From Refugees to Diaspora: Generations of Vietnamese contribute to the East Bay

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BETTER DAYS Dung My Le and son, Tee Tran, stand outside Monster Pho in Temescal.
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As thousands flee Afghanistan’s fall to the Taliban, the East Bay needs to get ready to receive a wave of refugees and immigrants. What can we learn from one well-established diaspora that will help support this fledgling community?

The corner of Broadway and 40th Street feels like home to a community of people, thanks to the neighborhood restaurant, Monster Pho. Owner Tee Tran is an Oakland resident who arrived in America at the age of five, in 1989, after his family fled Vietnam.

Tran grew up all over town in many of the tougher neighborhoods. That experience helped him understand what different people with different backgrounds go through to make their way in life.

“No matter how far I’ve been, I can’t forget where I came from,” he says as we sit together outside his restaurant, my new favorite place to eat in Temescal.

He credits his mother, Dung My Le, with keeping him grounded. Le led Tran, his two brothers and their aunt on the perilous journey—a risky two-week boat ride to Thailand and two years in refugee camps—that landed them in the East Bay.

Despite having no memory of the journey to America, Tran says he remembers the first night in their own home. “We had no blankets, no food, no nothing,” he says. “We all huddled in the living room [to stay warm], the five of us. I was in the middle, because I’m the baby.”

To get an understanding of the refugee experience and what soon-to-be Afghan-Americans can expect, I spoke with Shirley Gee, Executive Director of the Vietnamese American Community Center of the East Bay.

“Just taking a page out of the Vietnamese experience, in particular the boat people, there was a whole period where there was a lot of depression, a lot of fear, a lot of anxiety when they first arrived. It was not exactly hospitable [in the] post-Vietnam War period,” Gee says, pointing out similarities to the current socio-political situation in America. “[Afghans refugees] can probably expect that there’s going to be some amount of depression, fear, anxiety. So they are going to need to pay attention to mental health.”

VACCEB offers wraparound services to support refugees and the food insecure from all communities. A lot of that starts in the neighborhood around Clinton Park, which some call Little Saigon.

“Our goal as an organization is to get people to a path of self-sufficiency within one generation,” Gee says. “Try to get them to a point of partial self-sufficiency within a year. [So that] they know what their food source is, they know where to get health, they know how to get into housing.”

While things such as mental health are not core competencies, VACCEB can connect those in need with legal- and mental health-support services.

Gee mentions the rise in anti-immigrant sentiments in America. “When you’re new in a country that’s hostile to you, it’s pretty awful, because you [are powerless],” she says. “You may be coming from a country where if you speak up, you die. [Refugees] bring those fears with them.” After a pause, she adds, “Bullies always go after the people that are least able to defend themselves.”

Outside the restaurant, a passer-by collects some items from a “sharing cart” that holds extra produce from the kitchen. I had been eyeing some smokey-red peppers myself.

“We have a bag over there, too,” Tran says, pointing. 

“Oh really? Thank you,” replies the passer-by.

“Drive safe,” Trans says.

It is a gesture that comes straight from Vietnam. Tran describes how his mother offered extra food to children in the camps, just like back in Vietnam. In Oakland, Le continued to help out when she could. He pauses.

We need a moment to allow his emotions some space. He starts to apologize, but I assure him we have time. The smell of fish sauce broth lingering, he wipes his eyes and begins again.

“She felt that if we’re struggling, they’re struggling, too,” he says. “If we can help them just a little bit, it just makes the world a better place.”

Tran has made that philosophy his own. “[The cart] helps us spread positivity,” he says, his voice still quavering. “There is so much negative that goes on in the world right now. [T]he next generation sees that, and then they mimic us. It really makes the [city] a better place down the road.”

The practice provides a powerful example of how the traditions of diverse cultures can each contribute something in their own unique way. A practice from small communities in Vietnam provides a boon of positivity in a city half-a-world away.

Simon Tran—no relation—is a Berkeley-educated artist and educator with a different experience of the Vietnamese diaspora, which he shared during a phone interview. He is currently working on a mural for the new Chapter 510 space, contributing to the nonprofit for school-age kids that publishes youth writers and artists.

Like Gee, Tran also speaks about the mental costs of immigration and the conditions that caused people to flee. “[T]he dilemma of the first-generation American are secondary experiences, secondary traumas,” of war and of the difficulties that come with immigrating to a new place, he says.

“Look at our first experiences, [like] getting on the bus for the first time and not sure where it goes—go back to those moments,” he suggests, to find empathy “for these other human beings living next to us in our communities.”

Tran’s art is influenced by his experience in the diaspora. The migration that his family went through leading up to the fall of Saigon shows up in the striking fluidity of his paintings.

“My art [is] identity based … thinking about identity as a multifaceted thing,” he says. “We are not just one thing; in fact we are multiple things all at once.”

Earlier, while still outside digesting my barbecue pork over rice, Tee Tran told me a story about driving a diabetic woman home in his truck after her catalytic converter was stolen. He laughed, adding, “In an urban city, stuff happens.”

My family safely back in our car for the drive home, we find the battery dead. Remembering Tran’s story, I climb back out and find him clearing plates from the street parklet that provides outside seating for Monster Phở. 

“Got that truck with you?” I ask, feeling vulnerable myself.

He looks delighted. “Oh yeah, let me pull it up. I’ll meet you there,” he says, pointing to my family. 

That is the lesson—to meet each other where we are needed.