Tan Le: What Does Identity Mean For An Immigrant? Entrepreneur Tan Le tells her family's harrowing journey from Vietnam to Australia. She talks about how her upbringing as a Vietnamese refugee living in Australia has defined her identity.
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What Does Identity Mean For An Immigrant?

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What Does Identity Mean For An Immigrant?

What Does Identity Mean For An Immigrant?

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. When people meet you - when they ask you where you're from, what do you say?

TAN LE: I say I'm from Australia 'cause I know exactly what they're trying to ask me, which is where's that accent from? Where are you from? Why do you sound different?

RAZ: This is Tan Le. She lives in San Francisco.

LE: And then they say, but where are you from originally? And then I say, I'm from Vietnam originally.

RAZ: That's where she's from, but who she is begins with an early experience - a journey, in her case.

LE: So I remember a lot actually. I remember bits and pieces, probably because of the fact that my father stayed behind in case we were captured and had to be cared for in prison.

RAZ: Tan was four at the time. Her mom, her sister, her grandma were there too. They were all in a rickety boat with other refugees escaping the aftermath of the Vietnam War.

LE: I do remember saying goodbye to my father. I remember crouching low in the water. I remember the bow of our boat dipping into the waves. I remember the darkness of the ocean. And, of course, I remember that night, after five days at sea, looking up and saying to my mom, wow, mom, look at all the stars, because they were right up close in front of us. And then I heard screams all around us and my mom said, oh, they're not stars. They're an oil rig. I didn't know what that was, but that just meant we were saved.

And then, I also remember the very first apple I tasted given to me by the men on the oil rig. After so many days of not having a lot of water and not having much food at all because we were rationing our food, we were just sitting around looking at them. Then they were throwing apples between each other. And the only thing we had in our mind was what if we could have this apple. And then they decided to give us one, and I just remember biting into it and just - it was just unbelievable.

RAZ: How much of your - of who you are is wrapped up in that journey?

LE: I would say a very large part of me is wrapped up - not so much just the journey, but it's the lessons that we've learned from that journey.

RAZ: Our show this week is all about journeys. How we become who we are. How we got the identities we have. And we'll hear from TED speakers who all grapple with what it means to have many different identities. So let's start with Tan Le's TED Talk.


LE: After three months in a refugee camp, we landed in Melbourne. We settled in Footscray, a working-class suburb whose demographic is layers of immigrants. The smells from shop doors were from the rest of the world and the snippets of halting English were exchanged between people who had one thing in common - they were starting again. My mother worked on farms, then on a car assembly line working six days, double shifts. Somehow she found time to study English and gain IT qualifications. We were poor. All the dollars were allocated and extra tuition in English and mathematics was budgeted for, regardless of what we missed out, which was usually new clothes. Two pairs of stockings for school, each to hide the holes in the other, a school uniform down to the ankles because it had to last for six years. And there were rare but searing chants of "slit-eye" and the occasional graffiti - Asian, go home. Go home to where? Something stiffened inside me. There was a gathering of resolve and a quiet voice saying, I will bypass you.

My mother, my sister, and I slept in the same bed. My mother was exhausted each night, but we told one another about our day and listened to the movements of my grandmother around the house. My mother suffered from nightmares, all about the boat. And my job was to stay awake until her nightmares came so I could wake her. She opened a computer store, then studied to be a beautician and opened another business. And the women came with their stories about men who could not make the transition, angry and inflexible, and troubled children caught between two worlds. I lived in parallel worlds. In one, I was the classic Asian student, relentless in the demands I made on myself. In the other, I was enmeshed in lives that were precarious, tragically scarred by violence, drug abuse, and isolation. When I was a final year law student, I was chosen as the young Australian of the year. Tan Le, anonymous Footscray resident, was now Tan Le, refugee and social activist invited to speak in venues she had never heard of and into homes whose existence she could never have imagined.

RAZ: Do you remember when you started to feel like you belonged where you were?

LE: That's a never ending saga with me. I think I've talked about feeling like an imposter - like a fraud. You'd think that at 20 years old when I was named Young Australian of the year, I would have felt like I belonged to Australia. And part of me did. But as I was sent from place to place to speak, from, you know, one gathering to another - and of course I remember being invited to a beautiful house in Melbourne. And I thought to myself, you know, this painting on this wall is so expensive, the cushions on the chair that I was sitting on must be so expensive compared to, you know, the entire outfit I was wearing at the time. And they were pouring expensive wine. I didn't know how to drink wine. I didn't know how to talk about it. I'm like, my goodness, this is crazy. Why am I here? I don't belong here.

RAZ: Do you ever have moments where you do something or you say something or you think something and it just occurs to you that your identity is wrapped up in your experiences, in your mother and your grandmother and their experiences, and where you are now?

LE: Absolutely. I am absolutely, a hundred percent certain that I am a product of all of the things because I even remember as early as walking down the gangway from the airplane when we first landed in Melbourne. And my mother was holding my sister and I in her hands and she said, at the bottom of the steps, you're going to touch onto very special ground. And I want you to bend down and touch that ground. And I remember bending down and touching the ground with my sister.

And we both looked up to my mom and we said, mom, it doesn't feel very special. And my mom said, then make it special in your minds. And this is the thing - it's such an important symbol that we carried with us to have a life, to have a future, to have real aspirations that count for something. And so, everything counted. This is just one of the layers that define who I am and my values and, I guess, in many ways, my sense of duty and responsibility to my parents who gave up so much of their lives, their hopes, their dreams, their aspirations - gave all of that up so that my sister and I could have something that was meaningful.

RAZ: Do you think about identity a lot? Is it something that is important in your life on a day-to-day basis?

LE: I think it's - it would be incorrect to say that I don't think about identity because what I do and what I work on and who I am and my family - I mean, all of it is really centered around a sense of identity. I think, you know, once we lose our own sense of identity, we lose our own sense of integrity and who we are. So I think it's important to remember your own identity. And it doesn't necessarily have to be tied to a geographic location or what you do or your profession, but it's more about understanding who you are and what really drives you as a person.


LE: Before I close, though, let me tell you about my grandmother. She grew up at a time when Confucianism was the social norm and the local Mandarin was the person who mattered. Life hadn't changed for centuries. Her father died soon after she was born. Her mother raised her alone. I was taking a shower in a hotel room in Sydney the moment she died 600 miles away in Melbourne. I looked through the shower screen and saw her standing on the other side. I knew she had come to say goodbye. My mother phoned minutes later. A few days later, we went to a Buddhist temple in Footscray and sat around her casket. We told her stories and assured her that we were still with her.

At midnight, the monk came and told us he had to close the casket. My mother asked us to feel her hand. She asked the monk, why is it that her hand is so warm and the rest of her is so cold? Because you have been holding it since this morning, he said. You have not let it go. If there is a sinew in our family, it runs through the women. Given who we were and how life had shaped us, we can now see that the men that might have come into our lives would have thwarted us. Defeat would have come too easily. Now I would like to have my own children and I wonder about the boat. Who could ever wish it on their own? Yet, I am afraid of privilege, of ease, of entitlement. Can I give them in a bow in their lives, dipping bravely into each wave, the unperturbed and steady beat of the engine, the vast horizon that guarantees nothing? I don't know. But if I could give it and still see them safely through, I would.


RAZ: Tan Le. She's been living in San Francisco for the past eight years. She runs a tech startup for a product that can read your mind. That is a whole another TED Talk. Find it at TED.com. I'm Guy Raz. More on identities here on the TED Radio Hour in a moment from NPR.

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