Relearning and Reconciling Two Histories

By Vina Vo

“Since I talk to a lot of Vietnamese-Americans here [United States] my English was improving, so a lot of times, people can’t tell if I just came here or I grew up here, so I was able to hide my status,” said Linh (Leo) Nguyen when discussing his activism in the Vietnamese community. He was president of the Vietnamese Student Association (VSA) in Mission College in Santa Clara and then at San Jose State University. He then joined the Union of the Vietnamese Student Associations Southern California (UVSA) and eventually the Union of North American Vietnamese Student Associations (UNAVSA). While serving in these groups, he helped organize the Tet Festival and parade in San Jose and volunteered for events around Black April.

Leo wearing his San Jose State University VSA President yellow sash with the three red stripe

With a firm grasp on the Vietnamese language and close familiarity with Vietnamese heritage, Leo incorporated these elements into all the meetings he led and events he organized. He was extremely passionate about preserving the Vietnamese culture amongst his peers who grew up as first-generation Vietnamese-Americans. Though he openly embraced his Vietnamese heritage with his community, there was a part of him he had to conceal.

Leo giving a presentation on cultural differences between Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American students

“In the beginning, I didn’t want to expose myself as an international student. I think the Vietnamese community here would react differently if they knew I was an international student and leading a Vietnamese Student Association at San Jose State.” Leo, now 33, came to the United States when he was 18 as an international student from Viet Nam.

Growing up in Saigon, now known officially as Ho Chi Minh City, Leo didn’t learn about the “American War” as it was taught in the United States. “We were taught to worship Bac Ho (Ho Chi Minh),” he said. However since coming to the United States and learning about the history of the war and the Vietnamese diaspora, he was able to empathize and understand why so many Vietnamese fled after the Fall of Saigon. His mother and her siblings were amongst the many that tried to escape also, but due to what Leo calls “maybe bad luck,” her attempts failed and she remained in Viet Nam.

His mother managed to escape persecution because she was a nurse and so was sent to help with war relief efforts. It was during her time working as a nurse that she met Leo’s dad, a North Vietnamese doctor who was forced to walk over a thousand miles with the troops from the north to the south in an effort to “free” the south. Though her family was against the marriage because of Leo’s dad’s communist alignment, Leo concedes that he would not be here if she didn’t decide to marry his dad and stay in Viet Nam.

Leo, who is now an American citizen and working as an Engineering Technician for Tesla, has bought a house, sponsored both his parents to come live with him in the United States, and is involved in his community and church. While they don’t discuss politics and are not politically involved, Leo’s parents who became citizens recently, voted in the last general election.

“In Viet Nam, the less you talk about politics, the better,” he laughed. Even so, he finds that it is important to engage quieter members of the community and educate them about their rights, something that he was able to do when he was involved with the Vietnamese American Roundtable, a group of community volunteers who work collaboratively to research, develop, promote, and support programs and projects that benefit the local community.

Leo (left), his parents, and brother

Although he no longer has to hide his former Vietnamese citizenship, he continues to learn about his identity and the conflicting Vietnamese histories that he has been presented with. “I realize that a lot of stuff that I learned in school in Viet Nam [was] not true, and you can’t see that, if you’re in Viet Nam.” Even so, Leo speaks about his upbringing and memories of Viet Nam fondly. After all, it has provided him with the intimacy to the Vietnamese language and culture that he can now share and spread to his friends, community, and future family.