Chelsea’s interview with Janet Dinh-Nguyen

I was eight when I met Janet.  She was the cookie mom and the mother to two of the Girl Scouts in our troop.  Janet has a heart of gold and is one of the most giving women I know.  Every time I would go to her house, her family would offer my family, or whoever was at her house, basically a full meal.  She is a great host as well as a remarkable woman.  Her smile is a reflection of her personality: bright and radiant.  

Growing up in Vietnam

Janet was born and raised in a small town in Vietnam and immigrated with her parents and older sister to the United States when she was 19 seeking asylum as political refugees, escaping communism.  I was quite interested to learn what her experience was with Communism.  In 1975, when Janet was 3 years old, the Communists took over.  Her father had a close association with the American government at that time.  Before 1975, he was in the South Vietnamese Army, so when the North Vietnamese (Communists) took over, he didn’t have time to flee the country which caused him to be sent to a concentration camp for five years.  During the time her father was gone, her mother struggled to raise their two girls and survive.  On some days, there was no food to eat and since her mother had been the housewife with no work experience outside of the home, she grappled to obtain jobs.    

Janet & family

Their family was put on a watch list (similar to a “blacklist”) by the government because her father had been in the military with South Vietnam and American forces.  “Whenever my mom would apply for a job, they ask about her husband, of course, my dad, and what did he do, where is he?”  Employers were allowed to ask those types of questions, it helped them determine if your family was on the blacklist so they wouldn’t hire you.  Because of this, her mother labored for 5 years trying to work odd jobs to put food on the table and just survive. 

Janet describes communist life as “no freedom in whatever you wanted to do.”  It was especially tough on her mother, since she was only 25 years old when her husband was sent away.  It was a terrible time for them.  She recalls not being allowed to listen to music that was made before 1975, which hurt her mother greatly since that was the music she enjoyed.  They weren’t allowed to read books published before 1975. 

“They burned, they collected all, they went through every houses all the music, all the um, books, they burned them all!  And on the radio they don’t even have any kind of music from ‘70, 1975, that’s what my mom missed.” 

Mrs. Nguyen

The next thing Janet tells me is disheartening.  Somehow, her mother managed to save some of their books and music. So on those occasions when her mother really missed it, she had to turn the music REALLY low, like a “whisper” as she described it.  The walls were super thin with very little insulation and houses were close by so the neighbors would report you to the authorities if they heard your music!  How tragic to know that you couldn’t even trust your neighbors!

Her childhood was simple.  Normally Vietnam has patriarchal values, but she was lucky enough to be raised in a family where her father treated the whole family as equals.  She never really paid attention to the type of house she lived in until she was about 7 or 8 years old.  She describes her home as “poor”, and recalls sharing a bed with her mother and sister because her father was was in the concentration camp and gone when she was 3 – 8 years old.  Growing up was tough, but fun.  Janet and her sister knew they had to go to school in the morning, but by noon they had the freedom to do whatever they wanted to do – hangout with the kids in the neighborhood and get into trouble.  Janet claims that having little supervision so she could play after school every day was the “best childhood that I could imagine, for anybody, for me.”

After her father was released from the concentration camp in 1980, he found it difficult to get a good-paying job, because of the Blacklist that he was on.  So, her family continued to struggle and lived life very poor.  By the time Janet was eighteen, she wanted to attend college and applied to colleges in Vietnam.  She soon found out that the college admissions counselors were asking the same questions of her that they asked of her parents when they were seeking employment.  They didn’t accept students whose family was on the Blacklist.  Janet and I both agree that was really unfair, since it is not the student who had been associated with the government. 

“I think that’s unfair, because it’s me, it’s not my dad, it’s me who’s going to college.  Why did you have to look at my Dad’s record in order to admit me into your college?”

Mrs. Nguyen

  Since Janet’s father was in the concentration camp for 5 years and had fought in the Vietnam War along with the American forces they were qualified to connect with The Humanitarian Organization, which sponsors political refugees to come to America.  So they immigrated in 1991, eleven years after her father was released from the concentration camp.

Skin Color

Growing up, skin color was very important to Janet because it was (and still is) important in the Asian/Vietnamese culture.  I asked her to explain the reasons behind that fact.  She told me that during her life, she was the darker sibling, while her sister was naturally lighter.  She remembers that her sister was “more popular” in school than Janet, and her color was a big factor for people liking her.  “They consider the fair skin more desirable, of course.  And people would do everything to get that.”  Janet speaks for all that you want to look the same as your friends and peers and look desirable.  

Rowena Mangohig’s “The Sun Is Calling My Name” greatly mirrors Janet’s story, and probably many others stories and experiences of individuals trying to change their skin color.  Rowena was greatly concerned about the color of her skin whilst her sister was naturally lighter.  On Rowena’s first visit to the Philippines, she was introduced to a skin whitening lotion.  She was baffled beyond belief, not to mention amazed.  “Why would my mother continually say, “Stay out of the sun or you’ll get dark,” when all I needed was to put on this lotion?” [Mangohig 205]  This was surprising to me because I believed that everyone would assume that skin whitening lotion is extremely unhealthy for the skin, but like Janet said during the interview, people would do anything to achieve fair skin.  

Adaptation To A New Lifestyle

Barbara Cameron’s article “Gee, You Don’t Seem Like An Indian From The Reservation” goes into depth of how Cameron was “appalled that they thought of themselves as superior to my people.” [Cameron, 430]  The stories Cameron shares of her treatment from white people are sad and unfair.  It was hard to adapt to the white lifestyle that was outside her reservation.  Reflecting on that, I asked Janet a little about her experience in California.  Her aunt lived in a Vietnamese community in San Jose, so they moved there from Vietnam, but after a few months her father had a hard time finding a job.  What Janet told me next was really heartwarming.  Janet explains her father had friends in Orange County, and when he told them how he was struggling in San Jose, they told him that they would find jobs for the whole family and help him so his kids could go to school.  Naturally, Janet’s father took the opportunity and they moved to Orange County, California.  They moved to an area which was not predominately white.  It was a minority community made up of Hispanics and Asians (mostly Thai, Filipino and Vietnamese people).  “We were in Westminster, Garden Grove, Santa Ana, those areas.  Those are all minority communities.” 

 

Janet & family traveling to California

It was extremely hard for Janet and her family to adapt to the American lifestyle and culture.  Janet made me laugh when she explained how her San Jose aunt had given them pizza when they first arrived.  She and her sister couldn’t eat it at all – it was the texture, the taste, the smell that was terrible.  They were used to eating noodles and rice, so they couldn’t eat the American food including hamburgers for quite a while.

At first, she didn’t have much experience with Caucasian people because of living amongst the other minorities.  Even in the community college that she first attended she claims 80-90% of students were minorities.  Her father’s friends arranged for her and her sister to attend an adult education school for English as a Second Language (ESL) that they went to at night.  For one year they went to the night school and learned what she describes as “daily conversation” English.  She went to a community college for 3 years then transferred to Cal State University, Long Beach. 

“So it was really hard to balance, um, our study life with the family life – that was really hard.  But I guess, um, it’s much better than being back in Vietnam where we don’t have the opportunity.  We know here, if we work, if we try hard, we’re not going to starve.  But back there, we work, we try hard, but we still starve!  So it’s still much better than the life back there!  Yeah.”

Janet Nguyen

While attending night classes, her family worked in her father’s friends sewing factory all day.  “We were working in there from like, I would say probably from 7 o’clock in the morning until 6 p.m., and then we went home.  Went to adult education around 7, the class started at 7, and then until 9, 10.  Went home, and then the next morning, just like that for the whole year.”  After one year, she and her sister would have morning classes as well, and the sewing shop sent home sewing machines and fabric for them to do work at home after classes.  Janet recalls life being really hard, since they didn’t have much time to do homework in-between classes, work, and supporting the family.

Janet’s career

Janet earned a B.S. in microbiology and has a career as a medical technologist. I asked Janet if being a woman of color had any impacts on her aspirations and/or journey to success because I thought that her chosen field was predominately male and to my surprise she said no!  In college, she says her classes were half women and half men.  She believes that there are more women in nursing and working as clinical lab scientists, and many of them are Asian.  

Something intriguing that Janet told me is that a lot of “Asian (Ex: Thai & Filipino)” people who have studied nursing or medical technology in their home countries have had their studies converted to a degree in America.  In order to work in our country as a nurse or medical tech they have to take the board exam and pass.  We both agreed that applying to nursing school here is very competitive and once you’re in the program, it is very rigorous and the overall process can take a long time.  

Her husband

Although Janet met her husband, Anthony, in Southern California, she shares that she and Anthony grew up in the same area in Vietnam!  While Janet scored by having parents supportive of each other and their girls, Anthony’s story was a little different.  Anthony’s mother was the oldest sister in her family and he observed the treatment of his mother versus his uncles.  Apparently, his grandmother worshipped her sons over her daughters, so she was more demanding of Anthony’s mother.  He was very upset about it and vowed to treat his wife and children more fairly. 

“So when he married to me he said that he’s not going to, he’s going to, he’s not going to treat me like, you know, grandma treated his mom.   So he valued the women very much so, and even when, when I had my children, the girls, very respectful of them.  He treat us well, very respectful, very kind man.”

Mrs. Nguyen

Anthony and Janet are raising their two girls, who I’m friends with, and Anthony is very respectful of their wishes and privacy.  I have witnessed it firsthand myself; Anthony treats all women with the most respect I’ve seen.  

Because Janet and Anthony both had hard lives growing up, they agreed to “provide everything for them” and “make sure they don’t go through the same issue we had in the past.”  

Janet’s family 2020

In “Feminism Is For Everybody” by Bell Hooks I found the ‘Introduction: Come Closer To Feminism’ very relevant to the last topic I talked about.  Hooks explains males benefit the most from patriarchy, which is very true.  “In return for all the goodies men receive from patriarchy, they are required to dominate women, to exploit and oppress us, using violence if they must to keep patriarchy intact.” [Hooks, xiii]. She even mentions a lot of men are disturbed by “hatred and fear of women” and “male violence against women plus the men who perpetuate it” but are afraid of losing the benefits if patriarchy is changed, so they passively support it.  I found this quote Hooks says really prime to patriarchy versus feminism: “And I believe that if they knew more about feminism they would no longer fear it, for they would find in feminist movement the hope of their own release from the bondage of patriarchy.” [Hooks, xiii].  

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Interviewing Janet was thought provoking and absorbing.  Of course my questions were lengthy, but her responses were detailed and spot on for what I needed for the project.  Hearing Janet’s life story has helped me develop more respect towards her (more than I had before, and I had a lot) and I felt some sort of a connection towards her.  I quickly found out she rarely talks about her past with her children (maybe because she’s mentioned things and they feel she’s already told them enough), so I was quite honored she was willing to open up to me.  This interview has taught me more than I ever knew about the past lifestyle in Vietnam and possibly other Asian countries. Talking with Janet allowed me to see a regular persons backstory, but hers happened to be extra special.  Her resilience from overcoming the hardships at such a young age and motivation for a better life for her whole family is what I admire most about her.  I have a greater appreciation for the Vietnamese culture and for other refugees trying to make a better life for themselves just from this interview, and I hope the person reading this summary does too.