The Refugee Mentality

Since 1976 I have counted two birthdays every April in my head. One is my actual birthday and the second a sort of “re”birthday, when my parents, sisters, and I began a new life in America after the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975. This year is a huge milestone because it marks the 35th year in our adopted country. It’s quite remarkable–not only because the math doesn’t add up to the fact that I’m only 25!– to think that I have spent most of my life in this country and now consider myself an American both on paper and in spirit. Yet when I count numbers, it is still always in my native Vietnamese, and when people ask me where I’m from, I’ll say LA but the visual in my head is always of the photos you see in today’s entry…

One of my earliest memories of being in the States is seeing my mom and our live-in nanny (who evacuated with us) hoard staples like food items or toiletries. If they had known about Costco back then I think we would have had enough bulk items to last another 35 years. I suppose when you are given 24 hours to vacate your home and country with little more than the clothes on your back, you shop with a newfound urgency and fear of lacking the very basics. We used to self-diagnose our behavior by referring to this as the refugee mentality and today I laugh about it, trying to apply this syndrome to my Chanel habit. Something tells me it’s not quite the same thing.

I often wonder what the experience is like for other immigrants who now claim America as their own. Do they ever stop longing for the home that’s no longer there…do they stop feeling guilty when they sing the Stars Spangled Banner and feel the same chills of pride? It’s taken me 35 years to try to define it, but the best way I can put it is that my immigrant experience is all of these mixed emotions of confusion, of trying to get a sense of belonging. But what I know most of all is that all immigrants share the one common bond of survival. I am beyond amazed that my parents were able to provide for the three of us and their extended families under tremendous, life-changing circumstances. And this stalwart determination is the one refugee mentality I hope to never lose.


  1. larkie

    C&CL: you are absolutely right that home is where you make it, especially if you are a nomad like me! i totally get your comment about whether we can be considered American! I’m not sure what makes any of us a true American since we are all immigrants at some point on our journey here, even those arriving by Mayflower. but all we have to do is look around at the faces of our children & our children’s children to help us redefine what it is to be a “true” American–the American face is now a true hodgepodge of many cultures. and i love that 🙂

  2. Chic 'n Cheap Living

    I was also born in the US and can’t wholly consider any other place home. I’m acutely aware that people will always ask where I’m from and in some senses can I truly be considered “American”. But I definitely am and grateful for the values and experiences I had growing up. I have visited family in Taiwan a lot but that seems foreign – nice, but different. I moved to another part of Asia and am adjusting once again. I guess home is where you make it then.:)

  3. larkie

    wendy: i know what you mean. i’m a naturalized american now and as many times as i’ve been to vn and can speak the language, i am also treated as a foreigner. i think regardless of how we all got to America or Canada or wherever our new home happens to be, we are lucky that we can still visit our former countries. Some immigrants never get to go “home.” and often when we go back to our roots, it is a great eye opener so that we can appreciate our current homeland even more!

  4. larkie

    spoiled: thank you for your insightful comment. it is always so interesting to hear about people’s life experiences. i think if anything, for me it is now less about the struggle of having one foot in one culture and one in another. i believe the multicultural life experiences make us better citizens!

  5. wendy

    Thanks for sharing the beautiful pictures. I’m third generation (sansei) Japanese but I don’t even know my culture. I’ve been to Japan once but am considered a foreigner to the people of Japan. My cousin married and divorced a Japan national but her family considered him unsuitable even if he was Japanese. Kind of left to assimilate to being American because that’s all we grew up with.

  6. spoiled

    To answer your question about wondering how other immigrants feel… I was born in the former USSR and my family and I immigrated to Canada when I was 12. For the first couple of years, it was tough. I hated the country, hated the people, only surrounded myself with people who spoke the same language as I did and really really wanted to go back. In school, when the national anthem of Canada played, I purposely sang the Russian one (keep in mind, I was a teenager). Last time I went back was when I was 15 and I hated it there. I couldn’t wait to go back home which somehow became Canada. My whole attitude changed over the next several years. I now consider myself a Canadian, I hold a Canadian passport and I jump at the opportunity to sing along to the national anthem, while resting my right hand on my heart. That “longing for the home that is no longer there” as you have described it, is long long gone. I will never forget my roots or where I came from but somehow it has no place in my everyday life anymore.

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