sponsored links
TEDxWomen 2011

Tan Le: My immigration story

December 1, 2011

In 2010, technologist Tan Le took the TEDGlobal stage to demo a powerful new interface. But now, at TEDxWomen, she tells a very personal story: the story of her family -- mother, grandmother and sister -- fleeing Vietnam and building a new life. (Filmed at TEDxWomen.)

Tan Le - Entrepreneur
Tan Le is the founder & CEO of Emotiv, a bioinformatics company that's working on identifying biomarkers for mental and other neurological conditions using electroencephalography (EEG). Full bio

sponsored links
Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
How can I speak in 10 minutes
00:15
about the bonds of women over three generations,
00:18
about how the astonishing strength of those bonds
00:21
took hold in the life
00:24
of a four-year-old girl
00:26
huddled with her young sister,
00:28
her mother and her grandmother
00:30
for five days and nights
00:32
in a small boat in the China Sea
00:34
more than 30 years ago,
00:36
bonds that took hold in the life of that small girl
00:39
and never let go --
00:41
that small girl now living in San Francisco
00:44
and speaking to you today?
00:46
This is not a finished story.
00:49
It is a jigsaw puzzle still being put together.
00:52
Let me tell you about some of the pieces.
00:55
Imagine the first piece:
00:59
a man burning his life's work.
01:01
He is a poet, a playwright,
01:04
a man whose whole life
01:07
had been balanced on the single hope
01:09
of his country's unity and freedom.
01:11
Imagine him as the communists enter Saigon,
01:14
confronting the fact
01:17
that his life had been a complete waste.
01:19
Words, for so long his friends, now mocked him.
01:21
He retreated into silence.
01:24
He died broken by history.
01:27
He is my grandfather.
01:31
I never knew him in real life.
01:33
But our lives are much more than our memories.
01:37
My grandmother never let me forget his life.
01:41
My duty was not to allow it to have been in vain,
01:44
and my lesson was to learn
01:47
that, yes, history tried to crush us,
01:49
but we endured.
01:52
The next piece of the jigsaw
01:54
is of a boat in the early dawn
01:56
slipping silently out to sea.
01:58
My mother, Mai, was 18
02:01
when her father died --
02:03
already in an arranged marriage,
02:05
already with two small girls.
02:07
For her, life had distilled itself into one task:
02:10
the escape of her family
02:13
and a new life in Australia.
02:15
It was inconceivable to her
02:18
that she would not succeed.
02:20
So after a four-year saga that defies fiction,
02:22
a boat slipped out to sea
02:25
disguised as a fishing vessel.
02:27
All the adults knew the risks.
02:30
The greatest fear was of pirates,
02:33
rape and death.
02:35
Like most adults on the boat,
02:37
my mother carried a small bottle of poison.
02:39
If we were captured, first my sister and I,
02:43
then she and my grandmother would drink.
02:46
My first memories are from the boat --
02:50
the steady beat of the engine,
02:52
the bow dipping into each wave,
02:54
the vast and empty horizon.
02:57
I don't remember the pirates who came many times,
03:00
but were bluffed by the bravado
03:03
of the men on our boat,
03:05
or the engine dying
03:07
and failing to start for six hours.
03:09
But I do remember the lights on the oil rig
03:12
off the Malaysian coast
03:14
and the young man who collapsed and died,
03:16
the journey's end too much for him,
03:19
and the first apple I tasted,
03:22
given to me by the men on the rig.
03:24
No apple has ever tasted the same.
03:27
After three months in a refugee camp,
03:32
we landed in Melbourne.
03:34
And the next piece of the jigsaw
03:36
is about four women across three generations
03:38
shaping a new life together.
03:41
We settled in Footscray,
03:44
a working-class suburb
03:46
whose demographic is layers of immigrants.
03:48
Unlike the settled middle-class suburbs,
03:51
whose existence I was oblivious of,
03:53
there was no sense of entitlement in Footscray.
03:55
The smells from shop doors were from the rest of the world.
03:58
And the snippets of halting English
04:01
were exchanged between people
04:03
who had one thing in common,
04:05
they were starting again.
04:07
My mother worked on farms,
04:10
then on a car assembly line,
04:12
working six days, double shifts.
04:14
Somehow she found time to study English
04:16
and gain IT qualifications.
04:19
We were poor.
04:21
All the dollars were allocated
04:23
and extra tuition in English and mathematics
04:25
was budgeted for
04:27
regardless of what missed out,
04:29
which was usually new clothes;
04:32
they were always secondhand.
04:34
Two pairs of stockings for school,
04:36
each to hide the holes in the other.
04:39
A school uniform down to the ankles,
04:41
because it had to last for six years.
04:43
And there were rare but searing chants
04:47
of "slit-eye"
04:49
and the occasional graffiti:
04:51
"Asian, go home."
04:53
Go home to where?
04:55
Something stiffened inside me.
04:57
There was a gathering of resolve
05:00
and a quiet voice saying, "I will bypass you."
05:02
My mother, my sister and I
05:06
slept in the same bed.
05:08
My mother was exhausted each night,
05:11
but we told one another about our day
05:13
and listened to the movements
05:15
of my grandmother around the house.
05:17
My mother suffered from nightmares
05:19
all about the boat.
05:21
And my job was to stay awake until her nightmares came
05:24
so I could wake her.
05:27
She opened a computer store
05:30
then studied to be a beautician
05:32
and opened another business.
05:34
And the women came with their stories
05:36
about men who could not make the transition,
05:38
angry and inflexible,
05:40
and troubled children caught between two worlds.
05:42
Grants and sponsors were sought.
05:45
Centers were established.
05:48
I lived in parallel worlds.
05:50
In one, I was the classic Asian student,
05:52
relentless in the demands that I made on myself.
05:56
In the other, I was enmeshed in lives that were precarious,
05:59
tragically scarred by violence,
06:02
drug abuse and isolation.
06:04
But so many over the years were helped.
06:07
And for that work, when I was a final year law student,
06:09
I was chosen as the young Australian of the year.
06:12
And I was catapulted
06:15
from one piece of the jigsaw to another,
06:17
and their edges didn't fit.
06:19
Tan Le, anonymous Footscray resident,
06:21
was now Tan Le, refugee and social activist,
06:23
invited to speak in venues she had never heard of
06:27
and into homes whose existence
06:30
she could never have imagined.
06:32
I didn't know the protocols.
06:34
I didn't know how to use the cutlery.
06:36
I didn't know how to talk about wine.
06:39
I didn't know how to talk about anything.
06:42
I wanted to retreat to the routines and comfort
06:46
of life in an unsung suburb --
06:49
a grandmother, a mother and two daughters
06:52
ending each day as they had for almost 20 years,
06:55
telling one another the story of their day
06:58
and falling asleep,
07:00
the three of us still in the same bed.
07:02
I told my mother I couldn't do it.
07:06
She reminded me that I was now the same age she had been
07:10
when we boarded the boat.
07:13
No had never been an option.
07:16
"Just do it," she said,
07:19
"and don't be what you're not."
07:21
So I spoke out on youth unemployment and education
07:24
and the neglect of the marginalized and the disenfranchised.
07:27
And the more candidly I spoke,
07:30
the more I was asked to speak.
07:32
I met people from all walks of life,
07:35
so many of them doing the thing they loved,
07:38
living on the frontiers of possibility.
07:40
And even though I finished my degree,
07:43
I realized I could not settle into a career in law.
07:46
There had to be another piece of the jigsaw.
07:49
And I realized at the same time
07:52
that it is okay to be an outsider,
07:55
a recent arrival,
07:57
new on the scene --
07:59
and not just okay,
08:01
but something to be thankful for,
08:03
perhaps a gift from the boat.
08:05
Because being an insider
08:08
can so easily mean collapsing the horizons,
08:10
can so easily mean
08:12
accepting the presumptions of your province.
08:14
I have stepped outside my comfort zone enough now
08:17
to know that, yes, the world does fall apart,
08:20
but not in the way that you fear.
08:22
Possibilities that would not have been allowed
08:25
were outrageously encouraged.
08:27
There was an energy there,
08:29
an implacable optimism,
08:31
a strange mixture of humility and daring.
08:33
So I followed my hunches.
08:36
I gathered around me a small team of people
08:38
for whom the label "It can't be done"
08:41
was an irresistible challenge.
08:43
For a year we were penniless.
08:46
At the end of each day, I made a huge pot of soup
08:48
which we all shared.
08:50
We worked well into each night.
08:52
Most of our ideas were crazy,
08:55
but a few were brilliant,
08:57
and we broke through.
08:59
I made the decision to move to the U.S.
09:02
after only one trip.
09:04
My hunches again.
09:06
Three months later I had relocated,
09:08
and the adventure has continued.
09:10
Before I close though,
09:13
let me tell you about my grandmother.
09:15
She grew up at a time
09:18
when Confucianism was the social norm
09:20
and the local Mandarin was the person who mattered.
09:22
Life hadn't changed for centuries.
09:25
Her father died soon after she was born.
09:28
Her mother raised her alone.
09:32
At 17 she became the second wife
09:35
of a Mandarin whose mother beat her.
09:38
With no support from her husband,
09:41
she caused a sensation by taking him to court
09:43
and prosecuting her own case,
09:46
and a far greater sensation when she won.
09:48
(Laughter)
09:51
(Applause)
09:53
"It can't be done" was shown to be wrong.
09:57
I was taking a shower in a hotel room in Sydney
10:03
the moment she died
10:06
600 miles away in Melbourne.
10:08
I looked through the shower screen
10:11
and saw her standing on the other side.
10:13
I knew she had come to say goodbye.
10:16
My mother phoned minutes later.
10:18
A few days later,
10:21
we went to a Buddhist temple in Footscray
10:23
and sat around her casket.
10:25
We told her stories
10:27
and assured her that we were still with her.
10:29
At midnight the monk came
10:32
and told us he had to close the casket.
10:35
My mother asked us to feel her hand.
10:38
She asked the monk,
10:41
"Why is it that her hand is so warm
10:43
and the rest of her is so cold?"
10:45
"Because you have been holding it since this morning," he said.
10:48
"You have not let it go."
10:52
If there is a sinew in our family,
10:57
it runs through the women.
10:59
Given who we were and how life had shaped us,
11:01
we can now see
11:04
that the men who might have come into our lives
11:06
would have thwarted us.
11:08
Defeat would have come too easily.
11:10
Now I would like to have my own children,
11:13
and I wonder about the boat.
11:15
Who could ever wish it on their own?
11:18
Yet I am afraid of privilege,
11:21
of ease,
11:23
of entitlement.
11:25
Can I give them a bow in their lives,
11:27
dipping bravely into each wave,
11:29
the unperturbed and steady beat of the engine,
11:32
the vast horizon
11:35
that guarantees nothing?
11:37
I don't know.
11:39
But if I could give it
11:41
and still see them safely through,
11:43
I would.
11:45
(Applause)
11:48
Trevor Neilson: And also, Tan's mother is here today
12:00
in the fourth or fifth row.
12:03
(Applause)
12:06

sponsored links

Tan Le - Entrepreneur
Tan Le is the founder & CEO of Emotiv, a bioinformatics company that's working on identifying biomarkers for mental and other neurological conditions using electroencephalography (EEG).

Why you should listen

Tan Le is the co-founder and president of Emotiv. Before this, she headed a firm that worked on a new form of remote control that uses brainwaves to control digital devices and digital media. It's long been a dream to bypass the mechanical (mouse, keyboard, clicker) and have our digital devices respond directly to what we think. Emotiv's EPOC headset uses 16 sensors to listen to activity across the entire brain. Software "learns" what each user's brain activity looks like when one, for instance, imagines a left turn or a jump.

Le herself has an extraordinary story -- a refugee from Vietnam at age 4, she entered college at 16 and has since become a vital young leader in her home country of Australia.

The original video is available on TED.com
sponsored links

If you need translations, you can install "Google Translate" extension into your Chrome Browser.
Furthermore, you can change playback rate by installing "Video Speed Controller" extension.

Data provided by TED.

This website is owned and operated by Tokyo English Network.
The developer's blog is here.