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How Did I Get Here?

With Kimchi Chow

Published on: Nov 16, 2018

Imagine waking up one day and your money, power, status, privilege, and freedom are completely gone. What will you do? Kimchi, at the age of seventeen, endured all of this. In 1976, when the Communist won the Vietnam War, the government took ownership of their home, family business and seized everything they had. She was forced to fake her identity and, with her family, miraculously survived a journey on a boat to start a new life in an unfamiliar territory. Find out how Kimchi weathered through life’s hurdles and how you too can succeed and create an empowered life today!

How Did I Get Here? with Kimchi Chow

We are going to do something different from what you are used to. Several people have asked me to share my story on my podcast, so that you would know where I came from, what experience I had, and how I can help the Asian-American women. In the next few episodes, I plan to share my story and my perspectives on how I see the world based on what I have learned and experienced in the past 59 years of my life. These solo episodes will be shorter than the regular interviews, and they will have the same if not more impact than the regular interview episodes. I hope you continue tuning in, and let me know how this podcast has helped you. If you have any suggestion on future topics for this podcast, please reach out to me on Facebook or on the AsianWomenOfPower.com. For this solo episode, I’m going to use a guideline, so that it’s easier for you to follow.

Q: What are my childhood memories?

I was born in 1959 from a small city in the south of Vietnam. This was the time when Vietnam was divided into two parties:  the North Vietnam was known as the DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC of Vietnam, which was the Communist party, and the South Vietnam was known as the REPUBLIC of Vietnam which does not belong to the Communist party.

I was the fourth child in my family. My dad was 31 and my mom was 26 years old at the time. They had a small tailoring shop, which they made Western suits, shirts and pants for men. From their hard work and being skillful as a tailor, after ten years, my parents’ shop became the largest and most well-known tailoring shop in our city. My parents employed over fifteen full-time employees at that time for this business alone. My mom had branched out to start two more businesses: one was the largest retail fabric store and a medium-sized hotel within the same city.

The customers for the tailoring shop were mostly local government leaders and American soldiers.

As you might have guessed, both of my parents did not have time “parenting” us during that time because they were busy building their businesses.

My parents grew up in the Vietnam War with little things and did not receive much guidance from their parents. My father with a high school education and my mom with an elementary school education wanted to give their children a good education so that their children don’t have to struggle as they did.

 At that time, having one of your children study abroad was a status symbol for most parents, especially if you are doing well. My parents’ dream was to have my oldest brother go to America to study. They invested a lot of their savings to hire private tutors to make sure my brother passed his exam with a high score so that he could get accepted to come to America to study. After my oldest brother went to America, my parents hired private tutors for all of us on different subjects, starting from the fifth grade and up.

 To my parents, education for their children was the most important thing besides growing their business. I remember when I was in elementary school, maybe in the first grade, my father already picked out the best and often the strictest teacher for me. He worked his magic and he was always able to enroll me to those classes no matter how full it was.

 Besides giving us the best uniforms, the best school supplies, and the best teacher every year, my parents could not give us personal time to talk to each of us, to find out how we were doing in school. All they cared about was our grades at the end of the year. Whenever we got good grades, 80% and above, we would get big rewards like a new bike or expensive toys for boys or a beautiful outfit or a nice piece of jewelry for girls. But when we got 60% and below (which is a failed grade), we would be punished. The way my father punished us was giving us a few whips on our butts with a long bamboo stick, then we would be grounded for the whole summer, to review the subject with a private tutor, and get a pass before the next school year began.

I was not a dumb kid, but I did not like to study and memorize things, so I did not do well with the subjects that need memorization like History and Literature. I had to endure several summers with a private tutor to re-learn the lessons on the subject I did not pass. Those were miserable summers from my childhood memories.

Now, looking back, this experience taught me the consequences of my action and the consequence of picking the wrong friends. When I came to America and attended college, I remembered this lesson, and I chose to surround myself with smart friends in college. Because of that, I was able to graduate with a bachelor’s degree and a minor when I was 29 years old.

There is a saying in Vietnamese “gần mực thì đen, gần đèn thì sáng”, meaning “when you are near the ink, you will get the stains; when you are near the light, you will shine.”

Similarly, in America, there is a saying, “you are the average of the five people you are surrounded with”, so pick your friends and associations wisely.

Q: What event/incident made me realized that I am different from anyone else?

m. When I was about four or five years old, I noticed that I was the only one in my family who suffers from asthma. I would get the asthma attack at least once a month, like clockwork. It was due to the air humidity in South Vietnam and sometimes due to the food that I ate that triggered the attack.

Resilience: You are the average of the five people you are surrounded with.

This illness made me feel like I’m defective, and that I was not worthy of my parents’ love.

One time, I found out that my parents took all of my siblings to a weekend vacation on the beach, and they left me with my grandparents. The reason for them not taking me was that I would get an asthma attack when I get to the beach. It happened once before, and my parents had to cancel the trip to take me home for treatment because I could not breathe.

To my parents, that was a good reason for not bringing me on the trip, but for me it was a sign that they did not want me. I was devastated and sad when I found out. I felt ashamed of my illness. Several times I thought I would leave home, but I was scared because I did not know where to go at five years old.

I was determined to do something in the future to make my parents love me.

Q: What major events trained me to become resilient?

Our lives were good until 1975, when the Communist won the Vietnam War. The whole country became a communist country after April 30, 1975. A year before, my father went to America to visit my oldest brother who was studying abroad.  When my father came to America, several people told him not to come back to Vietnam, as they felt that the South Vietnam would fell to the communist. My father stayed with my brother in America and tried to tell my mom to leave Vietnam soon.

In 1976, a year later, the Communist government wanted to convert the South Vietnam to be the SOCIALIST REPUBLIC of Vietnam. To do that, the Communist government took over ownership and properties from many successful businesses and factories. They started in the major cities first.

Unfortunately, my parent’s businesses were on that list.

I was seventeen years old at the time and was about to go to ninth grade in a few weeks. The Communist officials came to our home at midnight demanding my mom to give them the keys to the safe, the home and the businesses. They told us to pack three pairs of clothing then they escorted us out of our house.
They put nine of us and ten more families in a building which used to be a hotel. The Communist officials gave my family three rooms; four people in each room, two on each bed.
Every night, the officials would call up my mom, the head of my family to the office to interrogate.
Imagine waking up one day and your life was totally changed; what you had was no longer there: money, power, status, privilege were gone!

There was no freedom to speak because what you say could cost you your head.
There was no liberty to question the officials.
There was no one there to fight for you.
The meals we had during that time were worse than the meal they fed the pigs. I remembered one of the dishes they called a soup. The soup was made from boiling water to cook a vegetable. Once the vegetable was cooked, they took it out, added some lime juice, and some salt to the broth and called it a soup. Those days they said they were generous by giving us two dishes in each meal: one dish was the boiled vegetable, and the other dish was the broth from that boiled vegetable.

Many nights, I saw my mom in tears, praying to Quan Yin (the Compassion Buddha) to get us out of that place. I learned to pray at that time, and I was diligently praying to many Buddhas every night before I went to bed.

After a few weeks at this hotel, the Communist officials released the children of the eleven families and moved the head of each family to an official jail, so that they could further investigate at one central location.

My mom at that time still breastfed my youngest sister who was about two years old. My mom asked the officials to allow her to bring my youngest sister to the jail cell with her. Somehow, the officials agreed.
No one knew what motivated my mom to do that, but I remembered that after a few months later, my mom was released with my sister, where other people stayed longer.

Q: Give a few examples of how generosity pays back tenfolds.

The first example: After my family got released, we moved into my uncle’s home. This was the home my mom bought for her younger brother, his new wife and her parents to live in. When we moved into this house, my mom and eight of us slept in a single large bedroom; my uncle, his wife and two of his kids slept in the loft, and my grandparents slept on a large cot by the entrance of the house. If my mom did not buy this house for her brother and her parents, we would not have a place to stay, because the Communist had taken everything we owned personally.

The second example: My mom had an older sister, who had a business selling coconut and fruits wholesale in the same city. From time to time, the suppliers would not sell the fruits to my aunt if she did not pay them in advance. At those times, my aunt would come and borrow from my mom a few million Vietnamese dollars (which was equivalent to a few thousand US dollars) to cover for those goods. My mom was always happy to loan money to her sister with no interest.

While my mom’s businesses were attacked, my aunt’s business was safe. She ran her wholesale fruit store as usual, although all businesses were slow during that period.
When we were released, my aunt was the first one to come and give us more food to eat. She let go of her long-time employees and told two of my brothers – eighteen and fourteen years old, and my mom to come and help her run her business. In exchange for our labor, she gave us money to buy rice, meat, milk, and other necessities to feed my family, my uncle’s family and her parents. A total of fifteen more mouths to feed besides her own family.

Without the kindness and support of my aunt, I don’t know where we would end up. During that time, most people live in fear, no one would dare to hire my family because we were “blacklisted” in the eye of the Communist party. If my mom did not help her sister when she needed help, her sister’s business would not survive, and there would be nobody to support my family for the next two years before we planned our escape.

Resilience: The longest night happens to be the day we do not know how to survive the next.

Q: When did I get out of Vietnam, and how did I end up in America?

In 1978, the Communist government encouraged Chinese citizens and merchants to leave Vietnam by boat. The government allowed the Chinese merchants to bring a few bags of their belongings, but they had to give up their properties to the Communist government. In exchange, the Chinese merchants were promised to be protected to get out of Vietnam safely.

My mom bought us some fake Chinese documents to prove that we were Chinese so that we could get out of Vietnam as a family.

We got on to the fishing boat at night from the Mekong river in the south of Vietnam. The boat could fit about twenty people comfortably with some leg room, but there were about 50 people who got on the boat. The captain assigned where each of us sat to make sure that the weight was equally distributed throughout the boat. We only had space to sit, and no space to lie down. There were about 2/3 of women and children, and 1/3 of men and teenager boys. The age of the passengers was ranging from 2 to 30 years old.

We sailed in the ocean for about four nights and five days, then our boat’s engine stopped. When our captain tried to replace the engine with the spare engine, he noticed a small fishing boat approaching us. When it got closer, he saw four men, they all spoke Thai, and they did not look like fishermen. The leader had a gun, and the other three men carried several knives on both hands.

Because our captain knew a little bit of Thai, he was able to communicate and negotiate with the leader in this group to leave us alone. Our captain told them that all passengers on this boat were men who tried to escape Vietnam so that they would not be called to join the Vietnamese Communist party. The leader of the pirate boat saw that they were outnumbered by our men on the deck, so he did not climb onto our boat. He offered to help the captain by towing our boat to Thailand’s border, and in exchange, he asked the captain to give him some money, jewelries and the spare engine.

Our captain knew that he did not have any other choice, so he agreed to their term. The pirate towed our boat for about half an hour, then they cut the cord, and sailed away.

We were floating in the ocean with no spare engine to replace, and it seemed that we were further out to the ocean than before. We all panicked. Several people cursed the captain and told him that he was stupid to give the spare engine to the pirate.

The captain explained his reasons and asked everyone who was capable to pray to their Gods to help us. After a couple of hours, we were all focused on praying to our gods as the sun went down. At the time, I heard people prayed to Jesus, Mother Mary, Buddha, Quan Yin and many other Gods.

That was the longest night for many people because none of us knew how we could survive for another day. I was able to fall asleep within a few hours, but many women like my mom were praying all night, with the hope that their prayer would be answered soon.

The next day, when the sun was out, the captain spotted a large cargo ship from far away. He somehow was able to contact that cargo ship by radio communication from our boat.

About three to four hours later, that cargo ship approached us. Once they found out who we were and what happened to us, they called the German’s embassy in Thailand and requested to rescue our boat. They waited for another few hours to get the German government’s approval. In the meantime, they gave us some crackers, fresh water, cheese and some canned food.

It was funny because that was the first time I ate the German’s cheese which I thought was spoiled because it was covered with blue spots that looked like mold. I stuffed the cheese and the crackers in my mouth anyway because I was starving.

When the sun went down that day, we were approved to immigrate to Germany. First, we had to stop by Thailand to have a health checkup to make sure we were healthy before we get admitted to Germany.

After two weeks in Thailand, all of us were approved to fly to Germany.

My family stayed in Germany for seven months while waiting for my dad and my oldest brother who were both working at the time to sponsor us to immigrate to America.

In 1979, all nine of us: my mom and her eight kids arrived at the San Francisco airport. We all received the green card paper at the airport.

My brother, my dad, and one of his friends picked us up from three cars and drove us to Sacramento where my father lived.

The trip from San Francisco to Sacramento took about five hours, and we talked nonstop. We all were excited and had great hope for our new future in this free country.

Q: What did this experience teach me?

It taught me a couple of things early on:

When you can’t do anything about the situation, PRAY. Pray with sincerity, and leave it up to God to decide what’s next for you.

Have compassion toward other human beings. I was a receiver of the kindness from two countries: Germany and USA.

In Germany, I received help and support from a few German families and non-profit organizations. They opened their homes, taught us how to cook new food and gave us gifts without any expectation. Most of the time, we were not able to communicate with them in their language.

In USA, I was impressed for the kindness and support from the local Vietnamese college students and the Vietnamese professionals who gave us a hand to show us how to navigate in America.

My family, like many other refugees, received two years of government assistance, and with that assistance program, we were able to learn new skills and new language so that we could go to work, and attend schools.

Don’t judge people too soon. Remember our captain, who was criticized for his stupidity to give our spare engine to the pirate? As I grow older, I don’t think his action was stupid. In fact, I thought it was very clever. He was not greedy; he knew that you can buy things with your money, but you can’t buy another life. Imagine if he insisted on not giving up the spare engine and allowed the pirate to come in our boat. What would happen to us when the pirate saw that there were more women and children than men? Would those pirates leave us alone or would there be some bloodbath? There were many sad stories from boat people who escaped Vietnam after 1978. Many young women were raped and killed by the pirates.

At twenty years old, I was given a second chance to live and create a fresh start for my life.

Q: What was my life like in America before I woke up?

There were four phases that I experienced that have helped me see things clearer today.

The first phase was about education and career:

When I was 29, I graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science. In the same year, I also had my first child.

I worked in the computer field for about fifteen years, and then I left that industry and moved to personal financing to take care of my own finance and investments. I was 48 years old at the time.

The second phase was about marriage and family:

I got married when I was 25 years old. My marriage was rocky from start due to different expectations, family traditions and values between me and my husband’s family.

I was young, inexperienced, stubborn, and I had a big ego. I thought I knew it all and I could manage my life the way I wanted. Things at home seldom went my way, and I blamed my husband for being observant to his parents. I felt that I was not respected as his wife, and I did not have any power in my own household.

Many times, I wanted to leave my husband, but a voice in me told me not to.

That voice gave me these reasons:

My husband was a good man. He was a hard worker and an intelligent engineer. He never treated me poorly; he never abused me verbally or physically.

My husband was a good father to my children and a good son to his parents. These are the good traits that I want in a man.

He was a good provider for my family.

Because of these reasons, I wanted to become the role model for my kids and remained married and I started to work on improving myself.

The third phase was about solving life’s puzzle:

Between 29 to 55 years old, while I was expanding my career, making more money, obtaining more assets, and raising two kids, I became more and more aggressive and unhappy at home.

I felt that I had to do a lot more to prove to my husband and his parents that I am worthy of being a part of their family. In my mind, I thought they did not respect me because I am Vietnamese, I came here as a refugee with nothing, and I don’t speak Chinese or know their cultures as well as my sisters-in-law.

To compensate for these lacks, I tried to prove that I am smart and capable of many things. I started multiple businesses. I bought a janitorial service franchise which I ran for almost three years by myself with two workers. I also joined a network marketing business selling American dreams by recruiting members and selling household goods.

Resilience: Stop wasting time chasing an illusion. Live your life with a purpose.

To run these businesses, I often came home very late in the evenings after my daytime job. In the weekend, I often spent half or one day for a seminar or workshop in my network marketing business. My husband was also working at that time as an engineer, and he decided not to join me in my side businesses.

When I turned 48, I left my fulltime job in the computer field. At that time, my daughter just got accepted in Boston college and my son was in eleventh grade. I wanted to stay home to spend time with my son before he went to college.

In my mind, I was building my second career and preparing for the empty nester years, when both of my children leave home.

I took classes and joined several year-long programs to learn more about investing in real estate, businesses and trading. I was actively managing my retirement funds.

Now, looking back, I realized that the reasons I did all of these were:I felt that I was not good enough and I had to prove myself that I am worthy.

I was very unhappy in my marriage.

I did not know who to talk to or get advice from.

The fourth phase was about recognizing the illusion and finding true happiness:

After I turned 55, I dove deeper into self-development work and spiritual learning. I hired several coaches and joined many group coaching programs.

I learned to forgive the things my dad did to my mom, and resolved the conflicts and the resentments that I had with my in-laws and my husband.

I learned to forgive myself for the things I did that I was not proud of.

I no longer feel ashamed for the mistakes I made because I know that those experiences taught me valuable lessons in life. It taught me to be compassionate to others who were in similar shoes.

Now I want to share these lessons with other Asian, Asian-American women and you, so that you can enjoy life sooner.

Imagine having someone like me:

To help you find your purpose and pursue it.

To keep you accountable and remind you about the important things that you want in life, instead of wasting time chasing an illusion

To show you a way to live life with no regrets. Each day, you know that you have the power, freedom and choice to choose how your day would turn out.

When you work with someone like me:

You could save two to three decades of your life from emotional turmoil, which might prevent you from having terminal diseases due to these emotional sufferings.

You will gain more confidence in making a sound decision in time and money to pursue what’s important for you.

You will achieve many goals sooner.

And you will have a happier life.

If you resonate with what I shared in this episode, please contact me to see how I can support you.

If you like what you heard and want to help us share this message wider, join our Facebook group by going to JoinAsianWomenOfPower.com

My MISSION: to empower Asian American and Asian women around the world to LIVE LIFE LOUD, by speaking up for their truth, standing up for their rights, and showing up for what they believe in.

So, take my hand, join me!

This is Kimchi Chow, until next time, LIVE LIFE LOUD!

Links Mentioned:

Episode Quotes 

 "When you can't do anything about the situation, pray!"

"Don't judge people too soon."

"This illness made me feel like I'm defective." 

About Kimchi Chow

Kimchi Chow, Founder & CEO of Asian Women of Power, and Host of Asian Women of Power podcast.
Born and raised in Vietnam, Kimchi is the first generation of immigrants in America.
With a diverse background, from high tech to service industry to investing to personal growth, Kimchi knew what it took to be successful, happy and fulfilled in life.
Now, Kimchi is working as a coach to support her clients, the Asian American women, about Life, Relationships and Culture, to help her clients create the life that they love.
Kimchi started a movement called “Live Life Loud” and a podcast called “Asian Women of Power” in May 2018. Today, this podcast has widely spread to over 22 countries around the world.
Kimchi’s mission is to empower Asian American women to speak their truth, to stand up for their rights and to show up for what they believe in.
To learn more about her programs, her podcast and her movement, please join her on her Facebook group, or connect with her through LinkedIn.
Kimchi currently lives in San Jose, California with her husband. She is also serving on the Board of Advisor for The AGIF organization (www.TheAGIF.org), and the Board of Volunteer for CASPA organization (www.CASPA.com).

Connect with Kimchi Chow at:
Website: www.AsianWomenOfPower.com
Podcast: www.AsianWomenOfPower.com/podcast
Facebook Group: www.JoinAsianWomenOfPower.com
Personal Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Kimchi.Chow
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/kimchichow

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