anh van truong  |  daughter. sister. mother. artist. educator. translator.

Anh-Van Truong is the oldest of 11 children: 5 girls and 6 boys. She was born into a wealthy family and grew up along the white sandy beaches of Nha Trang, in South Vietnam. Long ago, Anh-Van lived in a French colonial villa and had a fairytale childhood complete with adoring parents, cooks, nannies, and chauffeurs. While life was plush, her mother and father placed a high value on education and hard work and insisted their children do the same. Anh-Van’s family owned and operated a coffee plantation, several hotels, and prime real estate along the coastline. And with privilege, also came a sophisticated education for all 11 children that included learning French and English as well as an extensive study of the arts.

Tragically, like so many, Anh-Van’s family experienced a harsh new reality and their existence, as they knew it, was abruptly taken away from them as Communism spread into South Vietnam in the mid-seventies. While half of her family successfully evacuated on planes to Saigon, Anh-Van and her three brothers were not so fortunate and they stayed behind with their parents and grandparents. After many failed attempts, along with 36 others, Anh-Van took a leap of faith and escaped in a small boat under a cloak of darkness in the middle of the night. A journey that was supposed to take three days turned into a nightmare at sea for nearly three weeks.

With remarkable courage and a positive attitude, this woman eventually rebuilt her life in the United States of America. Anh-Van takes a stoic pride in being a responsible loving mother, a loyal and devoted spouse to her ex-husband, a devoted and responsible daughter and sister to her brothers and sisters, and a compassionate and excellent teacher to her students. She adores her three children who not only give her pride but a sacred meaning to her life. She is dedicated to depicting life’s beauty through her artwork.

I am honored to share the story of Anh-Van Truong — a mentor and friend.

How old were you when you first started to paint?

I was 19 when I started my first painting in Gouache.

    

Did the gift to create come naturally or did you study art in school?

We all know how to draw in our family. We were all blessed with creativity and imagination. But for painting, I enrolled in an art class at the Academy of Fine Arts in Hue, Vietnam, in my first year of college. I enrolled in art class again in 2008 here in Virginia with several different art teachers. Also, I participated in several exhibitions. One of my art teachers and well-known Virginia artist, now deceased, said that I have a natural gift because I can draw and paint easily and beautifully. I am very proud of that.

    

What has been your greatest obstacle in life and how do/did you navigate it?

Being a modern woman in Vietnam during the 1970’s was not easy! I learned to be resourceful, to stand up by myself, to fight for a right cause, and to raise my voice to be heard. I became aware and conscious about my family origin, I felt stronger and learned how to hold my head proudly even in the darkest moment of my life. Now, I am not afraid to face reality and to solve any issue or problem should I encounter it.

    

How did you garner the strength to leave your life in Vietnam behind?

There is no life under the Communist Regime and there’s no life with the Communists. For us, even if we stayed, we would be considered as the dead — the living dead people.

    

Who were your co-travelers on that fateful night in South Vietnam? And how did you gain access to a boat?

After several attempts at escape, one of my brothers was eventually thrown into a concentration camp. He met a friend in the camp and they began to make plans for yet another escape. At the time, I was working as a tutor and I saved enough money to buy a compass. Along with three of my brothers, we created a strategy for escape.

We had all tried to escape at different times but failed. I guess you could say we had to practice escaping. We could not show feeling — there was absolutely no crying. We were very superstitious and felt that if we cried it meant we would never see one another again. On the night of our final and successful attempt we packed 30 adults and 6 children into a boat. The men were on the top level of the boat — the women and children were in the bottom. As we left the shoreline we had to move quickly and quietly. There were under water mines planted that were known for blowing up boats before they reached international waters. I remember this night well. The sky was black as there were no stars or moon to light our way.

I felt a great sense of relief once we crossed into international waters. But that feeling did not stay with me long. We moved right into a hurricane and the high seas turned into hell. It was horrible. After two weeks in the China Sea, I woke up one morning and cried.

    

How do you keep the children quiet?

Drugs. The kids were terrified and crying — it was the only way. Once we were at sea, the hurricane poured buckets of water into the boat. I will never forget the feeling of fish swimming through the bottom of the boat. There were so many people that I could barely move my arms to push the fish away. The storm almost killed us but I believe my brother saved us all. He was a leader and told the other men to follow the waves and current. You could feel the boat rise up to the top of the wave and then fall. All the women are crying and the fear brought many different emotions. Some of the women began to insult one another. I raised my voice to the women. I yelled, “Stop this now. We are in a dangerous moment. We must all be quiet and pray.” The fear was so great that they began to lose their minds. The men worked hard to bail water out of the boat but there was nothing we could do. So we prayed. The Catholics prayed and the Buddhists prayed. I personally embrace Buddhism – in this human experience.

When people become paralyzed with fear they instinctively become protective and selfish. This was supposed to be a three-day trip to Malaysia and it turned into three weeks of hell. Not only did we have to worry about the storm, we were all aware of the Thai pirates at sea. It was a very dangerous time.

    

What about your other siblings and parents?

Much of my family escaped on the last planes out of Nhatrang to go to Saigon. The rest of us knew our odds were better if we split up. I will never forget that moment where I said goodbye to my mother without really saying goodbye because we could not openly talk about escaping. The walls had ears so no one dared speak openly about their plans. My mother was standing beside her bed, looking at me.  I stood on the other side of the bed, staring at her. I wanted to say “goodbye” but I could not. There was a lump in my throat. And then my brother said, “It’s time to leave. Don’t turn around, Anh-Van.” I then turned to walk away. I could feel her eyes on me. She saw me dressed like a peasant as I walked out of the room. It broke my heart. And it still does.

    

After departing in the darkness, did you ever see your family again?

Yes, but it took time. At first, my poor parents panicked, as they did not hear from us until three weeks after we disappeared. Our family reunited at different times and places around the world. Sadly, my father died in Vietnam in 1993. Eventually, we brought my mother to the States.

    

How did you choose to America as your home?

Because of our upbringing we all knew French. I have two brothers living in France, one is an artist/painter. Two other brothers – one is an artist/pianist/composer, and a sister – artist/painter also living in Canada. Another sister – also artist/painter- living in Japan. Another brother, artist also, still living in Saigon, VN. We are four living in the USA: my second sister, my youngest sister, and my youngest brother. 11 in total! While it made sense to us all to go to France, I wanted to live here in the United States. In America, if you are a decent person and not lazy — there are real opportunities. This is the country I chose to call home. I made a conscious decision to not be a victim and to rebuild my life here in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

    

What are your thoughts on communism now?

The communist party is rich because they took everything from everyone else.  They used lies, propaganda, and control. The concentration camps were created to reeducate and brainwash, to punish those who were in the military or/and worked with the former government and its allies — whoever collaborated with the former government. The overall education at that time was reduced precisely to Marxism and Leninism and propaganda.   There is no trust – no honesty because everyone is afraid of the persecution.  People who live under this way of life have no idea what real living. No morals. People become immoral. They control by instilling fear “we kill your family.” And then they control you by hunger. Hard labor and they give you small rations. Humans can be easily manipulated and control when they are hungry. President Nguyen Van Thieu said “don’t believe what the communist say, but look at what they have done.”

    

You have unimaginable optimism and a great love of life. How did you not allow this tragic experience to break your spirit?

I just feel grateful for being alive and appreciate everything that I have, and even the stuff that I don’t have. I believe everything happens for a reason, and there’s a time for everything, so no need to rush things. The experience with communism made me stronger, wiser, more tolerant and compassionate. I am deeply optimistic and believe in the goodness humans possess. I always wanted to be a productive citizen. It’s my way of paying back society.

    

If you could tell your younger self one thing, what would it be?

People are generally not conscious, and insecure people often times do hateful things. But you don’t need to let that affect you, continue to trust human kindness and remain optimistic about life.

    

As a first generation immigrant, do you have any thoughts on the current state of our immigration in the United States of America?

This is a difficult question. I think it is important to not allow leaders to treat immigrants like numbers. We are not nothing and we all have something to offer. Long ago, we lost everything — even our dignity. I do not wish the same for other wishing to build a life here. At the same time, Americans are the most generous and friendly people on earth. While I hope many get to experience the American dream, I fear some come here to take advantage of the generosity of our great country. I believe that our immigration system needs repairs and it needs to be a priority.

Basic Principle: if they have to run, if they are fleeing, they are not safe.

    

What is your best advice on how to live a graceful life?

{She laughs.} I don’t like to give advice to anyone because each person is different, but I truly believe that every human wants happiness and peace. Peace of mind and peace around us, and peace in the world. Therefore, I think the crucial thing to maintain a graceful life is first to know how to control/discipline our needs, our wants, how to appreciate what we have and don’t have, how to accept differences without envy, or hate, how to love ourselves so we can love others, how to be productive and helpful to ourselves and to others if we can, and mostly how to respect life; then when it’s time for us to board the train for our last trip without a return ticket, we shall not feel any regret but only a decent satisfaction for living a graceful life indeed.


j. jane side notes:

Anh-Van and I met at the gym last year. She complimented me on my swimming and shared her fear of water. I asked why she was afraid of water and she told me of her journey at sea so many years ago. We’ve been friends ever since. Below is some of her artwork. You may view and purchase her pieces on her website: www.anhvantruong.com

Samples of her commissioned work: