How to Talk to [Mamí & Papí] about Anything

Finding His Mom's Lost Father

Episode Notes

Tony’s Vietnamese mom didn't talk much about her father, a Black American soldier who fought in the Vietnam War but whom she never really knew. So Tony decided to find him. And marriage and family therapist Thien Pham who works with adult children of Amerasians and refugees speaks with Juleyka about respecting our parents’ trauma while trying to understand our family history, and finding peace when we don’t have answers.

Featured Expert: 

Thien Pam is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist based in California specializing in working with 1.5 – 2nd generation immigrants on issues such as anxiety, work stress, perinatal mental health and cultural identity issues. Through her work, she supports clients in exploring racial history, country of origin, intergenerational dynamics/trauma(s) as they navigate their relationships. On a personal level: Thien was born in Vietnam and raised by a single mom in East Side San Jose, which allows her to empathize with the internal work and journeys of many of her first-gen clients. Learn more about Thien here.

If you loved this episode, listen to Mom is Upset About Her Gift (Hint: It’s Not About the Gift) and Should She Confront a Family Secret?

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Episode Transcription

Juleyka Lantigua:

Hi everybody. We're thrilled to have Tony on the show today. Tony's mom is from Vietnam. She's the daughter of a black American soldier who served in the war but left after his tour was over, so she never really knew him. When Tony was growing up, his mom didn't talk much about her dad or that part of the family history, but Tony sensed the pain she felt at not knowing who her dad was. So as an adult, he decided to find his grandfather. Let's get into it.

Tony: My name is Tony Ho Tran. I am from Sioux City, Iowa, but I live in Chicago now and I work full time as a writer. And when I was a kid, I would call my mom and dad, mẹ and bố. Both of my parents were immigrants from Vietnam. They had left after the Vietnam War as refugees, the both of them. 

My mom and I have always been pretty close, but one thing that I remember that always kind of gave her pause, while I was growing up was whenever I would come up to her and ask her about my grandfather and who he was. Her father was actually an American soldier who served in the Vietnam War. We never knew his identity, so we didn't know his name or where he came from, or even if he had family back in the United States. Being a kid, you don't really pick up on the weight of certain questions you ask, like, "Who was my grandfather? What did he look like? What was he like? Did you ever meet him?"

I realized way down the line that asking her those questions were, it was very kind of painful and traumatic for her, because like me, she didn't know the answers either. She told me once that she had met him when she was very, very little. She remembers vague details about him being tall, but not really anything else. And I remember this one instance of me walking into my mom crying when I was very little. I must have been about seven or eight. I asked her, "Mom, what's wrong?" And she just told me she was just thinking about her dad. I later talked to her about it and she told me that it was Father's Day. So it was just kind of a tough day for her.

And I remember I kind of made myself just a very silent promise just to myself and to my mother that I would eventually one day figure out who this guy was. 

I must have been in college when I first heard about a company, like 23andMe that was offering these genetic testing kits that you could just order online. And I called my mom and I told her about it. She was very skeptical. 

I really had no clue what I was doing. I took to Google, did a lot of research on there. I ended up finding all these groups of people who were trying to connect with their father or their grandfather or their relative who served in the Vietnam War. I really gave myself a crash course also in genetic genealogy, how to construct a family tree and, how to go through census records.

One of the most important things, obviously, was when the DNA testing kit results came back in and I was able to realize, "Oh, on top of being Vietnamese, I was also black." A significant amount of my ancestors came from West Africa. And on top of that, it wasn't just that, it was also the fact that, "Oh, you also have relatives you can connect to." 

There was a guy who shared the most genetic data with me that I've ever had, and I was like, "Holy crap." His name was Clifton, Clifton Brown. He was the half brother of my grandfather, Keith Brown. And he was like, "Yeah, good to meet you nephew." I'm like, "Holy shit! That's wild." 

He said that Keith died back in 2013. That sucked. But the important thing is that I found him and on one of these, an obituary website, they included a picture of him. And I remember looking at his face and trying to think, "Does he look like me? Do I look like him? Does he look like mom?" It was the most surreal thing being able to see him for the first time. 

I go, "All right, now I got to tell mom." I was like, "Well, how do you tell mom?" And I sat on it for a month, just nervous, just felt sick, just about what I was going to do, how she was going to react. I knew she was going to cry and I don't want my mom to cry, but I knew it was going to happen. I was also kind of worried that she would kind of reject it, like, "Oh, whatever, I don't care." And I knew that wasn't going to happen, but still, part of me was kind of afraid for it. Because what if she tried to bury this deeper than I thought? And she tried to completely reject the notion that she cares about this as some sort of coping mechanism. 

I remember the day we finally told her it was her birthday and we'd had cake, and then we did gifts. And I remember it was my turn to give her her gift and I gave her the picture frame and she was like, "Who is this?" And I was like, "That's him, that's your dad." And I remember she got really quiet for a second and she started crying. And then it started going for me as well, I started crying. It was everything I was afraid of, but in a good way. She did have this huge emotional reaction and so did I, but we were able to meet this moment together and come to the end of this journey together. I think if I live for another thousand years, it'll still be one of the best things that we've ever done. 

Vietnamese people, sometimes they set up altars, especially if they're Buddhist to their ancestors, they'll put up pictures of them and they'll put up fruits and stuff. My grandma's altar when I came back was this huge blown up picture of my grandfather that I found. I remember I smiled, and I was like, "Oh, I like your new decoration." She's like, "Yeah, you did this, you did this." And that's obviously, yeah, my relationship with my whole family has changed, I think.

Lantigua: For many first gens, revisiting our family's past can feel like navigating a minefield. It's even trickier for first gens trying to find out what happened to relatives during a war or during a major conflict in our parents' home country. This is also true for first gens trying to fill a spotty family tree. Tony was trying to do both for his mom, and I was so, so moved by that. 

But Tony's story also made me think about how exactly do we have conversations that basically dredge up painful family histories and how can we balance our curiosity, our need to know, our need to figure out who we are with also being respectful of our family's past and especially of their pain. To help us figure it out, I called in an expert.

Thien Pham: My name is Thien Pham. I am a licensed marriage and family therapist. I'm based in San Francisco. I am considered a 1.5 generation because I was born in Vietnam and I moved to San Jose when I was nine. So I grew up mostly American, but very much connected to my Vietnamese roots and that's the population that I see.

Lantigua: Same question I always ask, which is, what did you hear in Tony's testimonial?

Pham: I hear so many similarities, not just with myself and my family, but just our whole community. So the community that I grew up in San Jose is just a huge Vietnamese population, mostly immigrants, I would say mostly refugees. And it's a very rich history of how we came to America and a lot of history that's not taught anywhere. It's a beautiful story of, I think a very loving son who sees the pain that his parents went through, especially his mom and wanting to give her a little bit of peace.

Lantigua: Oh yeah, I was definitely choking back tears. Definitely. But let's pull back a little bit more, because Vietnam, principally because of the war, but because of other reasons and the US have a really intermix, literal genetic history. So can you please give us just a little bit of context so we can understand how it is that Tony's mom's story and his own story are very much part of American hegemonic and colonialistic and imperialistic tendencies around the world.

Pham: And it's not the first time this happened around the world. I mean, this is something that happens every time after a war time. So what had happened with Vietnam, I'll give you a really brief history, is that from between, I think 1962 to 1975, American troops came over for the war. During that time there were about, I think 25,000 to 30,000 what we call Vietnamese Amerasians, which are children of Vietnamese women and American soldiers. And these are sort half white, half black kids that often don't know who their dads are, because the men would come, do their tour and then leave. And a lot of them were just, I think, super oppressed by the community because there was not a lot of openness to children of different races at the time.

Lantigua: So, that's the generation that Tony's mom comes from.

Pham: Yes, that's Tony's mom's generation, and I think his generation here is a very different experience, but very much a product of that.

Lantigua: I'm going to throw out a couple of terms in my pseudo social scientist hat, because I have not only read but also studied these sort of, the aftermath of some of the American interventions. Because there were some in Dominican Republic and there were many throughout Latin America. So one of the things that comes to mind is erasure, and you just talked about that, how these mixed race children were ostracized and essentially erased. 

But then the other part of that is also there's this no man's land that gets created for these children, because many of them were not claimed by their American fathers. And so they can't show up to the embassy and say, "Hey, give me my blue passport." In your practice, how have these historical consequences shown up generationally?

Pham: So what you're talking about is intergenerational trauma. So at this point in time, I'm seeing children of the Amerasians or just Vietnamese refugees in general. And so by the time they have children, these parents have endured, I would say 30 plus years of war trauma. And what it brings to us now is a lot of untreated PTSD and depression and anxiety. I want to say I've never met a client of mine who's not dealt with that personally or in their own family.

Lantigua: Wow.

Pham: I don't think anyone has escaped it.

Lantigua: So now let's talk about how all of that gets passed down to Tony's generation and let's talk about what he chose to do with it.

Pham: Yeah.

Lantigua: Because he made choices about what to do with both the absence and the very little information that he had.

Pham: What I find so inspiring about Tony's story is that I can see, and I can feel the love that he has for his mom, which I think is a product of maybe his own work, coming to a place of, I think deep understanding and forgiveness that his parents did the best that they could, having to rebuild from nothing. And that sometimes puts you in a situation of a lot of turmoil and could sometimes be very chaotic for the child. And I think at some point Tony realized, that it is what it is and I want to be able to give tenderness, love and also peace to my mother so that she can no longer suffer. But not everybody's story is like that, and I can attest to that, seeing so many of my clients who still to this day struggle with intergenerational trauma.

Lantigua: So when I heard his testimony for the first time, the image that came to me was of him blindfolded in this area where there're just like DNA strands everywhere. And him kind of touching his way through the strands and trying to figure out which one would give him a spark or give him some sensation to say, "Get cling me, this is who you are." And then that moment of, "Oh my God, there's a match." What happens when someone quite literally opens a door that cannot be closed like that?

Pham: I think that's what identity is about, finding identity. For him I think that was the first moment where he's like, "Oh, I can finally see that there's this piece of evidence that tells me who I am, where I came from." When things have been in limbo for so long and so much, so for his mother as well. I think 23andMe actually probably did that for a lot of people in the past decade.

Lantigua: There's a lot of risk. This is the other question that I want to pose to you. Treading into your family's past is risky. As someone who talks intergenerationally to people, what advice do you have for both the parental figure and also the curious knowledge seeking hyphenated, daughter/son who might want to venture into these murky waters?

Pham: It feels like opening Pandora's box, that's what a DNA test feels like to me. I've never taken one, but that's what I imagine. And I think it's important if this is something that you're interested in, this is something that you're going to pursue, to really be, not hyper vigilant, but be prepared for some difficult emotions. Be prepared for the potential of nothingness, which is common. You waited, I don't know how long, 30 days or 60 days for this, and you're like, anticipation, you're anxious, you're overwhelmed, and then you get nothing, which is a huge disappointment in itself. The possibilities are so varied that I think it's a good skill to build during the process, to sort of learn how to regulate your body and regulate your mind so that whatever happens when you open up that email or this app, whatever…whatever you see, that you can actually receive it.

Lantigua: And have no expectations right?

Pham: Right.

Lantigua: Don't have a scripted idea of, "I'm going to say this and she's going to say that."

Pham: Yeah, that's sometimes the most disappointing, is when you're able to find somebody that you're related to, even a parent figure, but then to be okay with the relationship, potentially not working out, be okay with, there's just one meeting and that's it. 

And I'm actually working with a client through that right now, and it's so heartbreaking to be able to sit with the conflicting emotions of, this is so exciting, I've been waiting my whole life for this, and this could be difficult, this could be not long lasting.

Lantigua: So what does someone like Tony now do with this information?

Pham: I'm imagining for Tony that the conversation is now going to be more open. Right, now that the picture of grandpa's on the altar, I'm wondering if Tony would be open to then continuing the conversation, "Hey mom, do you remember so and so, but way back when you were little?"

Lantigua: Yeah.

Pham: Right. This is where those, I think, golden nuggets come out, and this is very common in Vietnamese culture of storytelling. And when the moment's right, like when you're doing something and you're reminded of, "Oh yeah, I did this when I was little and when I was little, so and so taught me how to do this."

Lantigua: I'm going to ask you a couple questions about parental privacy, like stuff that mom and dad don't want to share with you, and it's none of your business. Stuff that you accidentally learn about and then you demand more explanation, more information, more context. And so when you are dealing with intergenerational trauma as you do in your practice, what are some of your guidelines around parental privacy?

Pham: You have to approach it with so much care and sensitivity because of the potential trauma and complex trauma operates a little bit differently. It's trauma that is not just a one time event. Intergenerationally, that's often the case. It's not just one event, it's multiple variables happening together. How do you approach parents who may feel protective, of one, their feelings, which I'm sure happens, and two of the information that they know. Whether they want to share it with you, whether they want to talk about it at all?

My advice for that is you have to first build trust. Like any relationship, even if it's your parents, you have to let them know that like you're curious out of your own care and wanting support. And it's okay if you don't want to tell me everything. It's okay if you tell me stories in pieces. 

But we don't ever really push people who have been through trauma to share their story if they're not ready, because doing so would re-traumatize them. It would actually bring them back to the moment that they were traumatized. And that's not good for anybody.

Lantigua: I'm going to just say very bluntly, what you perceive as your right to know is secondary to their right to protect themselves and their feelings.

Pham: Yes, I think proceed with caution and tenderness is the best way.

Lantigua: Any other words of advice for folks in Tony's shoes who might be considering a DNA test or a family genealogy, or some way to fill a gap that they feel they have in their family history?

Pham: I would encourage people to really talk to their parents. It's something that a lot of us struggle with, just because of the generation gap and sometimes the language gap, but you'll find so much more information once the parents see that you're curious. It's almost like you kind of have to ask in order to know because they're not just going to give you the information. Our culture doesn't necessarily share hurtful pain with younger generations. And so it's like, yeah, if you're going to pursue the DNA path, also pursue the conversational path.

Lantigua: Thank you so much. Oh my goodness.

Pham: Thank you so much for inviting me. This is such an amazing thing to find out about your podcast.

Lantigua: Oh, thank you. Please share it. We love it when our friends share us and then their friends want to come on the show and then we just keep making friends.

Okay. Here's what we learned from Thien. 

Anticipate uncertainty. When trying to learn about your family's past, be aware you may not get the answers you want. In fact, you may not get any answers at all. And even if you do get answers, things might not work out the way you thought they would. So be prepared to sit with difficult emotions and difficult information. 

Don't push. Be sensitive to your parents' traumatic experiences, and respect your desire to protect themselves and their feelings. 

And remember, express your curiosity cautiously. Your family may not readily volunteer painful information, but if you ask with care and genuine interest, they may open up if and when they're ready.

Monica Lopez:

Thank you for listening and sharing us. How to Talk to Mami & Papi About Anything is an original production of LWC Studios. Virginia Lora is our show's producer. Kojin Tashiro is our mixer. Elizabeth Nakano mixed this episode. Manuela Bedoya is our marketing lead, and Juleyka Lantigua is the creator and host. I'm senior editor Monica Lopez. On Twitter and Instagram, we're @talktomamipapi. Bye everybody. Same place next week.


Lantigua, Juleyka, host. “Finding His Mom's Lost Father” 

How to Talk to [Mamí & Papí] about Anything, 

LWC Studios., October 3, 2022.