In 1979, when she was 4 years old, Khai (Truong) Yang, BA’97, and her family fled Vietnam.
“We lost the war in 1975. We fought on the South Vietnamese side along with the U.S. troops,” Yang explains. “We stayed behind because my grandma was there and [so we could] help with the village, but at some point, we worried for our lives.”
Here you’ll read about Yang’s immigration story, her experience with cultural assimilation, and the challenges of being an Asian American woman at IU and in corporate America.
Can you tell me about your family’s immigration journey?
Khai Yang: We left in the middle of the night. We stayed on a boat for about three weeks or so. It was supposed to only be seven days. My parents don’t talk about it a lot, but they say that three boats left at night and by the next day, only one boat remained due to the storms. Our boat had a hole in it. It was overcrowded. People died. It was pretty horrific.
We stayed in a refugee camp in Hong Kong for about a year and a half, and then we were sponsored by a U.S. Catholic church and moved to Plainfield, Ind.
From Hong Kong, my uncles and aunts went to England and another uncle went to Canada. We’re the only family that ended up in the U.S., because my dad had been part of the army that [fought against] the North Vietnamese.
What was it like for your family to start over in America?
KY: It was scary. We had nothing. The church community in Plainfield really helped us. They gave us food, shelter, and clothes. In Vietnam, we were well-to-do, we owned businesses. In America, we [had] lost everything, and we didn’t know the language. Without all the government and community support, I don’t think we would’ve survived.
Did you feel like the community you grew up in was accepting of your family?
KY: The community was very accepting. I don’t know if we really focused on our differences. We were the only Asian family, so I think we assimilated well. I’m a Hoosier at heart. That is a huge part of who I am. I remember having a Steve Alford, BS’87, picture on my wall growing up.
It wasn’t until I got to IU that I started to explore my Asian American identity because people would ask: “Where are you from?” “How come you speak good English?” The Asian American Student Association, the Asian American Association, the International Culture Center, and my classes around identity really helped shape me. I look back fondly at my time at IU.
When you were at IU, did the campus feel inclusive?
KY: I didn’t feel comfortable in Greek life. I wasn’t an athlete. I needed to find a community. I think that that’s when I started looking and seeing that there were resources for African Americans and Latinos and the LGBTQ community, but nothing for Asians. We were always invisible. Was IU inclusive? I think the predominant thing was to assimilate.
How big was the Asian American population on campus when you attended?
KY: I think we were about 2–3 percent of the IU population. There were international students as well as American-born Asians and Asians growing up in America, but nobody knew the difference. [Everyone] treated us the same. I think the only place where you would really talk about your Asian American identity was the Asian American Association.
How do you think IU, and universities alike, can improve?
KY: Asian American studies classes are so important. There is a running thread of anti-Asian racism that has occurred over the last 300 years, but it’s not taught. [Today] they’re blaming Asians for COVID-19. Back in the mid-80s, when the economy was bad, they blamed the Japanese. In a university that is a microcosm of our society, I think it’s important to educate and learn all the stories of American history.
How has being Asian American impacted your adult life?
KY: Learning how to have an Asian American identity in the corporate world has been challenging to say the least. I went back to assimilating—trying to do good work and keep my head down and not rock the boat. I have always struggled with feeling like I don’t belong. So, I jumped a lot of jobs. About 12 years ago, I joined Allstate and at that time there was a big push around inclusive diversity, so I really came into my own in terms of resolving my Asian American identity [in corporate America]. What I learned from IU that I took to my workplace, was to find small communities within a bigger system.
Are there any instances of racism that you’ve experienced that you’d like to share?
KY: When I was at IU, I remember having lunch at Red Lobster, and the guy sitting at the table next to us said, “Go back to where you came from.” And I was just like, “Huh?” You’re just kind of shocked when it happens because you’re like, “Did I do something wrong?” I remember being in class and [students] said, “Oh, there goes the curve.” I [also] remember in high school being called Connie Chung.
What does the Asian American community need? How can people be better allies?
KY: [We need the white community to] recruit more white allies. I can go to a meeting where there are all these Asians, and we can talk about this stuff, but we’re not the ones in power. We’re not the ones making decisions.
This article is part of our Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month series, Honoring the History of Our Asian American Alumni.