About David

David Huynh was born and raised in Long Beach, CA. He is a first generation Asian-American with parents coming from Vietnam (father) and Cambodia (mother). Despite both parents being born in Southeast Asia, he is ethnically Chinese since all four of his grandparents are from China. They moved to Vietnam and Cambodia respectively for business reasons.

His dad fled Vietnam during the Vietnam War and his mom escaped Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge. They both made it to the US around the early 1980's and had an arranged marriage in the early 90's. After being born, he learned how to use chopsticks before he could walk and how to speak Teochew before English. During the summer of 2015, he traveled throughout Southeast Asia for the first time.

 

WHERE WE MET

 
 

AN INTERVIEW WITH DAVID HUYNH


 

Francesca: It is July 10, 2014, almost 9:00PM. I'm here on the UC Berkeley campus with David Huynh. So David, just to start off, just tell me a little bit about yourself and your background.


David: Sure. So my name is David. I was born in Long Beach, California and I grew up around the area—like suburbs in Lakewood, California. I grew up with my mom for the most part and she was born in Cambodia. My dad was born in Vietnam, but all my grandparents are of Chinese descent. I went to private middle school K through eight, which was religious, although I wasn't religious. Public high school and Stanford. And joined an Asian interest fraternity. I tried to start a Teochew club, but it didn't work out.
 

Francesca: Are you Teochew?

David: Uh huh.
 

Francesca: Could you tell me about how closely you identify with Teochew as an ethnic identity?

David: I'd say pretty closely because I didn't really speak English until I was four I think. Teochew is my first language and I still communicate with my grandparents and parents with Teochew. So I still use it frequently. I consider myself pretty fluent. I don't know big words, but I can hold a conversation very well. 
 

Francesca: Do you connect with a greater community of Teochew Chinese Americans in the area or do you practice Teochew culture more at home in a private space?

David: Mostly I practice the language at home, but I think it's because I haven't really found that many people. I think throughout my whole life I may have found twenty people who speak Teochew. If I knew more people, I'd love to start a community or practice it outside, but I just haven't found that many people. 


Francesca: This is all from the area—

David: Yeah, from home and from Stanford. At Stanford, I may have found five. 
 

Francesca: Tell me more about the hometown you grew up in.

David: So the hometown I grew up in was the first suburb in America. If you look it up, that's what it's known for. It has the first shopping mall. It was made up of mostly older white people. Mostly people who retired from the war or one of the wars. Probably World War II. Definitely World War II. It was around the 50's. That's like the majority of the people who live there, but I guess when I was going to high school, it was transitioning to a more diverse community. There's people of pretty much every single ethnicity in relatively equal proportions. So maybe forty percent Caucasian and then thirty percent Hispanic and maybe ten percent Asian and twenty percent black. But in high school, it was 25-25-25-25. It was pretty diverse. 
 

Francesca: This project is a lot about connecting history with place—thinking about how places shape and determine people's identities, who we are and how we identify. Today I asked my participants to bring me to a place that significant to them and I know that would have been different if you were at home or somewhere else. I'm catching you in Berkeley, where you're currently interning. If I did ask you to take me somewhere that was really significant to you and how you identify, would there be a place you would specifically choose?

David: There's this restaurant that's kind of close to my house and I feel like every single big thing in my life was celebrated there. That's the place, like if my friends came to visit from college or my parents want to take my high school friends out. We always go to the same place. They speak Teochew there. So I can communicate with them and order in my native tongue. Just to give you an idea of the things my family did there... So first of all, my parents were married there. So it kind of started there. Then I had my middle school graduation there, or graduation after-party. High school graduation after-party. Same thing for college. I recently graduated from Stanford and I had my graduation party there also. Also, it's just the go-to place I guess.
 

Francesca: What's the place called?

David: Great Seafood Harbor.


Francesca: And it's in…

David: Cerritos. It's so one city over. Maybe a ten minute drive. So if you're in L.A., check it out. 


Francesca: Thanks for the suggestion! Growing up, did you hang in that town a lot? Is there a reason you always went to this one restaurant?

David: I think it's more my parents than me. They just really liked it I guess. It has really nice people. Authentic food. 


Francesca: And the people who owned it were Teochew as well. How do you see your identity in that associated culture in your day-to-day life? In what ways do you practice it or put effort into how you identify, which you said is Teochew?

David: I don't think I do that much in regards to my culture today other than practicing the language. If I go home, I'll do the standard—like burn incense for my deceased grandparents and stuff like that. But I don't really practice that much outside of just the language I don't think. 


Francesca: Could you tell me about your family's ancestral background?

David: My mom might have a tiny bit of Cambodian, but for the most part, my bud is pretty much all Chinese. 


Francesca: Have you always seen yourself as being Chinese growing up, even though your parents grew up in different places?

David: I like to tell people I'm a mixed breed of Chinese, Vietnamese, and Cambodian. 


Francesca: If I asked you, how would you respond usually?

David: I usually say I'm three things and then I make people guess. 


Francesca: Why do you make people guess?

David: Just to see if they can get the three things.


Francesca: Is there one part of your identity you would more associate yourself towards or do you see it more evenly in terms of those three?

David: I definitely lean towards Chinese by a large margin.


Francesca: Why do you think that is?

David: I think the language I speak is rooted in China. Maybe if I was taught the other languages, I would feel differently. But both my mom and my dad speak it even though they're not from the same country.


Francesca: So your dad, did he grow up speaking Vietnamese?

David: He grew up speaking seven languages. 


Francesca: Oh wow, that's impressive.

David: Well no, I guess he grew up speaking maybe four and then learned three more when he moved to Europe.


Francesca: Tell me more about your parents' immigration history.

David: I actually got an award writing about this in high school. 

 
Eventually, they ran out of food or something and my grandma sold my mom into slavery, but she ran away after a day.
 

Francesca: Oh really? What's the story about?

David: It was about my mom's escape from Cambodia. I guess I'll start with my dad. My dad was born in Vietnam and he was maybe in his teenage years when the Vietnam War started. I forget what city he was in, but he was in his teenage years and he was going to school and meandering and watching Cantonese movies. Speaking Teochew at home and speaking Vietnamese outside. That's four languages there. When the war started, him and his brothers went to Europe, but his parents somehow made it to America I think. So they kind of split. So there's him and his brothers and I think he was around seventeen, eighteen. Around that time. And he went to school in Italy and France I think. So he learned Italian and French. I think he made it to the U.S. around age 20, 21, 22. In that ballpark.


Francesca: Do you happen to know why he decided to go to the U.S.?

David: Well, his parents made it to the U.S. before him, but I don't know how. And he made it over. I don't know what made them decide to go to Europe or how they made it to Europe. I never really learned that deep into my dad's story.

Francesca: How did you grow up hearing some of your dad's story?

David: I lived with both my parents until I was around six and then they got divorced. So I didn't see my dad as much after that. So the parts I hear are from age six and under. I see my dad still periodically now. I haven't asked him any of this. 


Francesca: What about your mother's story? How did she end up coming to the U.S.?

David: Yeah, so her's was crazy. It started in Cambodia. And then when the war started, there's soldiers everywhere with guns and they're corrupt and they steal stuff from you as you go by force. And they walked around to Thailand, from refugee camp to refugee camp. So I think first they went to Thailand and spent some time there. Eventually, they ran out of food or something and my grandma sold my mom into slavery, but she ran away after a day. My mom's crafty, I guess. So she got away after a day and refound my grandma. Still hates my grandma for that. So that's all in Thailand. And then they got on a boat to the Philippines to another refugee camp. They're there, I don't know how long. My mom was around seven, eight, or nine when this happened. Eventually, a Mormon church baptizes my mom's whole side of the family and takes them to America. So they just got baptized so that they could get to America. And she was eleven when she got to America. Then in America, they moved around a lot. 


Francesca: They were sponsored and weren't really sure where to go once they got to the U.S.?

David: Yeah. They had a lot of trouble like, what's the word.. meshing into society?


Francesca: Assimilating?

David: Yeah, assimilating into society because none of them spoke English. I guess my dad's side did, but they had a lot of trouble. It was tough finding businesses, so they started in standard doughnut shops and that kind of stuff. They were in San Diego, Washington state, Philadelphia, and eventually made it to Long Beach.


Francesca: Do you know why your mom decided to stay in California after moving around so much?

David: My dad's side is in California, in Long Beach and Lakewood. They had an arranged marriage. Essentially, my whole mom's side moved to SoCal because of the arranged marriage. My dad had a stable job for an Asian guy. 


Francesca: Do you know how the arranged marriage took place?

David: I think my mom's dad was on a business trip to California and met my dad. And I think that was it.


Francesca: So your dad, did he come directly to California?

David: I think so? I think so.


Francesca: You said your mother was eleven when she came to America. How old was she when she decided to settle in California? 

David: 22? She was working a lot of odd jobs in between. All that like working in the fields in the summer and restaurants other times and helped out at doughnut shops. A lot of odd jobs while trying to go to school, but [she] didn't get very far.


Francesca: All of your family was in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. Did they leave right as it ended?

David: I think it was in the midst of it. I don't know which particular year they left. I could probably do the math and figure it out. I don't know off the top of my head which year they left.

 

 
Photo by Tim Santos

Photo by Tim Santos

 

Francesca: How did you normally hear all of these stories? I'm guessing you've heard more on your mom's side. Usually, how did these stories come up and how did you learn so much about your parents' immigration history? It seems like you have a pretty good idea of what happened.

David: I don't really recall how I learned all of it. I know through high school I just heard bits and pieces. I would just remember it I guess. And then, when I was about to write this story, I asked my mom for more detail. So I learned a little more. I don't really remember when they would tell me or why they would tell. I would just hear it I guess.


Francesca: They would just tell you randomly?

David: Maybe. It might have been for a history class or something I took in grade school. Actually, that sounds about right. I think one of my teachers in grade school was a Vietnam vet and was very interested in my parents' history there. He asked me to ask them their story and tell it to him. I think that's where I learned some of it. I think that's it. I may have picked up more elsewhere. I was probably around eight at the time.


Francesca: Did your father pass through any refugee camps?

David: Uh uh. 


Francesca: Could you tell me more about your own personal history? How did you grow up feeling connected to the community that you were in? Were there particular places you liked to visit because you felt like, oh this place is able to help me closely identify with my parents' culture or however you chose to self-identify growing up? 

David: The middle school I went to, or K through eight, was a Lutheran school. So it's about 90% Caucasian. In the whole school, maybe five or ten Asian people. And most of my friends... Who did I hang out with? My best friends from middle school were a black guy and a couple white people. I don't talk to any of them now. 


Francesca: Have you ever been to your parents' home country?

David: Never. 


Francesca: Did you ever think about going?

David: Yes. Especially during college, I really wanted to go. Because in my younger years, before that, I wasn't too keen on doing stuff like traveling and doing anything really. I was a boring child I guess. My dad would ask me a couple times if I wanted to go when I was ten, eleven. But I always said no. I don't know why, now that I think of it. Yeah, I always said no.


Francesca: Did he have to do anything with knowing your parents' history?

David: I think it was just because I didn't like going places. I just liked being at home and not doing—I was lazy was the main reason. I didn't want to go there. Now I really want to go, just to see it. 


Francesca: What would you like to see?

David: I'd like to see if I have any family out there. I know I do. So I'd like to meet family out there. See the countryside as well as see the big city. Just spend two weeks in each country, exploring. 


Francesca: Do you have any relatives that your parents speak to regularly in those countries still? Any siblings?

David: I think all my immediate family—all my aunts, uncles, and that kind of stuff—are here. The only people I could think of that would be there are some type of in-law or distant uncle or distant cousin. Something like that.


Francesca: Do you have an idea of who may be out there?

David: I know there are some there. I think for the most part, my dad definitely talks to some people out there. I don't know about my mom though. I don't know if she talks to anyone out there. I always hear about these third uncles from all over the place. There probably is. I just have to ask.
 

Francesca: Do you have any siblings?

David: No, I'm an only child. 
 

Francesca: Do your parents have a lot of siblings?

David: My dad has... They both have around seven each. Give or take a few. Yeah.


Francesca: They're all in California?

David: Almost. I think there's one that moved back to Philadelphia—one of my uncles on my mom's side—but all of my aunts and uncles are in California. 


Francesca: Did they plan that out somehow or did it just happen?

David: I think it was a result of my mom and dad's arranged marriage. All my mom's side was actually in Philadelphia and then they moved out here. I don't know how they decided on California actually. Yeah, I don't know how they chose California. I mean, I'm glad that they did because I love California, but I don't know how they decided about it.

But I think just the fact that how they were raised so differently—they both meshed into me. I kind of picked up a little bit of both. For the most part, I feel like I’ve been able to see the positives from both and what they’re trying to teach, which I think speaks to my diverse upbringing.
 
 

Francesca: Do you feel connected to California?

David: Uh...yes? Kind of, but.. Next, I'm gonna say no. [Laughs]


Francesca: It sounds like a question.

David: I mean, I guess how would you say someone is connected to California?


Francesca: Do you feel connected to California as a place? Or how about... let's go more specific. You grew up in Long Beach pretty much your whole life. Would you say you feel connected to Long Beach?

David: Kind of, but not all the way. But kind of. I do see some of myself in Long Beach. I know I get some habits and some of the things I do are Long Beach-y, if you will. Yes. 


Francesca: How do you think your upbringing in Long Beach has shaped your understanding of your identity? Do you think it has influenced the way you think about who you are at all growing up?

David: It definitely has. I feel like my life would definitely be different if I was raised in Topeka, Kansas or something. I think it was good at least in my high school years. I had a lot of diversity, so I was able to learn a lot about different types of people. And I guess differences taught me more about myself in some way. 


Francesca: How so?

 

David: I guess when I go to someone else's house and I see how differently they do things—like how they're raised by their parents and how my mom raised me. Or how my dad raised me. For example, my other friends were never forced to do schoolwork. I guess their parents never really pushed them in any direction. That taught me a lot about why I'm different. 


Francesca: From your experience growing up in Long Beach, how do you think you've come to understand what it means to be from your specific background—which for you would be Chinese, Vietnamese, and Cambodian? Has growing up there helped you determine how you have chosen to identify?

David: I don't think so. I feel like I'd still identify that way anywhere else. It's mostly about my parents more than me. Yeah, I feel like where they're from originally somehow translates to where I'm from-ish. Like their culture, where they're from is passed onto me, even though I don't practice much of it. 


Francesca: You mentioned you were involved in an Asian interest community at Stanford. How is that helping you connect to Asian culture or your own identity, if it has at all?

David: Yes. I think meeting Jackie, another person of Teochew descent, has definitely helped me practice more aspects of being Teochew. Anytime we speak in private and there's people around, we can easily communicate. In regards to the fraternity as a whole, it was like, I've never socialized with so many Asian people before. It's good to see how other people like to spend their time I guess. Versus me in high school. I was very loner-ish. I say "ish" a lot.

I guess when I go to someone else’s house and I see how differently they do things—like how they’re raised by their parents and how my mom raised me. Or how my dad raised me.
 
Photo by Tim Santos

Photo by Tim Santos

 

Francesca: Are you involved in any other Asian interest clubs or activities at Stanford besides the fraternity?

David: Officially, no. But unofficially, yes. So like, I'll help out with the big events from the Vietnamese Student Association as well as the Chinese Student Association. But I haven't participated in the Kumai Student Association. I don't know why. I guess it's smaller and there's not many people in it. But I have helped out with the large events for the other two. 


Francesca: Is there a reason why you decided to be more involved with those two clubs?

David: The Kumai Student Association isn't very public. I know a few people and I ask why I don't see you guys doing big things. Most of their things are very low-key. I guess that's why I've been more involved with the other two.


Francesca: Were you more interested in the social aspect of it?

David: Yeah, and I also like the cultural aspects of it. They both do Chinese New Year pretty big, so that's usually what I'm involved in.


Francesca: Do you practice any other holidays that are related to ethnic culture?

David: I eat moon cake. [Laughs] 


Francesca: I mean, food's a big part of it.

David: I don't think so. I think that's definitely the only holiday I really celebrate. 


Francesca: How would you normally celebrate?

David: At home, we'd have family gatherings and get red envelopes. There are so many different sayings. I wish you good luck. I wish you live forever. In Chinese of course. It's just really cool. While I was away from home, I guess I just celebrated with other people. We don't really do the red envelope thing, but we still do big gatherings, food, and sometimes there's like public dances and psalms and stuff. I didn't really do all of that. I just did the food. Yeah, I think that's how I celebrated at Stanford. Eating food with people.


Francesca: At Stanford, is there a big Chinese and Vietnamese community?

David: I think it's relatively large. Like the Vietnamese Student Association is probably eighty people, which I think is pretty big for a Vietnamese Student Association. The Chinese Student Association is probably twenty to thirty, which is smaller. It's strange because there's definitely more Chinese people at Stanford than Vietnamese people I think. But I think there's just not that into it as the VSA is. 

 
I think her high was in the Philippines when a rich lady came by and just threw out a bunch of quarters and everyone was able to get ice cream.
 


Francesca: Is your main interaction with Vietnamese culture through food?

David: I don't speak Vietnamese, but I think my food pronunciation in Vietnamese is pretty good. [Laughs] I guess I don't know that many things but I can read the words well I think. I just hear people say when they order. I just speak Teochew. My parents sent me to Chinese school when I was eleven. I hated it. I was there for a month and gave up. 


Francesca: Could you tell me more about the story you wrote about your mom's journey to the U.S.?

David: Yes. I probably started out with some history of the Vietnam War in Cambodia. And then, I kind of went into more detail on her traveling on foot and what exactly happened. Like her day-to-day. Her highs, her lows. Like they would put gold in their rectum to smuggle it because soldiers—the corrupt soldiers—search you and take all the gold or money that you had when you moved in between refugee camps. I guess that'll be a low. And then you'd get leeches as you go through the rivers—like on you. I think her high was in the Philippines when a rich lady came by and just threw out a bunch of quarters and everyone was able to get ice cream. That was a high.

And in her experience in the Americas, when she was working all the jobs, she became a lot more mature because she was the oldest female and second oldest child. She had one sister and five or six brothers. Being the oldest female, she wasn't the baby that everyone liked. Since she was a female, she was not as valued as the males. My grandma would take all of her earnings from her job and eventually my mom said no. My grandma's like, "Well, I'm not going to buy anything for you anymore. You're on your own." From age thirteen on, she was independent. She got mature very quickly. And then the arranged marriage with my dad and how they got divorced seven years later. I think that's the gist of it. I might have it on file. If I do, would you like it? 

 


Francesca: Yeah. That'll be great. You said you wrote that in high school?

David: Yeah, I wrote it sophomore year of high school.


Francesca: Was it for a project or something like that?

David: My high school had this journal where people submitted poems and song lyrics and short stories. Stuff like that. It was just three pages.


Francesca: Seems like you put a lot in three pages. You told me a lot about your mother's journey. Did her siblings travel with her?

David: Oh yeah. Yeah. I think my mother was sold for a bag of rice. Like that's all they got for my mom. And she was sold into slavery to an elderly woman that was rather wealthy. It's not like she was sold into slavery at a bad place. But still, she ran away very shortly after. Her siblings were traveling with my grandma and grandpa on my mom's side. My mom was separated from everyone. Everyone else was together because my mom was the least valued out of everyone.


Francesca: Have you ever heard your aunt or uncle's points-of-view from the same story?

David: I haven't heard their perspective or my grandma — I haven't heard anyone else's perspective. My mom could be lying to me.


Francesca: Do you think they'd be willing to share if you ever asked them?

David: I think so. Yeah. I haven't thought about it until now. 


Francesca: What's something you want to discover more about your own personal history?

David: I don't know. I guess I'd like to go and see where my parents are from — where they grew up. That'd be cool.


Francesca: Did your parents ever go back to where they grew up since they left?

David: I think my mom only went back once. My dad might have gone back five plus times. I haven't asked them for stories when they went back. I think when they go back, it's more of a vacation-esque. I don't think they like to reminisce those times.


Francesca: Are they uncomfortable talking about the past?

David: I know my mom gets really emotional all the time. She definitely cried when she was telling me her whole story. My dad didn't. I wouldn't expect him to. He's pretty open-minded and level-headed. I don't think he's troubled by his past. I don't think he had it very hard though. He went to Europe and had a very good time there.


Francesca: What's your relationship like with your parents?

David: It's definitely better now. I think I definitely went through that teenage phase where you don't really want to talk to them at all. But it's definitely better now. When I turned twenty and maybe a year or two into college, I definitely grew up a lot. I look forward to going home to see my parents now, versus in my freshmen year, I really didn't want to go home for winter break. I really wanted to stay at school with my friends. 


Francesca: Do your parents identify at all with the countries they immigrated from?

David: I think they both identify with those countries, but they're both Americanized fairly well. They both speak English pretty well. They definitely practice culture more than me—doing the whole incense stuff, taking care of older family members. But for the most part, they're Americanized. 

 
They would put gold in their rectum to smuggle it because soldiers—the corrupt soldiers—search you and take all the gold or money that you had when you moved in between refugee camps.
 


Francesca: Have you ever heard your aunt or uncle's points-of-view from the same story?

David: I haven't heard their perspective or my grandma — I haven't heard anyone else's perspective. My mom could be lying to me.


Francesca: Do you think they'd be willing to share if you ever asked them?

David: I think so. Yeah. I haven't thought about it until now. 


Francesca: What's something you want to discover more about your own personal history?

David: I don't know. I guess I'd like to go and see where my parents are from — where they grew up. That'd be cool.


Francesca: Did your parents ever go back to where they grew up since they left?

David: I think my mom only went back once. My dad might have gone back five plus times. I haven't asked them for stories when they went back. I think when they go back, it's more of a vacation-esque. I don't think they like to reminisce those times.


Francesca: Do you think they were proud of where they're from?

David: I don't think they learned American culture. Definitely not. Just the language. Just to get by. They're definitely proud of where they're from and all the things they've been through to make who they are today. 


Francesca: Do you feel that reflected in yourself?

David: I can definitely say that the things I've been through in the past have shaped me to be who I am today. In terms of where I'm from, Long Beach, and that area, I just don't really have a lot of pride and... I feel it's bad to say, but America's America. I haven't noticed that big of a difference moving from Long Beach to San Francisco and here in Berkeley. It's all been in California I guess. Chicago and D.C. have definitely been different, but California's similar. I haven't felt too big of a change. So I guess I feel more rooted in California than a specific city. 


Francesca: Would you say you'd stay in California?

David: I want to say 90% yes because I'm open to try other areas, but at the end I'm probably going to be in California. Family, friends, culture, weather, things to do. I think just having family here would bring me back.


Francesca: On a scale of 1 to 10, how important is your ethnic identity to you?

David: Five. Since America has become so accepting of so many cultures and so many values, everyone can practice their cultures. But I don't really see it affecting the greater—everyone else around you—unless you wanted to. I would say it affects me a little bit. I notice the things that do mesh well with my culture but I don't look at everything through the eyes of my culture. 

I guess I feel more rooted in California than a specific city.


Francesca: On a scale of 1 to 10, how important is your racial identity to you?

David: I want to say four, a little less. I want to say for similar reasons. There's so much diversity in the world. I'm glad to be me but I don't see myself that much different from someone else next to me.


Francesca: What does it mean to be Chinese, Vietnamese, and Cambodian to you in America?

David: I think, for me, it gives me a lot of perspective because of just being raised with one specific ethnicity, my parents came from a lot of different places. My parents are very different. I guess that's maybe why they got divorced. Since they were so different, I was able to learn very different things like from my mom and my dad. Like from my mom, she taught me quality of everything that I do. My dad taught me timeliness. I think that's his main thing he drove into me. I'm sure you can learn that with different cultures also. But I think just the fact that how they were raised so differently—they both meshed into me. My dad's a very calm person and my mom is not. I kind of picked up a little bit of both. For the most part, I feel like I've been able to see the positives from both and what they're trying to teach, which I think speaks to my diverse upbringing. 


David is currently a Private Equity & Strategy Consultant in San Francisco, CA.


 
Photo by Tim Santos of David Huynh

Photo by Tim Santos of David Huynh

 
 

an update on David
since the last time we spoke:

David graduated from Stanford with his B.S. and M.S. in June 2015 and traveled to Asia for 2 months. He started working as a Management Consultant in San Francisco in September. David says the most important lesson he has learned since we last spoke was not to be afraid to do things alone like traveling. He has traveled to Vietnam and Cambodia since our conversation.
David Huynh in Angkor Wat.

David Huynh in Angkor Wat.