Soon after the city of Saigon fell to North Vietnamese forces in 1975, thousands of people fled the country seeking to escape the reign of the communist government. Many refugees resettled in the U.S., including here in Virginia. In our series Vietnam: Virginia Remembers, Saraya Wintersmith has more for Virginia Currents on one family’s journey.
Ahead of a weekday lunch rush, Bach Lien Ly is seated at the far end of a spacious banquet room of the Vietnam Garden. She first opened the Richmond-area restaurant in the early 1990s.
Sitting beside Ly are her two daughters. She smiles softly and coaxes them to converse in Vietnamese.
Ly says it’s been tough trying to balance being a wife, a restaurateur and a parent to children who are growing up in another country and culture.
Ly: And, they’re good kids, but we have differences in my background and their background. It’s different, but they understand most of the culture because I able - the thing I proud about myself is I still keep them in the culture line.
Ly arrived in United States only after her mother encouraged her to flee Vietnam’s post-war communist regime. She says planning for college or a career wasn’t an option.
Ly: You don’t sit there and say “what I’m going to do with my future? Where do I wanna go?” You don’t do that. Y’know, you just go with the float and that’s how it is with a lot of people. We don’t have a dream. We can’t dream because we surviving//We are survivor, so we don’t want to dream, we just want to survive (chuckles).
So, at age 16, Ly risked imprisonment and death to try to reach the U.S. with her uncle and brother.
Ly: I left the country by boat. We escaped from Vietnam and I got to Indonesia 1984 of February and I stay in the camp – they call refugee camp – for almost a year. And I arrived here to the United State here in Richmond, Virginia 1985 of February.
Shortly after arriving, Ly started high school and worked odd jobs to get by. In between baby sitting, cleaning houses and starting a restaurant, she met her husband – who was also a Vietnamese refugee – and they became parents.
The Ly Family, from left to right: Youngest daughter Khahn, Bach Lien Ly, Minh Chanh Ly, Middle Daughter Nhi (Not pictured, eldest daughter Tam who is away at college). (Photo: Louise Ricks / 88.9 WCVE)
Ly: Y’know, I don’t have the teenager fun, so I try to tell my kids (sniffles) I give it all to them. They’re going to have whatever that I can to support them.
Like many parents, she sometimes wonders if anything she shares about her life resonates with her kids – three girls who are first-generation Vietnamese-Americans.
Nhi Ly: Their childhood, their like, teenage years and everything, is a lot different than ours, a lot harder.
Ly’s middle daughter Nhi says she’s heard her mother’s story a lot, but even still, she marvels at her parents’ ability to adapt.
Nhi Ly: They didn’t even know English, so imagine how hard it was just to like…get around. And then they were in high school around that age so, they couldn’t so much either and, I don’t know how they did it but…(she laughs).
Ly’s oldest daughter Tam agrees with her sister and says they’ve inherited many benefits from their parents’ experience. Speaking via Skype from Newport News, Tam says one of the biggest advantages is being bi-cultural.
Tam Ly: Knowing more than 1 culture, even if it's not a lot, it teaches you how to be open-minded. Just because I know about the Vietnamese culture and I know about the American culture, I am able to be more accepting of every other culture.
The Ly daughters dressed for performing a traditional Vietnamese dance, from left to right: Nhi, Tam, Khahn. (Photo Courtesy the Ly Family)
Tam illustrates with a familiar example - reactions from people experiencing traditional ethnic foods they’ve never seen before.
Tam Ly: I don’t go around saying “Eewww, what are you eating? That looks gross.”
She says her family’s close connection to their Vietnamese background makes her more likely to be sensitive to other cultures and keep an open mind.
Although the Ly family celebrates things like the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving, Tam says she’s also proud to celebrate the Lunar New Year with Vietnamese traditions like blessing the elders.
Tam Ly: Generally, children who are innocent, bless the elder and the elderly in return would give a lucky red envelope that has some money inside. And I feel like sometimes, the kids who are raised here - all they think about is “Oh my god, I get a red envelope on New Years!” but they don’t know the reason behind it. whereas, I can go up to an elderly and bless them the correct way say, “I wish you good fortune and good health and to be happy the rest of your life,” something along those lines in Vietnamese.
That, she says, makes the interaction more genuine.
The Ly daughters at home dressed to celebrate Lunar New Year, from left to right: Nhi, Tam, Khahn. (Photo Courtesy the Ly Family)
Tam Ly: It’s the same interaction they would’ve had with the kids in Vietnam. Whereas here, I’ve seen it before with my own eyes, they would repeat the things that their parents say to their grandparents. They don’t have the same connection and understanding that my sisters and I have when we go through that same blessing.
The youngest of the three, Khahn, suggests there is even greater benefit to her parents’ sacrifice. She looks her mother in the eye and tells her exactly what it means to grow up under the care of self-less parents.
Khahn Ly: Mom? I know that you had a really rough childhood. I know that you just want the best for us, so seeing how hard you work every day makes me want to work even harder. I want to thank you for everything you do every day and I want you to be less stressed, get more sleep, and be happy. I love you.
Bach Lien Ly smiles happily. She is proud of the life and the family she has established here in Richmond, Virginia by way of Vietnam.
For Virginia Currents, I’m Saraya Wintersmith, WCVE News.