The blessing of family Following the Ho family’s immigration journey from Hong Kong and Vietnam to the U.S.

By Shivani Madhan

Le Ho spent most of her early years growing up in Vietnam’s Tuy Hao province, living a simple yet joyous life despite the country’s political conflicts. However, at the peak of the Vietnam War in 1979, Le’s parents decided that the country was no longer a safe place to raise their children.

During the family’s first attempt to escape the Vietnamese Communist Party, Le’s father, brother and sister were captured by a government official. Since escaping was a sign of betrayal to the Vietnamese government, they were charged for espionage. Le’s sister and brother were underage, so they could not be arrested 一 therefore, her dad was prosecuted for all their crimes and eventually, her mother was able to bail him out.

“When my dad was captured, he was sent to a concentration camp two hours away from us,” Le said. “We didn’t know whether we were going to be reunited so for me, that was sad. I [felt] like my family [had] been broken up.”

A few months later, when Le was 14, the family prepared for their second attempt to escape the country. Le, her mother and younger sister got ready to leave the nation and boarded a small fishing boat along with 300 other people. They would go on to join a historical group called the Boat People. The Vietnamese Boat People fled the country on naval vessels following the Resistance War Against America due to the humanitarian crises occurring from the late 70’s to the early 90’s.

The journey came with many difficulties. Due to minimal space on the boat, Le had to stay in the lower decks where she experienced severe motion sickness. When her relative noticed Le’s weak condition, she was brought to the top of the boat for fresh air.

Yet another problem soon arose: a water shortage. The boat stopped at a nearby island called Hainan, where a Chinese government official was merciful enough to give them water. During their journey to mainland China, the boat began to drift off, and Le and her family were lost at sea. After 10 days and 10 nights, the passengers finally saw the light of a Hong Kong harbor and were ushered in to safety. A few hours later, their boat sank. If Le and the passengers hadn’t reached land that day, they would have died, similar to many other refugees part of the Boat People era.

Le was admitted into a Hong Kong refugee camp and stayed there for nine months before her father, who had managed to immigrate to the U.S. with her brother and sister, sent for the rest of her family. They arrived in Dallas, Texas and were reunited.

“My first [impression] of the U.S. was everything is huge, especially land[ing] into Texas,” Le said. “When I came [here], I didn’t speak a word of English, so that made [it] even more [unfamiliar].”

Despite leaving Vietnam due to its political climate, life was still difficult for Le’s family in America. After leaving Vietnam and Hong Kong, they essentially had no belongings. If they were to stay in Dallas, Le and her siblings would have to get jobs and wouldn’t be able to receive a proper education. However, her dad’s sister, who lived in California, informed them about the state’s welfare system, causing Le and her family to move to San Jose in April and May of 1980.

Throughout her teen years, Le attended Independence High School and Mount Pleasant High School while juggling various part time jobs such as cleaning lockers, digging onions on a farm and working at a flea market. She went on to attend San Jose State University as a computer science major, becoming the first person in her family to graduate from college. In 1998, Le met her future husband, Eric Ho, at church.

While Le immigrated as a refugee, Eric came to the country for education. Prior to living in the U.S, he had lived in the U.K. with his cousins for several years after leaving Hong Kong when he was 15 for boarding school. Eric completed his first degree in Reading, England before being accepted to the University of Southern California for graduate school.

In 1995, Eric touched down in Los Angeles with a student Visa. When he landed, he didn’t have a place to stay, so he had to search for housing nearby, and as a last resort, he signed a lease on an affordable apartment that was infested with cockroaches.

After graduating, Eric had the opportunity to work in a laboratory filled with specialists in different fields, such as philosophy and psychology.

It was here where Eric’s green card was approved after facing several issues regarding his legal status. At one point, Eric discovered that Princeton didn’t want to sponsor him for his green card, which made him quite mad. After learning this, he started a job at an investment bank in the city who would support his application process and worked there for several years.

“[Once] my green card was approved, I felt more free,” Eric said. “I could spend [my] money [however I wanted], and I [had] more freedom to search for other employment. I was no longer tied down to the bank.”

Having more employment options, Eric decided to work at a startup in the Bay Area. It was when Eric was living in Sunnyvale that he met Le at church.

At the time, Eric saw Le, one of the church’s ministry leaders, was delivering her testimony on baptism and her experience as a Christian. After regularly attending this church, he and Le began talking and started to date, eventually getting married in 2000.

The newly weds were eager to have children soon but after several years of trying, they faced infertility issues. As a result, Le and Eric looked for other options, since they still wanted to raise a child.

“We didn’t really care about the race of the kid,” Le said. “We were thinking about a kid from Russia, but the agency [we went through] said many orphans [there] come from broken families and it’s hard to bond with them. We [also tried] India, but the country has a restriction that you cannot adopt an Indian kid unless you’re Indian. So finally, we [settled] for China, especially since [Eric] got priority as a country national.”

The Ho’s went through the process over several months, which was relatively fast since non-Chinese parents usually had to wait three to five years to adopt a child from the country. In September of 2004, they received the news that they could pick up their daughter, now senior Hannah Ho. Hannah was born in the Jiangxi province in China and was adopted by Le and Eric when she was 10 months old from an orphanage in Gao You.

“In Asian culture, they don’t want to let the kid know they’re adopted,” Le said. “But we never shied away from telling Hannah [that she was adopted]. We didn’t want to hide that from her.”

Growing up, Hannah says she struggled to accept her Asian identity and often tried to assimilate to Western culture. She quit Chinese school since she believed speaking Mandarin made her less American.

“I was still defining myself as an American 一 I didn’t really see myself as a Chinese person,” Hannah said. “But now that I've taken the time to really acknowledge who I am and all the facets of my identity, I feel like there's less of a gap because I've started to pay more attention.”

Hannah vividly remembers the trip she took to China and Hong Kong, visiting places such as her dad’s secondary school and listening to her family members’ tales.

“I [thought] about how much different my life would have been if I’d never been adopted,” Hannah said. “I was grappling with what could have been and what actually is, and that was an interesting thing for a 10-year-old to be experiencing.”

Even though Hannah and her parents live in America, they still meet up with relatives who live nearby to celebrate traditional festivals such as Chinese New Year and Mooncake Festival. They also celebrate typical American or Christian festivals such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, since the family is religious.

“We do have American [traditions], like turkey and ham cutting,” Hannah said. “But we also have Asian food at the table as well, like homemade egg rolls and noodles. It’s a combination of what tradition has been for us and our comfort food, [and] it's always been interesting.”

Since the members of the Ho family all have differing upbringings and cultural experiences, Le recognizes the many obstacles which the family had endure.

“We’ve been through a lot, [but] we feel very blessed to [have each other],” Le said. “I think all [of this] is through the grace of God, because we [had] no control over it.”


Photos courtesy of Hannah Ho // Used with permission