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AAPI Month: Reflecting On My Name

AAPI Month: Reflecting On My Name

AAPI Chau Saenz Blog


I was born in Vietnam and moved to the United States when I was three years old. My father was in Saigon on a business trip when I was born and in Vietnamese culture it is tradition for the father or grandfather to name the child. So my grandfather was the one who named me Hong Hoa, which means ‘flower.’ Hong also translates to pink. So my name was’ Pink Flower.’ 

This is why I also wanted to incorporate pink into my handbag. Pink is powerful in feng shui because it stands for love, romance, a nurturing spirit, partnership, and feminine energy. I wanted the color to serve as a reminder that you are worthy of all these things and so much more in your life. This is also the reason I named my company after my given name, even if some people think it’s difficult to pronounce or feel the need to poke fun at it. It’s me. It’s who I am. I am Chau  Sáenz and I am proud of who I am and where I come from. 

The name of a child is very significant in our culture because it characterizes the child and dictates their life path.”

Unfortunately, my mom was never a fan of Hong Hoa. To her a flower is beautiful, but if it is not taken care of, it wilts and dies. My mother didn't like the idea of her daughter being dependent on others to succeed.

We first attempted to escape Vietnam when I was 2 years old. We got caught and in jail I got very sick and my family wasn’t sure I would make it.  My mother sought out female Buddhist monks to heal me. They fed me herbal tea that tastes like dirt to help nurse me back to health. It was a very scary time for my family. 

Many Vietnamese people believe that if your life is going in a bad direction, you can make a change and alter your course. So my mother left me with them while she and my father worked to raise funds for our next escape. In addition, she used this opportunity to change my name by adding Chau. I became Hong Chau. She didn't want to completely change my whole name to disrespect my grandfather.

“Chau in Vietnamese means Pearl. She wanted me to be strong and to heal."

Our final escape happened in the middle of night. My mother didn't want to risk getting caught again or risk my grandfather's life since he was staying behind. Before we left, she had one photo taken of us to leave behind. It turned out to be the only baby picture of me that I have left since the rest of them were lost at sea. My grandfather kept it until we returned to Vietnam many years later to visit. 

When we finally escaped to Thailand, times were particularly tough. We were robbed by pirates, but my mother felt we were lucky since we survived the long boat ride to Thailand as a family. We spent a year in a refugee camp in Thailand. My mom was three months pregnant when we arrived but didn’t know. If she had known we probably wouldn't have escaped. The camp was on some beach. I still remember the sand, the ocean, and the tent-like homes we stayed in. There were no walls. As we prepared our immigration papers and got ready to go the the States, my mom renamed me Chau. But whenever I return to Vietnam, I'm Hong Chau. 

My family eventually made it to Louisiana and my parents did what they had to do to make ends meet. My mom had always had an interest in sewing. In fact, when she was a teenager she secretly saved her lunch money so she could go to school and learn how to become a seamstress. When she told her parents she wanted to learn how to sew  they were apprehensive but ultimately came around and supported her. My grandpa, especially, had always been progressive in that regard. It wasn't normal during my mother's time that a young girl would learn a trade. But she was ahead of her time. He did have her brother spy on her the first week to make sure she was going and not running off with some boy or getting into trouble. 

This skill set ultimately helped her survive the war. In the refugee camp in Thailand she would barter and work out deals with other refugees to hand sew clothes for them. My mom explained to me recently that as poor as everyone was, people still needed at least one new outfit to prepare for their departure to another country. This helped my mom get business. When we first got to the United States we were in Louisiana for six months and she was able to get a $350 loan from a family member, purchase a sewing machine, and start to find clients who needed tailoring and seamstress work. She continued this work in Louisiana and eventually in Seattle where my family settled. 

My parents taught my siblings and I tenacity, determination, and hard work and these things stuck with us all throughout our lives.”

Come to think of it, my parents were always entrepreneurial at heart, from running their own business in Vietnam to running one in America. It’s ironic that my mom would constantly warn us growing up about running our own companies and encourage us instead to work for ‘the man.’ In her eyes, working for a stable company meant steady paychecks, raises, and promotions. However, I never could shake that entrepreneurial bug inside of me and it’s no surprise that I eventually started my own company. I didn’t inherit any of my mother’s incredible cooking skills but I did inherit her incredible hustle!  

My  journey to starting my handbag company didn’t happen overnight. There were lots of detours and lessons to be learned first. Reflecting back on my own journey, I believe our detours are actually life lessons in disguise, presented before us to help us choose the path we are ultimately meant to travel down. There is purpose on this journey called life. Don't discount those detours but listen to what they're trying to tell you. They will ultimately lead you to your purpose. My name is my constant reminder of what I have been through. What’s yours?

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