July 3, 2019
Thang Do, PIVOT Board Member
Like many Vietnamese Americans, I left Vietnam to come to the United States. For quite a few years, I had viewed myself as a refugee, with a temporary connotation associated with the term: I only escaped the dangers of my old country to seek safety and protection. What about the future? Life’s prospects were foggy at the beginning, so not many of us bothered contemplating the future, although we all knew that returning to our homeland was not a possibility.
My new country opened many doors for me. Not only did I complete my education with a university degree – an accomplishment that I am not sure I would have attained had I stayed in Vietnam. I became an architect and owner of a design firm, which has been entrusted with many mainstream public projects of some significance. From there, I founded other business enterprises, and at some point, the feeling of temporary existence went away. I became a real American, with a very American spirit: having received much assistance from many, I wanted to give back. I participated in many non-profit activities of civil society. Besides donating both time and money to charitable work in Vietnam, I joined organizations that contribute to the development of my local community. Eventually, people sought me out to consult with or ask for help on urban planning issues. I devote about 1/3 of my working time to these activities, completely without remuneration or benefits of any kind.
As many Americans would say, I am living the American Dream.
But looking around me, I see quite a few challenges. More than just the extremely wide and ever-widening wealth and income gap, or the thousands who have become homeless due to their inability to cope with sky-high housing prices, I feel that My America has been regressing in the last few years. Some in power have been attempting to reverse the advances we have made in ethnic, racial, religious and gender equality. Those same few have threatened to destroy our public healthcare system (the Affordable Care Act), already quite limited compared to the standards of all other developed countries. Our current economic policies clearly favor people like me or wealthier, with a huge and irresponsible tax cut that benefits only corporations and the rich. Environmental protection has been reversed, because current leaders believe that climate change is just a hoax and unconscionably leave this challenge for future generations to deal with. Refugees seeking safety in America, just like me at one point, are being denied help and protection, or being abused including having their children separated from them.
Some Vietnamese Americans have told me: “you are so critical of America, why don’t you go back to Vietnam?” Well, the problem is that I have not been a Vietnamese citizen for a long time. Furthermore, if I am critical, I hold this view only out of my deep love for America. I point out the deficiencies not to denigrate this country, but to make her better. I want America to achieve the full potential that her founders envisioned: a society based on equality and the rule of law, aimed at prosperity for all; a government by the people and for the people.
This is why, reflecting on the meaning of our Independence Day, I have the following thought. America is a lovely country, unique in the world, with many worthy achievements to be proud of. But America is also an experiment in democracy, a work in progress with imperfections. Generations of Americans before me have fought hard to make this a better society, from the Civil War that freed black slaves, to the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. My generation is simply carrying the torch that has been passed on to us, and we understand well that there remains much to be done in the mission of building America.
I write these words in the frame of mind that no longer belongs to a refugee, but to a full-fledged American citizen, with all the rights and responsibilities associated.