July 31, 2017
From Tina Semko, Vice President of Operations, Right To Health
When the Vietnam War ended in 1975, my family immigrated to the United States as refugees. With little else but their clothes in a hobo bag—my grandmother, grandfather, and all seven of their living children—got on a plane, landed in Honolulu, and then arrived in Yakima, Washington. Their destination was the American dream. The freedom from communism and the livelihood of a better life far from war and its effects.
The story goes that life carried my mother from a small conservative town to the big city of Portland, Oregon for economic reasons. My mother, both young and strong willed at that time, also (as I later came to know) harbored a deep fear of white people. Both very conservative and traditional about many of her ideas and beliefs, she grew up sharing bedrooms, never talking about sex or sexual relationships, and practiced the rituals of being a woman. Rituals that meant she was quiet, afraid of speaking her mind for fear of being shunned from the family or thought of as being crazy in the community. She had internalized the notion that because she was “born ill” of being a woman, she must deal with the many consequences that surrounded her fate. Being a woman meant she would never be able to strip the identity of being a wife and mother. This hinged to the already growing identity that, as a Vietnamese immigrant, she would always be an outsider because of her race and the poverty she arrived with.
My story comes from this story. I grew up in Portland, Oregon in a very conservative, Asian American home. We ate rice with our steak and steak sauce, we drank Coca-Cola that filled our garage walls, and we never owned a pet because, only white folks do that. Growing up, I hated my heritage. I was ashamed to be Vietnamese, I was scared that the white children in school would know I was different. Over time, I began feeling lost in the shuffle of a predominantly white city where kids in school had Nike shoes and outdoor camps. My mother worked outside of the home on an assembly line and had to save all she earned for me to be able to be white for a week.
My mother often took the opportunity to tell me that we weren’t like the white people, that we were better than them. What she really meant was she was afraid of white people. She was afraid of their rage, their dominance in our adopted culture, their judgments, and even her own perceptions of what she created about them. For example, at the store, she would never let me speak up if a white person stepped in front of us in line. “They didn’t mean to, they didn’t see us,” she would say, as if she understood WHY we were so invisible that one could cut in front.
All these fears my mother internalized were passed on to me like a gene on a chromosome with an invisible loci never able to be removed. A fear of white people.
Everything that I think, all things that I assume, and all experiences that I draw from, I attribute it to the whiteness of my society. I often find myself wondering and assuming the discomfort of other white people I may pick up on is because of me. Speaking a foreign language. The hue of my skin tone. I can see their blue piercing eyes drawing racist ideas and assumptions of my family because, well . . . because! This was the label we were forced to inherit.
Being born an Asian woman in the U.S. meant that, inevitably, I would experience multiple facets of intersectionality. I would experience my race and my gender being sexualized. I would witness the unfair treatment of my economic class just to feel helpless in a response to the fight. Being born Asian American also meant that it was mandatory to understand my privileges under an oppressive patriarchal system that was not built for me. The ideas that somehow being born American meant that I no doubt had the same equitable opportunity as my white peers. That somehow being poor was not only a choice but it was my family’s own fault. It would mean that being born Asian in America would, ultimately, blend my intersectionality with what I would come to know as my identity. And my identity, as I know it today, is an array of beautiful and awesome traits and beliefs welded into trauma that has been passed down from one generation to the next.
As I’ve come to learn in the work I do, inter-generational trauma is not unique, especially for women of any color, any culture. But we are only really now diving deeply into what it means for us. I can state unequivocally that my mother and aunties were not talking about mental health and identifying what their own traumas meant to them. I still don’t think they can acknowledge how the ravages of war had left its own traumatic effects on each and every person. Arriving to the United States and its horrid history of systemic, racial divides only adds to the trauma.
What they only know now is this trauma, the constant stress. A level of fear that they carry incessantly towards whites that is both reality AND perception, but continues to grow heavier as our nation continues to become more bitterly divided. I’m part of this struggle. I struggle with the notion of who I am, I am forced to carry the weight of my struggles, and that of my mothers. How I identify myself are all confirmations to my belief that my only truth and true fears are of white folks.
The fear that, I too, may become white myself.
I have learned to internalize my own powers. Being a non-white woman with two children that are multiracial, I have learned how important it is to be more aware of my own trauma and how that will influence my children and their lives. The passion that led me to Right To Health is a way to help heal my own trauma, but also to help those women like my mother understand they are not alone and that this struggle is one of many intertwined in their livelihoods.
Further Reading on Inter-Generational Trauma
For more reading on inter-generational trauma:
- Transgenerational transmission of trauma and resilience: a qualitative study with Brazilian offspring of Holocaust survivors
- Historical Trauma and Cultural Healing: Articles List – Historical Trauma
- Exploring Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma in Third Generation Holocaust Survivors
- Racism Hurts Your Health—and Your Children’s, Too
- Self-Reported Experiences of Discrimination and Health: Scientific Advances, Ongoing Controversies, and Emerging Issues
Tina Semko is Vice President of Right To Health, a Portland-based non-profit that teaches trauma-informed practices with a lens on race and its negative health effects. For more info, visit Right To Health.