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.
Your new book is titled, “The Gifts of Adversity.” To you, what are the gifts of adversity? What does this phrase mean to you?
The gifts of adversity are the things we learn about ourselves and the gifts we receive from having gone through various adversities. Going through life’s challenges can reveal our greatest strengths. We learn that we can persevere through hard times, that we’re resilient, courageous, and resourceful. We learn that we have the capacity to cope, survive, and thrive in the darkest of times. Living through adversities can also help us identify with others who have suffered and have compassion and empathy for them. It can awaken our humanity and inspire us to help others.
In your book, you talk about the bullying you experienced after arriving in the United States, including being called derogatory names, such as “boat person,” due to being a Vietnamese refugee from an impoverished background. How did you deal with these adverse childhood experiences at such a young age?
These incidents of bullying were extremely painful and ALMOST broke me. I became depressed, anxious, and contemplated suicide. What saved me was the love I had for my siblings and parents, knowing that I would cause them great heartache if I took my own life, and that my siblings needed my love and care. So I coped by focusing on my family and excelling in my schoolwork. The gift that came from this adversity was discovering my own resilience. I learned that I had an inner strength and resourcefulness that enabled me to cope, mobilize, survive, and thrive through this very difficult time of my life. Seeing how my parents coped with racists acts against them with such courage and dignity also helped me to persevere through mine.
You discuss in great detail your memories of your family’s escape by boat from Vietnam during the Vietnam War. How does this journey continue to affect you today?
I get triggered by various current events such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the fall of Kabul, deportations of migrants at the borders, the list could go on and on. My heart aches for all these people who have suffered so much. I try to channel my energies into advocating for immigrants and refugees in various ways. My feature in the documentary “My Vietnam War Story,” this book, and countless talks I’ve given throughout the U.S., at professional and education institutions have been my efforts to educate the public about the devastation, displacement, and suffering of war, as well as cultivate a deeper understanding and compassion for immigrants and refugees worldwide.
You also talk a lot about your relationship with Dad and weathering the “seasons of a marriage.” Given you and Dad both came from drastically different upbringings and experiences, how were you able to “weather these seasons” together without growing apart?
While your dad and I are racially, ethnically, and culturally different, we have deep love and respect for one another. We also share similar values in our appreciation for good food, closeness to our families, a commitment to growing together as a couple, as well as shared interests in cross-cultural psychology, traveling, and the arts. These commonalities and the strong commitment to one another have carried us through the seasons of our marriage and allowed us to deepen our relationship over the past 35 years.
A common theme throughout your book is the hard work and grit of grandpa and grandma, who both worked multiple jobs to support your family, and made many sacrifices for their family. You also discuss how they experienced extensive downward mobility when moving to America from Vietnam. In your childhood, what extra responsibilities did you have to take on to help support you, your sister and Dad?
I became the third parent to my four younger siblings. I took care of them, cooked and cleaned for them, and did their laundry. It was loving them in all these ways that made me know early on that I wanted to be a mother someday. I loved my siblings like they were my own children. To this day, we are still extremely close and are very supportive and protective of one another. They are some of my life’s greatest gifts aside from your sister and dad.
In Southeast Asian culture to this day, mental health is still heavily stigmatized. How do you help your patients, and those in the community to work through these stigmas in your work with them?
I tell my patients that mental health is just as important as physical health, that they are interconnected, so we need to take care of both in order to be healthy. If we have diabetes or heart disease, we need to treat it. It’s the same with mental health. Also, some clients resist going to therapy because they think it’s only for people who are “crazy.” I emphasize to them that therapy is one of the most responsible and loving things we can do for ourselves and others. When we get therapy, it improves our quality of life, and in turn helps everyone we come into contact with.
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.