Voices from the Moon and Back: Interviews
Interviewing Two Interconnected Pasts
For this project, I wanted to interview both my parents. I first asked my dad, Papa Henri, to answer my questions the best he could. I know that he always elaborates when answering anything, and so I kept the questions relatively short. His portion of the interview will be translated from French, a word-for-word translation. For my mom’s portion, I will translate from Vietnamese also as accurately as possible. On the other hand, my mom is very accurate and concise with her answers. As she answers my questions, her motherly love will be very apparent in the anecdotes she recounts.
Papa Henri (translated from French):
M: “Can you tell me about your family and their occupation?”
H: “So to be exact, during the French colonization of Vietnam, my mom was part of the Tonkin peasant family in prairies and farms of Dau Yeu, the rural areas of Hai Phong and not the city. It’s here where my paternal grandmother was also born.”
M: “Your mom worked in the fields?”
My grandmother lived in rural Haiphong, in the fields, raising livestock… the pastoral life. And so my dad, during this time, was the third born among his siblings.”
M: “What did your dad do for a living?”
H: “My dad was a worker in his father’s store. His father was a textiles merchant, so my dad also helped out there.”
M: “So, can you tell me about when you immigrated to France by boat with your dad’s citizenship?”
H: “ 1956… we were in the South Vietnam before moving to the North. After the Geneva Accords in 1954 when French troops left Vietnam… with the divide at the 58th parallel, we were able to find a boat over to France. We had to wait 2 years before the actual trip, and so we stayed at a refugee camp in Saigon after moving from North Vietnam.”
M: “How was it on the paquebot? Talk to me about your experience.”
H: “Oh my god… the kids there, the passports there with pictures in French… we needed to get immunization shots in French… like the chicken pox. In 1956 March, we left on a paquebot sponsored by the French government. On the boat, there were many Eurasians, where Vietnamese people married French people. There were also people of Indian-origins. And all these people had their families. We had our paternal grandmother too, able to travel because she had her Vietnamese passport. During these times, grandparents followed their children — my grandmother followed her son, who is my dad, on the journey.
On the paquebot, it was like a dream for us. For us kids, it’s like… like if you go to the moon.
If I remember correctly, we had a little cabin on the boat. We went out and played with each other. I remember that the journey spanned 2–3 weeks of boat. We saw the sea. When we stopped at Sri Lanka, one of the many short stops the boat took, and when we got to the port, we saw the merchants who offered their trade and food. I remember we even stopped by and explored a little bit of the area there… there was a magician of some sort, if I remember right. My dad bought some decorative elephants there, as souvenirs, so we could decorate our home in France…”
M: “Did you bring anything from Vietnam?”
H: “Oh my god…. well, from the pictures and archives that I’ve kept, I remember from those pictures that my dad had a steel box. It’s the kind of steel box that you have when you’re enlisted in the army, the place where you store the gun cartridges.”
M: “How did your dad have that box? What was it?”
H: “ My dad had that steel box because of his job as a guard for a bank. Because of the position, he owned a gun, and he stored bullets in that steel box. So he just had that box when we went over — in that box were photo albums and things that he kept all his memories. Within these pictures, I remember several things, like my dad’s hunting experiences, and even the dog we owned.
For us, on the boat, it was really the dream. We went to see the cooks on the paquebot — there were Italian and British cooks. I think I have a picture in France. Well, as kids, we were like kings. We went around and played. I do remember that our grandmother was seasick though… she vomited a lot. But for us, we were kings. The experience for us…was like…like a cruise.
I remember Port Said near Egypt… since we were taking the Suez Canal to France. From there, we saw the deserts and even the pyramids on the side. I only knew what they were and where we are through history classes later…”
M: “So where did the paquebot land?”
H: “We landed in Marseilles. There were so many people. From there, we went to temporary transit centers after we landed. We went to the refugee camps that were available for people like us. The camps had a big house in a center, where we temporarily stayed for 2–3 months. The people there found.. since there were many refugee camps around that were previously military camps, defected military camps… they found one for us. There were a lot of children and veufs… widows. The people that already spoke French went to look for some jobs. Since there regions were usually in the rural areas, the countryside, the French-speakers tried to find jobs in the big cities like Paris. But since my parents and us, we didn’t speak French, so we just stayed in refugee camps. We grew up in these camps which were basically in the countryside. Just like any other kid who grew up in the countryside. In the morning, we would get the milk in the farm, we went ... we build tree houses, we went to wooden cabins, we hunted ducks and fished in ponds… we put up traps for birds and other animals.”
M: “So when did you move from there?”
H: “Us, we didn’t really move from there. I mean, the place itself provided very little. Very little comfort. There was only cold running water and you had to go to the bathroom outside. I stayed there until around I was 11 years old. After that, I started going to school and basically stayed in the dorms as I reached higher education.”
M: “Wait, so you stayed in that location this whole time? What was it called, do you remember where it was located?”
H: “Yes. It’s called.. it was called the Centre D’Accueil pour Francais D’Indochine… it was sponsored by government. It was located in Southern France. That’s the one we we were at, but there were also a lot of these camps in the Northern France. These camps were a bit everywhere because there was a housing crisis or whatever.
Well for us kids though, we didn’t really worry about that.”
M: “Wait so you only stayed in the refugee camp until you…?”
H: “Until I was an intern at a college, yes.”
M: “So when did you move to the apartment in France where I lived?”
H: “Oh, so that was around when I turned 18, in 1968. I went to a school next to Andette, Bayonne. I started there as an internship in a technical college. I stayed there everyday , on weekends too… I just went home for vacations. After 3 years, I got out with university dimplome, and from there, I wanted to keep going into higher education because I had a scholarship. So I went to Paris for a while, where I stayed in a room provided by the university. 1973, I found a small job as a surveillance position at a school near Noisy-Le-Grand. I talked with the mayor there I was looking for housing, and he led me to the apartment where we’re at right now. I kept that apartment until now.”
M: “You had a nursing degree first right? How did you change from that to an educational one?”
H: “Right right… so to keep that scholarship that was sponsoring me, I still needed to be in school. I was at the nursing school.
Anyways so that guardian position in 1981, I quit it so I could go into nursing.”
M: “No, can you answer my question: why did you go from nursing to education?”
H: “So because my parents always talked about the Vietnam to me, as a kid, I heard so many stories about the country. I listened to the radio, the news, and we even received Vietnamese newspapers growing up. I heard the stories from my mom. So I told myself that one day, I would go back to my homeland. And if I could go back, I wanted to be useful to the country. An education degree would help me do that. I never told this to anyone, but it was always in my conscience.
For my parents, they were completely de-rooted from the tradition and culture. For us, thought, especially for me, I don’t know by what miracle, but I did well at school.”
M: “So where does your name come from, Henri Cassim?”
H: “My great grandfather spoke Tamil and came from India, practiced Islam. He taught my dad the… the 5 Pillars of Islam if you will, and because of that he kept the language and culture within the family. He passed down our names.”
M: “Where did the rest of your siblings go/do afterwards?”
H: “The oldest sibling, Francoise, went into sewing because she was already too old when she came over to France — she couldn’t start school. At 5–6 years old, like me, Tatie Saban and Tatie Tom, we were the right age to assimilate and adapt fairly quickly. But the older siblings, they had to go and try to find jobs.
Tonton Louis actually went into military school. He was in the army even in Vietnam, so he went over to France separately from us, in the army’s own transportation. He immigrated to a military school too when he came over.
Kiem, my older sister, also did the same thing — since she was too old, she went straight into the workforce as a seamstress also.
Me, I did my nursing formation and later went on to an education degree. I wanted to get a doctorate later on, but that didn’t really work out.
I actually wanted to go to Vietnam beforehand to find a subject to research on, but the government wouldn’t let me have a VISA to travel.”
M: “When did you go aboard to other countries, like Germany, like you’ve told me?”
H: “I was in this organization called IVC , French branch— in English, it’s called the International Voluntary Service. It is a non-governmental organization, with headquarters in France, India, and other places. It’s a non-violent organization.
I was there since 1975.”
M: “When did you meet mom?”
H: “I met her when I was able to return in Vietnam. Being part of the IVC, I was mandated to go to Vietnam and renew/establish Vietnamese relations with France. I went to learn Vietnamese in these classes in Paris, all the while being temporary teacher.I had my educator’s degree in 1987. Since I took Vietnamese, civilization, and history courses, I met an American women who spoke Vietnamese really well through that process. I asked her how her Vietnamese was so fluent, and she said that it was because she lived in a Vietnamese community — if I was interested, she told me I could go visit her. So I visited her, and it was there that I met a Buddhist monk. At the time, I didn’t know he was famous, but he was… he was very famous because he taught in the United States, and other places, about Buddhist and its values. I was able to read his works a little bit after that, and I realized that he had a lucid view of Vietnam, that he wanted peace. Thich Nhat Hanh gave me a series of packages to deliver to certain addresses… Since this was a community, he introduced me to the Buddhist branch in Vietnam. So when I went over there, within that community, your mom’s best friend’s mom was there. And it’s through that that I met your mom.”
M: “And so you stayed in contact even after you returned to France?”
H: “Yes, we stayed in contact after that.”
M: “You had to stay in contact for a while after that, and so where and when did you get married?”
H: “We got married after your mom and her family moved to the United States. For the Vietnamese, we had to undergo the engaged stage, that’s really important in Vietnamese culture. I went over to California, where they were then. It was tradition for her father to ask me…to ask me a lot of questions so that I could be accepted into their family. I had to give him my birth certificate, he asked me if I was Catholic, he even asked my oldest sister if I was really single. Per his biding, I even went to two spiritual guide in the parish to make sure that I was a good person with good morals. And so when I saw them in California, he gave me his consent.
We were engaged, and then had the marriage in the church with their friends and families. The most important thing was for it to happen in a church.
In an administrative point of view, we saw an official and we signed papers for our marriage to be documented in France. There was a French embassy in Los Angeles, and that’s where we went. A couple months later, they sent us the Family book and the transcription of the marriage from English to French. We officially registered our wedding for the French government.”
M: “So… what did you do after the wedding, did you have a honeymoon or anything?”
H: “Since I had to leave back to France really quickly, I only stayed one or two nights afterwards. We only spent a night together at a hotel, but then I had to leave.”
M: “And mom came to France after you guys got married right?”
H: “Yes, after we got married and had the necessary documents for her to come over.”
M: “Merci, Papa.”
Maman (translated from Vietnamese):
My mom’s name is Thanh Huong in Vietnamese, and her English name is Theresa (T).
M: “Hi Mommy, I have to ask you some questions!! First, when you were in Vietnam, what did you do during your free time?”
T: “I worked all day sewing clothes, and at night I would take night classes.”
M: “Nono, in your free time?”
T: “ Uh… I went to the movies with friends sometimes, I had friends over… I went shopping a little bit… But my favorite thing to do was to go to classes and learn things. I went to flower arranging classes, cooking classes, and the like.”
M: “Where did you take these classes?”
T: “They had, like night classes at colleges and things.”
M: “What did you dislike the most in Vietnam?”
T: “I… I really hated cars. There were so many accidents because there were so many cars and a lot of pedestrians. I also didn’t like how unhygienic and dirty everything was, because people didn’t take care after themselves..”
So continuing on, what did grandfather do for a living during this time?”
T: “ My dad worked for the administration before 1975, the democratic government. So when the communists from North Vietnam conquered the South, they captured him because he had worked for the old government. He was taken concentration camps.”
M: “Do you remember the day he was taken away? How did you feel?”
T: “I was so sad. It was in like 1976. But I was brave. When the guards took him away, his last words to us were to “Study well, work hard, because I may not be able to come back.” He said that because he had an idea of the communist prisons, how he knew that the communists always lied.”
M: “Were you ever able to visit him at the camps?”
T: “Every one else, all my siblings could, but not me. It was because I was the middle child — I wasn’t small enough like Cau Do and Gi Lam to hide under my mom’s foot in the cart, and I wasn’t strong like Bac Duc and Bac Quy to help my mom carry food and other supplies and be worth being counted as an adult (since you had to buy adult tickets to go). Me going would be a waste because I couldn’t go for free, and I wouldn’t be as much use to my parents as my older brothers.
I remember however, that my teacher in 8th grade, her husband was in the same concentration camp as my father. So sometimes, when mother couldn’t go visit grandpa, we would ask my teacher to go deliver letters and supplies. I remember this one time where your grandfather’s father passed away; they didn’t let him out to attend the funeral, so my grandpa left a message to my teacher’s husband to tell us his message. She pulled me to the side after class to tell me that my father had left me a message, one of condolence and expressing his grief of not being able to come back for the funeral. My father was so brave and courageous.”
M: “What did grandma do during this time?”
T: “Grandma was so brave. Although the was.. like the type of woman that never had to do any physical labor, she went and gardened, planted crops… She grew all kinds of fruits and vegetables in the garden to take care of us.”
M: “Did she have a job during this time?”
T: “No, she spent all of that time taking care of us, her five children. She spent the money we had saved from Father’s job and saved up in general over the years to fend for the family.”
M: “Did she ever have a job?”
T: “Yes! Before in her life, she actually worked at a beauty salon. She did makeup and skincare for customers. Since she had such beautiful skin, she would just need to show her face to attract customers and make them want to look like her. She was so courageous. She grew food supply for us, she visited Grandpa, and she went to Saigon sometimes to buy clothes and things for us.
And during this time, we did have help. Grandfather’s siblings.. my uncle and aunt, they send back money and supplies to help our situation.
We planted fruits, corn, vegetables, peanuts, sweet potatoes. We raised pigs and chicken, went to school…”
M: “Wasn’t grandma also really sad about the situation though?”
T: “Of course. She now had to worry about every single thing. When she saw that it would be more beneficial to move back to Saigon, since we were originally at Ba Mi Thuot, she found a way to go back to Saigon, needing to get the documents required to travel back and forth even within Vietnam. Those times, they wanted to check you for legal documents everywhere you traveled. Going back to Saigon was hard — she found ways to sell our house to move away. When we got Saigon, it’s there were we got the opportunities for schooling and things. My two oldest brothers, they applied to school and passed the exams and entrance tests, but they weren’t accepted into schools because our father had been imprisoned by the communist forces… “We have no use for children of a father who worked for the old government”
M: “How different was Vietnamese education from American one?”
T: “I only went to high school in Vietnam, I never went to college there. However, I did lot of night classes afterwards, taking computer classes, English classes… I thought it would be useful, but I never knew we were going to actually go to America. And I just loved to learn.
Grandfather was also so good at languages, so it kind of inspired me.
In America, it… it was like a dream. I worked hard, obtained my degree AAS in Computer System Information, 3.8 GPA with Honors!”
M: “Good job mom, I love you, I’m so proud of you :)
So when you immigrated to America, through the H.O Resettlement program, you left your oldest sibling, Bac Quy behind right?”
M: “Where did you guys go after landing in the United States?”
T: “The first time, we went to our aunt and uncle’s house in the U.S”
M: “Wait, so Grandpa had siblings already in the States?”
T: “My aunt, they had family there because they were the boat people of 1975. Not because of the communist, but just because of the era and the need to move out of Vietnam. During that time, my family could also have taken a boat to the U.S, but back then, Grandpa didn’t want to leave because we were searching for HIS parents whom we had not found yet.”
M: “How long did you stay in their house with your aunt?”
T:”We stayed there for around a year. We went to ESOL programs to better our English and went to classes and started to look for employment. We rented an apartment a short-while after, later being able to rent a house. We were very, very lucky.”
M: “Do you remember your trip over to the U.S?”
T: “Of course. We actually went by plane, stopping by Thailand on the way before landing in Los Angeles. I don’t remember much, but I do remember that when I landed at the Los Angeles airport, I felt so out of place. I felt like a monkey that had just walked out of the jungle!”
T: ‘“… because suddenly, I saw my American cousins who were each independent, strong-willed, and able drive a huge cars! Meanwhile, my siblings and I were all skinny, looked basically the same…had the same haircut, and were so meek…”
M: “You guys were literally Fresh Off The Boat!!”
T: “I just remember that feeling so clearly. I felt the rights, the freedom that America offered. What I appreciate the most about America was that everyone was appreciated, from seniors to children with disabilities, everyone has opportunities. For example, in Vietnam, if you had a child with disability, their future was basically hopeless. As a parent, you could try and care for them, but society held no future for them.
In America, look at you. You’re the child of immigrants, but if you just advance with your skills and in education, you can achieve so many great things.”
M: “That’s the American Dream, mom.”
T: “Yes, darling.”
M: “Mom, I love the way you answer my questions so straightforwardly… so clearly. On the other hand, dad… he always circles and circles around the answer.”
M: “When you moved to the U.S what did you want to do, what did you dream to do?”
T: “ I thought that finding a job was already a dream. My cousins brought me to to ESOL, and my aunt told me that if I studied ESOL for a year, then I would be able to apply for a job. I also studied and took classes to become a operator inside banks however, but since that required driving, and since I was not particularly good at that, I just followed my education. I kept on going.”
M: “When you moved to the U.S, did you bring anything with you from Vietnam?”
T: “I virtually left everything behind. If I carried anything, then it was just in my heart. We left practically all our belongings behind, save for necessities like clothes. We had to pack light since every person could only have small suitcases. I wanted .. there were my favorite books, letters, music transcripts that my friends had hand-written down for me… but I couldn’t bring any of that. Just clothes.”
M: “What do you regret leaving behind the most?”
T: “…..my brother, Bac Quy.”
T: “…because… because after 40 years…staying in Vietnam has changed him so much as a person. His mentality , his personality… that’s why I regret that. He was, is, such an amazing and great person. The nicest and loving older brother to us. But being forced to stay in Vietnam took a toll on his morals haha.”
M: “ How was your trip to France?How did you meet dad?”
T: “In Vietnam before I moved to the U.S, my best friend Mang Nhi introduced me to him. He had to deliver a package or something to her family, and so that’s where I met him. We went on volunteering trips together sometimes , since she was my best friend and she was his connection in Vietnam.”
M: “Did you communicate with dad in Vietnamese?How was his Vietnamese? Was it bad?”
T: “We communicated in Vietnamese… but his Vietnamese.. is the same as it is now, it never progressed further or anything.”
M: “ So then, you were still in California when dad came over for your engagement right?”
T: “Yes that was in California. We were engaged for 6 months before marrying. Sometimes, he’d come over 3 times per year to visit me in the U.S before we got married. A little how it is now.”
M: “How was your honeymoon?”
T: “So because he had to leave 3 days after our marriage, we didn’t have time then. But in 1995 summer, that’s when we had our “honeymoon.” I went to France to visit him, and we went to the mountains, we took pictures.. I was just there in the summer for 2 months before going back to California to complete my Computer Information Systems degree at San Antonio community college. I finished that degree before permanently moving to France.”
M: “Was it hard for you to adjust in France?”
T: “Actually… no, not really. It’s kind of funny. That first year I came over in France, I went to school to learn more. I learned quickly, even with my short-term memory. I studied 8 months at the Alliance Francaise.
I wasn’t scared. In the college in California, I took French classes. Also, your Grandpa was fluent in the language — as that member of the old government, he was very knowledgeable in languages, French being one of them. When he took an exam for his position, he had 3 hours to write about a moral, he had to write a play scenario with those morals or something. It had to have slogans, within 3 hours. And he succeeded writing all of that in French, getting the top score.
But yes, I wasn’t scared at all. I asked around a lot, but I wasn’t scared. “
M: “Were you in scared in America?”
T: “No, because I was with family.
Well, if I were to be scared anywhere, it would be my move to France alone. But the thing is, when I landed at the airport, your dad greeted me with his sister and her husband, Tatie Saban and Tonton Roger. They smiled, they greeted me with open arms and were so nice to me. So I thought, with this loving atmosphere, that everything was going to be ok. First impressions are really important, and that was the feeling I got when I got to France. There was no gap, between the rich and the poor, between them and us.
So I moved in with your Father, I studied at the Alliance Francaise… and then around a couple months later, I felt nauseous. And then I had you.”
T: “During that time, your father was very gallant to me. Since I still took classes and I went there by metro (train), your dad would chase people out of the priority seats for maternity and senior citizens. *Laughter*
Your due date came one week early, so I was so surprised. I wasn’t expecting you, so when I got cramps and stomachaches, I thought I had eaten something bad…*Laughter*
I kept going to the toilet, but … well the next morning I still had the cramps so I called Tatie Saban, and she told me “CALL THE AMBLANCE!!!”
The French ambulance came to our apartment, these amazing and strong firemen that came to get me. That is one of the best faces of France — their medical department cares for every citizen and makes sure we get the best treatment, all for free. I could walk down the stairs, but they made sure they carried me down in a wheelchair.”
M: “Did I hurt you when I was born?”
T: “Of course you hurt me, I was in pain for like 18 hours. But when I actually gave birth to you… I pooped you out very quickly.”
M: “I love you mom, I was your birthday present since we were born on the same day.”
T: “Yes honey, you are the one best present I have ever gotten in my life.”