Discovering My Roots in Vietnam: John Lam

A Boston Ballet dancer gained a new perspective on his family after a visit to their home in Vietnam.

Photo by Eric Antoniou

John Lam
Boston Ballet principal dancer
Number of Bostonians with Vietnamese Heritage: 12,283

My parents fled on a boat from South Vietnam in the 1980s, before I was born. My older sister was eight at the time, and my mother was pregnant with my brother. Before they could make it to the States, they were caught in Thai waters by pirates and held there. My dad somehow escaped and made it to New York City, where he was eventually able to send for my mom, sister, and brother, who at that point had been born. When I talk to my mom about it, she gets really emotional because it was such a horrific time. But it’s part of my heritage and who I am, so I want to hear it and understand.

I’ve always wanted to see my parents’ homeland, too—and when I was 16 I got the chance, traveling back with them to Vietnam to visit my grandfather on my dad’s side, who was very sick. Even though it was a sad occasion, it was also amazing. My parents have a house in a South Vietnam village about four hours from Ho Chi Minh City, which they still call Saigon. It isn’t like an American house at all. It’s a rectangular building five stories high and every single surface is tiled, even the stairs, because it’s so hot and humid in Vietnam. To the locals, it’s normal, but I found it so beautiful, clean, and cool.

A sunny shoreline in Vietnam. / Photo via MeogiaPhoto/Getty Images

I never realized until I visited that there is a hierarchy in Vietnamese food. My mom always cooked village food, because that’s what my parents were brought up on. They were poor and couldn’t afford meat, but fish was free if you could catch it, so we mostly ate fish, veggies, and rice. Pho is really common in America, but in Vietnam, if you’re making pho it means you have money to buy the beef for broth. On our trip, my parents took me to a couple of restaurants and told me I could order anything I wanted off the menu. “You can even order meat,” my mom said. I realized then how important it was to them, and how proud they were of the life they had created.

I knew my parents better after going to Vietnam. They have these specific mannerisms and certain ways they think that didn’t used to make sense to me. I was especially able to understand my dad better. I’m very close with my mom, but my dad doesn’t talk much. I got to spend more time with him in Vietnam and realized that he’s very humble, down-to-earth, hardworking, and not confrontational—like a lot of Vietnamese people.

The trip also helped shape my understanding of who I am, and I hope I get to go back. I told my husband that when our kids get older, I want to take the whole family. They simply have to experience it. —As told to Abby Bielagus

Source, Boston population numbers: census bureau 2013–2017 american community survey (five-year estimates)

Read more: The Ultimate Guide to Planning Your Heritage Travel Journey