“Being from a family of refugees grounds me.”

The Wisconsin Historical Society Press published ‘Hope Is the Thing: Wisconsinites on Perseverance in a Pandemic’. In this series, we feature five writers who share their experiences as they explore hope in the era of Covid. Jamie Vue contributed an essay to the book.

Being from a family of refugees grounds me and is where I have always found my strength. Whenever I face a hardship, like this pandemic, thinking about my family’s experience helps me remain hopeful.

Photos courtesy of Jamie Vue

Jamie Vue | Eau Claire, WI

My grandmother is nearly one hundred years old and she has inspired hope through the generations in my family. I think a lot about her life and all she lived through.  

My grandmother fled her village with her children during the Vietnam war. They arrived at a military base and remained there for a few weeks until they formed a plan to escape persecution in Laos to a refugee camp in Thailand. My dad told me his story of going down to the banks of the Mekong River to practice swimming so that he would be able to help his mom, younger brother, and sister get safely across the river. When they ran out of time, my dad had an idea to help my grandmother swim. He found two plastic bags, blew them up to be makeshift airbags, and tied them around her arms. She got in the Mekong River with her children, not even knowing whether she would safely make it to the other side. To me, that says a lot about the will to survive and is the foundation of my personal history.  If she could survive fleeing a war with her kids, we could get through this pandemic.

In the early months of the pandemic, I heard some politicians say that we needed to keep the economy going and that our elders would be happy to sacrifice their lives for us. It was in the news a lot in 2020. I immediately thought of my grandmother and all the things that she’s already had to survive in her lifetime. My initial reaction was anger. I thought, ‘No, we can’t offer up human lives regardless of age.’ It particularly struck a chord with me because my grandmother has been such a pillar of strength for our family.  I didn’t want to think about losing her to a virus, after everything that she’s gone through, just because we weren’t being careful enough. I was shocked that we had politicians say to our elders, ‘You’re expendable. You don’t get the chance to rest and enjoy these last years.’ I’m still shocked thinking about it–how could we as civilized human beings even fathom such a thought.  

I am a worst-case scenario kind of person. I’ve always been. Some of my anxiety comes from inherited generational trauma. It plants itself and helps you adapt when you feel in danger. When I am worried about a worst-case scenario I think, ‘Well, how do I protect myself? How do I survive this?’   

I think of when my parents first arrived in the United States, full of hope and relief. They were excited to find work, start their families, and begin a new life here. Then they realized that when you arrive in the United States as refugees with absolutely nothing, the American dream is hard to obtain. They had to build their lives from the ground up and were met with a lot of racism. They often had less than a few dollars a day to spend and six kids to feed. Sometimes my siblings and I would share a package of ramen. For my generation, being the first American-born generation, we had to carve out our own identities as we straddled two different cultures. It wasn’t an easy journey. There are times when hope starts to wane. However, just as much as trauma can trigger emotions of fear and pain, it can also be the place where resiliency is born. 

It was instilled in me by my parents and grandmother to continue to move forward and to work hard, despite the obstacles and racism I might encounter. Knowing what my grandmother and parents went through to get here and how hard they had to work, I wanted to be a good reflection on them and our community.  I think that is a difference between the individualism I was taught in school in the United States and the collectivism that is valued in the Hmong community. So in the pandemic, my mind automatically went to, ‘How do we protect everyone, especially the vulnerable?’ What can history teach us–whether that is our personal history, our collective history, or history in general. I look to the past to glean hope and lessons. 

I wanted to share my grandmother’s story of fleeing the Vietnam War in my ‘Hope is the Thing’ essay. If we give people a chance, I think they will want to fight for their lives. I draw strength from this moment in my grandmother’s life when she got in the Mekong River. Not even knowing whether she would make it to the other side, she was willing to fight for her life.

Jaime's grandmother with Jamie's baby.

Jamie’s story was produced by Jen Rubin. It is part of a series featuring contributors to the Wisconsin Historical Society Press book, Hope is the Thing

Jamie visited Thailand in 2014 and filmed the Mekong River.  

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