As a refugee, I belong to the fourth world, the people who have no country. I was born in Vietnam in 1950, at the beginning of the Vietnam War. I became a refugee for the first time at age four, moving from North Vietnam to South Vietnam when the country was divided. I went to school, I had a home, I had a job and a family, but when the war came I became nothing.
In 1975 I fled clutching my baby and wearing one shoe. We jumped into anything that could float. Nobody wanted us. Our boats would come to Singapore, to Malaysia, and be greeted by guns. Many were killed, many drowned, and some made it. I made it.
I didn’t know what peace was, growing up. Our nightmares became real, for me and 50 million Vietnamese people. There were B-52s bombing us. There were two million Vietnamese killed, and one million Cambodians. I lost my husband in the chaos, but I came to Alaska finally and I saw peace. I was up in the clean mountains with the summer flowers. It healed me, nurtured me, made me smile again. My heart changed in Alaska.
Now every woman I meet is my family. Every place I put my foot is home, and the moon is my lantern. I appreciate the true value of life, and there is always hope.
I had been trained as a journalist like my father, but I broke my pen and picked up a brush to show the beauty around me. The art came from my love for Alaska, and even my littlest sketches sold themselves. It was a pure gift from God. Van Gogh would look at me and say, “Lucky duck!”
I belong to nobody but the fourth world. I love this class of society. We start over at the bottom and we can only come up. It is the foundation of who I am and I treasure it. I am not bitter; I am thankful. I have been blessed by both worlds. I know the best of East and West. I know war and peace. So now I make art for peace.
The American dream has nurtured me. I have nothing to sell except the peace message, and I am determined to sell it. When people tell me they don’t want to talk about it, I insist. Why don’t you want to talk about it? Your children and grandchildren will pay.
The world is turning around, but you have to push. Peace calls everyone. Everyone has a job. Don’t give me any excuse. Doctor, teacher, singer? Tell me what you do, and I will tell you what you can do for peace.
In 1975 the Vietnam War threw me halfway around the world to Alaska so I could meet my cousins, the Aleuts and the Inuits and the Russians. Eskimo culture was my first Western culture, and it proved to me the strength of humans to survive. These were frontier women – rock the baby, skin the bear, rock the baby – doing what they had to, to survive, just like Vietnamese women.
In Alaska I could throw away the negative parts of my Eastern heritage, keep the endurance and the strength and the beauty, and take on the best parts of the West, where women and men are equal. I was spared by the war, and now I was going to live.
God gave me all the beauty of that northern landscape, and at the end of 10 years in Alaska I had trained myself as an artist. Then I taught art to others at the community colleges in Anchorage and Juneau.
In 1986, when Alaska got into a crisis with oil, I toured the country trying to sell everyone a ticket to see Alaska’s beauty. I had shows in Carmel, Dallas, Seattle, Palo Alto – more than 85 solo shows. Then in 1995, the US opened an embassy in Vietnam. I thought: Vietnam is open now, but I still don’t want to look at the past. The nightmares started to come back and I knew I was strong enough to own them. I looked around and there were wars everywhere. There are a quarter of a million refugees in Darfur, and who will open the door for them?
The hole that had taken so long to close was opening again. I started protesting the wars and making art against the wars. People harassed me for protesting the first Gulf War in Iraq. I told them it was like seeing The Phantom of the Opera the second time. I grew up with this story. I know the characters, I know the turning points, I know how it comes out. This time I look and I understand and I have no fear.
When I was a child I was always scared, but I didn’t understand what was going on. This time the message was clear: No more war, anywhere, ever! My father, my brother, so many men I love have fallen in the hole their own government digs for them. I have climbed out of this hole. Now I must speak out in love and anger.
So I made my peace paintings and my war paintings. I paint the history of war to bring the public back to the facts, the truth of war history. You look, and then it’s your choice what to do. I want children in particular to be able to walk through the paintings of war and peace and choose what they want. It’s fun to sell peace!