Father’s Day, and the power of storytelling


mad maxHi everyone, Father’s Day is coming up, and I’d like to talk a little about my dad, and then tie it back to our work in the nonprofit sector, specifically the importance of sharing our stories and connecting to one another. Like my Mother’s Day post, this one will be a little personal, and also potentially sentimental. If you are not in the mood for that, please skip this post and read something more hilarious, like Feng Shui for nonprofits, or 12 tips for not sucking as a panel moderator. (If you LOVE sentimentality, though, read this “Letter to my newborn son in case I die early,” which I wrote on my first Father’s Day.)

For the past few months, I’ve been taking my dad to see violent action movies. Kingman was awesome, and Mad Max: Fury Road was so awesome, it was like someone figured out how to distill awesomeness into its purest form and then allowed us to mainline it for two hours. My father doesn’t talk much about the movies after we watch them, but I think he likes our father/son excursions, and this is one of the few activities we can bond over. During the drives, we can talk.

“What was it like in the reeducation camp?” I asked during one of our drives from a movie. Dad is a great story teller with a sharp sense of humor. Charismatic and brilliant, he was born into a time of War. He fought against the Communists, and for that, he was put into reeducation camp when they won. Luckily, he was young and low-ranking enough that they let him go after a couple of years.

“They didn’t feed us much,” he said, “worms, grasshoppers—we ate those. If we caught a mouse, it was a rare treat. They made us set off unexploded mines. Two guys would hold a long tree trunk, one at either end. They set the middle part of the trunk down on the mine to make it explode. One time, a piece of tree trunk flew up and took off half of my friend’s ear. He found his ear, put it into his pocket, and continued working. Can you imagine wooden shrapnel just shooting into your face? I’d be extremely ticklish.”

“Of course,” he added, “we were the ones they didn’t shoot. If they found out you had been a high-ranking officer, they just dragged you off and shot you right away. You wouldn’t get to do fun things like explode mines and eat worms.”

While my mother peddled bags of grains for miles on her bicycle to sell, my father would go into the pine trees up in the mountains with a shoulder pole that had a wooden should polebucket on either end. He carved grooves into the pine trunks and collected the sap, also to sell at the market. When the buckets were full at the end of the day, he set them on his shoulder pole and took them home, walking slowly down the winding path that was surrounded by red earth and the occasional blanket of damp, stinging evening mist. He probably sang. No matter what life threw at him, my father always sang.

When we came to the US, my parents washed dishes and delivered newspaper. We wore clothing we got donated or bought for cheap at thrift stores, and I distinctly remember being embarrassed at my father’s wearing bell-bottom jeans. In 1999 my parents had this idea to move us from Seattle to Memphis to take advantage of an opportunity to own a convenience store and gas station. Dad was a hit with the customers. Even with his limited English, he learned to joke around from behind the counter. He learned the word “illegal” for some reason and started using it all the time in humorous exchanges with people filling up their tanks and buying ice cream: “Hey guy,” he said to a customer who almost walked out without his credit card, “you leave your credit card. Uh-uh. You keep it. If I keep, it is…illegal!” The customers loved him, became regulars, and gradually “illegal” became their inside joke.

Despite his sunny disposition, my father has a fiery side, and it is often triggered by memories of the things he’s endured. One day, as part of a homework assignment, I had to draw the flag of Vietnam. I drew the red flag with the yellow star. Dad came home late at night as usual, saw my flag on the table, and got as red as my drawing. I pulled out the encyclopedia and told him this was the official flag. He demanded I draw the right flag, the yellow one with the three red stripes. I refused; he tore my homework into pieces. The next morning, I woke up early. He had already left to open up the store, so I was able to redraw my flag, but I was pissed and didn’t understand what the hell this guy’s problem was.

Things settled down. I went off to college. My parents moved back to Seattle. My older brother took care of them, and they didn’t have to work so hard any more. They started to enjoy life. One day my little brother Bao called me. “Dude, Vu, guess what? Mom bought a teeth whitening kit!” A teeth whitening kit! We were astonished. Our parents were some of the most frustratingly cheap people ever. One time we were at Target, and I asked for two dollars to buy some pens, and Dad said, “Hm…do you really need pens?” He went to Vietnam one summer and brought back 15 brooms because they were inexpensive. Now my mother was whitening her teeth and using name-brand makeup, and we had lifetime supply of brooms. We were living the American Dream.

My parents were in love, having been together for 25 harrowing years, working to protect us kids and made sure we did well in a land where they knew they themselves would never belong. It was nice to see them going on walks together and watching Chinese martial arts soap operas. With their savings, they remodeled our house back in our village, and when my little sister got into college, they would retired and live in the house, and we kids would just send back a few bucks a month, and they could just travel and sing karaoke with their friends.

But four years before that could happen, my mother died, and it devastated my father. Our dreams for a simple life for my parents after they endured decades of war and struggle evaporated. On occasion, a glint of my father’s warmth and quick wit would come through, but it is often tinged with sadness. “This lady, your Mom,” he says from time to time, “I can’t believe she just went and died on all of us. Very insensitive.”

The power of storytelling

Stories have become a big thing in the sector, a powerful tool we can use to advance our organizations’ work. But I feel that too often, storytelling is used mainly as a marketing tool, e.g., “How to use stories to get more donations.” Yes, it is effective for that. But to use stories only for fundraising vastly shortchanges the power of storytelling. Through my father’s stories, I learn about his life, my mother’s life, the lives of my grandparents and other relatives. I understand now the terrible things my family and others have faced, and why my father was so angry that I drew the wrong flag. By extension, I understand why so many elders in the Vietnamese community have organized protests against the red-background/yellow-star symbol. Without understanding people’s histories and motivations, it is easy to dismiss them.

Stories can also, when done right, be healing and cathartic. Parents of students in our program would tell me stories of how they came over to the US. Sometimes thesedon duong, dalat 037 stories are terribly sad. A janitor I met recounted escaping from Vietnam by boat only to face horrifying brutality from pirates after starving for weeks at sea. He barely knew me—we were at a school function at the buffet line—and it was painful and sad to hear all the awful details, but I knew he just wanted someone to listen, and maybe to empathize.

We tell a lot of stories about our clients. We don’t ask them enough to tell stories about themselves. We don’t have that much time to spend hours listening to people. Or to tell them our own stories. But this is one of the most important things we can do for the people we serve: To hear their stories, to share our own, to find commonalities. It helps all of us feel less alone. We build community by sharing stories. We need to make the time.

The years that followed mother’s death were exhausting. In one of the less fun chapters of my life, my father and I had a falling out, and I left home. Maybe I’ll go into that story some other day, because it yields some good lessons about loss and family and community. These past five years though, things have calmed down, my father slowly becoming his old self. He sings and jokes again. Through his stories I have started appreciating the weight of my parents’ sacrifices, heavy like gallons of pine sap. They weren’t cheap like my siblings and I always thought; they were saving money and sending it back to the relatives we left behind. Sometimes I wonder what my dad, with all his intelligence and talents and determination, could have been, could have accomplished, if life had not thrown a war into his path, if his story had started differently. I wonder this about many of the people we serve.

For Father’s Day, I’ll probably take him to see “Jurassic World.” He still has no clue what I do for a living, and sometimes it feels like our stories are so different that we barely exist in the same world. But we both appreciate a good tale about dinosaurs wreaking havoc on a theme park, and during the drive to or from the movie, we can talk, and I get to know my father a little bit more. After all he’s done and lived through, all he’s given, all the humor and strength I’ve inherited from him, it would be a missed opportunity to not get to know him. Borderline illegal, really.

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