Unspoken words and unwavering actions: Lessons I’ve learned from my father

[Image description: The silhouette of an adult and a child, holding hands, walking toward the horizon, during sunrise or sunset. Image by Harika G on Unsplash]

Hi everyone, this coming Sunday is Father’s Day, so I thought I would write about my dad and what I’ve learned from him. The last few weeks, he has been staying with me. He had been living in Vietnam, and some health concerns sent him back to the US. Because of the pandemic, I hadn’t seen him in four years. Living with him the past three months, which I realized I hadn’t done in 20 years, has been fun, though I’ve had to make some adjustments. When he got back, the first thing he asked me was about a giant wooden beam he told me six years ago to guard. I had given it to someone else, I don’t even remember who. “You shouldn’t have done that. You’ll need that wooden beam someday.” I guess it doesn’t matter what cultures fathers are from, they will want to hoard pieces of wood and reprimand you for not doing so.

My father, Loi Le, was born in Vietnam 76 years ago, in 1947. My father is one of the smartest, strongest, most hardworking, and most hilarious people I know. He is also an amazing storyteller. He enlisted to fight against the North, for which he was put into reeducation camp for a couple of years when South Vietnam fell. The next two decades would be an equally harrowing time that saw our family eking out a survival under Vietnam’s new government, leaving our home, spending six months in a refugee camp in the Philippines, landing in Philly, moving to Seattle, owning a convenience store in Memphis, and moving back to Seattle, along the way facing numerous setbacks and tragedies. The entire story would be too long, so I’ll save it for a book, or maybe a one-man show that involves Vietnamese water puppets, I haven’t decided. Until then, though, here are a few lessons I’ve learned from him:

When you have privilege, use it to help people: In the sixth grade, my father was the biggest and strongest kid in class. One day, he saw a smaller kid being bullied and he stepped in to defend him. He didn’t do it to get on Karma’s good side or whatever. However, sometimes Karma did step in. Years later, after the War, the government made life hell for people who fought against the North. People were assigned to hard labor in reeducation camps. The guy who doled out assignments recognized my father as the kid who protected him from bullies over a decade prior and helped him avoid being sent to much more grueling work.

Always keep your words: When he was in reeducation camp, he and my mother had already fallen in love. They decided to get married. So he went to the head of the camp and asked for permission to leave for a few days. The guy was shocked and indignant: “Who has heard of anyone asking to leave reeducation camp to get married?! How do I know you won’t just try to escape?” My father reassured the man that he wouldn’t escape. He was granted permission. He left the camp, had a simple wedding ceremony with my mother, and came back, one day earlier than he promised.

Find joy and humor whenever you can: My father told me stories of life in these camps, where people were so hungry they were lucky if they could find a rat to eat (the rat was not so lucky). The work was often horrific, sometimes involving detonating unexploded mines. Two people would hold the ends of a long log, and they would slowly and carefully lower the middle of the log to the ground to trigger a mine. The resulting explosion often created shrapnel that flew everywhere. “One guy had his ear sliced off. He taped it back up and continued working. It must have tickled a bit the rest of the day.” I think to endure what my fathers and his fellow prisoners endured, they had to develop a sense of humor. Joy and humor are vital tools that allow us to hold on to our humanity during the longest nights.

Don’t equate formal education with intelligence: After my father got out of reeducation camp, he and my mother found resourceful ways to keep us fed, working around the oppressive rules enforced by the new regime. When we moved to the US, they didn’t speak any English and had a couple thousand dollars saved up to restart their lives here with three small kids. They delivered newspapers, sewed backpacks, washed dishes at restaurants, cleaned offices. Eventually, much later, they owned a business and a house. Because of the War, my parents never went to college, and I am not sure if my mom even finished high school. There is no correlation between formal education and how smart and resourceful someone is.

Understand your limit and stand up for yourself: My father is generally very patient and courteous. He will tolerate a lot of things. Up to a point. When he has felt he did everything he could to be cooperative and people are still unreasonable or rude, he will tear them a new one. He has used his words to shame power-tripping government officials in Vietnam on many occasions, rendering them speechless, as many are not used to be being talked back to. We should only be nice and courteous to a point, especially in dealing with those who use their power and privilege to oppress others.

You are stronger than you know: Life did eventually get better for my parents. But they still faced constant obstacles. The convenience store they had, where they worked seven days a week, could not be sold due to some technicality with the lease, and they barely broke even at the end after investing so much time and money into it. Then, after they moved back to Seattle and anticipated a simple, easy life they had earned now that my siblings and I were grown, my mother died unexpectedly at the age of 49. My father was devastated, a goal he and my mother had worked so hard for crumbled in an instant. Yet, like every other tragedy our family faced, he led us through it. His strength is a constant reminder for me when I am dealing with difficult things in my life.

Love manifests in different ways: My father has never said “I love you” to any of us or to my mother, that I know of. And I think he and I hugged four times over the past 30 years. It is not common for Vietnamese parents to be affectionate. I don’t need to hear the words though. He has demonstrated for decades in everything he does, from working 16-hour days to provide for us, to wearing the same clothing for years to save money so we kids could wear new clothes. He has never understood why I got a degree in social work or what I do for a living. But one day, my little sister told me she found out that he cut out and collected every newspaper story where I was featured or quoted. “I still have no idea what you do,” he told me recently, “but you have a house and a car, so I guess you’re doing OK!”

I love you too, Dad. Thank you for everything you’ve done for our family, most of which I will never know about. You’ve been our load-bearing beam. Thanks for giving me my sense of humor and so many things that make me who I am. I might do a show about your life. I will call it “Giant Wooden Beam: My Father’s Story.” Happy Father’s Day.