My Place On This Planet
In April 1975, just as the Vietnam War was nearing its end, my one-year-old mother, her two older brothers, and my grandparents fled Vietnam on one of the last planes to America just before the airport was bombed by the North. We were fortunate that my mom’s uncle was the general of the South Vietnamese police and head of South Vietnam’s CIA. His high rank is the only reason they were allowed to flee by air rather than by sea in wooden boats.
In humanitarian crises, one must flee without possessions. However, there are some artifacts too critical to communities to be left behind. At the start of this photography project, I searched for hours to find a family artifact in our home. My mom shared with me that my grandparents did not have the luxury of packing and preserving family heirlooms; I was devastated. What they did bring was themselves, the clothes on their bodies, and several cherished photographs of my great-great-grandparents. I had such a narrow idea of what an artifact should look like that I didn’t think about the obvious solution to my problem. I realized that my great-great-grandparents’ fragile photographs were my family artifacts, even if they are the only ones we have.
My grandparents’ primary goal was survival, and they brought only the necessities: their children who were alive and photographs of their elders who had passed. Respect for one’s ancestral history is embedded in the DNA of Vietnamese people. At the heart of every Vietnamese household sits an altar framed by ancestors and elders who have passed away. Bowls of fruit and rice are placed in front of the loved ones as offerings of respect and remembrance. The altar table is an essential part of our lives as it connects us to our roots, ensures we never forget where we came from, and honors those who came before us who made our lives possible. This customary arrangement symbolizes and ties together these essential values of Vietnamese culture. I hope to one day preserve this tradition and pass on these artifacts so that future generations will never forget where they came from and who came before them.
I chose to make the smoldering incense the main focus of my photograph because its smokey scent is forever ingrained in my mind. I know I am entering a Vietnamese home when I walk through the door and the first thing I smell is burning incense, indicating that a prayer has just taken place. To be honest, it is not exactly a pleasant smell. It burns my eyes and even makes me choke. But when I smell that distinctive smoke, I am brought back to my childhood and all the times that we traveled to the San Francisco Bay Area to visit our family for Tết, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year. I chose to focus on the incense because no matter where I am, when I inhale that strong scent, I think of my great-grandparents on that altar and I am reminded of a country that has deeply shaped who I am today.