece for the Vietnamese community to help them win labor contracts, or to get grants supposedly for the Vietnamese community. Other organizations were also looking for and grooming minority activists who believed in their cause, rather than representing their people in the fight for racial equality.

I learned that Asian-Americans in the position of power were only interested in maintaining the status quo, and I became disillusioned with the political process.

I decided to return to school to study web design, so that I could reach out to a wider Vietnamese audience. My goal was no longer just empowering the Vietnamese people in Seattle, but to help the Vietnamese people everywhere to become proud of their cultural heritage.

Watching the Stars Through My Bug’s Windows

I began my study in web design at Bellevue Community College. There was a federal and state program for Worker Retraining, and I was qualified for retraining. After one quarter of study and I still didn’t get any funding. I couldn’t work full time since I was in school. My money was running low, and I went to the school office for help. I told them I may not be able to pay my rent for the next month. They told me to go to a homeless shelter for help.

I became homeless on April 30th 2000, on the day of the 25th anniversary of my leaving Vietnam. I have been sleeping in my ’72 Volkswagon Bug while going to college.

I Wanna Go Home

I have broken the chains of ignorance
that held my mind captive
and kept me imprisoned
for all these years
soon I will take wings
and fly away
to my native land
the land of my ancestors
and in my heart
I will rejoice
in the verses
of an old Negro spiritual,
“free at last
free at last
thank God Almighty
I am free at last.”