Immigrant Parents Rely on Their Children to Navigate the U.S. Socioeconomic System

by Rebekah Fonden

The Nguyen family represents all of us and our families who have migrated from another country and tried to adapt to the harsh realities of American culture, institutionalization, and the privatization of family happiness.  For immigrant mothers and fathers, the burden of taking on a new life does not fall solely on them but is passed to their children as well, putting the children into the parental role. Immigrant children become the conduit for communication between the outside society and the privatized economy of the home, and they feel the strain of this responsibility almost every day.

Dieu Nguyen is a resident of Columbia City who is a proud immigrant from Vietnam and has become a successful business owner. Such an achievement was not easy. In fact, her road to success was filled with hardships and loss. She arrived in the U.S. at age seven. Her parents emigrated from Vietnam with POW (prisoner of war), a status that took over three years to obtain. In the 1950’s communist guerilla forces, Vietcong, emerged throughout South Vietnam. Ngo Dinah Diem proclaimed himself president of the country. Soon after the Vietnam War broke out. It lasted 1960-1975. Dieu Nguyen’s father was a teacher who despised the communist ideologies of North Vietnam. He became a major in the South’s military and fought against the Vietcong. When the South lost, he was imprisoned for twelve years in an internment camp.

After that time, the U.S. took responsibility for Dieu Nguyen’s family and provided them with visas to come to the U.S. and apply for citizenship. For the Nguyen family, leaving the world of communism for the opportunity to achieve the “American Dream” sounded too good to be true. The fact that they have achieved so much, seems miraculous. Yet the telling of the Nguyen story is anything but a dream;.it is a continued fight for perseverance.

Coming to America, where language, culture, socio-economics, and politics all differ from everything they knew, was a shock. The children were expected to learn English quickly to break the communication barrier. Because the parents only spoke Vietnamese, the everyday exchanges with public school officials, landlords, and shopkeepers became the responsibility of the English-speaking children. In one instance, Dieu recalls, “I sat in on my younger brother’s  parent-teacher conferences, as the interpreter for my parents so they could be involved in our education.”

Everyone’s roles within the family had to be reversed to ensure their survival and livelihood. However, navigating such everyday adult situations can be difficult for children as they take on the dual role of parent and child while accepting responsibility for family success. Dieu describes her role as the “parental voice” of the family and of her younger siblings.

With the help of a local church and the connection to an extended family member, communication with state agencies such as DSHS was established until the parents were trained to work in the U.S. The persisting language barrier presented issues for employment, which pushed the parents into domestic work to support their children.

The children became extremely independent and self-reliant, having had their parents working long, odd hours. Luckily, their interconnection with the established Asian community provided a strong platform for the children to stand on as they developed their sense of community in Seattle.

While the family fought to build a new home in America, and the parents’ continued to maintain their optimism through unimaginable experiences, the Nguyen’s worked to reinforce their values and culture in their children’s lives so their children would be proud of themselves and where they come from. The Nguyen’s hopes for their children to be educated and become successful and to let their hardships mold them into strong leaders who give back to their community have come true.

They have striven to teach their children empathy, compassion, social responsibility, and a hard work ethic. They have taught them to take charge of their lives. Their parents continue to share their stories of life in Vietnam in the hopes of creating a sense of self for them, in the hopes of instilling a sense of the honor of Vietnamese culture and traditions as well as an openness toward some new traditions for the generations to come.

Featured image is a cc licensed photo attributed to ePi Longo