Musician, activist, and Oxfam friend Thao Nguyen of Thao & The Get Down Stay Down explains how her mother’s experience as a refugee shaped new song and music video.
In 2015, our band went to Vietnam, and I brought my mom. I had never been and she hadn’t been back in over 40 years. She worked for the South Vietnamese (officially the Republic of Vietnam) government in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and fled the region a few days before the fall of Saigon. While we were in Vietnam, she addressed the war, something that is out of character for her.
“You have to learn for yourself what freedom is, why millions of people would risk their lives for it,” she said. She's never offered much about her experience of war, and I've never wanted to push. Her few words that evening reverberated enough to compel me to write “Temple.”
Both my parents and much of my family are refugees of war. I have at times subscribed to the exclusive narrative of refugee sacrifice, abject loss and grief; those are there too, but they are not the only things. Some of the lightest people I know are my family members who have survived war and imprisonment. They astound me and really help me get over myself.
I wrote this song in my mom’s voice, celebrating her life before, during, and after war, and—most importantly—blessing my pursuit of my own happiness and freedom in this life that is a gift.
My mom is joyful and she has always loved dancing. The performers in this music video were enlisted from community dance groups in the Vietnamese diaspora in Orange County, California. My favorite part of this video is when the dancers let loose. I see them let loose and I think of people’s capacity to experience everything at once, I think of my mom’s capacity for joy, I think of our whole extended family's capacity for joy and reinvention, and I cry every time.
Part of my mission in writing this song was to honor and celebrate my mom's entire journey, to afford her the luxury of a complex humanity and history. And to remind myself that anyone who is free and safe is free and safe by sheer collision of various fortunes. This song is a small effort in service of a larger hope: that in taking care to communicate a person's life, you help foster respect for people's lives. To celebrate, care, and advocate for someone is to not reduce them. To reduce someone is to get dangerously close to dehumanizing them. I would not exist without war, nor would I exist without those who would take in refugees of war. Thank you to all those who work to honor the dignity of people seeking freedom and safety.