“I feel that my childhood was in Vietnam and that a lot about being in the States was about growing up fast. My mom’s English was never great. I think she understood more than she could say. If I could do something by myself, I would. I went to my own PTA meetings. My dad would drop me off and I would go in and he’d come and pick me up afterwards.
“This taught me English in this emergency way. What allowed me to relax into English was my reading of English — the fairy tales, stories, even school ‘See Spot run’ things. When I was in sixth grade, there was a magazine called Star Hits. I used to buy it at the Thrifty’s, and it was pop-song lyrics, like Madonna and Duran Duran. There was a girl in my sixth-grade class named Sonthaly. I think she was from Thailand. She and I would take turns buying this magazine every week and sharing it with each other. So I knew all these lyrics to these songs that I didn’t necessarily hear. I remember loving to read those lyrics. The first poetry for me was those pop lyrics. I loved it when they wrote ‘ooh, ooh, ooh.’ ”
Lê's family lived in neighborhoods where blacks and Hispanics had homes. How, as a child, did she feel about blacks and Hispanics?
“I didn’t differentiate between Vietnamese people and black people or Hispanics. I thought we were the same in that we were different from white people. It had to do with class. The black and Hispanic people in my neighborhood or kids I went to school with were poor like me. So I felt that we were all in the same group. I associated the white people, the Caucasians, as being of another caliber because they were more put together, they maybe had more money. So it wasn’t a distinction of ethnicity or race so much as a feeling of class. Mexican people were living in Linda Vista before I left Linda Vista, and I knew that they were another culture, but I felt like they were more familiar than Caucasians were. It was also because I came across Caucasians in formal settings, schools and libraries, or on television. We would go to JCPenney and I would see people shopping or working there, and because a place like JCPenney was like a palace to me, I felt that the ease with which Caucasians were wandering through that palace meant that it was familiar to them. Whereas we didn’t often go to places like that. Because we didn’t belong there or we couldn’t afford things there. I felt that Caucasians had a sense of entitlement or I conferred on them a sense of entitlement that I myself didn’t feel and I felt my family didn’t have.”
“When you were growing up in San Diego, what were some of the principal markets where Vietnamese people shopped?”
“There used to be one at Fourth and University. Linda Vista had some small shops, and now it has quite a big one. There were also shops on University that we would go to. That was where our social life was, because you run into people there. For my mom, it was nice to be in a place where there were Vietnamese people and products. We would go there as a family trip; we’d get dressed up and go to the grocery store. It was an occasion, to go grocery shopping.”
“Did your parents observe Vietnamese holidays?”
“We celebrated the Lunar New Year, and we had feast days for the dead. My mom was Catholic, and my dad’s Buddhist, but they weren’t superobservant. Sometimes my mom would go off to church — there was a Vietnamese church and priest — but she didn’t pray every day — not like my friend Helen’s dad, who kneeled on his knees every evening and seemed to pray for hours.”
“When you were a little girl, did you ever want to go back to Vietnam?”
“I don’t think it was a thought like that. It was more like I would have these moments of wondering where all those people were. We didn’t have much contact with the family there. So in the most kind of unexpected moments, climbing a tree, say. Say there was a tree that was a small tree and it grew into the back of my friend Helen’s house, in her back yard, it curved up and over. We would climb this tree and then jump down into her garden, into her back yard. I would have moments sometimes before I jumped thinking, ‘Where’s my grandfather? What’s going on with him?’ But it wasn’t a question I felt I could ask. I think because I observed the implicit silence that we could think about Vietnam but we couldn’t talk about it.
“My parents didn’t talk about people in Vietnam. They didn’t know when they would see them again. For my mom it was difficult that she didn’t see either of her parents before they passed away. Yet her whole time here, the question of their well-being was paramount to her. My parents would send money, they would write letters.
“They wouldn’t avoid talking about Vietnam with their friends,” said Lê, “but they would talk about it in the past. They would talk about when they were young, but they wouldn’t openly say, ‘I wonder how people are doing there today?’ When my dad got together with his friends, they would sing songs and tell stories about when they were schoolboys. But there was a way they leapt over the war and the aftermath of the war.”
“Were there divisions in the Vietnamese community in political beliefs?”
“Yes. A lot of the Vietnamese who came here were from the south, and you had two waves. You had the wave that came in 1975, many of whom had some connection to the southern government or the Americans. Then you had the wave that came in 1978, which were more the economic refugees. I think it was among the people in 1975 that you have a stauncher anti-Communist viewpoint. My parents were among the group of Vietnamese who feel that Ho Chi Minh was a nationalist and a patriot and that if he hadn’t died, things might have been a lot different. [Ho Chi Minh died in 1969.] They were southerners and they didn’t support the Communists per se, but they were also not movers and shakers. They were among the mass of working-class people who basically don’t want too much attention put on them, because often it’s bad.