I’ve waited 2 ½ years to share my feelings about this exact moment in time.
My only child, James Phan Delevett, has now reached the same age I was — 2 ½ — when I fled my homeland of Vietnam, in April 1975, and was separated from my biological mother, Nuoi Thi Phan. My 10-year-old brother and I would never see her again.
My mother was supposed to be on the same flight with us, but because she wanted to say goodbye to my uncle in a small town hours from Saigon, she got caught up in the mass exodus of refugees — and missed the plane with her only children on board.
As I’m constantly amazed by what my toddler already comprehends and remembers, I catch myself wondering: when I was his age during a scary and chaotic wartime, did I understand that no one knew when my mommy was coming back to caress me in her arms again? How much did I cry, hurt, and yearn for her?
I see in James my childhood self.
I wonder if, before we fled Saigon, I flew across the hallway every morning as he does, looking for mommy and gleefully shrieking, “Hug and kiss!” And once, while trying to brush James’ teeth, I discovered a small wad of breakfast that must have been tucked in his pudgy cheek for half an hour. I immediately thought of how in the refugee camps, I used to hold onto food in my cheeks, because I wasn’t sure when I was going to be fed again.
Thankfully, I was too young to remember those camps, or seeing people shot outside of our house in Saigon; I don’t recall the sounds of heavy artillery and the shrill of my mother’s fearful voice as she tried to safeguard her family. Unfortunately, my brother has those memories, and it is because of his fragmented stories that I’m able to piece together my formative years.
Last year, after Southwest posted my life’s story on the Company’s Internal website during Asian Pacific American Month, I was very humbled and deeply touched by many heartfelt messages from Coworkers from across the country, most of whom I had never met.
I have to admit, I was a little uncomfortable when I was asked to share my interview with our 35,000 Employees. But as I read the LUVing notes of gratitude, I was so pleased to know that my story was helping others of all backgrounds to look inside themselves and better appreciate their lives, families, roots, opportunities, and Freedoms.
As many of you already know from the NBC interview, I grew up ashamed of my identity and heritage. It was not until after college, in 1994, that I boarded a plane back to Vietnam to learn about my roots – and unexpectedly reunited with my uncle and his extended family. That trip began the process of finding myself.
Ironically, it was also in the month of April – April 28, 1996, to be exact – that I launched my career with the LUV airline. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that through my Community Affairs & Grassroots work, the girl who grew up ashamed of being “different” from her peers — teased for her slanty eyes, having no baby pictures for Show and Tell, embarrassed by the simple question “Where were you born?” — would be afforded opportunities to share her journey and help other young adults.
One particular experience that is etched in my mind happened last year, while I was a guest speaker for an Asian Pacific American summer youth leadership academy in Cupertino, CA. During the Q&A, the executive director posed the question: “How many of you have ever wanted or would like to be another color?” The majority of the classroom raised their hands; my heart and soul ached for each of them.
Every one of us has a unique story. This May, I want to make sure that more voices are heard during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. I’ve asked partners, community leaders, Employees, and Customers to answer one question: What does being Asian American & Pacific Islander mean to you? Each day of the month, their quotes will reveal our collective histories, the pride in our many triumphs, the conviction in our continued struggles, and our hopes for generations yet to come. The quotes will tell our Asian Pacific American story.
To me, being Asian American is finally being comfortable in my own skin. It’s being vulnerable enough to share the painful parts of my past, to let others who might be feeling alone and confused know that we can lean on each other and find solace and healing in our commonalities. It is our responsibility to preserve and tell our stories, to help our children understand their past and take pride in their being. I pray that my son will never feel ashamed of his heritage or for looking, well, like an American! I’m proud to be Vietnamese-American, and to be among the 17.3 million family members of Asian descent.
On behalf of the little man who’s the joy of my life, thank you to all the aunties and uncles who contributed their poignant words for our special month. Each of you has already made, and will continue to make, a difference in his budding life.
From San Francisco to New Orleans to Washington, D.C., Southwest will honor the month with various local and national organizations throughout the country. Please visit our Asian Outreach webpage and click on Upcoming Events to see a calendar of events and programs in May. And during Asian Pacific American Month, please keep in mind the victims of the Japanese tsunami and their loved ones here and abroad. You can support the relief efforts by donating to the Red Cross.
We hope you share and celebrate your unique histories with LUVed ones this month, Happy Asian Pacific American Heritage Month!
This post is brought to you in honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.