The Refugee in My Mother and in All of Us

By Kim O’Connell

By Kim O’Connell

Born in Biên Hòa, Vietnam, right before World War II, my mother, Rose, was sometimes so poor that, at the end of a school year, she would erase all the writing in her one precious notebook so she could reuse it the following year. She was careful not to rip the pages, which grew warped and soft beneath her hands.

Her intelligence and hard-working nature helped her get to the University of Saigon, where she learned several languages--Japanese, Chinese, and some German, in addition to the Vietnamese, English, and French she already knew. Her language skills earned her a job with the U.S. Army teaching Vietnamese to American soldiers stationed at Okinawa, Japan, during the Vietnam War. The young soldiers often vied for their pretty teacher’s attention, but only one of them earned it and held it--my father, a tall Army captain from Milwaukee with hazel green eyes.

My parents courted and wed on Okinawa, emerging from the military chapel under an arch of swords. I have a photo of that moment, my mother with her glowing skin and black hair and impossibly tiny waist, my father looking at her with love and admiration. He brought her to the United States and a new home in 1967. I was born two years later.

In America, my mother often felt adrift and alone, having arrived many years before the fall of Saigon sent waves of refugees to U.S. shores. In her suburban Maryland town, she never saw anyone who looked like her; she never heard her own language. When Saigon capitulated on April 30, 1975, my mother was in a Maryland maternity ward, preparing to give birth to my younger brother. The news from Vietnam was all over the papers and the television, and she told me later how much she cried on the day my brother was born, a day that should have been full of unmitigated joy. After she left Vietnam, she never saw her mother again.

But a remarkable thing happened. When Vietnamese refugees came to America, they established shops and businesses in various parts of the country, including several in a part of Arlington, Virginia, that became known as “Little Saigon.” Soon my mother was piling us into the car and driving us from Maryland to Virginia so we could shop in those crowded stores, fragrant with spices from a place that felt very far away. It was often an all-day affair, because my mother loved to linger in those store aisles, carefully selecting ingredients that she hadn’t seen much of since she came to America.

My mother was an immigrant who came here through love and marriage, but war was at the root of it. The trauma of war and of leaving home would color my parents’ marriage and their subsequent divorce, and I realize now how it has colored how my mother approached everything in her life, including mothering, work, and family ties.

Although she wasn’t a refugee, in many ways her experience mirrors those of the thousands of Vietnamese refugees who came to America after the Vietnam War, and the countless other refugees who have left their motherlands under extreme duress in the years since. Theirs is a common story of leaving and loss, of being treated as strangers in their strange new lands, of trying to hold on and let go, all at once.  

I have spent many years trying to know my mother better, and by extension to understand what life is like for other immigrants and refugees. I know that I can never fully appreciate what refugees endure. But I can dig deep into the parts of myself that relate most to their story--particularly the need to preserve the connective tissue that ties us to our mothers and to our motherlands, most of all.

I am so happy that the One Journey Festival exists to help us all do that.


About the Author

Kim O’Connell is a writer based in Arlington, Virginia, whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Huffington Post, Ladies Home Journal, and other national and regional publications. She is the author of the publication Echoes of Little Saigon: Vietnamese Immigration and the Changing Face of Arlington, Virginia, and is now working on a book about her family’s experiences.  

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