Every year for Father’s Day, I drive to my parents’ house in Cerritos, California. My parents are always happy to have their baby son home. My father, in particular, likes having me there because he is a storyteller, and any good storyteller needs an audience. My dad is especially fond of telling stories from our homeland of Vietnam – both folk tales and passages from of his own past life there.
On Father’s Day five years ago, the anecdotes had a water theme. My nephews and niece are taking swim classes over their upcoming summer break. That gave my dad the perfect opportunity to recount how he learned to swim in a canal-like river in his hometown of Huế. Apparently, he was bitten by a dragonfly in the water and was forced to instantly learn to swim. (I refrained from asking how a bug bite can magically lead a man to do the breast stroke.) My father also regaled us about the beauty of the “Perfume River” in Vietnam, which gets a beautiful aroma in the autumn from flowers falling into the river.
As a young immigrant child trying to fit into America, I wasn’t always interested in hearing about Vietnam and looking to the past. But as an adult, I now understand that why my father tells stories can reveal even more than what he actually says.
My father grew up in a poor family in South Vietnam. But with intelligence and hard work, he put himself through Saigon University Law School and ascended to becoming a judge.
In April 1975, he walked away from lofty life in a judicial robe when my parents fled Vietnam the night before Saigon fell to North Vietnamese Communist forces. Thanks to help from the U.S. government, my family arrived into Southern California, where my parents took whatever jobs they could get. My father – once the man who wielded justice from a court bench – got his first American job as an orderly at a nursing facility, and then later settled into decades of work for the U.S. Postal Service.
While it may not have been apparent to people who watched my father deliver mail to their homes, my father is an exceptionally intelligent man. His brain brims with knowledge. Often when I am home, my dad will launch unprompted into anecdotes about world history, Vietnamese cultural traditions, or life lessons to be drawn from folk tales (usually involving animals.) My mom will complain that he tells too many stories, but my dad persists.
He talks because he needs an outlet to express his intellect. He spins tales to honor his Vietnamese heritage, and so his children and grandchildren can understand the culture. He keeps alive memories of his own history and accomplishments in his homeland. And more poignantly, my father speaks to remember why my parents fled a Communist regime and to appreciate freedoms that America has given our family.
It took me a long time to understand all this. Years of working hard in my own legal career helped me recognize what being a judge meant to my father. I also had to fully embrace my own Vietnamese heritage to be open to learning more. And with age, I began to appreciate the many ways in which I am my father’s son. From my dad, I get my big smile, happy demeanor, book smarts, and a penchant at restaurants to order more food items than I can comfortably eat.
Having now built my own career, I now see how much fortitude it took my father to flee Vietnam and know he might not ever achieve the same level of professional success in America. In 37 years of living the United States, I don’t remember hearing my father complain once that he no longer had his judicial role. He tried unsuccessfully to take the California Bar Exam, but humbly accepted that it was not meant for him to practice law in the U.S. I’m sure that is a huge part of why he is proud that I chose to pursue my own path as a lawyer (and now also tech executive) in America – in some ways, finishing what he started.
My parents are now happily retired, helping to raise three grandchildren. In retirement, my father has even more time and desire to tell stories. There are of course lessons in what fathers say when they speak. But there can be even greater lessons in why fathers tell their stories.
This weekend, I’m headed home again to Cerritos, California for Father’s Day. My father will undoubtedly have new stories to tell. And I can’t wait to listen.