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I was 10 years old when my parents decided I should visit Vietnam for the first time. Looking back, it was probably a difficult decision. After all, both mom and dad fled Vietnam as teenage refugees in 1975, their families fearful of what the country might become as it fell to communism. They’d later meet as students at the University of Austin, relocate to Houston, and raise me and my younger brother as flag-saluting, freedom-lovin’ Americans.

The timing of my first trip—what I like to call the “refugee Birthright”—wasn’t random. Earlier that year, my mother, along with other Vietnamese American community leaders in our hometown of Houston, founded a nonprofit organization to build schools and advance education in rural Vietnam. We were traveling with volunteers to see through the completion of one of our first schools, set on a remote island in the province of Dong Thap. With only Vietnam War movies and other Western-centric portrayals to inform my expectations, I was memorably reluctant.

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