Actress Hong Chau is receiving her share of attention thanks to her work as a Vietnamese activist in director Alexander Payne’s social satire Downsizing. The tale centers on a man (Matt Damon) who decides to lead a literally smaller life since he and his wife’s financial assets will go much further in this diminutive universe. Chau, who cites her family as well as her upbringing in New Orleans as the inspirations for her role, talks about her background and visit to Vietnam.
“My parents left in ‘79. They were part of the boat people who left. They were on the water for three days until they ended up at a refugee camp in Thailand and that’s where I was born. We ended up in Louisiana because we had a sponsor family who was also a Vietnamese family but we were not related to them. It was organized through the Vietnamese Catholic Church in New Orleans and we lived with them for the first, I think, year or two until we got our own apartment. So my parents did not speak any English (and) didn’t really know anyone. Not a soul when they came over. I have an aunt and uncle who ended up in Sydney, Australia. We’re kind of spread and that’s the refugee story for Vietnamese people.”
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Chau went back to Vietnam with her family to attend her Uncle’s engagement party and while her parents had to take in the country’s many changes, the actress also had her own unique experience:
“When I told my friends I was going to Vietnam they were very excited for me. I was going back to the Mother Land. When I got there I immediately sensed how American I was (laughs). They could just tell that I was from America without having me open my mouth. It’s the way I carry myself. It’s all sorts of things. That was interesting because I feel a little bit in limbo and in between two cultures when I am in the United States. When I went to Vietnam I still felt the exact same way (laughs) of not entirely belonging there either.
I loved being able to meet my grandmother’s cousins. I really appreciate the people who have not quite bought into the Western value system of materialism and popular culture that is sort of spread by the West. When I was in Saigon, the things that my uncle wanted to show me was the new shopping malls that they had built and i just thought, ‘Oh gosh I come from the land of shopping malls (laughs). I want to see things that I can’t find, that I can’t get in the United States. I want to see Vietnamese culture.
It wasn’t until we went out into a little bit more of the country. One of my mom’s younger brothers is still a farmer so we went out and stayed with him. That was really beautiful. They had goats. He had different fruit trees that he was growing and that’s how he makes his living. His kids are very different from the kids that are raised in the city. A lot of the old people didn’t want to ask about my life. They weren’t even really curious about what America is like. They taught me the names of the different fruit that we can’t get here in the United States. That was the cool thing to show me (laughs).”
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Downsizing, co-starring Matt Damon and Christoph Waltz, opens December 22.