In “The Brave Who Crossed The Sea” Thao Te preserves and celebrates her heritage
She was only four years old, but Thao Te distinctly remembers waiting for her older brother to come home from school—and seeing him arrive in tears.
On his first day of kindergarten, he told her, the other kids wouldn’t stop hurling the F-word at him.
It turned out to be an honest mistake. The name that preserved his Vietnamese heritage, Phuc (“fook”), was simply being mispronounced by his five-year-old classmates. But, from that point on, Thao and Phuc vowed they would never suffer this sort of embarrassment again. Outside of their home, they would adopt new personas and do their best to blend in.
Thao and Phuc became Judy and John.
“There’s this dual identity that I’ve always had to grow up with,” said Te (BSBA 2006, MBA 2006), who was born in Denver, but didn’t speak English until grade school. “I was trying to assimilate and fit in with my classmates and my peers. But at home, there were still the customs and the language to adhere to. You’re constantly picking and choosing between what you try to identify with.”
It wasn’t until she got married and moved to Dallas in 2014 that she began to feel comfortable in her own skin—and publicly go by the name her parents gave her.
Now, at age 38, she is not only embracing her Vietnamese heritage, but preserving it and openly celebrating it. Her new book, “The Brave Who Crossed the Sea,” chronicles the story of her parents, who fled Saigon in the 1970s, and eventually took a boat to the United States, seeking refuge.
“There’s a lot of people out there who have been through what my parents have been through,” Te said. After Saigon fell in 1975, more than 1 million Vietnamese escaped via boat. One-third of them died on their voyage across the ocean. “Culturally, Vietnamese don’t talk a lot about our feelings and our emotions. As my two kids were growing up, I could see our heritage slipping away a little bit. I wanted my kids to know the sacrifices that their grandparents made for us.”
With the 40th anniversary of her parents’ journey upcoming, Te was determined to “gift them” their story. Her parents had dropped hints about their past during Te’s childhood, but she was determined to obtain as many specific details as she could and put them in writing.
She set up a camera in her dining room and invited her mom and dad to sit for separate interviews. The sessions were comfortable; the attire was often pajamas. And Te made sure to explain to her parents why she felt it was so important to preserve their story and pass it down.
“I really pushed them on being as honest as possible,” Te said. “We need to know all aspects—the good, the bad and the ugly—of what they went through, so we understand what they endured and the sacrifices they made to get here. They’re lessons that our future generations can learn. I think that helped them be a little more open with the things that happened.”
To supplement their first-person accounts, Te spent hours researching the Vietnam War, reading books from other refugees and building her historical knowledge.
The COVID-19 pandemic gave her more time at home to write; the lull in social activities gave her the opportunity to push the project over the finish line. Then, she invited her parents to a small celebration that commemorated the 40th anniversary of their voyage to freedom. With the captain of their boat and several other passengers from 40 years ago looking on, Te presented the completed project to her parents.
“They were so joyful and proud,” Te said. “It was a huge weight off my shoulders to be able to hand it over to them because it was a culmination of their journey up to this point and the work I had put into it to be able to gift it to them. I was elated!”
Te originally came to the University of Denver intending to become a dentist. But it wasn’t long before her heart pulled her toward the Daniels College of Business, where she was drawn to real estate, the industry in which her parents worked.
In just four years, she earned one bachelor’s degree in marketing, another from the Burns School of Real Estate and Construction Management and an MBA in finance. She was heavily involved in the Vietnamese Student Alliance and the Colorado Asian Pacific Student Alliance, where she surrounded herself with students who could relate to her life experience as the child of immigrants.
In 2005, she and her business partner, Jason Busboom, co-founded Busboom Group, a commercial property company that now owns and operates more than 2,600 apartment homes in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Te serves as vice president.
Despite her seat in the C-suite, Te describes herself as risk-averse and conservative. Writing her parents’ story pushed her to change that.
“Watching my parents go through that and watching them struggle has allowed me to feel encouraged to struggle as well and not always play it safe,” she said. “Their journey has allowed me to be willing to take that and to instill that upon my kids as well, that it’s OK to fail. It’s OK to not be perfect, as long as you’re trying. It’s instilled that level of grit and risk taking and putting myself out there and working through it.”
Even so, Te was nervous to stand in the spotlight in December 2022. She returned to DU as the keynote speaker at the Daniels Academic Hood ceremony, where she revealed her “true identity” on a campus that had only known her as Judy Nguyen. In her speech, she shared some of her own story, reassuring the new graduates that few lessons can be learned without risk and failure.
“Don’t be afraid of putting in hours and hard work to get through those challenging times as you enter this market and economy that might be a bit uncertain. Embrace your failures and be proud of who you are,” Te said in her address.
“What name do you want to make for yourself?”