Today we remember the 40th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, as it marks the historical beginning for many Southeast Asian Americans in the United States. Among those brought to America by this event was OCA Civil Rights Fellow Tong Thao, whose experience, while uniquely his own, speaks to the re-occurring stories of many of those coming to America’s shores.
In the aftermath of the Fall of Saigon, Tong’s family fled from Laos to Thailand to escape violence against the Hmong people. After arriving in Thailand, his family was forced into rundown refugee camps where Tong and his older siblings were born.
Shortly after arriving in Thailand, Tong’s family was continually relocated from one refugee camp to another. In these refugee camps, cardboard paper was all that separated the living spaces of the Hmong families, while barbed wire fences enclosed the camps. Obtaining simple essentials like underwear was near impossible except by trading with passing salesmen, who often took advantage of the predicament of the refugees. For food each family of refugees was given a number of sardines depending on the size of the family, not much more than to keep them teetering on the edge of starvation.
Like other Southeast Asian Americans, Tong’s family was forced by circumstance to move to the United States. Though they always hoped to return to Laos, after waiting in vain for seventeen years in horrid conditions in Thailand, Tong’s family packed their belongings and took a leap of faith in starting a new life in Bakersfield, California in 1992.
Prior to the Fall of Saigon, the number of Southeast Asians residing in America from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia was small; with annual immigration numbers barely in the hundreds. However immigration from this region exploded overnight after the war ended, with the influx of approximately 125,000 refugees from Vietnam in the spring of 1975 alone. Almost 2 million more were to follow in the coming decades through refugee channels at first, and then through sponsorship and family reunification channels, with each wave reflecting increasingly diverse peoples.
As hundreds of thousands fled their home country, the diversity of communities across our nation was forever enhanced by these new migrants in places such as Los Angeles, Orange County, San Jose, Houston and Minneapolis. Some came by plane and some by boat; some were from rural areas and some from city centers. They were of many different ethnicities, including the Vietnamese, Cambodian, Hmong, Lao and Chinese. Many were like Tong’s family and came through a circuitous route, relocating many times before being able settle in a place they called home.
As refugees, Southeast Asian Americans like Tong and his family were forced to leave behind family, friends, and most of their belongings to live in America. This harsh displacement to the United States has been a challenge for many of these immigrant families, with an extreme lack of both financial and social support to help them transition to American life. The lack of adequate training, educational programs, and culturally competent healthcare continues to create disparities in income, educational attainment, and health outcomes in Southeast Asian American populations.
Tong describes his experience with displacement as a “historical trauma” where “poverty is always in the back of your mind.” He added, “this idea of escaping poverty is a driving force for many Hmong Americans to excel academically and financially “. However, though his family was able to transform the stress of displacement into a drive towards success, he also notes that Hmong families experience disparities in health, education, and income. “Hmong students resort to other forms of social support such as gangs and drugs to provide for themselves when their family cannot”, said Tong. “Older generation Hmong experience extreme forms of mental illnesses as a result of the war, while younger generation Hmong are experiencing new problems in America that they can’t convey to their parents.”
Tong’s desire to enlighten others about issues affecting Southeast Asians drives him forward in his work at OCA, and he uses his experience as a refugee and Southeast Asian American to be an advocate for important Asian American issues. “Southeast Asian stories are a new, but big part of American history. We need to be inclusive of these stories because they help enrich policy discussions and provide a deeper understanding of how new policies affect the AAPI community.”
As Asian Pacific American advocates, we value our diverse backgrounds and recognize our common destiny in the struggle to thrive in America. By being different but recognizing our struggles as the same, we become stronger and more compassionate. Today, Tong and other Southeast Asian Americans like him are adding much to the credibility of the unified Asian American identity. These recent migrants have built businesses, launched careers in politics and media, and ultimately positively influenced how Asian Pacific Americans are perceived: as a diverse and culturally rich community. So we remember the fall of Saigon, as a turning point in Asian American history, where new waves of Asian Pacific Americans are enriching the diversity, strength and influence of our community.
With Best Regards,
Michael W. Kwan
OCA National President