An American whose parents fled Vietnam in 1975 has told of the identity crisis that sent him on a journey to discover his ethnic roots on the other side of the world. He now lives in a remote corner of northwest Vietnam, helping minority groups to market their goods.
Daniel Nguyen Hoai Tien, who was born in California in 1988 to parents who wanted him to be American in every sense, says he has found his real purpose in life after moving between two cultures for years.
“I want to paint a picture in which people do not have much money but they have access to something more beautiful – nature. It’s like a mission for me,” he said of his work supporting farmers. “How do I tell people about the beauty I’ve seen and how do I tell the stories the way I’ve seen it?”
Tien’s parents rarely talked about Vietnam when he was growing up and his knowledge was limited to the ethnic food they served him once a week.
“It was too superficial … not enough to learn about a culture, a country,” he told the Vietnam News.
He began to ask more questions in secondary school when he realised people were treating him differently because of his appearance. On one occasion two police officers asked him and some friends to produce some ID while they were browsing in a bookshop. They were told to leave, with one officer saying: “This is not the place for studying.”
His mother wanted Tien to become “totally American” so he would not face the discrimination she had encountered when she first arrived. But it made little difference, as he was often bullied school because his hair and skin colour were different.
“It made the drive to learn about Vietnam stronger in me. If you don’t know who you are it’s very difficult to relate with the rest of America,” he said.
When he was in his first year at college Tien started to learn the Vietnamese language, and in 2008 he told his parents he wanted to visit their former country. It was an emotional experience for everyone.
“For the first time in my life I saw my dad shedding tears when we came to the old house he used to live in,” he said.
By the time he went back in 2012, Tien had graduated in sustainable development and was working on community-based projects with farmers in the US. He was invited by the Vietnamese Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development to Ho Chi Minh City to share his experiences and traveled between the two countries for several years. He decided to return and live in Vietnam permanently in 2015.
“It was like a wakeup call for me after being unsure about my origins for a long time,” Tien admitted.
He now works with ethnic minority groups in remote areas in the northwest province of Lao Cai, helping create a more sustainable livelihood by improving the packaging and marketing of their products for local and overseas markets. Villagers in Si Ma Cai and Sapa districts have been shown how to set up cooperatives and offer their corn, cardamom and rice at higher prices.
“I want to create some livelihood plans for them based on what they already have, building something sustainable here for them, because very often, farmers are at the bottom of the supply chain – they do not have much say over their own products,” he said.
Tien said he wants young Vietnamese people to be proud of who they are and where they live, no matter where it might be.
“We have so much to offer to the world, and it would be a shame to lose it before we can tell people about it,” he said.