In 1979, after the Vietnam War, my mother fled Vietnam. She was still a teenager at the time and went without her parents, with one of her aunts and a few of her siblings. The boat she escaped on ended up at a deserted island that was within the borders of Indonesia. She stayed in the refugee camp there for a few months until she was sponsored to come to the United States.
In 2010, my mother, my two sisters, and I traveled to Vietnam together. It had been 31 years since my mother had seen her homeland. My sisters and I were born and raised in California and were excited to see Vietnam for the first time. Growing up, my mother told us various stories from her time in Vietnam.
On this trip, I met so many people I was related to that I never even knew existed. It was both overwhelming and joyous. This sparked an interest in me to know — who else was I related to? Who else is a part of my family history?
Since then, I have been pushing to meet more of my family. In 2015, the four of us traveled to Australia to meet others in my extended family that had resettled there after the war. In 2016, we traveled to Virginia to meet the family and church that had sponsored my mother to resettle in the United States. Both years, I also spent time in Taiwan, where my father immigrated from, reconnecting with some of my relatives there.
This summer, I went to China to see my maternal grandfather’s village in Guangdong Province. Last year, someone from the village went to Vietnam and got in touch with my aunt. My grandpa did not know there were still people living in the village, and at the age of 88, could not go back to visit. He wished for his children and grandchildren to visit. So, my mother, aunts, cousins, and I went from California to China to the village that my grandpa grew up in and visited the graves of our ancestors five to seven generations ago.
Interestingly enough, I had spent two years living in China prior to graduate school, never knowing that I had familial ties within China. On this trip, I not only got to visit the city that I lived in with friends I made in my adulthood but made connections to relatives I never knew I had.
Afterwards, we traveled to Vietnam and continued to visit relatives. On this trip, I think I saw between 50 and 100 people that I was related to. Sadly, I do not speak Cantonese or Hakka (the dialects spoken in Guangdong Province), nor do I speak Vietnamese. It definitely tugged at my heartstrings that I could not fully communicate with family that it took me such a long time and distance to finally meet. But judging by the tears that were shed when we separated, a lot can be said without language.
The importance I place on the value of family is what drives me to work in the field of public child welfare. I believe that family looks different for every person — and it goes beyond the meaning of people you are biologically related to.
As I work with people who have been separated from their family, in the foster care system, have been or will be adopted, it is important for me to work hard to ensure that children have a connection to their family members. I know this because the familial connections I have been able to make throughout the years have meant so much to me.
Iris Lin is graduating from the Master of Social Welfare program, with a concentration in Children and Families. She works in the field of public child welfare, currently with Alameda County. Iris is from the Bay Area, attended undergraduate studies at UC Davis, and previously lived in Ghana and China.