Kim Pham works in accounting in Toledo, where she was born in 1982 to parents who immigrated to the U.S. after escaping the communist regime in Vietnam.
Below is a transcript, edited for length and clarity, of a conversation between Kim and Ruth Chang (creative director at Midstory) on March 9, 2023. The transcript is representative of a subjective and fluid conversation at a specific moment in time and should be read as such. This project also includes many individuals whose first language is not English; these transcripts prioritize the integrity of the interviewees’ expression over grammatical correctness. Midstory assumes no responsibility for any errors, omissions or inaccuracies.
Ruth Chang (RC): So how do you self-identify? What is your ethnicity?
Kim Pham (KP): I’m Vietnamese.
RC: And growing up [in Toledo, Ohio], was there a lot of other Vietnamese around?
KP: No, there wasn’t. I remember growing up — because people would often ask me when I was little, “Are you Chinese? Are you Japanese? Are you Korean?” — Vietnamese was never an option because I think a lot of people just weren’t familiar with it. I think as a kid, I disconnected with [my] identity because no one seemed to be able to identify with you as to what you are. Growing up in Sylvania [a suburb of Toledo], there’s not even a big Asian population in general. So, it can be kind of isolating growing up, and you feel disconnected with your culture because this area is predominantly white. So, a lot of friends I had growing up are white. And there can be a disconnect because they don’t understand what it’s like being Vietnamese or just being Asian in general. They’re not familiar with different cultural traditions, or they probably had more lenient parents.
RC: You mentioned that they don’t always understand some cultural traditions. What were some of them?
KP: I would say Lunar New Year is such a big thing in the Vietnamese community because it’s a new start. I think in Vietnam, there would be people outdoors, they’re celebrating, whereas, I think here New Year’s isn’t a whole-new-fresh-start-type of deal. When there’s a death in the family, that’s another really big [tradition] — you have to pay respects to them. There’s a lot, it’s not just a funeral, there’s a lot of steps that go along the way.
RC: Did you experience that yourself? Where they were like, “What are you doing?” And you’re like, “I have to go and do this.”
KP: Yes. So, there’s different cultural traditions. Usually people go to the temple every week for seven weeks to mourn the death and pay your respects to whoever has passed away. So, just different cultural traditions in that way. For seven weeks when my grandpa died, we had to go [to] temple, and there’s not a temple in this area. We would have to go up in Michigan. I was in junior high. So, it can be kind of confusing explaining that to other people, who are like, “Why are you going through this long process?” Things like that.
RC: Do you feel that in some ways you became an expert in your own traditions and your own cultures and what your family did? Were you proud of that growing up?
KP: Yeah, I think when I was young because I wasn’t exposed to other people that were similar to me, I feel I constantly had to explain myself, and things like that. I remember there was a point where a Vietnamese restaurant opened — I think I was a freshman at [the University of Toledo] — and there were a few years after that, sometimes when I would tell people that I’m Vietnamese, they’d be like, “Oh, I love pho.” And I was taken aback by that, because, as a kid, people just didn’t know what Vietnamese was, what the country was, and now they’re aware of some of the foods I ate while growing up my entire life.
RC: I’m curious, because, we’re in the middle of the Midwest… Americans — you eat green bean casserole, on July 4th we eat corn on the cob. But then you grew up with very different experiences.
KP: In Vietnamese culture, your family is everything to you. You always have your family to lean back on. When I was growing up, while my parents were at work, my grandparents actually watched my brother and I. So, I have a lot of memories of being surrounded by my grandparents, my uncles and aunts.
My dad — he came to Toledo in the 1980s. He had escaped from Vietnam because of communism and he was the oldest [in his late 20s]. He had come to the Toledo area because he had an uncle that lived here. My mom came in the mid-1980s. She went to Dayton and there was some sort of a Vietnamese gathering of some sort in Dayton, and my dad had gone down there, and that’s where he met my mom. So then they got married and they lived in Toledo. In early 1992, my dad actually was able to bring some of his brothers and sisters and my grandparents. So my aunts and uncles immigrated to the Toledo area, and then later that year I was born. So, I’ve always been surrounded by family. And I’ve always been taught from a young age that your family is everything to you. You would do anything to help out your family if somebody ever needed a thing.
RC: Do you think that’s sort of a little haven within a larger environment growing up?
KP: I think when you’re a kid, I remember feeling a little isolated because I’m around people who don’t look like me. Not that it had a big detrimental effect on me at all or anything. I just remember slowly learning about my culture as I got older and older. And then being in college and just being exposed to a wide array of people in college. There’s obviously international students, and you meet so many people of different ethnicities and cultures. You just grow so much as a person. That was the first time I told people I was Vietnamese; they were finally like, “Oh, I know, this dish and this dish.” And it’s full circle. Because when I was younger, I felt like no one knew what my culture was. And now growing up, other people know some parts of it.
RC: What were some of those dishes that were your favorite? Was it easy to get ingredients to make those dishes here?
KP: I would say my favorite would be pho, a rice noodle dish. It’s just beef and there’s different variants of broth. You can use things like beef or chicken. Or you can just use a vegetable broth, then just meats and noodles. So, that dish isn’t super complex. You wouldn’t have to travel super far — the Asian grocery stores around here would have it.
But I remember how in Texas when I [visited] there, there were just so many different Vietnamese restaurants and Vietnamese shopping areas. I’ve always wondered how my childhood would be different if I grew up in an area where there’s a more predominantly Vietnamese community. And it’s fun to visit there. I feel more connected to my culture when I’m in areas like that because you see so [many] different other foods that I’ve grown up with. You see other people enjoying it. You see a whole bunch of others — no matter where I go, I will probably run into another Vietnamese person because the Vietnamese population is so big down there. Whereas here, there’s not a big Vietnamese population I [grew] up with. I kind of felt disconnected to my culture.
RC: How did your parents feel received, or how did they adapt to this area? How do they like being in Toledo?
KP: I know when they first came here, the first big part was learning English. I remember my mom was talking about how when she was a student at UT, it took her forever to do any sort of homework because she had to look up every word. I think one of the biggest parts of being able to live the American dream was that they really want to get their degrees, and then having to go on interviews when they know what the interviewers are asking, but they might not able to answer it… they knew what they wanted to say, but they couldn’t say it. Having to live in a different country, and then get assimilated to the culture and then having to learn English and to be able to get a job and be able to provide for your family — I think it’s at the forefront of their minds.
RC: Even though you’re born and bred here, how do they institute values or how did [their pathway] affect the way you grew up?
KP: Education is such a big part of Vietnamese culture. I remember my mom said that when her mom, my grandma, was a young woman, it was seen as bad for young women to be educated. My mom, when she was a kid, it became more acceptable for girls to be really studious and be educated. I remember she said she just loved learning, because she finally had an opportunity and she saw that her mom didn’t get the same opportunities that she did. So, I would say education is really important because a lot of Vietnamese people will see that as a way for you to get your education and hopefully, get a really good job. To provide for your family. I didn’t even hesitate about not going to college. I knew I was going to college.
RC: For them, that was a version of the American dream, right? So, your family when they came here, what did they end up doing, your dad or your mom?
KP: My dad was an engineer, and my mom is an accountant. She still works as an accountant; she doesn’t want to retire. She finds so much fulfillment from working and she said she will work until she just cannot work anymore.
RC: And then your dad had an engineering degree. So what does he do now?
KP: He’s retired. My parents are older. They’re in their late 60s. My dad retired and for a brief time, and he took care of my grandparents. Because he was the main person who took care of my grandparents.
RC: So your dad brought the grandparents over and also other parts of his family, like his brother. Then at that point, your family was basically multigenerational, right? Did you guys live in the same place?
KP: When my grandparents and aunts and uncles first came, they lived in an apartment, and then eventually, they lived in a house.
RC: And then your grandparents, too?
KP: Yes. I was over at the house a lot because my grandparents were raising my brother and I, so it was just like all one big family.
RC: So how was that? Did they sort of instill a lot more Vietnamese culture in you guys — language wise, would you learn because of them?
KP: I would say so. I have really fond memories with my grandma watching “The Price is Right” and different gaming shows because even if you don’t understand the English language, with the stuff they’re doing, you can still pick up on what’s going on.
I remember my mom telling me how my grandpa wanted to go to a fast-food restaurant. But he didn’t know how to speak some of the words. I think he brought my brother with me and my older brother. And my brother was a kid at the time, so he went up and ordered, I guess. Those are some of the memories I have growing up.
RC: Was there ever a moment that you first perceived your ethnicity, like, “Oh, I’m different. Oh, my parents, they escaped or they fled from another country”? Was there a moment in time that happened for you?
KP: Yeah, in the environment I grew up in no one else’s parents are going to escape from whatever. They were just born somewhere in the United States. I remember in second grade, when we had to do a presentation on a country, and I had chosen Vietnam. I had talked about this as where my parents came from. And I remember my teacher asking, “Oh, why did your parents want to flee?” And I remember the way my dad explained it at the time: they were just fighting for a better life. Because I was in second grade, I wouldn’t understand the whole government situation. So, I think that was a turning point where I realized that my background is really different from those around me.
RC: Do you ever feel like, “No, you don’t understand. I’m not whatever you think I am. Just because you’ve perceived me as Asian doesn’t mean you can generalize certain stereotypes”?
KP: I would say that growing up here and being born here, I’m obviously Americanized to an extent. But there are some cultural traditions that you’re proud of because this is where your family came from. This is where your ancestors came from. I’ve always been really proud of where my parents and my family came from, but I have assimilated, naturally, since I was born here. There are different cultural traditions and things.
RC: So obviously, there has been more discussion of race during the pandemic and other social movements. Does that make you reflect on what it means to be Asian in America? What it means to be Asian American? What it means to be Vietnamese in Toledo, Ohio?
KP: I think we all should be proud of our ethnicities because that’s who we are. The fact that my parents came here, my dad brought his family here and they were able to achieve the American dream — it’s crazy watching them while they’re a student just trying to learn English trying to accomplish all their goals. Now they are able to do the things that they want to do because of that. So, I think we should all be proud of who we are and where our ancestors and our family came from.
However, with Asian Americans being the model minority, I think that’s something that maybe needs to be discussed more. Because I think a lot of Asian Americans are dealing with so many issues that affect them, and that it’s not talked about enough because we’re often seen as a model minority. I think that there is so much stress associated with some people succeeding and overachieving. And that leads to so many mental health complications that can have such detrimental effects on your health. And the coronavirus put a spotlight on Asian hate, because some people don’t realize how much prejudice Asian people face in the world today.
RC: Is there an issue that matters to you, or something that you feel should be continued to be talked about and focused on, related to Asian American identity and representation and America?
KP: I would say mental health because I think growing up, sometimes you don’t even know yourself at all. Sometimes you put so much pressure on yourself to succeed and you’re not doing things that make you happy. I think especially being that model minority, I think that Asian Americans feel so much pressure not only with their families, but from the outside. People assume so much about you just because you’re Asian. No one fits, obviously, 100% of the stereotypes, and we all have different experiences that make up who we are, and that’s something I think that should be discussed more.