Owner, Building Blocks Toy Stores
“Having a great life, being happy, is work.”
In Part One, Katherine talks about being smuggled out of Vietnam when she was 4 years old and coming to America with her father and sister. Through much of her childhood they lived in poverty, but worked very hard. In Part Two, which is forthcoming, Katherine talks about coming to Chicago and opening a toy store called Building Blocks.
I grew up in Queens, New York, in a rent-controlled apartment building. In a very poor neighborhood. I came to America from Vietnam with my dad and my older sister. He was, I believe, 25 years old. And he had no money whatsoever. I was four. We had no money; we had one person we knew, who was a student. So it wasn’t like he was going to help us out financially either, but we had a place to stay with him.
Why did your father come here?
There was nothing left to stay for. In Vietnam, my dad was called into the military. My grandmother, my maternal grandmother paid a lot of money to have him do non-combat stuff for the Communists, so he was a photographer. You can buy your way out of anything in a corrupt, Communist government. My grandparents were entrepreneurs, and they did very well for themselves until the Communists came and redistributed everything. But that’s why, in those countries, gold is so valuable rather than a bank account. Because you can hide your gold. So that’s what my grandmother used. She also paid to have us get on a watermelon boat that was exporting watermelons to Thailand. That’s how we left the country.
What do you remember about the journey?
Well, I was just four. We were smuggled out of Vietnam. I remember the boat. It was literally just a freight boat. I remember having to go to the bathroom and holding the side of the boat and going into the big, giant sea, laughing and being scared.
I remember Thailand. Back then, I think, it was open arms with Thailand and Malaysia and other countries. They were taking Vietnamese refugees. I remember the boat, I remember the watermelons, I remember Thailand; I remember my dad giving my sister and me a tiny little coin so we could go to the street vendor and buy some food. But that’s pretty much all I remember.
Do you remember being afraid?
No. I didn’t understand what was going on. I was scared on the boat when I had to like, go to the bathroom into the open ocean, but I didn’t really understand what was happening. I didn’t understand I wasn’t going to see my mom again. She was seven months pregnant, and they refused to take her. They said no matter how much money my grandmother was going to pay them, they didn’t want to take her. They didn’t want anything to happen to her.
I think it was hard for her. She came over a year later; I didn’t know who she was. I didn’t even speak any more Vietnamese. I remember at the airport, my sister came running to her with a teddy bear in hand. My dad was holding a baby in his arms and kissing it. I just remember thinking, “Who is that baby? And my dad better put it down.” My mom says she cried every night, because my sister and I would speak English to each other. She didn’t understand what we were saying, and I didn’t really know who she was. I didn’t really want to have anything to do with her.
How did your father support the family during this time?
We stayed with my uncle. My mother’s older brother, who was going to school. I think he was studying to be a lab technician. He had a connection, a woman who had children who helped to watch us. And my dad had to look for a job; he found a job in a Japanese restaurant, cutting and prepping food, which didn’t require any English. He got paid less money than what he paid for us to be babysat. So that was the investment. That was the investment. He had to borrow some money from my uncle to go to work, basically, because he had to pay to have us watched.
So he’s working exclusively to pay for child care.
But also to learn English and to hopefully advance and do better at his job, to get paid more. I don’t know exactly when and how long, but thenvhe started cooking. It was a Japanese hibachi restaurant, so he started cooking and he did better.
But we were dirt poor growing up. Walking up and down five flights of stairs; we didn’t even have an elevator in our building, no electricity sometimes, no hot water sometimes, rats running around the apartment; there was roaches, that’s how we lived. When you live in a ghettoy slum, that’s just reality. Water’s always dripping. If you take a bath, the guy downstairs is going to bang on the ceiling because it’s leaking down. It was playing in the streets; we saw people getting mugged. I didn’t have any toys growing up. I had other people’s toys to borrow and play with. I didn’t have any toys when I was growing up. My mom said, when you go play with your cousin, tell him to meet downstairs, tell him to meet at the park, don’t invite him up, because he might eat something out of the fridge. Not because we were selfish, but because we had nothing to give. So I grew up very poor.
My mom worked in a sweatshop. She worked so hard and so much that she ran her finger through the sewing machine and had to be taken to the hospital because she lost a lot of blood. She went to the hospital, and they asked her how much she weighed. She said 86 pounds. They [didn’t believe her], thought she didn’t know how to speak English. So they put her on a scale and she weighed less than that.
So that was the only time in our lives that we had ever had public assistance, because they forced my parents to take food stamps. I don’t know how long that lasted, but they were never on welfare, they never took public assistance, but that time, because they ran into her at the hospital looking in this condition, we had food stamps for a little while.
Was that on principle?
I don’t know. I think it was always just that they didn’t even ask, who’s going to help us? I think it was not an assumption. It wasn’t like, let’s come to America where they’re just going to take care of us. What happened in my family was, someone found a job and got everybody else that job. So the restaurant that my dad worked in, I think at any given time, there was about eight of us, eight uncles working in this restaurant, then more and more people would get introduced. And this restaurant owner loved it. We were all hardworking people who just wanted to get paid and would do anything.
I think [to my dad] America was awesome and like the best thing since sliced bread when I was younger. I just assumed it was so, because never anything negative happened. I think more currently — I don’t know if he’s just getting older and bitter or whatever — but sometimes I’ll hear him say things like, “We’re doing it wrong here.” He says “we.” It’s not “they.”
Were you aware of your family’s poverty?
No. I was very happy. I had relatives, I had friends to play with, I did well in school, teachers liked me, other kids liked me. I was the class president.
Do you remember, at some point, becoming aware of your poverty?
Yeah, I do. My mom was working in the sweatshop, and she wasn’t going anywhere. She was making 70 cents an hour, that kind of thing. I mentioned to you that in the community, in the family— and I think this was a really big deal—if someone has a great job, they tell all the other people to apply for that, to work there. And it’s usually the small entrepreneurial business owners who are the ones that are hiring these people, my family. You can’t walk into AT&T and say, I’d like a job, I’ll do anything.
So one relative got a job working for these two Hasidic Jewish twins who used to sell watches. They used to wholesale watches in the wholesale district in New York, and she worked there, and it was pretty decent pay. It was a lot more than 70 cents an hour. So she introduced my mom, and my mom worked there for many years. Very loyal, once again. Very loyal, hardworking.
She really showed me, they both did, whoever you’re working for, that’s who you are. That’s your business. Their business is your business, your business to have them succeed, and that’s probably why, when I was 14 and I went to work for this shop-owner, it wasn’t just about me-me-me, it was about, what can I do for you? How can we make this business great? So she worked for them for awhile.
She and my dad started buying things from them and becoming like a secondary wholesaler now to the Vietnamese community, letting them buy on credit things that they couldn’t get by walking directly into these people’s businesses. So they took risks like that, selling to people who might or might not pay.
So now they have their fulltime jobs and they did that as well. They worked really hard, and they started a business at some point; they started manufacturing in the far east. I mean, they just kept growing their business. They became distributors; they now started distributing to these two Hasidic Jewish brothers and selling to them. So they did very well for themselves, and they grew that.
They did that for some time, and when they finally quit their jobs –and my dad said it was so hard for him to quit his job — he was making $400 a week and our rent was $400 a month. I mean, he had worked at this Japanese restaurant for like ten years. So he said it was a big deal when he quit his job. That was scary. But they both quit their jobs, I think one of them quit first, then the other one. They now had this business together, and we moved out of Queens. We bought a house!
We moved to New Jersey and bought a house; I was 14. My parents heard that the school system in Jersey City was one of the worst. So I went to private school. And then that was when I was like, Wow, can we afford all this, can we do this? I was really scared. I was really scared. But that was, I think, the first moment where I realized that people lived different lives. All this, it was very different for me.
It was nice to live in a house, to go to a nice school, but it was also, I had a culture shock. I went to school with kids who wore uniforms, who had never been exposed to anything. They went to the mall after school. I was taking the train to New York to go to work for this woman, because I wanted to have some extra spending cash. I had a huge culture shock.
I was very much a loner in high school. I didn’t really feel like I fit in. I missed a lot of things about living in Queens. I don’t know, I don’t think that life got better because we had money, I don’t think so. It just got different.
Is it fair to say that [prior to moving] you didn’t have very much of an awareness of another way of living?
Very much so. I mean, I had tiny little glimpses of it. I had one friend named Zoë. Right around the fringe of all these eight buildings where we had lived, the circumference of it was row houses, where it started to change. And Zoë went to school where I went to school. We became friends for a short amount of time. Then her mom didn’t let her play with us anymore. I don’t know why. But now I’m assuming maybe it’s because of where we were living. But she lived in a nice house. One time, we had to bring something to school, like a towel or something like that; we were going to work on an art project. She gave me an extra towel from her home, and it was like, so nice.
I don’t think that for me it was like, Oh, she has money and I don’t. This was just a different world. I don’t think I grew up thinking about money in that way. Although I liked selling candy, I liked having money to spend, but it was hard for me to comprehend other people’s financial situations at that early age.
Do you feel your family was reaching for the “American Dream”?
The thing is, when you say the “American Dream,” I think it means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. I don’t think my parents said it, but I definitely lived it. What my parents really wanted was to come to America, to be able to work hard and make money, which they couldn’t anymore under a Communist regime, and making money meant that you could do things. Have a nice home, have a car, not a Porsche, not a Lamborghini, but…. And that’s what I think the American Dream means to some people. Not entitled, but being able to provide for yourself and your family if you are willing and capable and able to. And that’s what my parents wanted, and that’s what they really did.
And they still live a very humble life, even though my dad can afford to replace that belt that he has from like ten years ago. I respect that a lot. I encourage them all the time to go on a vacation, to do things, and I feel like sometimes they’re a little bit stuck in that world of fear.
My dad’s like wary of the bank, that kind of thing. You know, because there were people who had money in their bank and it was poof, gone. Back in the old country. So for them, it was working hard, being able to produce for yourself, being able to own property that no one else was going to take away from you.
What did your parents teach you, implicitly or explicitly, about money?
Unfortunately, how important it is.
Why do you say “unfortunately”?
It’s hard. I work really hard not to be too focused on it, and not to be scared. I’m scared sometimes; I’m always afraid of living in poverty again. You know? I don’t think my parents said that [out loud], but we lived that. My whole life, they’ve been focused on making sure that they go to work and make money. They were very attentive to it, because they had to be. They had to be frugal, they had to be upset if they had to spend money on fixing a car. You know? Doing things like that. So money was always sort of like, on the foreground of their attention. So for me, it’s important to put that in perspective; I want to have more freedom around it. I try to keep that in mind a lot, not to stress out about it.
I think money is a conversation for everybody. It’s something that’s part of the water that you swim in, that you’re not really even thinking about it. So it’s important for me to always recognize what the temperature of my water is. I’m always working really hard. Having a great life — being happy– is work.
It’s something that you have to pay attention to, and you’re always working on. Whether it’s in your marriage, career, everything. It’s a choice to be happy and to have a great life. I don’t mean work like a burden, but you don’t just sit back and wait for that to happen for yourself. I don’t know if it makes sense.
You’re always striving for it?
Yes! It’s my responsibility to be happy and to have freedom from whatever it is, if it’s money or being [happy], it’s my responsibility, that’s how I look at it.
What was your parents’ reaction to your desire to open a toy store in Chicago?
They never related to me like I was someone who would do things; I was always the, you know, the middle child. Fill the stereotype in, if you will. They weren’t concerned that I was doing anything irresponsible, but they were scared.
Part 2 of this interview, in which Katherine talks about opening Building Blocks, her two toy stores in Chicago, is forthcoming.