This story originally published on Sept. 13, 2017. 

Sometimes, just when you’re about to leave, you see the past in a new way. For My-Linh Le, she was about to fly to Europe when she thought of her mom. Le is 30, about the same age her mom was when she got on a boat to leave Vietnam.

“There was no food and no water and people were dying left and right,” Le remembers her mom telling her. “And every time somebody died, they were just thrown overboard.”

Le wasn’t born yet. Her mom was divorced and had two young daughters at the time, but only one of them got on the boat with her.

“The older one was kicking and screaming and it was a risky thing because you know, she’s sneaking off into a boat,” Le says. Her mom was forced to leave her daughter behind.

Stories like these trickled out during Le’s childhood in San Jose. It was always hush-hush. So Le doesn’t remember that much. What she remembers about her parents is how angry they were.

Le remembers one day when she was 6. She was in first grade and she forgot her backpack at home.

“And no one could understand why I was so worried about that. But when I got home, my mom found out and she just lost her mind,” Le says. “We had this plastic Fisher-Price table. She kicked that thing across the room and hit the wall so hard it terrified me.”

Le says it was like this all the time. She forgot her books when they went to the library, and her mom started screaming. When her sister messed up a sauce for dinner, her dad threw a dish at the wall.

“Sometimes I just didn’t even know what I was dealing with,” she says.

She came to dread every day. And it also took her hours to fall asleep.

“Having that kind of anxiety about what mistakes I might make the next day, it would keep me up at night,” she says. “I think that’s where my anxieties over making mistakes started.”

As a kid, Le figured, her family was just like all the other Vietnamese families in the community. She assumed everybody’s parents wanted their kids to be serious about school and remember their backpacks.

“The belief is a cultural piece. But the reaction is influenced by trauma,” says Dr. Clayton Chau, a psychiatrist at St. Joseph Hoag Health in Irvine. “So parents without trauma would sit the child down and say, ‘Hey, what happened? How can we ensure that you have your backpack, and the importance of having your backpack?’ Versus, if she was traumatized then immediately she would just explode, with no control.”

Chau says he sees this with a lot of Vietnamese families who suffered terrible losses during or after the war. If parents don’t resolve the trauma they experienced, their kids can inherit it. It’s partly genetic — trauma can  alter genes, which get passed down to the next generation. And it’s partly behavior, usually unconscious.

“Children who grow up in that environment develop a lot of anxiety and are very unsure of themselves,” Chau says. “Because if parents who are supposed to love you react that way, how can you have any prediction for strangers?”

The phenomenon is called the intergenerational transfer of trauma and was first recognized in the 1960s in the children of Holocaust survivors. It has since been identified in lots of groups, including kids of Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees. But while the Jewish mode of managing trauma is commemoration and remembering, in some Buddhist cultures people cope by letting go of things that can’t be changed or focusing on the future.

For My-Linh Le’s family, the kids were the future.

“When I was in high school, my parents decided for me that I was going to be a pharmacist,” Le remembers. “I was given no say in this.”

As Le got older, her parents became more controlling. Because they had lost so much, they were obsessed with her safety. Le says they would listen in on all her phone conversations, and wouldn’t let her walk anywhere. She never learned how to ride the bus, because her parents insisted on hiring drivers to take her to school.

“Even my friends and my friends’ parents felt bad for me,” she says. “They would actually lie to my parents for me sometimes so that I could go to the movies or something.”

Le got really good at suppressing her own anger and frustration, so she wouldn’t set her parents off. But now, as an adult, she’s started to notice little ways that this family habit is catching up with her. She was on the phone with her boyfriend recently.

“And he didn’t do something that I thought he should have done by a certain time,” she says. “And this rage just suddenly came out of nowhere, just like totally bubbled up within me.”

She wanted to throw the phone across the room.

“It was this really depressing moment of realizing that I’m just like my mother,” she says.

Le recently asked her parents if she could interview them, ask them about the things that happened to them that she had always been told not to talk about. She was surprised when they said yes.

“It wasn’t about forgiving anybody,” she says. “It wasn’t about me working through any of my own feelings.”

But it was a way of figuring out who she was, and where these different parts of herself came from.

Her dad told her about his first wife and their two sons. He was a helicopter pilot in the South Vietnamese air force. Then spent three years in a concentration camp after the war. He later made it to the U.S., but when he sent for his family, their boat sank, and his wife and older son drowned.

“He abruptly stopped talking and then started wailing,” she says. “It was weird for me to be there for him because we just never have had that kind of relationship where we were there for one another.”

Le had never seen her dad like this. She’d never had such a clear picture of how much suffering her family has had to bear. Similarly, with her mom, she’d never heard directly from her what it felt like to leave her daughter behind in Vietnam. Talking to them about it as an adult gave her insight into the burdens she’s been carrying.

“Whatever karma that was controlling that aspect of her life, never got resolved with her life, by her,” Le says. “So it just got passed on to me, and I have had to work through it all. For both of us.”

You’ll find all of  KQED’s stories about the many ways the Vietnam war affected people in the Bay Area and throughout California at www.kqed.org/vietnamwar

Just Like My Mother: How We Inherit Our Parents’ Traits and Tragedies 6 October,2017April Dembosky

  • Chantel Keiko Ricks

    Very touching article and topics that need to be addressed.

  • Leandra Pierce

    Ms Dembosky- do you suppose that Le’s parents were disillusioned about what life would be like here? Imagine the trauma of running from trauma to arrive and have your hopes for your children disintegrate? I have spoken with, and heard, stories of (& from) many people who have come here expecting life to be ‘plentiful’ and found great poverty & crime- just as what they left. This caused them great fear, hopelessness and trauma.
    Maybe Le’s mother was screaming from the trauma of believing the lies that she was told….
    There are so many angles to a situation like this. Please do not simplify people’s life experiences to an entertaining drama piece. It seems very disrespectful of their person & their pain.

    • Dorothy Hammitt Kethler

      You make a good point.

    • ato

      It is not a disillusion of a what life would be like here. This article just stroked a chord in me that I had never fully understood. First by letting me say that there is a difference between refugee vs immigrant. Refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her home country. As such you have no choice of uprooting your lives to survive, this plays a major role in a human psyche. You are forced to cope to loss/changes without closure. Hence the anger and the PTSD. You are right that this caused great fear, hopelessness and trauma, but it is not from a disillusion about what life would be like here. They know what they have to do to survive to provide a better lives for their kids but it doesnt mean you are coping with it correctly. This intergenerational transfer of trauma is very much new to me and explains a bit of what I goes thru sometime. As refugee who came to this country at the age of 4, I had experienced this.

    • Laura

      Le’s parents were able to pay for a driver to take her to school and send her to college to become a pharmacist, so poverty and hopelessness do not seem to be factors here. The author did her research on generational trauma and interviewed subjects for this article. Did you? Talk about disrespectful simplification! Write your own article with your own angle, rather than dismiss hers.

  • Dorothy Hammitt Kethler

    Don’t forget the intergenrational traumas of Native Americans, Blacks, and other minorities!

    • Mahaparamasaugata

      Thanks for derailing.

      • Dorothy Hammitt Kethler

        I don’t consider my comment “derailing” in any sense. I’ve worked with indigenous peoples for many years and the problem exists for them as well. Plus for veterans of many wars, especially WWII vets who rarely spoke of their experiences. Future generations must always be informed of the past.

        • Mahaparamasaugata

          YOU don’t consider it derailing. You just pulled an “all lives matter” here.

          • Dorothy Hammitt Kethler

            Don’t they?

          • Michael Brown

            I thought your comment was a good one, DHK! And does does one “pull” an “all lives matter”? I don’t think so.

          • Dorothy Hammitt Kethler

            Thanks for understanding.

          • Dorothy Hammitt Kethler

            I don’t know what the problem is. I was not attacking you. I found your article very worthwhile and was merely expanding on your ideas because I agree these traumas need to be discussed in order to heal.

    • Diane Smith

      I think this written and for everyone. Nobody is forgetting about anyone. I am of Irish descent. My grandfather and my grandmother went through millions of traumatic experiences. I don’t think any color or religion is exempt from trauma. The people in this story just happen to be Vietnamese.

  • Sharon Sekhon

    A really good article. We need to speak to our elders about unspoken pain. It helps everyone to acknowledge the loss and real terror in having to leave a violent homeland.

  • cari

    The trauma goes across all cultures. Look at history. If you think about it the majority of people live in some state of trauma. We all experience it in different ways and deal with it in different ways. Some people that you think are fine are really not ok. You never really know what someone deals with and experiences on a daily basis. There are also things that go on behind closed doors in many cultures and income levels that if you knew and were any kind of decent human, you would be sickened by it. Humans have been at war with each other on many levels for way too long. Why do you think there are a few in power while the majority live in oppression. And again this goes across all cultures.

    • Dorothy Hammitt Kethler

      yes

  • happykt

    Did your mom ever make contact with her daughter in Vietnam?

  • Lori Soldanels

    from what i understand, epigenetics is uncovering at least some of the “why” of this phenomenon. proteins outside but attached to the dna can change with events and these proteins are passed on with the dna to the child. i think that’s how it goes, anyway. it makes sense, so that parents who survive drought, for example, would pass on the idea of drought to their offspring – a warning of sorts. i had always thought before that these traits were passed to the next generation through behavior being copied, but this science is saying something completely different. it’s fascinating.

    in the study i read, rats were able to unlearn the behaviors passed on to them so there is hope in healing, even if it isn’t your pain you’re healing from but your parents’.

  • 404TB

    All American whites do benefit from white privilege and from systems constructed against others to advantage them

    • Diane Smith

      R U kidding me? Seiously?!!! What the hell does this have to do with white privledge? So “whites” are never traumatized in the United States?!! This story was talking about all of us. Why is everyone so quick to climb up on a crucifix.

  • 404TB

    Great article

  • Tom Cod

    great PBS series just out called The Vietnam War

    • Diane Smith

      Nuts!!! I really wanted to see that and I forgot to watch it.

Author

April Dembosky

April Dembosky is the health reporter for The California Report and KQED News. She covers health policy and public health, and has reported extensively on the economics of health care, the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act in California, mental health and end-of-life issues.

Her work is regularly rebroadcast on NPR and has been recognized with awards from the Society for Professional Journalists (for sports reporting), and the Association of Health Care Journalists (for a story about pediatric hospice). Her hour-long radio documentary about home funerals won the Best New Artist award from the Third Coast International Audio Festival in 2009.

April occasionally moonlights on the arts beat, covering music and dance. Her story about the first symphony orchestra at Burning Man won the award for Best Use of Sound from the Public Radio News Directors Inc.

Before joining KQED in 2013, April covered technology and Silicon Valley for The Financial Times, and freelanced for Marketplace and The New York Times. She is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and Smith College.

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