By Julie Tolmie
On a hot, smoggy morning last December, I stepped off of a plane and onto Vietnamese soil. My family and I had just arrived in Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City, after a bumpy flight down from Japan and another one before that from Seattle. In total, we had flown over 7,463 miles and over 16 hours. In 16 hours, we could have made the trip from Seattle to Honolulu, Hawaii three times. However, my family didn’t leave home that December to relax on sandy beaches, attend luaus, or drink fresh coconut juice. We left to reach Vietnam, the country of my mom’s birth.
My mom was born in Saigon, Vietnam on September 11th in the year of the dragon. She was the fifth of eight children born to old-fashioned Chinese parents. At the time of my mom’s birth, violence between the communist Northern Vietnamese and the U.S.-backed Southern Vietnamese had been going on for some time in the form of the Vietnam War. It was a difficult time to be a well-educated Chinese person in Vietnam, so by the time my mom was 10, her family had fled Vietnam for a concentration camp in Malaysia, where they would spend three more years before being admitted to the United States as refugees.
In the more than 30 years that have passed since they arrived in the United States, a few members of my mom’s immediate and extended family have returned to Vietnam. When we made the trip in December, my mom was only the third person to go back. Part of this is because before my mom made the trip to Vietnam, those family members who had already gone back to Vietnam discouraged others from making the same mistake. Nearly all of them returned from their trip with the same message, “Don’t go back. There’s nothing left for us there now.” However, now that I’ve made the trip, I don’t agree with that advice. Do go back to the country of your birth. There’s still much for you to gain from that experience.
The biggest reason for any person to return to the country of his or her birth, and the reason why my mom returned to Vietnam, is to close up a chapter of her life. From talking to family members, listening to immigrants in the Seattle area, and reading the histories and biographies of immigrants around the country, I’ve learned that while many immigrants are glad to be living in the United States and would never ever consider returning to their home country, many others still feel a certain attachment to the country where they were born and/or raised. However, sometimes, it’s even more than a “certain attachment.” How many immigrants, and even children of immigrants, feel like they don’t quite fit in here? How many feel like they wouldn’t fit in their birth country either, because they left so long ago, or on uncertain terms? The fate of many immigrants is to feel both of these, like someone who half belongs to two different places and can never completely fit in either one. Many people wonder what life might have been like if they had stayed in the country where they were born. In this case, there might be some regret over their departure. There migh be some bitterness over the discrimination they’ve had to face here, the language barrier they have had to overcome, the culture gap between parents and children, and the dispersal of family members across the country.
This is why returning to the country of your birth is so important. It’s the only way to find out whether everything you’ve dealt with here, including discrimination, language barriers, and the culture gap, has been worth it. You’ll find out where you belong, or at the very least, where you belong most. It might be that the country of your birth is home, or it might be that this is home. Maybe things in your old country have changed too much and not enough, so that it really isn’t home anymore.
The real reason why you should visit is that it’s the only way to close up that chapter of your life. Many immigrants, refugees especially, had to leave their homes in a hurry. They fled war or persecution and they didn’t really get a chance to say goodbye. Returning to the country of your birth is that chance to say a proper goodbye. So let go of what once was, but don’t forget about it. Pass the story on to the next generation. Meanwhile, don’t forget about your family, your friends, or anyone that might still be in the country of your birth. They exist in the present now, and so should you. (end)