Why I Do What I Do
I was too young to appreciate all that my parents had gone through after the War, when our family lost everything, and Mom had to peddle 120 pounds of rice on her bicycle every morning to sell at a black market 10 miles away, coming home late in the evening, her face stung by the cold mountain air. Dad collected pine sap in the forests, carrying heavy buckets at either end of a shoulder pole.
When I was 8, we moved to Philadelphia. We were poor. My father would cut our hair using scissors he had brought from Vietnam. Though he barely completed high school, he is surprisingly good at many things. He can, for example, completely build a bathroom and wire all the plumbing and electricity.
His haircutting skills, however, are negligible, and his handiwork led to constant teasing from other kids at school. We had to endure it, though. If we complained, he would remind us that he served two years in reeducation camp. “You’re worried about a haircut?” he would say, “Have you ever had to eat a rat?” We had no idea what he was talking about; camping sounded fun to us kids.
Our mother, meanwhile, had the annoying habit of incorporating leftovers into new dishes she was preparing, ruining both dishes. She thought my brothers and I were too skinny and was constantly trying to get us to eat. “You look like a drug addict,” she would tell me, “here, eat some of this braised fish/curried chicken.” Everything was wonderful and confusing.
One day, getting home from school, I got off at the wrong bus stop and ended up wandering the streets of downtown Philadelphia. This was terrifying for an 8-year-old, but it was probably worse for my mother, who was waiting for me at the regular stop.
When I did not show up, she climbed onto the bus and somehow convinced the driver to drive around looking for me, using some combination of broken English and frantic gesturing. Luckily, I had a notebook with my address and phone number. I waited at a telephone booth, tugging at strangers’ coats until one of them helped me use the phone.
I found my way home, but for the next ten years, I would still be lost, drifting further and further away. We kids started rebelling against our father’s haircuts, worrying about Nike shoes, and cringing in embarrassment when they broke out in terrible English, which they used sometimes when they delivered newspapers and washed dishes. We became sullen teenagers who wanted nothing to do with them. My mother would drive us to and from school in silence. She knew that her children were lost, and this time, she didn’t know how to find us.
I am much older now and can better understand what my and other immigrant and refugee parents go through. Like my mother, these parents send their kids off to school and into the world every day, hoping they would come home safe. And that’s all they can do some times.
The struggles these parents go through are monumental, but so is their drive to create a better life for their children.
This is why I became involved with the Vietnamese Friendship Association. For the past several years, we have been building programs to help students and parents navigate their new home: workshops to help parents understand the education system here, after-school tutoring to help students improve their English skills, cultural bridging events to help our community get to know its neighbors. We build programs that I wished had existed when I was younger, programs that might have made it a little easier on my parents and on my siblings.
We realize there is so much potential in our community, and also responsibilities that we must bear as citizens. If VFA is effective, we can help our youth understand their identity and become strong leaders. If we do a good job, we can help families feel a little less lost. And we can help our community to be civically engaged and to do its part to make Seattle and the world and better place for everyone to live.
This is why I do what I do.
Vu Le is an SVP Partner and the Executive Director of SVP Investee, the Vietnamese Friendship Association (VFA). VFA empowers the Vietnamese community to succeed while bridging, preserving, and promoting cultural heritage. They work to ensure that school-age children and youth receive quality education and succeed in life. They envision a society where all members of the Vietnamese community are self-reliant, successful, and contributing to the betterment of our world. SVP has supported VFA since 2009.