Patience -There were never any giant steps, just little steps to improve our lives. It took my family a decade to be solidly middle class and a decade more to become successful. We started out living in government housing in Wichita, KS. From there we went to renting a home in a slightly better neighborhood to eventually becoming homeowners.
Is the American Dream still alive? If you speak to many of the immigrants we spoke to, who came to this country with nothing but grit, resilience, and a dream, they will tell you that it certainly is still alive. As a part of our series about immigrant success stories, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lan Pham, founder of SANG.
Lan Phan, the Founder and CEO of the food and beverage brand SANG, was born in Vietnam. As an infant she became a refugee when her single mother and seven older siblings fled their war-torn country by boat, eventually reuniting in the United States after a year of separation. Lan grew up speaking, eating and fully immersed in the Little Saigon culture of Orange County, CA, where Pham and her family went on to flourish. She spent nearly two decades successfully working in sales and marketing for world-class brands across e-commerce and hospitality. Her passion for cooking led her to find joy in sharing her heritage through Vietnamese food. She founded SANG to bring the tastes of her childhood to American consumers in a new and exciting way.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I grew up the youngest of eight children to a single mother who immigrated to America from Vietnam. We moved frequently and as our household income increased, each time my mother wanted me to attend better schools. It was difficult switching schools every couple of years as a first generation immigrant, because it meant I would have to feel different all over again among mostly white peers. English was not my first language, being placed in ESL only amplified my feelings of not fitting in. I have always danced between two cultures and, I’m sad to say, I rejected my heritage growing up. It’s so easy to succumb to peer pressure and wanting to be like everyone else. I dyed my hair blonde in high school, I avoided speaking Vietnamese outside my own home and I made my mom bring mac and cheese to the class potluck. Everything we ate, drank and did was different from my friends, down to the way my brothers would brew their coffee in a phin.
Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US? Can you tell us the story?
The Fall of Saigon separated families from north and south, and fear of reeducation camps was paralyzing to many. Anyone who wasn’t aligned with the Communists desperately sought political asylum in the US.
Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?
Having a large family has its benefits but escaping a country with 9 people is cumbersome at best. We had to leave in waves and were placed in three different refugee camps in Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia. My family was separated for a year until we were reunited in the most random place, Kansas. My sister and mom would tell me stories about the night we all boarded the fishing boats to escape Vietnam, how my mother would sew gold bullion into her bra and my diaper to hide the only money she had from the Thai pirates that stalked the waters.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?
I am most grateful for my mother. It was her love, strength, and determination to provide us with a better life than what Vietnam could that set us free. She had the courage to leave her home of 40 years and reinvent herself without knowing the language, the geography, the food, and how she would provide for eight children.
My poor sister, being the second oldest, had the laborious task of completing our political asylum and immigrant paperwork. Since it is incredibly difficult to remember 8 birthdays, she made them up. She picked holidays to remember things more easily like July 4th and Christmas. I was the lucky one assigned New Year’s Day. We are still unclear when my birthday is since I don’t have any documentation from Vietnam and my mother has a rough estimate. One of the effects of war is that little details get lost. For the record, we just picked Sept. 25 as a day to celebrate my birthday since my mother was certain it was “around three months before Christmas.”
So how are things going today?
My mother beams with pride thinking about the success of her children and grandchildren with lawyers, doctors, engineers, and successful business owners in the family. It took one generation for her to see her state-schooled children raise grandchildren who attended Duke, Yale, Brown and UCLA. That is immigrant upward mobility at its best.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I have sponsored families of other war-torn countries to reestablish themselves. I would like my brand SANG to help other immigrant families and make their journey and destination easier. We are looking to partner with Miles for Migrants to help in this.
You have firsthand experience with the US immigration system. If you had the power, which three things would you suggest to improve the system?
- The wait is incredibly long to be approved for political asylum. We were living in a refugee camp for a year. During that time we had no access to running water, real shelter besides a tent, or any clarity about our family members who were not with us.
- I would not separate families. I was an infant, still in diapers, when we fled Vietnam. I could not imagine not being with my mother and siblings at such a young age. The emotional damage to a child to not feel the safety of the family is heartbreaking to me.
- I would support more immigrant organizations. A church in Kansas sponsored us, giving us warm clothes during the winter and helping us find housing.
Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.
- Education — Education has always been non-negotiable in our family. My mother never bought anything nice for herself. She saved everything she had to invest in our future.
- Believe in luck — We were lucky to not be caught by the Communists. We were lucky that our entire immediate family was all safely in America. We were lucky to receive government housing. Your number will hit, you have to believe in good things for yourself.
- Have thick skin — When you don’t speak the language, look different, or celebrate odd holidays, people will judge what they don’t understand or know. You can’t let what someone else thinks of you determine your trajectory in life. A teacher once told me I couldn’t be a news reporter because of how I looked. Don’t let the little comments from insignificant people stop you from achieving whatever it is you set for yourself.
- Patience -There were never any giant steps, just little steps to improve our lives. It took my family a decade to be solidly middle class and a decade more to become successful. We started out living in government housing in Wichita, KS. From there we went to renting a home in a slightly better neighborhood to eventually becoming homeowners.
- Kindness — Be kind because karma is real. My mom was the first to take in two other young girls at the refugee camp because they lost their parents. There were so many kind people that helped us climb the socioeconomic ladder.
We know that the US needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the US’s future?
Yes, the US could improve in a lot of ways. But I want to be very clear in this message, my journey and story would only be possible here in the US. In no other country could a single mother of 8 children, who didn’t speak the language, succeed in the ways our family has.
- We are in an era of representation and celebration of each other’s differences. That wasn’t the case for my family and me in the 80’s in Wichita, KS. It was difficult looking different, eating different, and sounding different. That evolution of sentiment is so comforting to me and gives me hope in the future.
- Our children are taught to be accepting of each other. My kids know to never utter any racial slur or culturally insensitive remarks. I cannot tell you how many times kids called me China doll or slanted their eyes with their fingers. Kids nowadays embrace all the different races among them at school.
- People care about immigrant rights more now. There was universal outrage at the separation of families and treatment of immigrants in detention centers.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
I would love to share a bowl of pho with Amanda Nguyen, she is the founder and CEO of Rise and one of Time Magazine’s Women of the Year in 2022. She is an inspiration to all Vietnamese women with her dedication to social justice. She is an authentic voice to our culture and generation.
What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!