Sound & Vision: Washington State House Representative My-Linh Thai on Music and Memories

Sound and Vision
Emily Fox

As part of Women's History Month, throughout March we're getting to know the six new women of color in Washington state's legislature through music. Today we meet My-Linh Thai, member-elect of the Washington State House of Representatives from the 41st district in King County and the first refugee elected in the Washington State Legislature.

KEXP: You moved to Washington state as a refugee when you were 15. Tell us about why you left Vietnam. 

My-Linh Thai: We left Vietnam after the fall of Saigon 1975. My dad was an Army officer for the previous regimes and he was in jail — or as the Vietnamese government called it, the "re-education camp" — for several years. My parents knew that there was really no future for us kids. There are five of us and I'm the oldest. Not only that, the environment where they lived [was] a fearful environment. They don't know when they're going to be jailed again. So it was mostly trying to escape a political environment where it's not possible for us to survive as a family. 

How does it feel to be the first refugee here as a state representative in this time and age in politics? 

I think I felt both a sense of urgency and honor to be that voice. At the same time, pretty heavy weight to carry. And I sincerely hope that every day I wake up being able to do what I need to do to deserve that opportunity. 

Is there a song that represents your childhood, that reminds you of your childhood or maybe one of your parents, that you want to share with us?

You know, I would say representing my childhood is probably [the Eurythmics song] "Sweet Dreams." I didn't realize it, but every time we do karaoke I have a tendency to pick that song. [sings] "I traveled the world and the seven seas." [laughs] But I think it's not necessarily my childhood per se, but, more or less, it reminds me of my path and my journey since coming to the USA. 

Yes, songs have a way to help us. In fact, music was what helped me learn English. I remember getting on the school bus every morning. My school bus drivers always had music on. And those were the '80s. Now my playlists are all full of '80s music for a reason! At first, I couldn't understand what the songs said, but I could feel what the rhythm was about and the harmony of the songs. And by hearing the words repeatedly, it helped me familiarize with it and eventually figure out how it's written and then find out the meanings of it. So many people learn English via television. I learned English via music

Do you have a favorite song?

My favorite song is probably the Titanic's "My Heart Will Go On" [by Céline Dion].  It reminds me of my grandfather. Every time that songs pops up in my head, I know that my grandfather is with me. And so it's my favorite song. 

What is it about it that reminds you of your grandfather? Tell me a little bit about your grandfather. 

Oh boy. [Laughs] So I was raised by my grandparents, and my grandfather — well, both of my grandparents — they did not have an opportunity to go to school. Neither of them knew how to read and write. And so the way they raised me and taught me was mostly through storytelling. My grandfather would tell me stories. Every morning, when I wake up; every afternoon, before the nap; and every evening, before he goes to bed. So for me, I grew up in the land around my grandfather with stories. He was an avid gardener. I remember when I was little, I most often ran around him and he would tell stories of everything. I mean, the earthworms have a story, and the plants have stories. And I believed every single story he told me. He probably made up all of them but I grew up with his storytellings.

My grandparents got sponsored by one of my aunts, who lived in France, and when they got the papers, they left Vietnam. And so I had to leave them. That was when I went up to Saigon and lived with my parents and the rest of my siblings for the first time. I was raised by my grandparents until 12. When they left, we promised we would see each other again. And my grandfather passed away in France and I didn't get to see him. I remember I was really, really angry at him. It took that song for me to forgive him. 

Sound & Vision airs Saturday mornings at 7 AM PST. Hosted by Emily Fox and John Richards, the show "uses interviews, artistry, commentary, insight, and conversation to that tell broader stories through music, and illustrate why music and art matter."

Click anywhere to return to the site