Dr. Carolee GiaoUyen Tran is a refugee and the first Vietnamese woman to earn a PhD in clinical psychology in America. She received her doctorate from Boston University and completed her internship at Harvard Medical School. She teaches at the UC Davis Medical School Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and has a private practice in Sacramento, California.
Much of your work as a psychologist is helping patients to cope with their own traumas. How have your own personal experiences with trauma helped you become a better psychologist?
My experiences with trauma have profoundly impacted my positive outlook on life and my desire to become a psychologist and help others heal from their own traumas. I believe that people are generally capable, resilient, and have a desire to move towards growth, even in the face of challenging life circumstances. These assumptions make me optimistic about people’s capacity to heal from traumas, if they’re able to access help and get support. These beliefs enable me to remain hopeful, steady, and tenacious in my work with clients.
Given there are so few Southeast Asian women in the field of clinical psychology, have you experienced discrimination within your field? Has it been more difficult to break into the field, given your own background?
It’s more difficult to get into a clinical psychology program than medical or law school. And the odds are even lower as a Southeast Asian woman. I was the first Vietnamese woman to receive a PhD in clinical psychology in America. I have experienced multiple microaggressions throughout my career as a trainee, psychologist, and faculty member. I see myself as a psychologist and activist because racism is still rampant in our society and we need to continue to do the hard work of fighting for equity, diversity, and inclusion. I’m also a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) consultant to multiple organizations and find this work to be incredibly satisfying.
Many Vietnamese refugees still have a hard time vocalizing the trauma they endured during the Vietnam War, as many of them have suppressed this painful time in their lives. How have you been able to help your patients, who are Vietnamese refugees, begin to process their trauma and open up about their experiences?
Each person who experiences trauma determines their own timeline of when they want to do the work of healing. The process can’t be rushed or forced before the person is ready. So the approach I take is to be present for and supportive of my clients wherever they are on the journey. I encourage my clients to trust in their own inner wisdom and let that guide them on when they’re ready to embark on the process. With this kind of support, people will usually move towards wanting to do the healing work and I’m there as a companion to provide them with tools and support to help them process through their trauma(s). This work is always sacred and powerful for me and the client. It’s incredibly humbling and gratifying to accompany clients on their journey of healing and transformation, turning their experiences of trauma into gifts of adversity. This experience allows them to see their resilience, courage, and strength and gives them the opportunity to live an empowered and meaningful life.
What personal role models have emerged in your life who have inspired you in a deep way?
My parents are my most incredible models of resilience and courage. They have taught me how to survive and thrive under the most challenging circumstances. I’m also inspired by various Buddhist teachers, such as the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Tara Brach, Jack Kornfield and Pema Chodren, as well as activists, such as Martin Luther King Jr., Coretta Scott King, Dr. Satsuki Ina, Rosa Parks, Mother Teresa and John Lewis, whose teachings, sacrifices, and activism have deeply influenced my spirituality, life’s work, and aspiration to fight for DEI until I take my last breath.
You discuss with fondness your life changing experiences as a member of the Vietnamese Student Association at UC Berkeley, and how for the first time since immigrating to the United States you were able to finally be surrounded by other Vietnamese students your age. What impact did having this community have on you in your formative college years?
Being at UC Berkeley and having friends who were also Vietnamese and went through the refugee experience helped me to feel a deep sense of belonging. We understood each other’s struggles and recognized the importance and responsibility of excelling in school to provide better lives for ourselves and our families. We felt responsible for honoring our parents and making them proud, given the sacrifices they’d made in escaping Vietnam and taking hard labor jobs to feed and clothe us. Our experiences as refugees fueled our passion and motivation to excel in work and prioritize our relationships with friends and family.
You are both a practicing Catholic and Buddhist, and also practice ancestor worship and mindfulness. How has this meld of religions helped you to cultivate your own spirituality in your day to day life?
I’m a deeply spiritual person who is open to learning about other faiths and embraces the mysteries and complexities of life. My daily practice of prayer and meditation twice-a-day keeps me grounded and helps me cope with the vicissitudes of daily life. Ancestor worship connects me to the generations who came before me and reminds me that I come from a long line of strong, resilient, and courageous people.
What advice would you give to this generation of Vietnamese Americans looking to give back to their communities and keep their culture alive?
First, keep Vietnamese culture alive by engaging in it as much as you can. This can entail visiting with your Vietnamese relatives, attending family weddings, holiday celebrations, funerals, and death anniversaries. We can learn a great deal about our culture by observing and participating in these and other important rituals. Engage in conversations with your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and other Vietnamese Americans about their memories of Vietnam, their escape to America, the process of acculturation, and their experience of being Vietnamese in America. It’s equally important to take time for yourself to reflect on and journal about your own experiences as a Viet person- what does it mean for you to be Vietnamese? How do you navigate your multiple identities within the intersectionality of race, gender, class, and sexual orientation/identity. You can also keep Vietnamese culture alive by watching documentaries, movies, and reading as much as you can about Vietnam as a country, the Vietnamese people in Vietnam and those in the U.S. Make an effort to learn about our people’s challenges, resilience, and successes in Vietnam historically and in America. Also read the works of Vietnamese American authors who write fiction, non-fiction, poetry and their research. And lastly, take the opportunity to travel to Vietnam, preferably with a family member who is from there, or someone who has a connection to it. When making a trip to Vietnam, it would be ideal to devote a considerable amount of time there in order to cultivate an immersive experience.
It’s so important to give back to our communities by contributing in whatever way that resonates with us within our capacity. Research on altruistic acts have shown that the giver also benefits emotionally and psychologically from the act of giving. For some, it may mean sending money back to Vietnam and/or contributing to various organizations that help Vietnamese children, youths, and adults in Vietnam and in America. For others, it may entail volunteering with different organizations that promote causes for Viet people. Giving back to our community can also manifest in our creative, academic, and professional endeavors through our writings, teaching, research, talks, and occupational contributions in whatever field of work we specialize in. I give back to our community by writing about my experience as a Vietnamese refugee in my book “The Gifts of Adversity,” conducting the first domestic violence study of Vietnamese women in America, giving talks about the refugee experience nationwide, teaching others about the plight, resilience, needs, and successes of the Vietnamese people in America, and providing therapy to Vietnamese refugees and their children. The most important thing for each of us to reflect upon is what is meaningful to us, and how we want to give back to the Vietnamese community.
About Interviewee: Dr. Tran is the author of “The Gifts of Adversity: Reflections of a Psychologist, Refugee, and Survivor of Sexual Abuse.” She also has a segment in the documentary series My Vietnam War Story, produced by PBS station KVIE, and aired in conjunction with Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War documentary. Her segment of the documentary was nominated for a Northern California Emmy in 2018. She was also featured in a 2022 documentary by Retro Report entitled How the U.S. Has Treated Wartime Refugees. You can learn more about her work at caroleetran.com.
About Interviewer: Carina Kimlan Hinton is a mixed race, Vietnamese American poet and writer who explores issues of identity, cultural belonging and intergenerational trauma in her writing. Her mother’s family are Vietnamese refugees, and she grew up hearing stories of their escape during the Vietnam War. She seeks to understand this journey and legacy in my writing. In 2020, she graduated from UC Berkeley with a major in History, and concentration in Post Vietnam War Vietnamese Amerasian History. As part of her program, she completed a senior thesis exploring the experiences of Vietnamese Amerasian children born in Vietnam during the war. She is a regular contributor to publications such as Project Yellow Dress, Vietnamese Boat People and Diacritics/Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network. She was a finalist for the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) Digital Storytelling Contest.