It is so easy to forget where you came from. Or, if not forget, then willingly want to put that poverty-stricken landscape—the plight of those millions of desperately needy men, women and children—behind you. This can easily happen when you come to the United States from a Third World County such as my homeland, Vietnam, where many people are so poor that they work all day for the equivalent of one dollar. Whether you come from my tiny country or from Africa, India, China, Central or South America, etc., it may be human to want to move forward without looking backward. But it is also terribly wrong, and makes me very sad.
I have never forgotten where I come from, nor has my husband. We have both been so fortunate in our lives and in our careers. It is in our nature to want to give back. We also want our daughters to learn to be most generous to those in need. They will learn, I believe, not by what we say, but by what we do. In everything a parent does, they are setting an example. It is important to create new generations with empathy and a global view of how we are all connected—because we are! And now, with the World wide Web, we all can see how deeply connected we human beings are.
It has been 47 years since the Vietnamese-American war ended. Much has happened in my country. There is a rising middle class. But yet, of the population of 89.71 million there (as of 2013), two-thirds are still living way below the poverty line. They urgently need greater access to better food, water, medical care and most of all—education.
A number of Vietnamese have migrated to the United States, but at present there are only about 1.74 million of us (based on a 2010 census) in this country. Most have settled in the more familiar warm climates on the west coast, specifically California, Texas and Florida. The second generation speaks English as their first language. Some have intermarried with Westerners and their children are more American than Vietnamese. There is a cost to this: but that is another topic I will address in a future blog.
What I want to address here is the idea of giving back. I was deeply moved by a recent New York Times article on Dr. Mosoka Fallah who grew up in the slums of Monrovia, Liberia, before having the good fortune to go to Harvard, where he studied to become an epidemiologist and immunologist. As the Times reported, “Neighborhood by neighborhood, block by block, shack by shack, he is battling the disease across this crowded capital, seeking the cooperation of residents who are deeply distrustful of the government and its faltering response to the deadliest Ebola epidemic ever recorded.” It would be easy for someone in Dr. Fallah’s position to say, “Ok, I’ve accomplished more than anyone from my circumstances could reasonably hope to. I did it myself, nobody helped me, I won’t go back to help them.”
Instead, Dr. Fallah returned to Monrovia to do his part combating the deadly Ebola virus. At great personal risk to himself, Dr. Fallah moves from house to house. He’s the boots on the ground in the war against this awful disease. Dr. Fallah is inspiring not only in terms of his courage but his remembrance of his circumstances. He knows where he came from.
In April 2008 I founded the Ha Phuong Foundation. Our initial project was to build a multi-media arts center in cooperation with a wonderful partner: the Boys & Girls Clubs of Garden Grove, (Orange County) California. I created this Foundation has two main objectives: to help underprivileged children, and to support music and arts. With this intention we equipped the Center with a state of the art music, TV radio and design studio and recording facility.
This Complex will serve as a prototype for additional multi-media arts centers I plan to fund throughout the United States. I believe these facilities are vital to help sustain arts education, at a time when schools have dramatically cut funding for music and art classes. These Centers will help talented youth creatively express themselves while offering them market-ready job skills via training on professional equipment and software. Life is all about giving back. I am so grateful that I can use the opportunities I had to impact the lives of wonderful children who would otherwise not have such opportunities.
The Foundation has also developed music programs in Vietnam for disadvantaged children, along with an ambitious musical teaching and career development program specifically for blind children. One of my greatest joys is going back to Vietnam and seeing how these children are progressing. It makes my heart sing.
Stay tuned for more—I have a lot to say, and I look forward to building a “community” of others who feel as I do. If you believe in karma, you know that the more you give of yourself, the richer you will be—in all the ways that count. It is a great gift to our own selves when we extend a hand, materially and spiritually to those less fortunate.
Let’s never forget where we came from.