In this episode of Immigrant Faith Stories, I spoke with Hahn Shols, a Vietnamese American who fled Vietnam just before Saigon fell in 1975. She was only twelve years old when she left home with her parents and five siblings.
None of them spoke English except for Hahn’s father who was fluent in eight languages. Hahn struggled in school, facing racism from students who asked her, “What does dog meat taste like?” Though she loved to learn and study, she hated school.
Here’s where the story took a turn. The kindness of a teacher changed Hahn’s refugee experience. Mrs. Nancy Randall took the twelve-year-old under her wing, not only teaching her English and helping her cope with school, but also showing her unconditional love by inviting Hahn into her home. Determined to learn the language and do better in school, Hahn worked hard, studying until the wee hours of morning. She won the school’s spelling bee contest in seventh grade!
Throughout school and college and into her twenties, Hahn had a somewhat rocky relationship with Jesus, until both she and her husband, Chris, encountered God in a miraculous way. Together, they surrendered their lives to Christ.
Hahn and Chris have been married for 31 years now and live with their adult daughters, Erika and Rebeka, in Silicon Valley, CA.
Hahn’s story reminded me that God is in control of our lives and His steadfast love follows us no matter where we go or how badly we mess up. Her testimony also demonstrates the power of one…one individual (her teacher) can make a difference by sincerely loving others, especially foreigners, or those who are broken, oppressed, or neglected.
Watch my interview with Hahn:
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Here’s the full transcript of episode #2:
Mabel: Hi everyone! Welcome to Immigrant Faith Stories. Today we are talking with Hahn Shols. She is a Vietnamese American. Hahn is married to Chris. In fact, today is her 31st anniversary. So, Happy Anniversary, Hahn!
Hahn: Thank you.
Mabel: I’m so excited to be talking with Hahn today. Hahn and her husband, Chris, are both realtors who have a family business. They are based in Silicon Valley in California. Both of them love serving their church, the Bethel Church of San Jose, and Hahn loves working out and spending time with her family. So, welcome, Hahn!
Hahn: Thank you so much for having me.
Mabel: Let’s go back to the beginning of your immigrant journey. When and why did you come to America?
Hahn: Around April 1975. Well, prior to that we knew that something was going on. The war was happening and we were told to come, you know, come in at night, very early, maybe like 8 or 9 p.m. and I remember my parents, you know, prepare the house with bars and locks and all that stuff. But not really know… I wasn’t clear what was going on until close to the time of leaving Vietnam that we were told to move to a compound in Saigon 1975.
So we were leaving this compound. I’m not sure exactly the time frame, but.. and I remember the day that they told us, “This is it! You need to leave. It’s critical.” So they told my father that if he wasn’t leaving and he is to stay, that he will be captured and he would be in prison. So we all prepared to leave and the day…the day that we left, we basically… that’s eight of us, so we group up to two by two and we ran as fast as we could to get on it.
The plane was a freighter plane. It was very big and I was only… what, 12 at the time so I remember running as fast as I could and we made it inside and within an hour of leaving Saigon the captain came on to the speaker and just shared with us that Saigon was just bombed. Within an hour from leaving. And then we landed to Thailand and from Thailand we end up in Guam. And then, from Guam we went to camp Pendleton and Camp Pendleton is located in San Diego.
And I remember some really fun, fun stories, you know. We couldn’t figure out the weather. It was, just like… it was so hot during the day and it was very cold at night so we played this little game, that we, my dad and I did. We traded meal tickets for blankets and then we would go to different camps for better food so in fact, unto this day, I remember Chop Suey.
I cannot eat Chop Suey because we had a lot of Chop Suey! It’s just something, you know, something that we did for fun.
Mabel: Yeah, well, that’s an interesting story and I know that your family, so they fled Vietnam afraid for their lives and so now you’re in America. Tell us about your…what was going through your mind. What kind of emotions, you know, you were feeling? I’m sure it was all mixed because you were a young girl, you were only 12 years old when you had to leave your country. Were you angry or sad?
Hahn: I think I had all those emotions. A lot of it was anger. Not sure what’s gonna happen, because you know, we… all, all of us except for my dad, he spoke English but not any of us. So it’s just like it was scary starting…starting new school, starting new life, and just in America and not sure what people think of you. It’s just… just all of those emotions, scary, excited and…and.. not know… knowing anyone, starting life all over again in America and and just to live in…in the South on top of that. It was very scary and people…people look at you and they stare at you. You didn’t know why they’d stare at you, you know.
Mabel: Yeah, yeah…that must have been tough because your family…the life that you used to live in Vietnam was in a way completely the opposite of what you were living in America. Isn’t that right, because you were a wealthy family. Your dad had a good job and it was different now in America. You’re all starting from scratch.
Hahn: Right, right… it was… it was very tough. My dad was somewhat successful, he traveled quite a bit for the American Embassy. We saw him maybe, maybe, once a month or maybe twice a month but he is this man… very well, done very well in Vietnam. I remember having the…the…mom had a maid and the driver and all those…those things that you have when you have a good and to come to America and watching my father pumping gas. His first job. That’s tough. And I remember…remember that he didn’t come home and he would do any odd jobs that he could just to… just to you make it and just to make money for our family.
Mabel: I’m sorry do you want to take a break?
Hahn: No, I’m good… good. Sorry.
Mabel: So talk us through now your faith journey. How and when were you introduced to Jesus?
Hahn: My first… my first school experience was in sixth grade. They put me in sixth grade. There’s a gap there because I… of all the months…the months that we… we were leaving from Vietnam to America and then I started school, I started sixth grade in, I think it was September-August, and we… I started elementary school in… in Asheville, North Carolina, and my first American teacher happened to be a Christian, Mrs. Nancy Randall and she just loved on me.
Every Sunday she drove for half an hour to pick me up and I just spent Sunday with her and I just spent time with her at her house and she took me to a church. I’m… I wasn’t sure what… what this Christian thing was about. I just know that people shared with me. Mrs. Nancy Randall and her husband had. Basically, they just shared love with me and later on, I… I, you know, I… I can tell that they were… they were Christian and introduced me to a lot of people at church and every Sunday I was… I was loved on and moving forward, this is… this is why I served in church starting with children’s ministry because I just feel like if I can make it difference in somebody’s… a child’s life like she did with me with me, it’s a way of paying back.
Mabel: Yeah… yeah… thank you for sharing that. I know these are painful memories and probably some of these questions are triggering some hurt in you.
Hahn: You would think that you would be okay by now but you know these are happy tears.
Mabel: Praise God! So then… I know that you were introduced to church now and you also had Mrs. Randall and her husband showing you love and you somewhat understood… you know a little bit God’s love through them but how did that change over the years? And when you went to college, how did your faith grow? And also, how did you meet your husband?
Hahn: I walked away from God so many times I lost count but He just would not let me go. One other thing, that in college, I happen to go to a Christian college in Berea Kentucky and immediately I was… gravitated to a group called Campus Crusade. Met a lot of wonderful friends there, and I think I just got into the wrong crowd and just had a lot of fun. I was… for the first time… I saw people like me a lot. There’s a lot of really friendly people from all walks of life and I just I thought, Wow! I just really like this, you know, I got some attention and people was not making fun of me. I can… I can talk, I can make friends and then I just got, I think, I just got too much fun and I just think, “Okay, I’m gonna take control my life now.”
It’s just you know… and I walked away from the Lord and and I met my husband, moving forward. Met him in 1987 and… and then we… we went to a business conference and that’s when we accept the Lord in our lives and that was March and we got married in May in ’89. But we met way before then. But… uh… that’s when we started our journey of, you know, getting to know God and just come together as husband and wife and then I just… I just… I remember talking to my husband and said we need to give back what… what…how God had blessed me and that’s when we started our ministry at Bethel Church.
Hahn: Much later but not not right away but much later.
Mabel: Tell us a little bit more…maybe elaborate on how your husband and you, both of you…because that’s an interesting story… how both of you together came to Christ and what was the… you went to a conference, so could you take us through that?
Hahn: Yeah, it was an interesting story. We… we had a business a catalog business together. We went to a business conference and business conferences usually go Friday, Saturday and Sunday but we never were interested in… in attending this thing that they have on Sunday morning. We knew it was a church service but we were not interested. At the time all our business mentors happened to be Christian and we… you know…we …a lot of friends kept inviting us to Sunday service. We don’t know that’s okay well we’re not interested.
That had nothing to do with business so we just said, forget it, but the interesting weekend was in in March… when… this year was March and it was… what we did is… this was March 1989. Now we got married in May 1989 so that weekend, Saturday night, Chris and I could not sleep we were just really uneasy and we were pacing the floor and we say, we don’t get this, you know, why can… we, why can… why can we not grow our business? We’re working so hard and… and… just like… we asked some questions to our friends, our mentors it’s just like why can’t we… why can’t we get this, our mind around this and they just said, you know what, the only thing I can tell you is that you… you need to come Sunday morning to… to understand this.
So Sunday morning we were up already. We couldn’t sleep that night so we went to the church service that everyone was talking about. We sat there, you know, close to each other, my husband and I. And we heard two testimonies. It was so powerful. It was so touching and we could relate to the people so we stood up and we went forward and we accept Jesus in our lives and then we were surrounded by
a lot of friends and they prayed over us and I cannot begin to tell you, our business, our marriage… just incredible…how God got a hold of us, of our hearts and then our business just started thriving because we just felt like we put God first and then we start trusting Him and we started working as hard as we could but meanwhile, we have God on our side. He was ahead of us. He was just… started blessing us and our business just took off!
Mabel: God is so good. I love that story, I really do.
Hahn: Thank you!
Mabel: So tell us a little bit about how your faith affected your relationships and the way you lived and especially relationships with your…with your family, your parents and your siblings. Tell us a little more about that.
Hahn: I think that my journey with… with the Lord was very rocky. I questioned Him a lot. I was very angry. I remember questioning God like, why me? Why did you give me the family that you did? Why my parents? They’re not loving.
I think that through God I learned to forgive them and… and to… to know that they’re not perfect and I trust in God and not in my human parents and just to forgive them and just to… to keep my eyes on God and to trust Him and I learned over the years to forgive. I just pray for them and same thing with… with other friends. I just… I just know, we as humans, myself especially, we’re not perfect but God is. And His love is consistent, and I think that’s one thing that I can say that I pray about everything and I just learned to trust God and… and the first thing I do in the morning is I give my day over to Him.
Mabel: Yeah, His love is so steadfast, so consistent that we can depend on it even though, you know, we’re imperfect. How did you deal with… I’m sure initially as an immigrant, you dealt with some amount of racism or discrimination. How did you deal with that? I mean, how are you processing all that?
Hahn: You know, if you can imagine, children in middle school, in high school are very cruel, especially in the South. Not to say that not everyone was like that but you know, everything that comes out of your mouth… it’s like they were making fun of you. The way you… the way I spoke, and I just I was very angry.
And in fact, I… instead of being angry I channeled my anger into, in through studying and I just had to focus on something that I’m in control and… and I think that’s… that’s how I had to walk through that, you know even though I was depressed and angry and… and just… just… you know…just trying to get myself surrounded with people that believed in me like Nancy Randall and in people that were supportive, you know instead of…instead of people that…that were just making fun of me and not until much later I realized that you know those… those people doesn’t have confidence in themselves, um… so they just expressed their confidence by… by picking on me.
Mabel: Yeah, yeah, that could be true… yeah. So what would be your advice, then, for new immigrants or new refugees, anyone who’s living in a foreign country and they’re finding themselves in a new culture? They’re probably feeling lost or lonely. What advice do you have for them?
Hahn: You know, looking back, I would say that find a community that…surround yourself with friends, the people that support you. And it’s okay to ask for help and I… I think that just keep in mind that there are blessings at the end of every hard journey and… and that, usually I ask… now looking back. Looking forward I ask… often ask God what… what is it you want me to learn from this journey, from this hardship and and I feel that there’s blessings for every hardship and I hope that if I can just say that… just surround yourself with some good people and… and connect with a church. Connect with other immigrants and it’s okay to ask for help.
Mabel: Yeah, that’s really helpful advice. And I when I look… listen to your story I marvel at God’s sovereignty and goodness how, you know, as a little girl in Vietnam and now in America and throughout your life, as you narrate your story I see how He was literally chasing after you and never let you go. He was so good to you and so faithful. So this story is so powerful. Thank you for sharing your heart with us. We enjoyed talking to you. Before we go, is there anything else you’d like to say? Or, like to add?
Hahn: If I can add that, I didn’t… when I took my eyes off myself and then focus on God and trust Him and serve Him and… and just… just know that He would take care of me. I think that’s the greatest blessing of… If I can share of this journey, and that when you give back and when you take your eyes off yourself God… God will use you on a daily basis if you… you let Him.
Mabel: Yes, absolutely. Amen. Thank you so much, Hahn, for doing this and for sharing your life. Thank you!
Hahn: Thank you so much for having me.
If you have any questions for Hahn or for me, please type your question in the comments section below, and we will do our best to answer your question.