Phuc Tran Photo by Susan Tran

Phuc Tran was surprised when a friend nominated him to give a talk at Bates College.

TEDxDirigo was organizing an event at the college featuring various subjects and speakers from all over Maine and Tran, of Portland, was picked to be one of the speakers. Even though he was the son of Vietnamese refugees, had used classic literature and punk rock to fit in as a teenager and became a Latin teacher and tattoo artist as an adult, he wasn’t sure he had anything that interesting to say.

Apparently, he did. His talk in 2012 was recorded and broadcast by National Public Radio, eventually attracting the attention of literary agents. The experience convinced him to write a memoir, “Sigh, Gone” (Flatiron Books), about his childhood in Carlilse, Pennsylvania and his struggle to fit in. The book will officially be released Tuesday.

“Before I did my talk, my experience as part of a refugee family wasn’t something I’d really talked about,” said Tran, 46, co-owner of Tsunami Tattoo in Portland. “I think what I tried to do was unpack the idea of once refugees get here, it’s happily ever after. It’s a challenge, it’s a journey.”

Several longtime friends, who are also Maine writers, say Tran has a knack for writing about those challenges, including some very serious ones, in a relatable and often funny way.

“He doesn’t take himself too seriously, which makes his writing really accessible,” said Lewis Robinson, a Maine author who met Tran when they both taught at Waynflete School in Portland. “His sense of humor helps bring a light touch to some serious issues.”

Portland author Phuc Tran’s memoir “Sigh, Gone” will be launched Tuesday. Photo courtesy of Flatiron Books

Tran writes, for instance, of becoming a late ’80s punk rocker, with spiky hair, safety pins and a half-shaved head, to avoid being bullied. Or at least to avoid some of the emotional scars of bullying.

He writes that joining his school’s punk subculture gave him friends and allies, and he felt being picked on for his fashion choices was easier to handle than being harassed because of his ethnicity.

“Being a freak because of my weird clothes and hair was a respite. These were things that I had chosen — these were things that all my punk friends had chosen,” wrote Tran. “Fighting rednecks because you were a punk was far better than fighting because you were Asian, and fighting with allies was far better than fighting alone.”

A REFUGEE FAMILY

Though Tran writes mostly about what he remembers, what he went through growing up, the story begins before his memory does. He writes about how he was not yet 2 years old, in 1975, when his parents and grandparents were forced to flee Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam. The long Vietnam war was at an end, as Viet Cong forces were about to take over the southern part of the country and create one Vietnamese nation under a Communist government. Tran’s grandparents had worked for the U.S. embassy and his father was a lawyer, so if they stayed in Saigon, they risked their lives.

Tran writes that, as his family was boarding a bus to take them to an airfield, he began crying and screaming loudly. His extended family – 10 people total – got off the bus and decided to wait for the next one. The bus took off without them and was instantly hit by mortar fire, killing everyone on board. They got on another bus, which was eventually stopped by South Vietnamese military, who took Tran’s father and uncles and forced them to join the army for one last stand against the Viet Cong.

Later Tran’s father was re-united with the rest of the family weeks later at a refugee camp on Wake Island, and eventually they traveled to Carlisle, where families had agreed to sponsor them, help them find an apartment and jobs.

Phuc Tran, front, with his family at the Lincoln Memorial. Photo courtesy of Phuc Tran

Some of Tran’s early memories, in the book, are about his own struggle to understand his identity in a mostly white, working-class Pennsylvania town, as his parents struggled to learn English and fit in. When he was about 4 or 5, he asked his father what his name was, in English, so he could answer kids on the playground who inquired.

His name in Vietnamese is pronounced Fuhp, but his father thought that would be confusing to Americans, since it wasn’t spelled that way. His father could have told him to use a name familiar to Americans, like his parents did when they named his younger brother Louis. Or Tran could just adjust his name a little so it made more sense to English speakers. His father went with the third option and advised Tran to tell people it was pronounced Fook. This came in handy when Tran made one of his first friends, partly because they shared a love of “Star Wars.” The friend noted that Phuc rhymed with Luke, as in Skywalker.

“You know the poem about a path that diverges in a wood and you take the one less traveled? That’s the one we took,” Tran writes. “Less traveled but easier to pronounce, as if easier-to-pronounce would make my path any smoother.”

GROWING UP AND FITTING IN

Though Tran’s memoir is about his specific experience coming from a refugee family, most of it takes place in the context of him coming of age, becoming his own person as a teenager and young adult. Desi Van Til, a Portland-based filmmaker who was in a book club with Tran, thinks anyone who has dealt with finding themselves and fitting in will relate to the book.

“That Phuc’s memoir about his specific experience as a Vietnamese refugee in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, had so much resonance to me as a white girl raised in rural Maine speaks to the universality of his coming-of-age assimilation story,” said Van Til. She said his story will connect with “anyone who has ever been a kid and tried to grow up, make sense of their small piece of the world, and find their way to fit in.”

Phuc Tran’s high school yearbook picture from 1991. Photo courtesy of Phuc Tran

Tran wrote that after years of feeling like an outcast and being called racial slurs, he “did the math for my survival: be less Asian, be bullied less.” So he picked punk rock, as American as it gets, and decided to read the classics of English literature and become a star student.

“In the trenches of high school warfare, honor roll and National Honor Society shielded me: even if I felt like a social pariah in my classes, at least I would have a better vocabulary than these philistines,” Tran wrote.  “I realized that there was some prestige in being smart, or at least appearing smart. Sounding smart was not the same social Teflon as
being good-looking or athletic or funny, but hell, if someone could give me some props for being good at school, I would take nerd props over no props at all.”

He also discovered a passion for art. After graduating from high school he went to Bard College, in Red Hook, New York, about a two-hour drive north of New York City. He intended to major in English and art but ended up focusing on classical literature and languages. Later, he went to the University of Massachusetts and got a master’s degree in Latin.

Then he moved to New York and worked as a teacher but also apprenticed as a tattoo artist. Today his body is about 85 percent covered and he says his hobby is “collecting” tattoos from other artists whose work he enjoys.

He and his wife, Susan, whom he met in college, decided around 2003 to move to Maine, where she grew up. Tran said they were thinking of opening a tattoo shop and thought Portland would be a good spot. He also got a job teaching Latin at Waynflete, and today he and his wife have two daughters, ages 6 and 9. He recently decided to stop teaching for a while, to focus on his business and his book.

Though immigration has been a hot and polarizing topic in the past few years, Tran said he didn’t write the book to make a political point. He’s not trying to change anyone’s mind. He says he simply wanted to tell his story in hopes that it expands the overall immigrant story, which so many of us are a part of.

“I felt that I couldn’t have a wider agenda if I wanted it to feel authentic, all I could do is tell my story,” said Tran.


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