An Interview with Shawn Tran
By Creative Nonfiction Associate Editor Lenore Weiss
“It must’ve been a difficult decision to make, leaving behind the comfort and familiarity of home to start anew in a foreign land with a different language and culture.”
What was your grandmother’s experience while fleeing a war-torn country as you explain in “Dim Sum?”
After the Vietnam War, my grandmother decided to emigrate from Vietnam in search for a better life. She and her seven children took a boat to Hong Kong, where they stayed in a refugee camp for nearly half a year, until finally being allowed to immigrate to America. It must’ve been a difficult decision to make, leaving behind the comfort and familiarity of home to start anew in a foreign land with a different language and culture. I think that’s why my grandmother emphasized the importance of family. Her eldest daughter was married with four children. Despite Chinese traditional customs considering married daughters to no longer be a part of their own family, my grandmother insisted that her eldest daughter, along with her family, immigrate with them. In my grandmother’s eyes, it was essential to keep her family united, ensuring that all her children remained together on this uncertain journey.
How did your grandmother cope as a single mother with seven children? Did she have help?
To support her family, my grandmother sold miscellaneous items like soap, candy, popcorn, joss paper (incense paper), and grass jelly (made from a member of the mint family). Fortunately, she also had help from her children, who worked when they were old enough. The older children got jobs as fishermen, lumbermen, or teachers. The younger ones assisted my grandmother, caring for their younger siblings and helping her sell crafts and goods.
Why did your family decide to settle in Sacramento, California?
From Hong Kong, they immigrated to Florida, USA. They lived there for a while before moving to Sacramento, California. There were more job opportunities and a larger Chinese-Vietnamese community over there.
You explain how Dim Sum is a way for generations of immigrant families to connect to culture and community. Do you still visit Happy Garden and King Palace, the two restaurants you mentioned in your story?
When my grandmother was alive, we’d go there practically once every two weeks. But after she died, we didn’t go as often anymore. I think for me and my family, whenever we think of dim sum, we think of my grandmother. It was the place we would go to for family gatherings. And it wouldn’t be considered a family gathering if my grandmother, the matriarch of our family, was not there.
Do you work primarily as a journalist? What kind of subjects do you enjoy covering?
I’m currently a master’s student studying public health. However, I write often. It started with op-eds covering topics like healthcare, environmentalism, and education. But recently, I’ve been writing more narratives exploring themes of culture and relationships. These pieces usually start as short journal entries recording my thoughts and experiences but expand as I try to reflect on and make sense of them. For me, writing is not only a powerful tool of expression but also a means of documenting my evolving perspectives and personal growth.
Are there specific authors or books that have inspired your writing?
Growing up, I read a lot of coming-of-age books, including The Perks of Being a Wallflower, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and My Antonia. I related to the characters’ struggles and, through their journeys, I was able to make sense of my own life experiences. What captivated me even more was the strong sense of nostalgia evoked in them. It felt like I was being transported back to my youth and the feelings attached to that time. In my writing, I aspire to craft relatable stories that evoke those powerful emotions in readers. Additionally, I enjoy reading memoirs, including Goodbye, Again, and Educated, which showed me how even the most painful truths and heartbreaking revelations can be transformed into beautiful narratives of resilience and personal growth.