Why you should boil up a pot of tea and talk to your grandma right now.
After pouring over the near infinite amount of ancestry and genealogy blogs out there for tips on how to get a better picture of my family tree, I discovered one piece of advice repeated more than all others:
Talk to Your Old People
At first, I really glossed over this advice. “I’ve talked to ba ngaoi before,” I would say. “What else could I possibly learn from her. Answer me that!”
After realizing that I needed a few more bits of information from her in order to find my grandfather (and that I should stop yelling at my computer), I decided to sit down with her for a quick interview while I was home for Thanksgiving.
Man, oh man, was I mistaken.
What I thought would be a thirty minute interview at the most turned into a two hour long discussion about our family history. I learned about the life of my great-grandparents and how they both died when my Ba Ngoai was young, her brush with death after a Viet Cong mortar round exploded outside of her home, and how a fire in a government building almost prevented her and my mother from reaching America—and these were just a few of the stories she told.
On top with that, I also learned more about my grandfather than I ever expected too, including where exactly him and my grandmother met, what his uniform looked like, and even the exact day he left (Christmas Eve 1972, otherwise known as the saddest Christmas ever).
Talking over many cups of hot tea, we shared in her history, a story that would have gone untold if I hadn’t asked her a few simple questions. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect more from movies or novels than your own family. There I was, though, my jaw often agape and eyes wide like a kid at a magic show.
It was strange. Before the conversation, I thought I knew my Ba Ngaoi, the tiny Vietnamese woman who laughed easily and hugged warmly. What I didn’t realize was that there was so much more to her. She wasn’t just Ba Ngaoi. She was . . . well, a person. With her own stories and struggles unto herself. By the end of our conversation, she was so much more than the grandmother who cooked me too-greasy-fried rice when I was hungry or tucked me into bed when I stayed over at her apartment. She was Man Ho, the girl from Can Tho who lived a life of sadness and hope.
We take for granted, I think, the things that our parents and grandparents went through in order to give us the life we have now. This is true especially for the sons and daughters of immigrants.
After all, I’ll never know the struggle of fleeing my country because of starvation and poverty. I’ll never know the struggle of shaving my head because Viet Cong soldiers might kill me if they saw I had curly hair—an indicator of mixed race. I’ll never the feeling of setting sail on a dark and unforgiving ocean in a leaky boat with dozens of other people with no plan or direction.
I’ll never know any of it because my parents and grandparents have known it already.
As I continue my adventure in unearthing my family tree, I know that I’ll find out more and more things about my family that I never would have expected. Some of it will be sad. Some of it will be so, so happy. But there’s going to come a day when I won’t be able to ask these questions anymore, and I’m going to wish, more than ever, to be able to ask them these kinds of questions again—if only to just hear their voices.
So, if I could leave you with one piece of advice that has helped me the most in this journey, it’s this:
Call your grandma.
Next up . . .
- History of the Boat People: A brief overview on the Vietnamese diaspora following the Fall of Saigon and where my family fits in it all.
- Ba Ngaoi’s Story: My grandmother’s story of survival, struggle, and love in the time of US extended military engagements in a foreign country.