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Luck is a Funny Thing

Written By Caitlin Taylor So
Cover Art by


Caitlin Taylor So retells the stories her grandpa told her about the Vietnam War, from her perspective as his granddaughter. Reflecting on what these stories mean to her, she connects them to her annual Lunar New Year wishes to her grandparents. She grapples with how it is possible to give back to your elders when they have given you everything.

Editors’ Note

Every Tết, or Vietnamese Lunar New Year, I kneel before my grandparents and wish them great fortune for the year ahead, usually in the form of catchy four-word phrases. 

Here are a few: 

“Con chúc ông bà… (I wish my grandparents…) 

– Sức khỏe dồi dào” (an abundance of good health) 

– Tiền vào như nước” (may money flow in like water) 

– An khang thịnh vượng” (security, health, and prosperity) 

– Phát tài phát lộc” (riches and fortune) 

– Vạn sự như ý” (everything you wish will be) 

Every year, I try to up the ante, coming up with more impressive things to say. 

– “Tiền ra nhỏ giọt như cà phê phin” (may money drip like a coffee filter)

– “Nhiều bát canh cà chua” (many bowls of my grandma’s world-famous tomato soup) 

The more words I say, the more luck I will bring to my grandparents. 

The more outlandish, the more memorable. 

It makes sense in my head. 

Luck is a funny thing. On most days, I treat it as this unpredictable ideal that comes and goes as it pleases. On holidays such as Lunar New Year, however, luck can be controlled. Cleaning the house from top to bottom will entice it to come in, for example. 

For my maternal grandpa, or Ông ngoại, luck is accompanied by hard work and tenacity. If you work hard enough, luck might take notice and decide you would make good company. 


Over the years, Ông has recounted his experiences growing up in communist Vietnam. 

Born on May 1, 1942 in Indochina, a French colony comprising the modern-day territories of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, he has lived through a lot. May 1st marked International Labor Day and the annual street parade of workers. As a result, there were barely any nurses and doctors left in the hospital as my great grandmother was giving birth. Luckily, my great grandfather was a doctor and friends with a nurse, and so, my grandpa, Quan Khang Tưởng, (born Kouan Hoong Cheong, which changed to Kuan K’ang Shiang on the Chinese Visa until it was finally translated into Vietnamese) was brought into the world. 

A world that would actively work to erase his identity and squash his every chance for success.

When Ông was five or six years old, his older siblings went off to school, waking at 5 a.m. to walk 10 miles. My grandpa, too young to follow them, had to stay home. 

There was an all-girl Catholic school that was closer. On his first day, dressed in girls’ clothes, Ông showed up. A nun took one look at him and asked, “Are you a boy?” In an instant, Ông said yes. With that, he was sent straight home to his mother who fought the urge to cry out of frustration. 

Ông was finally able to go to public school at eight years old. It was far but not as far as the one his siblings attended. He started in third grade with other kids his age, all of whom already learned how to read, write, and count. Without knowing numbers or the Vietnamese alphabet, Ông was punished every day by his teacher, slapped on his hands with a ruler or forced to kneel facing the blackboard for a time out. 

This became such a frequent occurrence that every morning Ông silently made his way to the blackboard before his teacher inevitably told him to do so. He didn’t dare tell his parents in fear he would have to stay home again and further fall behind on his studies. 

After almost two years, Ông left for another school. A French school in Hà Nội called Lycée Albert-Sarraut. According to the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, this school was the only one of its kind: an educational institution operated by a Western power in a Communist state. 

Without knowing a word of French, Ông was severely punished again. But by his second year, things were looking up. Ông could read, write, and understand French. Everything around him, however, was about to take a turn for the worse. 

1954. The communists occupy North Vietnam. Ông’s family has to leave Hà Nội and make their way to the South, to Sài Gòn. 

There was another French school in Sài Gòn that Ông applied to, but all Lycée Albert-Sarraut kids were transferred to a French school about 200 miles away, a school his family could not afford. Returning to Vietnamese school was the only option. 

5th grade. Lớp nhất. In history class, Ông’s teacher recounted China’s domination and Vietnam’s fight for independence, smiling at Ông as she spoke. His last name—Quan—did not escape her. Ông was Chinese; his family left China for Vietnam to escape communism. Not that that made any difference. In this classroom, he was the enemy. 

After school, five to six boys were waiting outside. They jumped on top of Ông, tearing at and throwing dirt on his clothes. 

Every week, Ông returned home, coming in through the back door, to change. He didn’t want to tell his parents; they were already going through such financial hardship. This would have been the least of their problems, Ông thought, or worse, created more. Instead, he directed his focus on school, seeing it as his only way to fight back. 

In 6th grade, Ông rose to the top of his class, skipping 7th grade and going right to 8th. Throughout high school, Ông maintained the same work ethic, knowing that if he did not pass his exams and receive a high school diploma, he’d be enlisted in the military. A military in desperate need of soldiers. 

Around this time, the communist Vietnamese government forced Chinese and other non-native locals to become citizens of Vietnam or face deportation. Ông’s family considered moving. Taiwan refused to receive them. Returning to mainland China wouldn’t have made any sense. They had to become Vietnamese citizens, a process which included changing their last name. 

Ông’s family fought to keep the Quan name. With such insistence, the government gave up and accepted it. 

Around 10 to 15 percent of students graduated high school in Vietnam. More than 80 percent failed.  Ông passed. But his fight would be far from over. 

There were 200 spots for freshman university students. About half were reserved for the extremely wealthy. 

Ông failed the doctor, pharmacist, engineer, and teacher entrance exams. His older brother received a high school diploma from a Chinese school. His younger brother failed to receive one. Both of them were off to the military. 

With each passing day, it was becoming more likely that Ông would be following his brothers. Until one day. A day my grandpa coins—to this day—to be his “Lucky destiny day.” 

One morning, a high school classmate passed by Ông’s house. 

“The aviation school is open,” his classmate said. “You could apply to be an air traffic controller.” 

By the time Ông’s classmate passed by his house, it was past 11:30 a.m. The admissions office closed at 12. 

With his high school diploma and no time to grab his birth certificate, Ông joined his classmate. His classmate was refused up front. The school was only accepting candidates born between 1941 to 1943 and his classmate was born in 1944. Ông, born in 1942, qualified.

If only he had brought his birth certificate. 

The Director of Civil Aviation (DCA) said it was too late to accept Ông’s documents. Ông begged and begged for them to reconsider. 

The school eventually gave in. They held onto Ông’s high school diploma and gave him until the following Monday to submit the rest of his papers. 

Luck was still on his side. 

There were 20 seats in the aviation school among thousands of candidates—close to 9,000. The entrance exam consisted of three parts: written, oral, and physical. The written section included mathematics, French, Vietnamese, and English. The oral section was in English and French. The physical exam tested his vision and hearing to ensure it was on par with the requirements for a pilot. 

The written section took four days. During this time, there was also a policeman exam going on. Around 2,000 candidates withdraw their aviation school application to take the policeman exam. Nine thousand drops to seven thousand. 

Ông excelled in French, English, and math. The same could not be said for Vietnamese. On the last day of the written section, Ông was presented with a philosophical Vietnamese essay question. With no understanding of what the question was asking, Ông wrote a few words and gave up. 

Miraculously, Ông moved onto the two-day oral section. The first of which was in French. Ông walked into a room to find his French essay on the table. The school had deemed it excellent. His Vietnamese essay…not so much. 

Ông still had a chance to win the school over. His French pronunciation was impressive. 

The next was in English. A representative from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was there to interview him. Ông spoke fluently in English. 

He had passed the oral section. 

After the written and oral section, 50 people were left. Those that were remaining were sent to an air force base for the physical portion. 

“Who here wears glasses?” 

Twenty people wore glasses. They were immediately dismissed.

Then came the examinations: vision, hearing, and heart. Ông passed them all. Five were dismissed. 

The pool of candidates had been cut in half. It was down to 25 people for 20 spots. Twenty people were accepted; five were waitlisted. 

Ông was lucky #25. 

Over the course of three months, all 25 candidates attend aviation class and take a flying exam. Three students fail. Twenty-two remain. 

After six months, another exam. 

Three students fail. Nineteen remain. 

These lucky 19 can now officially call themselves aviation school students. From 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. with a mere 30 minutes for lunch, Ông studied for the final exam. Three students fail. Sixteen students graduate. 

Ông graduated #2 in his class with the #1 graduate scoring just half a point higher. 

Working as an air traffic controller in an airport in Sài Gòn, Ông was exempt from enlisting in the war. This, however, did not guarantee his safety. 

1968. The war is at its peak. The Việt Cộng and the North Vietnamese military launches an attack on South Vietnam and the U.S. military. It is known as the Tết Offensive for taking place during the Lunar New Year. 

So many civilians die. Ông’s older sister’s house in Sài Gòn is hit by a communist rocket, instantly killing her. 

At 28, after one year of working at the airport, Ông’s mother arranged for Ông to be married, choosing my grandma, Trần Ngà Thi. 

They have three daughters together. One of whom being my mom. 

1975. North Vietnam fully takes over the country. My mom’s younger sister is born the year after. 

At this point, Ông was an airline security manager. Everyone who worked in aviation for the old regime, about 400 to 500 people total, gathered in the DCA building. Once inside, Ông walked into the personnel office where he saw a letter with his name on the table.

Ông was being promoted to army lieutenant. He grabbed the letter and destroyed it. Hard work and luck were simply not enough. This time, Ông had to be cunning. 

Under communist rule, each person was required to disclose everything about their life, family, friends, co-workers, and neighbors. The communists had no records of anyone before 1975. 

You had to physically write about every aspect of your life and circle over and over again. If there was any discrepancy found in your retelling or in someone else’s, you were called in for questioning. 

Ông had 30 employees under him as manager. If his position as an airline security manager for South Vietnam was found out, Ông would be sent straight to jail or a re-education camp. 

Security was an especially dangerous word as it was often conflated with intelligence and espionage. To the communist government, Ông could be considered a South Vietnamese spy. 

He thought about what he should say to his team carefully. For Ông, this was a matter of life or death. It was crucial for all his employees to be on the same page. 

All DCA employees were divided into 20 groups to clean up the airport. Ông’s group was assigned to the terminal where his office was conveniently located. 

Ông headed straight to his office and destroyed everything. Uniforms. Paystubs. Photos. Documents. Anything he could find that could be used against him. 

Later that day, Ông faced his team. He told them to not write down anything regarding their involvement in airline security. 

“We are smarter than the communists,” he said. “They don’t know anything about us unless we tell them. Why should we tell them anything bad? Be careful what you say because the communists will ask for proof of employment. Proof that as of today no longer exists.” 

Not one of Ông’s 30 employees declared their job in aviation. The first phase in Operation Outsmart the Communists was a success. To avoid getting caught, Ông had to lay low. 

Bà, my grandma, attended weekly mandatory communist meetings to report on her family’s activities. 

Ông was presented with two options for re-education: be sent away for 10 days or study in place for 21. 

Ông had a feeling there was a catch hidden somewhere. He chose 21 days. After his re-education period, he was hired to teach air traffic control for the communist government.

Those that chose 10 days ended up away from their families for 10 years. Ông went on to work for the communists for two. During this time, he explored every possible option to get his family out of the country. 

The first was to go to Cambodia or Thailand by foot. Along with three young children, Ông Bà would have to make their way through the treacherous jungle and carry weapons to protect one another. 

Others paid to leave Vietnam by boat. Two to three hundred people would be crammed in a small boat and go off to sea. Along the way, they’d face pirates, storms, starvation, and disease. 

Foreigners (non-Vietnamese people) were allowed to return to their home countries. People gathered outside to retrieve an exit visa. This gave Ông an idea. Perhaps he could figure out a way to leave the country legally. 

But first, he had to quit his job. No country would grant him an entry visa if they found out he worked for the communists. 

Between 1975 to 1980, millions of Northerners moved to Central and South Vietnam. To manage this migration, the communist government implemented the New Economic Zones program, which forcibly evicted Southerners from their homes and relocated them in the countryside. 

In an aviation meeting with over 2,000 people in attendance, Ông raised his hand, expressing his desire to quit. The head captain and communist major were outraged. Ông was escorted to a small narrow room where he was kept until the meeting was finished. 

The captain and major came in. They took turns berating Ông, accusing him of disobedience. “No! You misunderstand,” Ông said calmly, “Uncle Ho [Chi Minh] wants us to move to the New Economic Zone. I’m just following orders and willing to leave the city.” 

The captain and major were quiet and left the room. Ông waited for four hours. At 5 p.m., the captain returned. “OK Fine! Go home!” 

Ông didn’t wait to be told twice. As he made his way out, he ran into the head captain’s assistant. The assistant was riding a bicycle, rushing to get home in time for dinner. When the assistant saw Ông, he let out a sigh of relief. “Here, take this!” he said, handing Ông an envelope. “Bring this to your local security office. Thank you!” The assistant took off. 

The envelope read CONFIDENTIAL across the front. Ông quickly pocketed it and continued on home. 

He told no one about quitting. Not even his family.

The letter the assistant had given him confirmed that he was no longer an employee of the communists. Addressed to his local security office, the letter stressed to the local officers to control and suppress him. That night, Ông burned the paper as he cooked. 

The next day, Ông left his house at the usual time as if he was going to work. His employers, in their shock, had forgotten to reclaim his employee ID card. Carrying this ID held a distinct weight of power. Every morning and night, he’d flash the card to the local officers. The officers, upon seeing the Cờ đỏ sao vàng, the red and yellow star flag of communist Vietnam, saluted in response. 

There was a complete lack of communication between the communists. Ông used this to his full advantage. 

Ông would observe the chaos at the district office to prepare his exit visa application submission. Everyone who cited reunification with family as a reason to leave Vietnam was turned away immediately. “Tell your family to come to Vietnam,” they’d say. Instead, Ông stated he was leaving due to his physical and mental health. He slipped his application right behind a family with a significant amount of gold, seconds before the office closed for the day. 

Ông wrote hundreds of letters to different countries, asking for an entry visa. 

Three responded with good news: Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Tahiti, and the Central African Republic. 

Because Tahiti is an island in French Polynesia, Ông managed to evacuate Bà, my aunts, and mom to France by plane. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or UN Refugee Agency provided them money for the plane tickets. With the help of a good samaritan, Ông also secured an apartment in the heart of Paris where they lived for two years. 

When the war was over, the U.S. government publicly promised whoever had helped the Americans leave Vietnam with entry to the United States. Ông reminded them of that promise and of his role as an air traffic controller. Finally, in 1981, my family arrived in New York. 


Every Tết, or Vietnamese Lunar New Year, I kneel before my grandparents and wish them great fortune for the year ahead, usually in the form of catchy four-word phrases. 

The more words I say, the more luck I will bring to my grandparents. 

It makes sense in my head.

Without this custom and literal expression of giving back to your elders, I often wonder how I could ever reciprocate the sheer will and fortuitous circumstances that led my grandparents to the U.S. 

That resulted in my existence as their first grandchild. 

It’s a staggering thing to wrap your head around as someone whose only exposure to war has been through stories, images, documentaries, and the news. 

Sometimes, for that reason, the new year wishes can feel superficial. I always mean them sincerely. But they pale in comparison. 

My wishes come from a life of privilege. Luck has been handed down to me like an ancient family relic. 

No words or actions will ever be enough. The only real way to “pay them back” is to lead a life worthy of sacrifice. To study to get ahead. To be as bold as to resist as a means of self-preservation. 

Do so long enough and luck, just might, catch up.

About The Author

Born and raised in Queens, Caitlin Taylor So is a Chinese-Vietnamese writer who is passionate about prioritizing and amplifying marginalized voices. She graduated from Emerson College with a degree in publishing and marketing. Her writing can be found on PopSugar, The Independent, WebMD, and Her Campus Media. When she's not writing, she's polishing her Funko Pop collection and planning her next concert or movie night!