The Tenderloin consistently receives its share of both adoration and disdain from passing visitors. But for 14-year-old Vy Ton and her sister Hien, the neighborhood is the only home in the U.S. they've ever known. The sisters moved to San Francisco from Vietnam in 2010, settling into a studio apartment with their parents and grandmother in Little Saigon. A few months later, the apartment next door became available, and they moved over.
After five years, Vy has a unique perspective on life in the Tenderloin. For starters, she's no stranger to criticism: peers often react with disgust after learning that she lives in the neighborhood. “They say, 'Oh my God, that neighborhood is really bad; it’s bad people there, and it’s gross and stuff.'”
Sometimes they even second-guess her, but Vy has a spirited response. "I just say, 'Yeah, I’m not kidding you. I live in that neighborhood; that’s my neighborhood, and it’s full of people that are not nice. But the people around you, they cannot change you. What is important is yourself. If you are a good person and you live in a place around bad people, you will be good.'”
To Vy, growing up in the Tenderloin is “normal, fun, and interesting ... I have a lot of good people around me. In the summer, there are a lot of field trips, opportunities to have fun and learn more. I’ve met a lot of different people in this neighborhood.”
Of course, she remembers a time when she wasn’t as boastful. “If I said that I lived in another neighborhood and then people came and saw I’m actually in the Tenderloin, let's be honest—they will discuss me more. Some of them don’t even talk to me, and that’s fine. I live in the Tenderloin. Even my parents are like, ‘Where you live, you cannot hide it forever.’”
Since her parents speak very little English, Vy often has to act as the translator for most day-to-day activities. The school where her parents used to attend English classes relocated far from the neighborhood, making the commute from class to their jobs too cumbersome. “They just stopped, and paid attention to their jobs,” says Vy.
Each of her parents has only one day off per week, and never on the same day. “We usually aren’t with our parents that much of the time—except at night," Vy says. "I’m with my sister most of the time, and I’m sometimes trying to fill their place. Sometimes, even on her birthday, I am the one to celebrate it with her, and when she needs to talk, I am the one that talks with her. When she needs something for class, school, or an application, I am the one that goes to sign up for her. My parents don’t have that much time to do that stuff.”
While she knows this is a huge undertaking for someone her age, Vy feels grateful that her family is living in a community that makes them feel at home. “Some neighborhoods don’t have any Vietnamese people, but here, I know a lot of Vietnamese people. When you step out the door, there's Vietnamese food everywhere. It’s easy for me to get food if I’m hungry, and it’s easier for us to stay in touch with our culture.” She mentions the Lunar New Year Festival as one of her favorite celebrations.
Vy's small living quarters make hanging out with friends a challenge, and it can be difficult for her to find breathing room to study. "I wish I had a small, quiet place where I can finish my work, but there is not one. When I step to this corner: my dad is there. When I step to this corner: my mom is there. You know, no corner to let me step in where it is quiet."
"It’s really sad, because with school sometimes, you need to really pay attention and do your homework. It’s not that easy to pay attention and do work in one room with the TV, cooking, and people talking; but I have no choice, so I need to stay with it. I hope I have a bigger home in the future, but for now, my family just needs to stay with this apartment for a long time.”
Jealousy of other friends is natural, but Vy thinks being honest about it is the best policy. “Sometimes, we FaceTime, and [my friends] show me their rooms. I’m very jealous that they can decorate their room, have a place to study, and they have their own world, without their parents around. They have a lot of time to study in a quiet space, and it’s easier for them. So, you know, I am very jealous, and that’s what I tell them, too. I tell them, ‘I’m very jealous of you,’ just to be honest to myself.”
Vy's parents moved to the U.S. to give her and Hien a chance at a better education, and she's all too aware of the need to strike a healthy balance between her status as a soon-to-be freshman at Washington High School, and being a young woman with a clear direction.
“Sometimes I am very funny, but sometimes I need to know who I am, and where I am," she says. "My dad says, 'Just pay attention to your studies, you should not hang out with friends too much,’ and my mom is like, ‘Let her have fun, it’s OK.’ But the only way I can change my family's life is to finish college and to get a job to make money to help them out."
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