David watched as his mentor, Hung, lay on the hospital bed like a shriveled plant long past its vital days. Wet footprints from the rain marked the floor beneath. Around them, patients lay along the walls of the hospital in open air–some in movable steel beds and others on bamboo mats rested flatly on the ground; it was an unfit place for a hero to spend his last dying days.
Yet, emblematic of his whole orientation in life, the first words out of Anh Hung’s mouth were: “How are the children?” These four words marked a soul that found meaning out of protecting the helpless and giving them a ray of hope in an otherwise hapless life.
Anh Hung, known as Hung Pho to his friends, was imprisoned following the Vietnam War. During his imprisonment, Hung picked up a preference for frequent liquor and a fondness for heroin. By the time he got out of prison, Hung was homeless and addicted. But living on the war-torn streets soon gave him a reason to quit heroin and work himself out of poverty.
He had encountered orphaned street children who elicited more of his pity and sympathy than he could muster up for himself. They were a casualty of war just like him—but the difference was that he had more capability for work and more power to change his life unlike those persons undeveloped in mind and bodily strength. So, Hung cleaned up his life and went on to work with Thao Bang orphanage. He later found the SMILE group, which provided support to HIV and AIDS victims.
David had come to SMILE group that summer of 2007 in a study abroad program to learn more about Vietnam and to improve his Vietnamese. It was during this summer that he decided to pursue medicine as a career.
Unlike many Vietnamese Americans with their hearts set on medicine due to parental pressure, David wavered between public health and medicine, never quite sure of what his calling was. He spent his early college days often traveling back and forth between UC Berkeley and South L.A. to care for his dying father, who died when David was 18. Shortly after that, his mother moved to Colorado to live with her boyfriend.
Left alone to make sense of his father’s death and to navigate college life, David’s grades suffered. Living without his father, the only strong link he had to Vietnam, David was scared that he’d lose his connection to Vietnamese culture. Growing up, his family already didn’t celebrate much of the Vietnamese holidays and customs. Without his father around, David didn’t know whether he could keep this link.
David grew up in Downey, a city in South Los Angeles. Downey was predominantly white, and David was often picked on since he was one of the few Asian Americans at his school. Not only was he not accepted by his white schoolmates, but David also felt left out by Vietnamese people. He recalled going to the temple when he was 8 years old and getting picked on by Vietnamese gang members who liked to frequent the temples.
“So the white kids picked on me because I was Asian, and here I was trying to learn something about Vietnamese culture, and the Vietnamese kids picked on me too. I never felt like I belonged to either side,” David recalled.
Because of experiences like those, David found himself wishing he weren’t Vietnamese. But living away from SoCal where all the great Vietnamese food is, he began missing pho and longed to learn more about Vietnamese culture. So he joined VSA, and for the first time in his life befriended Vietnamese people.
In the summer of 2007, he signed up for an immersion program in Vietnam to improve his Vietnamese, to learn more about Vietnam, and to hopefully use that time to figure out where he wanted to head next in life. Once there, the lives of the poor opened up his eyes to the links between poverty and HIV.
“A lot of people with HIV contract it in prison, and a lot of the people who go to prison end up there due to poverty,” David explained.
David found himself enjoying his work with the SMILE group. “Despite their situation, they are happy and smiling,” said David. David talked to Anh Hung one last time before Hung died and learned that Hung wanted David to help the kids. Since Hung took David under his wings as a mentee, the kids began looking up to David as a kind of replacement for Anh Hung.
David came back from that trip knowing more firmly who he was and what he wanted to do with his life. He pursued medicine and was accepted into UC Irvine’s medical program, where he is currently pursuing his studies. He plans to do some work in Vietnam in the near future because of his positive experiences there.
David’s path is an instructive one to young Vietnamese Americans figuring their path in life, while making sense of their bicultural identities. He started out self-conscious of his heritage among a sea of white faces at his school, often not fitting in neither American nor Vietnamese culture. It was in coming back to reconnect that he found inspiration from his homeland.
His calling in life, although not directly caused by his being Vietnamese, was at least indirectly influenced by it. When asked about his insight on what it meant to be a Vietnamese-American, David offered this: “We wear different hats and play different roles wherever we go, regardless of our race.”
And yet it was in Vietnam that David discovered meaningful work through his experiences with the children in the SMILE group. The relationships and empathy he developed there were those borne out of a commiseration for the vicissitudes of the human condition– the condition that can affect any one of us regardless of race. Yet without being in a country affected by poverty, David might not have as strong a grip on his direction in life.
At an age where many of his peers drifted to jobs where they didn’t know why they were there for, except to pay for occasional trips and go out to nice restaurants, David found work he was passionate about. But he didn’t find that by taking a bunch of career tests or searching for a particular passion to strike in the middle of the night. He found it through immersing himself in an environment where he could provide value to the surrounding community, continually enhancing his skills in order to garner the external rewards that reinforced his internal enjoyment of the work, finally aligning him towards a path we can describe as passionate.
It was a passion found through being exposed to a human condition that extended beyond race, and yet it started with him missing pho. The bowl of pho that he craved led to a deeper yearning to learn more about his cultural roots, sending him back to Vietnam in that summer of ’07. Then he met Hung Pho, and there, “I found out where I belonged: a community that needed me.”
[This post is a continuation in my series of posts exploring what it means to be a Vietnamese American and how young VAs can leverage their bicultural identities to live a meaningful life. If you or someone you know has an inspiring true story you would like to feature, please contact me. These true stories add to our ongoing dialogue and help others learn from examples of how to forge a strong path out of the different pieces of their lives.]