The search for a past propels Philip Tran's present. He works his day job, then heads home for "fancy Googling" with special keywords, then fact-checking and translating. Night after night.
"I'm not one of those people who just remember Vietnam on April 30," he says of the date marking the end of the Vietnam War. "For me, it's year-round."
His mission is to piece together the life of his late father, Hai Van Tran, who died in July without sharing details of his pre-refugee world with his son.
"I just knew he was a colonel. He was in the army. At some point, he was a paratrooper. Whenever we asked questions, he shut down. He forbid my mom from talking about it," Tran remembered. "I must know more — not just for myself, but for his future grandchildren."
On Thursday, Tran and many Vietnamese Americans in Orange County — the overseas capital of their community — and nationwide reflected on their journeys to America, thanking their parents who risked it all in fleeing for freedom.
"These tremendous, tremendous sacrifices not only happened with my family but with countless other families. I am amazed by their courage, making last-minute decisions, just ... going," says Hong Pham, who lives in Los Angeles with his wife and infant daughter. The pair dish on culture and food through their blog "Ravenous Couple," and cook the meals their mothers and other mothers cooked to sustain their children through generations.
In Pham's case, his parents made an unthinkable choice — they separated. His father escaped in 1980 with Pham and his older sister, while his pregnant mother remained with a younger sister.
"They knew it could be years before they could ever reunite. If ever. But they had to do it so their children might have a chance to grow," said Pham, whose half of the family landed in a refugee camp in Thailand before resettling in Sterling Heights, a suburb of Detroit.
At age 4, Bao Vo, a songwriter who runs JuicyKits.com, an e-commerce business in downtown Los Angeles, arrived in America with his mom, a single parent who had four other kids in tow. Now 33, he has returned regularly to Da Lat, in the central highlands of Vietnam, to trace his roots in an effort to figure out "where my creativity came from — if it's genetic or some weird social mutation."
But the mystery is far from solved because his mother and father did not live together, so he mostly has details of only one side. His grandmother's recent passing made it even harder to compile a history.
"You know, on a day like today, I think about how families stay and how they drift," Vo said of the anniversary. "On the one hand, my reaction is, 'Holy cow! The Vietnamese saga is so traumatic.' But on the other hand, I realize this is playing out now in Syria, in Afghanistan, and this is how people blend."
In researching his father, Tran, who works with students with reading disabilities at Santiago Canyon College in Orange, found a website called the Republic of Vietnam Historical Society. That helped him unearth some gems, among them a treasured photo of his dad as a young soldier, published in Life magazine. The elder Tran served as province chief of Bien Hoa, according to Vietnamese Wikipedia.
"I used to not pay attention to the past," Tran said.
Then he went to college at Cal Poly Pomona, took two Asian American studies classes, and "it helped to open my eyes," he said. "Here's my father, who used to take our laundry to the laundromat every day so we'd always have clean clothes, who started over as a forklift operator after coming here in 1975, while my mother worked as a seamstress in Chinatown. They are the people we owe our lives to. I am grateful to them today and every day."