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A Gem in the Sea of Suffering: the Diverse Histories of My Parents
September 13, 2000



If it were not for the Vietnam War, I would not have been born. My parents were brought together by the gruesome conflict that tore apart the social structure of America while obliterating every type of structure in Vietnam.

My mom was born in central Vietnam during Vietnam's war with the French. She came from a line of Vietnamese nobility. Both of her parents belonged to an elite class of Mandarins who ruled feudal Vietnam. During the colonization by the French and later the Americans, half of her family colluded with the occupiers and continued to rule, while the other half joined the resistance with the Communist party.

Mom left Vietnam before the Americans took over, spending her childhood in England and France. Her mother earned a degree at Oxford, and in 1963 they came to America. After high school in New York, my mother went to the University of California at Berkeley.

At that time, Berkeley was a hotbed of anti-Vietnam-War activity, and my mom was one of the few Vietnamese students on campus. She spoke to crowds about the true nature of the Vietnamese war for independence, basically telling Vietnam's two-thousand-year-old history of resisting Chinese, Chaam, and French invaders.

Ronald Reagan, governor of California at the time, ordered the police to attack the student protesters. My mother was tear-gassed by helicopters and riot police, but she was fortunate compared to her family left in Vietnam, who were suffering tremendously. She became an American citizen and graduated with a degree in Anthropology in 1969, and then she decided to head back to Vietnam to help her people.

My dad had been in Vietnam for a year at that point, setting up a plastic surgery hospital for war-injured children in Saigon. In 1973, my mother, who is an exceptionally beautiful woman, applied for a job with UNICEF, where dad was the director in Southeast Asia. He initially turned her down for the job, but they ended up getting married two weeks later. It has been twenty-seven years so far, and they are still quite happily married.

While my mom is a first-generation American, my dad's line in the U.S. goes back to the eighteenth century. Today I view this half of the family, people of mixed German and English stock, as simply my "white half." The Millers first came to America in the 1750s, arriving in Boston. They finally settled in the Chicago area, and it became their hometown.

The Millers have known success and failure during their two hundred years in America. One great-great-grandfather on my father's side was mayor of Chicago during the Chicago fire. My other great-great-grandfather on that side was the fire chief during that same fire. My great grandfather was an engineer who worked with the horribly repressive DeBeers diamond firm in South Africa and in Canada. The riches from the diamond business placed the Millers in an elite circle. Most of the money was lost due to some bad investments in the 1930s, but my dad's generation still had quite a comfortable upbringing.

My dad grew up in an exclusive neighborhood near Chicago where only white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs) were allowed to live. He went to a farm school and was an enthusiastic bird watcher. He spent his summers in Alaska and British Columbia working on the railroad and mining for gold. He was a champion wrestler in high school and college. It was only in college that my dad met a black man for the first time. As president of his fraternity, he broke the racial barrier by allowing black men to join. This action set the precedent for all the fraternities around the country to admit blacks. After college, he went to Stanford law school; he later advised Robert Kennedy on apartheid law in South Africa. He also helped set up the Peace Corps in Africa and eventually went to work for the State Department.

The State Department was doing morally reprehensible work. One of my dad's first assignments was to fabricate legal reasons that America was allowed to attack Vietnam after the Tonkin Gulf Incident. Basically, he had to justify the millions of deaths caused by U.S. invasion of Vietnam on the basis of a sea skirmish in Vietnamese waters that might not actually have happened. He quit in disgust and avoided the draft by moving to the Yukon.

By 1968, in the aftermath of Martin Luther King's and Bobby Kennedy's assassinations, my dad could no longer remain in the Alaskan wilderness. After reading about the hundreds of Vietnamese children maimed by Napalm produced by Dow Chemical, he decided to go to Vietnam to do humanitarian work.

In the middle of all the pain and sorrow that America was causing in Vietnam, my parents met and fell in love. I see their meeting as a gem of goodness born in a sea of hopeless suffering.

Dad is now a lawyer practicing out of Oakland. He specializes in international law, and works pro-bono (no charge, much to my mother's grief) for quite a few organizations. Mom is a journalist for the San Jose Mercury News. She was the first Asian-American columnist in the United States. She also writes for magazines and is working on her first book.

They decided to raise their family in Berkeley, California, because of the racial tolerance in the Northern California community. Lots of kids from Berkeley are from different combinations of black, Latino, Asian, Indian, and white backgrounds. My high school was a mix of multicultural students. Social scientists often use Berkeley High to study how America will work in the future. The racial and ethnic breakdown at Berkeley High is 40% white, 40% black, 10% Latino and 10% Asian.

In Berkeley, I have always defined myself by my beliefs as opposed to my ethnic background. My brown skin has always been a non-issue. While Berkeley has brought me up with a healthy mistrust of the American government, I believe that our democracy contains all the right ingredients to create a more just world run by and for the people. With all the divergent cultures in my parents' family trees, from the lowlands of Germany to the highlands of Scotland, to the imperial palace of Vietnam, the strongest roots I have are planted in American soil.


Please email me at: teddy@ustrek.org


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