The killing of George Floyd seems to have been a turning point for many of us. And while the Black community mourns over a long, painful list that also includes Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tamir Rice, Rayshard Brooks, and many others; my beloved Asian community is taking a serious introspection to see how we’ve participated in systemic racism that’s rooted in America and how we can be a part of change that’s long overdue. I, for one, began with my dad.
My dad fought in the Vietnam War for the South, alongside American troops. When he immigrated to America, however, he wasn’t treated like a war hero. He had to work at starting over a new life. He started a family, got a stable job, raised us in a house, and provided for our family so that my sister and I could have opportunities. So when he hears a narrative where Black Americans are in a constant struggle for racial justice and are owed equitable reparations, he seems to resent it because of his own journey as an immigrant coming to America.
In my family, it seemed like the only time we talked about race would be when my parents would make a blanket statement of another ethnic group. “Oh those Mexicans always…Oh, Black people are always…” Asians were not exempt, “Koreans do this…The Japanese are… ” As a young boy, I never felt these statements were made maliciously. I think it was their way of navigating through a country where their people were no longer the only ones around. So not only did my parents have to figure out how to live in America, but also how to solidify their own identity as Vietnamese immigrants in this new world in which they lived alongside many other cultures.
While most of what they said went through one ear and out the other, it introduced me to this concept of evaluating other cultures against my own and against others. I grew to notice similarities and differences through interpersonal encounters, family values and dynamics, and cross-cultural interactions. I was fortunate enough to grow up in a fairly diverse community where I was exposed to different cultures and backgrounds. Having that experience taught me how to treat others who were “different” from me as how I wanted to be treated because I, too, was “different” to them.
When I talked to my dad about George Floyd and racism in America, he was more focused on my participation in the protests than the overarching argument of systemic oppression. He feared for my own safety. From how he was seeing the news portray the looting and rioting, he thought all protests were like that across the country. I first questioned where he sourced his news. He couldn’t give me a specific answer. “The News! I saw it on The News! Why do you care about what’s happening to them?” He asked me. He then went on a tirade of some of the most ignorant and abhorrent things I’ve heard my dad say. “Black people are criminals. They’re homeless. They’re lazy.” It was reminiscent of the off-handed things he would say when I was younger, but now said with a tone that I was more aware of and less willing to let go in one ear and out the other.
The most intense part of our conversation was about the tape of George Floyd’s murder. I asked him if he had seen the full video, which he said he did. He defended the police, reciting the same talking points that I had heard from clips of conservative pundits. “He broke the law. He was resisting. He should’ve listened to the police.”
I vehemently denied his reasonings. “No one should die like that. George Floyd did not deserve to have his life taken away over what he was alleged to have done.” As we continued to argue, it started to dawn on me that what hurt me the most was thinking my own father seemed to have no regard for human life. That’s when I went from being determined to being angry. I blurted out, “I’ll never see you again if you don’t stop!” I knew saying this would get him to listen because I wanted to make him realize how deeply personal this was to me. So much so that it could jeopardize our relationship.
I tried to explain to him why standing up to racial injustice is important to me, especially when it’s a community other than our own. While I don’t expect my dad to about-face his beliefs, my attempt was to get him to understand why I was protesting and maybe hoped he would support me in some way. We were completely disconnected on the purpose of our conversation as he thought I wanted him to march alongside me. I clarified, “No, that’s not what I’m asking you to do. I want you to think about some of the language you use when you describe Black people.” We eventually ended the conversation in as amiable a way as possible.
But it didn’t end there.
On Father’s Day, three weeks after our first conversation, I took my dad out to lunch. We sat in silence. In my mind, I feared he would bring up the protests and what our last conversation was about. A small part of me hoped that perhaps he took time to reflect. Maybe he’d extend an olive branch; Maybe I’d accept an olive twig. Regardless though, I didn’t want to bring it up. I was afraid to be disappointed from making zero progress, which made me keep that door closed for now. Honestly, I just wanted to enjoy my bowl of Phở.
As I was driving him home, he asked me who I was planning to vote for in November. I told him Biden. Then it all went to hell. He started talking about how Obama did nothing for the country and hurt the economy, and that jobs were created because of Trump. Trump will take care of the country.
Again, I asked him where he was getting this information, which he vaguely answered, “The News!” For the second time, I yelled at my dad.
“You know, Trump doesn’t give a shit about you. His administration doesn’t give a shit about any of us! You still think it’s the ‘old days’ where all it takes is hard work to make it in this country. You don’t understand that there’s a lot of people hurting and you don’t care about it because it’s not ‘us’. I hate that you think like this, and I’m ashamed of you.”
I thought about how my dad was always the “man of the house”, where he was rarely challenged and whatever he said was final. But that day, I no longer feared to challenge him in this arena. My words, which felt weaponized against him, changed his posture to where he struggled to speak.
When we reached his home, my dad gave a timid goodbye, seeming like he wanted to say something to save face, but stopped before saying anything at all. I was stoic and silent as he exited the car.
I was angry, hurt, regretful, all at the same time. I felt like I did the right thing and wrong thing at the same time. I questioned my intentions, but most of all, my approach. Sure, I was standing up for what I believed in, but at what cost? My relationship with my dad was already distanced and now we were further than ever. At the most basic level, I struggled to comprehend why my own father’s ideas were so radically different from mine.
If I’m being realistic, there’s not a good chance my dad will ever become sympathetic for racial equality and justice. There is something hardwired in him — culturally, emotionally, mentally — that keeps him from being able to or from wanting to change his mind. Then again, there is something hardwired in me — culturally, emotionally, mentally — to be the dutiful son who takes him out to eat even if the meals are passed largely in silence.
If I’m being optimistic, my resistance to his obstinance will be a seed that begins to grow within him. I don’t believe it will ever blossom into understanding and profound empathy for the cause of racial equality in our country. But perhaps I can hope it will sprout into an understanding of his son. Even a sense of pride, however small, that I am standing up for something — or just standing up to him.
On Father’s Day, one of the last things I told my dad was to stop living in the past and accept that the world was different now. When I left that day, I was not sure if we would ever speak again.
My dad did not want to accept the world today. He wanted to return to a world that had never quite existed.
A few days later, he sent me a photograph of himself in his pilot uniform during the Vietnam War.
That’s my dad.