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Discovering Personal Treasures
Embracing My Identity as a Việtnamese Refugee
the disCOurse is a place for people to share their lived experiences and their perspectives on the past with an eye toward informing our present. In this heartfelt account, a refugee reflects on the journey that helped to define what constitutes her most prized possessions.
The Centennial State was another planet to us. We had heard about its ice-capped mountains and high-elevation. We also heard about the glistening snow, something we had never seen. My family and I are Việtnamese refugees. We fled our homeland due to the Việt Nam War following the Fall of Sài Gòn. The world knew us as “The Boat People.”
As newcomers, my parents had limited means when we arrived in Colorado. Our humble beginnings compelled us to reside in modest areas. Our neighbors walked to the store to buy their groceries. While others rode their bicycles to the fast food stops. Our neighbors frequented nearby thrift stores and dollar theaters. You may occasionally see Asian elders holding a large plastic bag and a sharp pole to collect aluminum cans for recycling. Our neighbors maneuvered on their tarnished bicycles to these destinations not for leisure, but because it was their sole mode of transportation.
Our home sat in a zip code with public schools that were coined as disadvantaged. My peers were heavily comprised of other “minority” students long before the current vernacular “people of color” became part of the mainstream culture.
As refugees, my parents valued our culture and traditions. They ensured that my upbringing was traditional Việtnamese. They often shared fond and vibrant memories of their life in Việt Nam. They sternly enforced our mother tongue, a gift that I only later valued as an adult. Similar to other struggling refugee families, they understood that non-essentials were an extravagance. We recognized that luxuries like visiting museums was an indulgence.
When my fourth grade teacher announced that we were going to visit a museum, I was elated. My school had meager resources, but somehow managed to provide this excursion for us. Our nine-year-old hearts brimmed with bliss the day that our field trip arrived. A magical mustard-colored school bus with blocky letters on each side that read “Denver Public Schools” transported us to our destination.
We arrived at the Colorado Museum of Natural History (today’s Denver Museum of Nature & Science). It was the first time I saw three-dimensional dinosaur fossils. I admired clay earthenware created by Indigenous peoples. My fingers outstretched to the air as I pointed at the towering T-Rex and I counted its giant ribs. I was lost in wonder at the gold and silver treasures brought back from foreign lands. It was my first introduction to a history museum and where I learned about early Colorado history and heritage.
When I was a child, society and popular culture instilled that cultural artifacts can only be found in museums. As an adolescent, I learned about iconic paintings and celebrated museums around the world including the Louvre and the Smithsonian. I was intrigued at how the world’s most prized possessions are stored and heavily guarded in these structures. During my college and graduate studies, I discovered the richness of my Việtnamese history, culture, and art that were uniquely ours. The more I excavated my own history, the more I awed at its beauty and importance.
Today, I’m a proud Việtnamese refugee and social justice advocate. I understand that my parents’ steadfast cultural teachings were the nourishment I needed then and now. I recognize that my journey to learn about my own history, heritage, and culture was a gift from my ancestors. But the most important lesson learned for me is that not all prized possessions are stored in extravagant museums. They’re secured beautifully inside us. It manifests when I speak my mother tongue, celebrate my culture, and learn about my history.
They’re my greatest treasures.
Top photo: Mural of Nga Vương-Sandoval by Artist/Muralist Thomas Evans (I Am Detour), located on Champa between 23rd & 24th Streets in Denver, December 6, 2020. Photo by Denverite/Colorado Public Radio