Understanding our roots to strengthen relationships and self-identity.
Sometimes the connections we make with family and culture not only teach us about our own identity, but also open the door for more empathy and deeper connections with others. In this community spotlight, Hollie Ha, founder of Holding Heritage, reflects on her evolving relationship with her roots, and how understanding the past through her family’s eyes has strengthened intergenerational bonds and cultural ties.
Hollie is ethnically Chinese and culturally identifies as Chinese-Vietnamese. Her family came to Canada as refugees from Vietnam during the exodus of the Vietnamese Boat People in the 1970’s, and both her mother and father’s sides held on to their Chinese heritage while living within Vietnamese society and culture. As Hollie grew up in Canada in the wake of this cultural history, her family relationships became rocky and disconnected. Years of tension stretched into adulthood, and she and her father stopped talking—this was all the more painful because of how close they had once been. But Hollie recalls a turning point in her mid-20s that would change her life.
“I remember a moment sitting in a restaurant with my mom - hearing about how my dad was doing at the time, and being flooded with immense emotion from realizing how little time I had ever truly taken to understand him and his experiences more deeply, and how they have contributed to the way he is a person today and how he raised me. It felt like something clicked that day within me. I began to immerse myself in learning about my family stories, the history of families like mine, and the experiences of not only their generation - but my generation as well and how it has shaped us today.”
Snapshots of a Father’s Past
Reconnecting with her father, Sinh Ha, Hollie set out to learn more about what had shaped his life in the years before he became her father. In a special podcast episode with Hollie, Sinh Ha opened up about his youth on the northeast coast of Vietnam. He has since returned to the home he was forced to flee as a teenager—a neighbourhood known to locals as “Nui Se” in the province of Quảng Ninh. Looking back on his formative years in the 60’s and 70’s, Hollie’s father has many memories of Vietnam, both beautiful and painful, that he shared.
Sinh Ha’s family made noodles for a living, but they were constantly uprooted and on the move to escape American bombings. Among brief times of calm, Sinh Ha vividly remembers small details of the landscape around him, like a big star fruit tree right outside one of his family’s homes that he would climb with friends to talk in and people watch; he also remembers how commonplace bunkers were, and how local farmlands were marred by explosion craters. Sinh Ha wouldn’t be able to start kindergarten until he was nine, and his earliest classrooms were a bunker and a “Burnout School” that had previously been bombed.
A particularly painful memory for Sinh Ha involves the accidental death of a sister that Hollie had never heard of before. Over many years, Sinh Ha worked through feelings of guilt for having not watched out for his little sister, although he was only a child himself at the time. But the grief is still a heavy presence that he reflects on.
“Sometimes I think, ‘Wow our family has gone through a lot of stuff.. a lot of sad things. I think our family, they don’t want to talk about the past - especially the sad things…”
As he reconnected with Hollie in recent years, Sinh Ha chose to gradually open up more and found some healing through sharing his stories.
“I talk more and more, and each time I talk, I feel better … before you guys were still young and might not understand … But of course we want you to know what we’ve gone through and where we come from - we want you to know. There’s no shame. What we go through or where we come from or what we are - I’m proud of it …
For me, a memory is a memory. Happy or sad, or bad or good - they’re all memories. And bad or sad memories keep you thinking more. For me, I think those are more deep memories - it’s hard to forget … Even though each time I think about them, it hurts, I think because it’s true - and it’s happened to me, and happened to my family and it matters to me and matters to my family, I think those memories are very important.”
Healing Connections for the Future
As Hollie has learned more about her family’s past and intentionally embraced her cultural roots, she has seen every aspect of her life and sense of self become enriched.
“It’s helped me understand and process so much of my own childhood and feelings I had growing up, as well as the reason behind why I believe, think or act in the ways I do. It’s brought me closer to my family and given me many different perspectives on connection, genuine communication and understanding. Embracing my culture has played an enormous role in my feeling of belonging within this chaotic world, and has provided me with a deep sense of empathy and connection to others who share similar experiences and stories …
I think that sometimes it can be one of those things that “you don’t know until you know”... There are so many stories - too many to count or even keep track of - that have surprised me and changed the way that I view not only my family and their lives/individual personalities, but my own as well. I think on a broader scale, the culmination of all of these eye-opening stories have taught me to loosen my grip on what I think or thought I knew about my family and family members. That coming from a perspective of curiosity and openness when it comes to curating a space for them to show up and tell me who they are in their own words and experiences is the most important and valuable part of genuinely listening and learning …
The biggest thing I am actively choosing to evolve within my family’s existing and future generations is the way we approach, think, and talk about mental health and emotions with one another. I believe so deeply that the amount of potential healing and connection that is buried in/behind the stereotypical taboo’s of mental health expression is the biggest barrier when it comes to understanding one another and genuinely seeing and accepting who we each are.”
Holding Heritage With Stories
“I feel incredibly proud and honored to be able to learn and share what I do and remain curious and eager to continue … Culture is incredibly complex and nuanced, and I believe is often the heart of exploring things like self-identity, fulfillment, and belonging … One of my favorite and most simplistic traditions that I champion is the simple act of passing on family stories. Moments chatting over dinner or tea, sharing old photographs, talking about childhood memories, etc - are one of the most important and impactful acts/traditions to preserve heritage and culture.”
If you want to tune in to a special podcast episode that’s close to Hollie’s heart and learn more about Sinh Ha’s story, we recommend starting with Episode 5 - The Girl in the White Dress and Growing Up in North Vietnam. “It really encapsulates the whole reason behind why I started and why I'm so passionate. And it captures a moment of true vulnerability between my dad and I that I will remember for the rest of my life …
If you’re out there thinking or feeling like you just may not ever get to a point of connection with your parents that you’d like to - I’d love to be a little reminder that maybe it’s possible. Maybe it takes work and effort, and practice - but I can also tell you that I’m pretty sure it’s entirely worth it, and it will never be something that you regret doing … Have patience and empathy. When we’re committing to learning more about our roots, there’s a certain amount of openness we need to have with our approach. Recognizing that it’s a delicate process requiring gradual building of trust and emotional safety plays a key role in the depth of the stories we’re able to make space for.”
To start or continue your own family’s documenting journey, take a look at Root & Seed’s conversation cards or try out our mobile Conversation Tool. With accessible prompts right at your fingertips, you and your loved ones are invited to explore your roots as a family and preserve stories for the future.
Is there a story that gave you a new perspective on your culture, family, or self-identity? Share in the comments below!
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