Reporting by Julie Pham.
I left Vietnam when I was ten years-old. When I was one year older, in 1981, I made it to America. To get there, I spent 4 nights and 5 days on a boat at sea with my older brother, my uncle, and his family, and about 30 others. On the fifth day, we arrived on the shores of Thailand, where we stayed for six months. Then we moved to another refugee camp in the Philippines for another six months. Eventually, we settled in the Rainier Valley.
I was born in Chau Doc, Vietnam. I speak Vietnamese fluently. But I am not Vietnamese. I’m Cham, an ethnic minority in Vietnam. I’m also Muslim. On the first day of school, when students introduced themselves, I always saw the Vietnamese kids eyes pop out when I said I was from Vietnam. “But you don’t have a Vietnamese name!” I could hear them think. I would explain that I’m Cham.
One of my early memories in Seattle was attending my first American birthday party. I was in awe of the cake, the decorations, the games. I had never seen anything like it before. I went home and shared my exciting experience with my family. Only later did they explain to me, in our religion, we don’t celebrate birthdays.
As recent refugees in the Rainier Vista in the 1980s, being Cham, being Vietnamese, it didn’t matter. We were just Asian together. We would have barbeques and hang out. We clung to each other. As our community grew, we began to distinguish ourselves.
When I was in high school, I began to notice there was a Vietnamese club, a Chinese club, but no Cham club. My curiosity was huge. I went to the library and started to read about my culture. I was the fourth Cham student to attend the University of Washington and the third Cham to ever graduate. I am a founding member of the Cham Student’s Association.
When I opened my first business in 1995, it was a janitorial service. Many Chams worked as janitors and I was able to employ 50-60 Vietnamese and Chams. I wanted to create economic development for my community. But the “dot com” bubble burst, and so did my business.
In 1997, I returned to Vietnam for the first time as a backpacker. I wanted to see the place of my childhood. I met my wife there and after knowing each other for three weeks, I proposed. There was another Cham family in France whose son was pursuing her, so I had to act fast. Now we return to Vietnam every year, with our children, for three to six weeks at a time.
We had a Halal restaurant for a few years on MLK Way. It was named after my wife, Salima. People came from far to eat there. It was very popular and successful. We had to close it because the pressure of having young children and building our business on MLK during Light Rail construction was too much. I dream of having a Halal food service one day.
We try to do our best to pass on as much of the Cham culture to our children as we can. But we can only do so much. I send my children to Cham school. At home, when I hear English, I say, “Speak in Cham please.” I just hope our efforts are enough until my daughter gets old enough to become curious and wants to find out more on her own, like I did.
I still live near my first home in America. The 98118 is home to the center of the Cham community, the largest in the United States. We have our mosque on Graham and 39th, behind Aki Kurose Middle School. I can’t imagine living anywhere else. This is my home now.