Han Fan was born in Haiphong, Vietnam in 1977 and raised in Oakland, where she attended Oakland High School's Class of 1996. She graduated University of California at Berkeley in 2000 with a degree in Asian American Studies. She is a Social Insurance Specialist at Social Security Administration. In her spare time, she enjoys trying new restaurants, hiking, traveling to a new country each year and taking short road trips in California. She currently resides in Castro Valley, CA.
WHERE WE MET
AN INTERVIEW WITH HAN FAN
Francesca Huynh: It is July 9, 2014, and it's 5:15PM at Oakland Chinatown in California. Right now I am with…
Han Fan: Hi, my name is Han Fan. I use to work in Oakland and I still work in Oakland. I grew up the last thirty years in Oakland, California, and I am of Chinese and Vietnamese descent — born in Vietnam and arrived in the U.S. when I was about four years old. So about 1981. Arrived in the U.S., lived in Seattle, Washington, moved down to California because my grandparents weren't used to the rain and snow and all that. Lived here ever since then. Really like it here.
Francesca: This project is a lot about connecting history and place, especially because places help shape and determine who people are and how they identity. Today I asked you to bring me to a place that is significant to you and your personal history and you chose Oakland Chinatown because that's where you grew up. Tell me why you chose to meet here today. Why was this place so significant to how you identify as a Chinese Vietnamese person?
Han: So one of the reasons we moved down to Oakland was because of the big Asian community--specifically Chinese and Vietnamese. There's a lot of Chinese — ethnic Chinese from Vietnam — that live in Oakland. There's a huge population. Growing up here was so familiar, like going to elementary school close to this area. It's all less than a five-mile radius. Everything was very familiar, so I was always surrounded by a lot of Chinese and Vietnamese people. And I chose this place because I use to come here after school all the time in elementary school and I also went to Chinese school in this area — just around the corner.
And my parents still come here, so it's a central point for me, my parents, and my family. So anytime my family comes to visit from neighboring cities, we always somehow come back to Chinatown to have dinner. It's all familiar. And so this place will always be home to me. When I say I go home — I recently moved to Castro Valley — Oakland and this specific area is always home to me. It's just very familiar and just easy to be in this area.
Francesca: How did your family actually know that there was such a big Chinese population here in Oakland before they moved here?
Han: We had a lot of relatives that lived here. There's a large, pretty — when we moved in 81' — good-sized Vietnamese and Chinese community there. But because of the weather conditions, Seattle wasn't familiar to my grandparents. We heard about how the climate in Oakland Chinatown was very mild and just had a big Asian, Vietnamese, Chinese ethnic background. Just word of mouth of relatives. So we moved down from Seattle. A lot of our relatives followed suit too. We have a lot of relatives in this area from Vietnam too.
Francesca: I feel like a lot of the people I've asked — whether or not their families moved for the families or through word-of-mouth — it's usually from word-of-mouth that they know about communities like these that are Chinese or Vietnamese majority. Even in Southern California and San Gabriel Valley and places like that. I feel like it's very similar, in terms of how that's come to be nowadays.
Han: I even found in elementary school that the Chinese — same Chinese that I was from Vietnam — came in a flux. I guess when the refugees came to U.S., they happened to just plan to live here. It just seemed normal, so when I came across someone who wasn't Chinese from Vietnam, it was like — oh, it's different. You can actually kind of tell by the spelling of the last name too.
Francesca: You said that you moved to the U.S. when you were four.
Han: I have no recollection of it. None. Only pictures and I still don't remember that whole transition from Vietnam to the U.S. It didn't seem as traumatic as you see on television — the whole escape. Fortunately, I was young enough that I don't remember the ordeal.
Francesca: Besides photographs — or well, with photographs, have you been able to piece together your history?
Han: My parents would — I don't know if it's similar for you — always guilt me because "they brought me to this country and had to up and leave and get uprooted in seconds and just brought over here." So they would tell me about the journey on the boats — the refugee boats — and having to live in a refugee camp for three years. We left Vietnam when I was six months and then we ended up in the Chinese camp for nine months and maybe less than two and a half years in the Hong Kong refugee camps. They'd tell me stories and always reiterate how hard it was and how fortunate I was to have this opportunity to be here.
Francesca: Do you feel like these stories are your own or do you feel detached from them?
Han: Even though I've lived it and don't remember it, it's more so my parents' stories so I can't really.. It doesn't seem real to me. Everything that has happened. But I can see in their own eyes that it was such a painful process to come here. I guess a little detached. This is all I know here.
Francesca: Tell me a bit about your family's ancestral background.
Han: My father is ethnic Chinese from Vietnam. My mom is full-blooded Vietnamese. My mom's family has been in the northern part, in the Hanoi area. So north of Hanoi — Hai Phong. My mom is from there. My father's grandfather had migrated down from China and they're Haka people. I guess they don't really have a place. Haka translates to "guest people" in Chinese. My father's grandfather had migrated out from China and lived in the Hai Phong area, which is a port city similar to Oakland. It's in Northern Vietnam. There was a lot of Chinese that lived in that area too. A lot of my good friends now are from the same village. People in my elementary school were from the same village.
Francesca: Do you know how everyone in the same village happened to come here to the same community?
Han: It's weird how everyone arrived here. I never really asked. I have no idea how everyone just arrived here somehow. Some people went to Sacramento and up here — one of my good friends. Their family's from Sacramento. They moved down here from the same village in Vietnam or same vicinity. I never really asked how. It must be word-of-mouth because I don't even know how my parents found relatives in Vietnam again — how they kept the same phone number and all that. I should ask them that.
Francesca: There's definitely a lot of informal networks and connections that I haven't been able to work out just yet. My mom would be walking down the street in Boston and suddenly she sees a classmate that she knew in elementary school. It's so crazy how everything comes together in the same place.
Han: Yeah, my good friends that I'm still in touch with now — my parents would say, "Oh yeah, they were the people that had a boat to escape. Oh, they're the people who sold noodles in that area.." It's funny how people arrive at the same place from the same village.
Francesca: Are you still close with people that you said grew up in the same village as you?
Han: Yeah, yeah. Chinese from Vietnam. Same village too. Escaped around the same time too, but different refugee camps and somehow found each other here. It's amazing. I never thought of that.
Francesca: Growing up with it, you don't think too much about it. Like how? What happened to bring us to the same place?
Han: The majority of my elementary schoolmates were Asian or Black. Most of them were from Vietnam too.
Francesca: Was that also true for middle school and high school?
Han: Middle school, they were still there. It was more mixed. A lot of the Chinese that I met were more ABC (American Born Chinese). It kind of dissipated when it got up to high school. It was more in elementary school than middle school and high school.
Francesca: Have you ever been back to Vietnam?
Han: Yeah, twice. It was really eye-opening. I came back feeling very privileged having lived in the U.S. because that could have been me had we not been able to escape. My mom's sister still lives there and all her family and grandchildren are there. I went back in 06' and I actually past by the place I was born, a place called Uông Bí. It's close to Hai Phong area. The second time, I had more fun because the culture shock wore off. I only went to the north. I didn't go down to the south. We did go to Hanoi, which is more modern, but the place we were in was still — you can see the rice paddies, lavish homes next to shacks. It's still in limbo. It's either you really have wealth or you don't have wealth and there's nothing really in between. There is, but you see the disparity there. It's still a very beautiful country, but it's just different from here. I came back feeling very privileged having grown up here.
Francesca: Do you know how much the village has changed? Did you go with your parents?
Han: I went with my mom — just me and mom — twice. She tells me it has changed a lot because a lot of the older homes were torn down from the war. Bombed out. Our house was totally obliterated because we were living in the Hai Phong area. My parents had a few — most of the Chinese I remember were merchants in the north part — houses and storefronts and they're all gone. Everything's pretty rebuilt, but not as modern.
Francesca: How much family do you still have in Vietnam besides your mom's sister?
Han: All of my mom's relatives live there. My mom's the only one who's here actually. So the rest of them didn't make it to the U.S. So because I think my father's Chinese, that's how we were able to make it to the U.S. Because of that Chinese part at that time. I know a lot of Vietnamese got out. My mom's family wasn't lucky enough to escape.
Francesca: Did you see returning to Vietnam as a way of reconciliation with this guilt or the past?
Han: Maybe. When I went back, the relatives would have notions of how great life was [in the U.S.]. I had to let them know it isn't that easy here in the U.S. I did try to reconcile my guilt by explaining to them it's not easy. We achieved the American Dream but it didn't come without hard work. I was trying to explain to them — you buy a house in Vietnam and you have to pay it off right away. You buy a house in the U.S., you're going to mortgage for thirty years. So you might have a nice, lavish house but you'll be making payments on it. Outside it may look like you achieve the American Dream, but it's still not as easy as they think it is. We still send a lot of money back all the time to my relatives. They're somewhat dependent on the money we send back. I have a nephew that's my half sister's son who just finished college and he's working. I told him we can't send any more money back because we sent money for you to go to school and get a job. So now it's up to you. Going back, I had to explain that to them — that this is your life now.
Francesca: Is this the family on —
Han: My mom's side. This is her daughter from her first marriage, so she was left behind. I think when they saw me and I had to explain to them in the best Vietnamese I can — they can speak English too — all this wasn't easy. People have misconceptions of how easy it is in the U.S. We grew up very poor. Being able to go back was a luxury.
Francesca: Definitely, especially because Vietnam has changed so much. Like you said, it's so costly to stay in Vietnam.
Han: I mean the hotels itself wasn't too expensive. It's just trying to accommodate everyone because you want to include everyone in dinners, going on excursions, and just driving. Everything was just on my mom and I to pay for everything. I mean it was fun. It was something we acknowledged and prepared for. That's why we couldn't stay too long because we could have been spending a lot more money had we stayed longer.
Francesca: How connected did you feel to Vietnam when you visited?
Han: The first time I went back, I felt a little disconnected because I felt very Americanized going back there. I felt like an outsider. Because just appearance-wise we were much larger than everyone else. Taller maybe. Language and Vietnamese wasn't that great. I was struggling. Once I was there and just let it soak in — it took some days to get used to — being in the motherland — but I felt very comfortable after I started improving on my Vietnamese. Cause that's all you can speak there. They don't speak too much English. They do, the younger kids do speak English but if I had to speak to my elder relatives it was a bit of a struggle. It was a bit apprehensive at first. I wasn't sure what to expect, how they would accept me. I struggled with both Cantonese and Vietnamese and I kind of mixed those languages together if I don't know the other, how to say something. There's a feeling of returning home, even though it wasn't my home. After a while, I felt like I was home. It was touching after a while. My mom would tell stories of how she used to take me to ride my bicycle from here to there. I saw it through her eyes. It was a great experience to go with my mom. Had I gone alone it would have been a lot different. I'd be more of the tourist versus a person returning to where they were born.
Francesca: At what point did you feel like oh this is home versus I'm just visiting somewhere that I think may be my home. When did you have that shift in mentality?
Han: Maybe when we had our first home-cooked meal. The first night we went to a restaurant just because it was the first night going from the airport to the hotel. The first meal with every family member — everyone sits down, not normal tables like this. Everything is close to the ground. It was comfortable. People shoving food to you. Everything tasted so great and everyone was happy. That's the first time I felt like ok this is home, for that time being. I think when you start sharing a meal, that's when people spend so much time preparing everything and appreciating each other.
Francesca: Was that the first time?
Han: In 06' was the first time.
Francesca: Did you stay longer the second time?
Han: The second time was two weeks as well. It was because of work. The longer you spend there the more money you have to spend too. Cause when you go back as an American, they have this idea that you acquire wealth overseas. It does get a little costly to go back because you have to pay for everything. You can't expect them to host you. So everything for the two weeks can get steep. With my mom and I, we probably spent about ten grand on the trip. It can be a little financially straining. Two weeks was based on finances and vacation time and being away for the first time and being in Vietnam.
Francesca: You said you went with your mother both times. Did you say your father was also from the same area that you grew up in?
Han: Yes, but he has no interest in going back. Well, actually he's gone back with my mom a couple times but he hasn't had any interest in going back anymore. It's a very long trip to sit on the airplane for so long.
Francesca: Do you happen to know if there's another reason why he doesn't feel like he wants to return?
Han: Probably because he doesn't have family there either. So it's all my mom's family. He doesn't have anyone he wanted to see and visit. He's just used to the lifestyle here. He doesn't want to go back and be out of place again and uncomfortable.
Francesca: Is all of your dad's family in the U.S. at the moment?
Han: Yeah, all of my dad's family is in the U.S. or different parts of the world, like in Australia or England. We have relatives in England because when we tried to leave the refugee camps, it took several tries. Australia wouldn't take us, the U.S. wouldn't take us, Canada didn't take us, and finally, the U.S. reconsidered us and let us come into the country. Someone sponsored us over. That's why we were in the camps so long. None of those countries would take us. So most of my father's family was about to leave and find refuge in the U.S. and somewhere else.
Francesca: Do you happen to know which countries that you stayed in while you were in the refugee camps?
Han: Hong Kong and in China. That's what my parents told me. Somewhere in China and later on in Hong Kong before we went over to the U.S.
Francesca: Would you say that he identifies with Vietnam as a home country or does he feel more connected to the Chinese culture?
Han: I think he knows that Vietnam is home, but here in the U.S., he identifies himself as Chinese. He doesn't say Chinese from Vietnam. Originally, our last name was Pham. When we naturalized, he changed it back to Fan. Back then, I think they forced all the Chinese to have Vietnamese last names. My father is very proud to be Chinese, just Chinese-Chinese and not Chinese from Vietnam. It's funny because when we go in public, both my parents only strictly speak Chinese. So that was a little struggle for me. You're also Vietnamese. Why don't you speak Vietnamese when we're out? I would tell my mom to speak Vietnamese. What's wrong with that? I think she thought the community here would look down on anyone who is Chinese from Vietnam versus Chinese from the mainland. I think he identifies as being Chinese, even though he was born and raised — and his father was born and raised — in Vietnam. I don't know why. It's just acceptance here. I don't know if it's something elitist where they feel Chinese is superior to being Vietnamese.
Francesca: I'm sure it's a combination of cultural and political factors from back then. It's hard to know now — those specific reasons why people to identify more Chinese than Vietnamese. I'm sure it's different for a lot of people.
Han: I think there was an influx of the Chinese that were kicked out of Vietnam. They — Vietnam — didn't want the Chinese there anymore. I think it may be some resentment toward the country itself, Vietnam. Maybe that's why he identifies as being Chinese. Because they didn't want him in Vietnam anymore. My speculation.
Francesca: How many siblings do you have?
Han: I have my brother and two sisters above me and I have a half sister in Vietnam. I went to see her too. So when I went back, I felt very guilty because she was left behind. That was part of my experience too — of how that could have been my life. She was left behind to live with my mom's ex-husband.
Francesca: Did your siblings also feel similarly to you in terms of how they identified when they were younger?
Han: I think my brother had a horrible time growing up because he was a lot older when he came to the U.S. I was four and he was nine or ten when he came. He had a harder time being that age and having just arrived in the U.S. I'm sure he was bullied and picked on a lot. My other sisters probably had a similar experience to what I had. Assimilating and having an easier time. I think my brother had it more difficult because he was a lot older.
Francesca: How about now?
Han: I think so. Yeah. My brother is very patriotic, I guess. He toughened up and went to the army. My sister is a school teacher, so she did well. My other sister, she lives in San Francisco.
Francesca: Are you still close to your siblings now?
Han: Yeah, we see each other often. I actually live in my brother's house now. He has a separate in-law unit downstairs. Yeah, we're still very close. We still see our parents weekly.
Francesca: Did they ever want to go back to Vietnam?
Han: My sister, the school teacher, has gone back, but that was through work. My brother doesn't have an interest in going back. My other sister does, but she can't because she has young children. With me, it's easier to go back.
Francesca: Do you happen to know how closely they feel to Vietnam versus your own insights from having visited there?
Han: My siblings actually speak more Cantonese than they do Vietnamese. My sister — who's been back to Vietnam — didn't have a great experience because she went without my mom. She felt very out of place, I suppose. My brother doesn't want to go back because he's not interested in going to a third world country. They probably don't feel as connected.
Francesca: Do you think you and your sister will ever visit together?
Han: Probably not. If I go back, I'd feel more comfortable going with my mom.
Francesca: Do you plan on returning any time soon?
Han: I do want to go back, but my mom is in her seventies. It's going to be hard for her to sit on a plane so long. I would like to go back, but I wouldn't know how else to communicate or get around without her. She knows the language a lot better than me. I would like to, but I'm not sure it's going to happen.
Francesca: Did you speak Cantonese growing up?
Han: Mhm. my siblings and I, we speak both Cantonese and Vietnamese. When we speak to my father, we speak Chinese to him. And to my mother, Vietnamese. But when they speak to each other, they speak in Vietnamese. But when they're out in public, they speak Chinese.
Francesca: That's so interesting. Do you happen to know why it's specifically that way for those situations, besides speaking Chinese in public?
Han: I just feel more comfortable speaking Vietnamese with my mom and Chinese with my dad. So I see my dad as Chinese and my mom as Vietnamese and nothing in between I guess. And so, in public, I don't know why they choose to speak Chinese. To each other, they speak in Vietnamese at home. My mom had to learn Chinese when she met my dad. So she didn't know any Chinese until she met my dad. Maybe it's easier for her to speak Vietnamese to him, even though she's pretty fluent in Cantonese too.
Francesca: Is she Vietnamese?
Han: Yeah, she's not Chinese at all. She's full Vietnamese. She learned to speak Chinese when she met my dad. He already knew Vietnamese. She just learned to speak Cantonese just because of the community they were in. Cantonese, I guess, is easy for her to pick up.
Francesca: So growing up here and with these different languages at home, did you ever feel more closely connected to one culture versus the other? Did you feel like it was balanced or did that change over time?
Han: I think I used it at my advantage if I was around a certain group. With friends at school, I mostly spoke Cantonese so I was comfortable speaking Cantonese there. I think the only time I really started speaking Vietnamese was in college at UC Berkeley. There was a large Vietnamese student population there. So when I started taking Vietnamese class, I was very comfortable speaking Vietnamese because it was more accepted. Growing up, not a lot of people spoke Vietnamese in elementary, middle, and high school. I felt connected I guess. I used the context I was in. Most of my friends spoke Cantonese. The current friends I have now speak Cantonese. Not a lot of them speak Vietnamese. We don't speak Chinese or Vietnamese to each other unless we want to hide something from someone else.
Francesca: Do you see it as something you practice at home more than anything else?
Han: I try to because it's horrible. It's not something I use anywhere else with my parents. With my sibilngs I speak English.
Francesca: You said one of the things that really helped connect you to your culture — Chinese and Vietnamese — was food. Tell me a little big about the food culture in your house.
Han: My dad didn't cook at all, so it was my mom that made everything. She made Chinese and Vietnamese food because in Vietnam my dad's mom taught her how to cook Chinese food. And she learned that quick. And so growing up, she was also taught Vietnamese cooking. She cooked both — so we had a lot of Chinese food and a lot of Vietnamese food. She cooked really, really well. She still cooks up to this day. Unfortunately, none of us learned how to. So any time — I'm not sure, but I think it's similar with a lot of other Asian kids — they see their parents, it's always "have you eaten yet?" My mom would always offer what she cooks. Being well fed is her happiness I guess. Mainly that connection is all about her great cooking. It's something I can't duplicate at all. So that's why it pays to live in Chinatown. They have the Vietnamese and Chinese restaurants.
Francesca: Do you feel that you're not as connected to Chinese and Vietnamese culture because you never learned how to cook it?
Han: If I go to a restaurant and try to order, I have no idea what I'm ordering. I have to order everything in English because my speaking isn't that great. Not knowing how to cook, my only other option is going out to eat. It can be a disconnect if I don't know how to cook. I mainly cook American food because it's easy. I think with the Vietnamese or Chinese cooking, it's too elaborate. There's no recipe to follow. It's all about taste and practice. I wish I knew how to cook, but I guess I didn't put any effort in learning either.
Francesca: How much effort do you feel you put into being Chinese and/or Vietnamese?
Han: I have co-workers who are Chinese and also of Chinese descent from Vietnam. So with my language, I like to speak with them in Cantonese and Vietnamese. That's important to me, even though it's not the best. It's not very fluent. I feel very proud that I can even speak and understand it. The language issue is very important to me. I did try and go take Vietnamese in college and Cantonese growing up. So I try to retain that.
With my name alone, it's very Chinese. I had an opportunity to change my name when I was naturalized, but I didn't. My dad did. He changed his name to an American name — his first name. When I had an opportunity to change [it], I couldn't find anything else that suited me. So I left my name as Han. I like that my name is different, not an American name.
Francesca: How old were you when you were given the decision to change your name?
Han: In tenth grade, in high school. I didn't know anything else. When I was in third grade, it was mainly the kids in class who were Chinese or Vietnamese and everyone had an American name. And they said, "Would you like to have an American name?" I said, "No. I think Han suits me." They're like, "What about Amy or Hannah because it's so close to Han?" I'm just like, "No, I'll keep it Han." I like that my name is more Asian or ethnic. I like to correct people when they mispronounce my name too.
Francesca: Do you see your name as a manifestation of your connection with your ethnic identity?
Han: Definitely. Yeah. I couldn't have imagined being called anything else.
Francesca: Especially growing up up to tenth grade, it's a confusing time to change your name.
Han: My third grade teacher, who was of Chinese descent too, said, "When are you changing your name? Let me give you another name." I said, I don't want to. "Oh, but it's easier to pronounce." I'm just like, No. Let's keep it Han. I was really surprised that she wanted me to change my name just to make it easier on other people. It'll be fine. It's third letters and one syllable. How hard could it be? My name is important to me. I'm glad I didn't change it.
Francesca: Did it matter to you that your last name changed?
Han: I guess it didn't matter. It was more so my first name.
Francesca: What's your mother's last name?
Han: Cao, C-A-O. It's not a common Vietnamese here, but it's common in Vietnam. I don't see a lot of Cao's here.
Francesca: How has your self-identification changed growing up in Oakland, working here, and then eventually moving out from Oakland?
Han: In high school, I was more proud to be both Chinese and Vietnamese. So people would ask, "Are you Chinese and Vietnamese?" I'm like, Yeah, I'm Chinese and Vietnamese and I speak both. In elementary school, it's just like, Oh, I'm just Chinese, because everyone else was Chinese from Vietnam. I think in middle school, it was more the fragile years because I came across more American Born Chinese. I was a little bit more ashamed of my ethnic background because I wasn't born in the U.S. And then when I came to high school, it was more mixed. So more U.S. born and Vietnam-born and China-born. In high school, it was more comfortable and I was more proud to be both. I think for any teenage, [there are] identity issues and just being a little different was hard. I think in high school I was more comfortable in my own skin and being both Chinese and Vietnamese. Now as an adult, I identify myself as Asian American.
Francesca: How do you feel about leaving Oakland after all these years? I know you still work in Oakland, but what is it like to not live here anymore?
Han: It's definitely different living in the suburbs. There's no access to the quick Asian anything — food, groceries. My old condo was mainly just elderly. It feels like home. I'll see other Asian elderly couples and I think of my parents. I feel at home there. When I moved out to Castro Valley, it's a different place. This will always be home because my parents are here.
Francesca: Where do you see your own story fitting into all of these different places you have lived and been to?
Han: I think because my parents lived in Oakland for so long, the connection is here and not Vietnam. Even though I've been back. We've lived here for so long that this is home. The city of Oakland itself is my home. Living here thirty years, it's more so my home than Vietnam. I ask my mom, Would you ever want to retire in Vietnam? She says no. This is home now.
Francesca: What do you hope to discover more about yourself and your personal history here on out?
Han: I hope to retain more history from my parents because nothing's written down for us. A lot of pictures are lost coming here. So I hope as I get older — as I have kids — I can pass that down. That'll be a good project for me too, to find out more information of my parents' history — which is my history too. Your project is inspiring. It inspired me to want to know more of my history and pass that down some day.
Francesca: Have you tried asking your parents?
Han: I've done papers on it before, but you know, I did it and didn't think twice of it. I didn't really retain a lot of it. They tell me stories over and over, but it just goes in one ear and out the other. I wish I would jot it down or do some other family tree or something. I can only guess. I’ve got to keep it in a memory bank somehow.
Francesca: What does it mean to you to be Chinese Vietnamese here in Oakland?
Han: For me, it's a great place to live being Chinese and Vietnamese because it's such an accepting part of the country and part of the state. I always felt comfortable here because of so many familiar faces. It's just, everything is so familiar — with the restaurants and people. I feel like it's part of Oakland — this racial makeup of Chinese and Vietnamese here. It's just easy being who I am here. I don't feel out of place. ∎
Han Fan is a Program Manager in Oakland and currently resides in Castro Valley, California.