By James Hong
This is a story about my family—the Hongs—a noble bloodline that originated in China, found its way to Vietnam, and discovered new life in America. Only recently has my family enjoyed peace and prosperity despite living in the United States for only about 35 years. After enduring years of being refugees, we eventually settled into manors across Kent and Renton—some traveling as far as London, California, and Texas. Indeed, now is an unprecedented period for the Hong Dynasty—one filled with single-family homes, camping trips, iPads, summer vacations, and holiday get-togethers.
Although some scholars still debate the precise date when the Golden Age of Hong began, I’ve narrowed it down to circa 1984, somewhere around January….third….plus or minus a day. Generation after generation we have become healthier, more educated, and grew taller. Life expectancy jumped 50% between 1975 and 2009.
When I was a young boy in 1991, I remember holding my baby cousin, Tony the Rainbow Head, in my arms. Then in 2009, Little Tony went off to study at an Ivy League college and dyed his hair gold…then purple, pink, red, and then gold again. Then he shaved his head. Legend has it that Tony’s hair changes in accordance to the moon, similar to that of a werewolf.
My little cousin Kylie, “the Western Princess”, is now a spritely darling in grade school and has never experienced anything but a life of upward mobility. When she’s not studying, she spends time with her best friends Princess Jasmine, Snow White, Belle, and Pikachu.
But if history can offer us any truth, it’s that dynasties rise and fall, and fall and rise.
Beginning in the mid 1970s and extending many decades, my parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents all suffered through the Vietnam War and its aftermath. As a result, their stories have either been lost through conflict or locked away in the labyrinth of their memories.
“Did your family come through refugee camps in Thailand or the Philippines?” some people asked. “When did they come to the United States? Do you still have family in Vietnam? Are you good at math because you’re Asian?”
“I dunno” was my common response as a child; except in the case of math to which I emphatically answered, “Yes!” and then proceeded to show off my multiplication skills.
At six years old, I was 100% sure my family came from Vietnam because my parents always spoke Vietnamese at home. By high school, I found out what city we were from: Saigon (it’s now known as “Ho Chi Minh City” which caused all sorts of confusion for me as an adult). At 25, I went to Vietnam for the first time with my family and visited the neighborhood my parents used to live in, Chợ Lớn, Saigon’s local “Chinatown.”
“You mean we’re 7/8th Chinese?!” I said to my parents. “WTF? Anything else you wanna tell me Dad…if that’s even your real name.”
That’s usually how the story goes for a refugee family. My parents couldn’t photograph their lives with a smartphone and post status updates to their friends. Just imagine…
Last Thanksgiving, I learned my aunts and uncles used to be farmers in the valley. “I liked picking strawberries the most,” recalls Uncle M. It made perfect sense because I love eating strawberries! Uncle M. and I would have been a terrible farming duo.
During Christmas, Uncle T. told me he met the love of his life during study sessions when they were undergraduates at the University of Washington. “So that’s where Aunt V. came from,” I thought.
“I try to tell my kids how hard life used to be but they just don’t understand,” confessed Uncle P. during Vietnamese New Years.
These snippets weave together to create a colorful yet broken portrait of our family history. Regretfully, I can’t tell you if our family tree was planted in China, Vietnam, America, or Camelot. But I know the roots are strong despite years of war. Until I fully understand what my family has lost, I’ll never be able to truly appreciate what we’ve gained (though I absolutely appreciated my monthly allowances as a kid). It’s ironic that the digital age has made it easy to share our daily lives with the world yet it’s grown increasingly difficult for me to understand and preserve my family’s history.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go teach my parents how to timeline on Facebook before it’s too late.
About the author: James H. is a first generation Vietnamese-American. He studied Sociology, Psychology, and Education at the University of Washington. In 2008 he joined the United States Peace Corps and spent two years working in international development. James currently works for a non-profit organization in Seattle where he continues his work helping youth and empowering refugee and immigrant communities. You can follow his blog at jhong1.wordpress.com.