#WearImFrom: Natalie Le, creative project manager and freelance makeup artist, as told to NBC Asian America contributor Ruby Veridiano
The item that I have is a jade pendant of the Happy Man. Many people mistake him for Buddha but the Happy Man signifies fortune, prosperity, and good luck. My father gave me this pendant when I was about 13 years old because this was around the time when I started to feel a significant disconnect to my Vietnamese side.
Growing up, my father traveled a lot for work so my mother raised my sister and I very Latina. My first language was Spanish, I knew everything about the Honduran culture, and every year, as soon as school let out, we spent the summers in Honduras. Add to that, my family and I moved around a lot because of my father's work and at every new school I was usually the only Asian looking kid.
When we moved to California in '98, that's when my life changed. I attended a large and diverse high school where I was confronted by hundreds of kids that looked like me but I couldn't relate to them and I felt ashamed that I didn't know anything about Vietnam. That's when I started to ask my father questions about our culture and his story as a Vietnamese refugee.
My pendant not only represents the moment I reconnected with my Vietnamese side but it also represents the strong connection I have with my father. Ever since I was little I was very close to my father, I used to follow him around the house like a little puppy and I couldn't wait to run mundane errands with him because it meant extra time with my papi. To this day, he's the first person I call when I have good news, when I need advice, and sometimes I'll just call him because the sound of his voice gives me comfort.
"I'm proud to be a Vietnamese woman and I'm proud to be a Le. Even after I got married, I chose to keep my last name because there is so much history, culture, and roots embedded in those two little letters."
My father was born in Hanoi, Vietnam, but after the Geneva conference when the country was divided into North and South, my father and his family fled to the South because Communists occupied the North. For many years, my father was surrounded by horrific acts of violence and tragedy, so that's when he decided to focus on education. Shortly after, he started working for the government and was granted a scholarship to attend a university in the U.S. to obtain his B.A. and master's. When he completed his education he returned to Vietnam and continued working for the government. However, the war had reached its peak and the government gave him another scholarship to study for his Ph.D., so in 1974 he boarded the last plane leaving Saigon and as he looked down at the airport he saw that it was engulfed in flames. In 1975, when the was was over, he was granted Vietnamese refugee status but never returned to his country. Afterwards, he dedicated his life to his career and was able to travel the world including Honduras, which is where he met my mother.
My pendant serves as a constant reminder to work hard, be humble and take advantage of every opportunity. I'm constantly reminded by my mami and papi's sacrifices and I want to make sure that every decision I make honors them and makes them proud. I would love to pass this down to my future child and tell them about their grandfather's story because I hope that when they wear the pendant, they feel the same connection that I have with my papi and culture.
I'm proud to be a Vietnamese woman and I'm proud to be a Le. Even after I got married, I chose to keep my last name because there is so much history, culture, and roots embedded in those two little letters.