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Quynh Tran: From 'mute' refugee to feminist activist

STANFORD -- When Quynh Tran came to the United States at age 12, she was "practically mute" for about a year, she recalled, overwhelmed by her American junior high school and by her inadequate command of English.

Now she is ready to speak out to help her fellow Asian Americans.

Tran, 24, who will graduate from Stanford June 14 with both a bachelor's degree in human biology and a master's degree in anthropology, would like to work in community service, assisting Asian American women or youngsters in the Bay Area.

Tran was born in Saigon in 1968 to an upper-middle-class family. Her father was a businessman and her mother a homemaker. When the communists took over South Vietnam in 1975, her parents were nervous, Tran said, but decided to stay and make the best of things.

Then political persecutions began; Tran's father was identified as a capitalist, and thus a potential enemy of the state. By transferring ownership of his shoe company to the government and also noting that his own father had worked with the National Liberation Front against the French, the senior Tran managed to avoid being sent to a re-education camp.

Still, he saw little opportunity for his children in the new Vietnam, and in 1979, when ethnic Chinese, pushed by the government, were leaving Vietnam in large numbers, he decided to take that moment to escape. To facilitate the departure, which was camouflaged as a "vacation," he split up the family, taking Quynh, her two sisters and brother, and leaving behind his wife, mother and youngest son.

The Trans became "boat people" with all the horrors that phrase brings to mind. Their boat's engine was destroyed by Thai pirates, who also took all their money and valuables, in the process demolishing their water supply. The boat floated for 20 days before finally landing in Malaysia. The Trans were turned away and sent to Indonesia, where they spent six months in a refugee camp before finally making it to Oregon, where they were sponsored by relatives.

Although Tran had studied English before coming to the United States, her skills were not sufficient to cope with life at a junior high school in Beaverton, Ore., leading to her linguistic shut-down.

"I couldn't take in anything or express my thoughts," except in Vietnamese, she said.

Some of her classmates were friendly, she recalled, introducing her to the intricacies of such American institutions as the cafeteria line, but others called her names. Although she didn't understand the words, the hostility was clear enough.

She gradually became proficient in English, which she spoke almost exclusively, except at home. In fact, she found it a pleasantsurprise when, as a high school senior, she moved with her family to Orange County in Southern California, and once again heard Vietnamese spoken in shops and on the streets.

The Tran family had intended to reunite quickly, but after their ordeal at sea, the senior Tran wrote to his wife, advising her not to risk an escape by boat, but to wait until legal emigration could be arranged.

It was 10 years before Quynh Tran saw her mother again. Her father, raising his children as a single parent, stressed the importance of a college education, particularly to his daughters.

"He saw that women in America had different roles than they did in Vietnam, and he knew we could not necessarily rely on a husband for support," Tran said.

She applied to several California universities, and since her father viewed Stanford as a more protected environment for his daughter than the University of California's Berkeley and Irvine campuses, where she also had been accepted, she enrolled at Stanford.

Her Stanford experience has been shaped by her involvement with the Asian American Activities Center and the Women's Center.

At the Asian American center, she said, she met students "with a strong sense of identity, goals and purpose" who became her role models. Although she has by no means limited her campus friendships to one racial group, she feels a particular bond with Asian Americans' struggle with a dual identity.

"There's that split between what is American and what is Asian," Tran said. "If we identify as one, do we deny the other?"

Dealing with that issue, she said, "allowed me to situate myself in the Stanford community and in American society."

She has served as an officer with the Asian American Students Association, and worked with others there to increase the number of Asian American studies courses at Stanford. She was a co-founder of the Stanford Vietnamese Association and also helped found Stanford Asian Women. Of the latter group, she said that exploration of gender issues in feminist studies classes made her feel the need for a support group specifically for Asian women.

For the past year and a half, Tran has been coordinator of the Women's Center. She was active in moving the center from its somewhat out-of-the-way location near the Toyon eating clubs to the Fire Truck House in the middle of campus. The move has provided greater visibility for the center's services, she said.

One of her goals at the Women's Center has been to have it include more women of color. To facilitate that process, she brought together women from ethnic student organizations to talk about their similarities and differences. She expects this coalition-building to continue after her departure, she said.

Tran considers herself a feminist, and said she is looking at ways to combine her feminism with public service; for example, helping battered women from southeast Asia negotiate the legal and social service systems.

Although Tran actually receives her diploma this June - she spent six years here, simultaneously obtaining her bachelor's and master's degrees - she has vivid memories of the graduation ceremony she "walked through" two years ago in order to be with her undergraduate classmates. Her mother came to that ceremony - the first time the two had seen each other in a decade.

"I was nervous," Tran recalled. "I knew I had become Americanized and I didn't know if my mother would like me as an individual. You can love someone without liking them."

As the two women shared the stories of their 10 years apart, Tran said, "I realized how Vietnamese I was, as well as how American."

She found her mother was open to new ideas, but preferred to deal with such topics as sexuality indirectly, rather than head-on, American style.

But there was to be no fairy-tale happy ending for a divided family. Her mother, Tran said, could not adjust to life in America. She could not speak English, found it impossible to learn to drive on crowded Southern California roads, and could not see a place for herself in her college-age children's lives. So she has returned to Vietnam.

Tran said she would like one day to visit Vietnam - to see her mother, of course, and also to re-acquaint herself with the people and the country.



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