Dr. Mai Khanh Tran: Slaying Giants

Last Friday, I met up with Dr. Mai Khanh Tran, who’s running for the House of Representatives in California’s 39th Congressional District. Our meetup took place only a few hours after news outlets reported the mass shooting at Santa Fe High School outside of Houston.

Chatting in Rowland Heights.

Feminist Asian Dad (F.A.D.): That high school is less than 15 miles from my own.

Dr. Tran: I’m so heartbroken by what’s happening.

With all the shootings that we’ve had, I actually thought about not taking my daughter to school today. It’s really sad; when my husband and I were looking for a preschool, we weren’t really thinking about how good the school or curriculum was, but about how safe it was. We wanted to know how many gates and how many barriers there would be on the outside. As a mother and a pediatrician, this breaks my heart so badly. And when is it going to end? I think it’s going to end only when we have people courageous enough to speak up against the NRA’s bullying.

I saw that you posted something online for First Lady Melania Trump this morning.

I wrote her a note saying, “As a mother, to really fight against bullying, you can help us protect all the children in this country and give them the same security that your family and your son have. Be true to your message by standing up to the NRA bullies. How can children be their best when they’re worried about being shot at, or their parents are worried about sending their kids to school?”

One of the girls at Santa Fe High School was interviewed on the news, and she said that she just expected it would one day happen at her school, kind of like it was inevitable.

What a sad statement for a high schooler to have to make.

Santa Fe High School
Again. This time: Santa Fe, Texas. How many more? (Photo: NBC)

What would you do in Congress to take on the NRA and pass legislation to make our schools and neighborhoods safer?

I’ve been a pediatrician for 25 years. During office visits, I talk about gun safety, just like I would talk about child-proofing a house. It’s part of the daily conversations we have with our patients and their families. When I’m in Congress, I will say that gun violence is a public health crisis and an epidemic. We need to approach it the same way as any other epidemic. If we have a measles outbreak, what do we do? We use scientific data, go to the source, and contain the problem. We need to have the same approach to gun violence, and that has not been done. I think when you put it in that language, you change the conversation and take away a lot of the rhetoric about rights. It’s not an attempt to take away the Second Amendment. This is a public health crisis; let’s treat it like that and use our public health resources scientifically.

The gun violence epidemic would seem to include a huge number of suicides, too.

Yes, along with domestic violence. We haven’t presented the gun violence issue in a way that people can understand that this is about their well being and health.

Would you favor an assault weapons ban?

Oh, absolutely. Ban assault weapons and bump stocks. Raise the age limit. Have comprehensive background checks, especially when it comes to mental health. In pediatrics, when we have child abuse cases, we have providers and teachers reporting. We need to have the same when it comes to guns. And we need red flag laws that are federal, not just state.

How does being a mom and a pediatrician inform not only your views on gun reform, but also on other issues?

I’m running for two five year olds. The first is my daughter, who is five and a half. I went through breast cancer twice, so I had to do eight rounds of IVF to have her. She’s the love of my life! I’m running because I want her to feel as American as everyone else. I want her to see a face like hers in a place of power.

Dr. Tran's Mommy Daughter Selfie

I came here as a nine-year-old refugee. The vision of America I had when I first came is so different from the one my daughter is seeing right now. I was part of an airlift of orphans and disabled children out of Vietnam.

As part of Operation Babylift before the fall of Saigon?

Yes, my parents had dropped my siblings and me off at an orphanage. The only thing I remember from that day is that my dad was wearing sunglasses. He’s a former judge, and he’s so proper that he didn’t usually wear sunglasses. I kept looking at him wondering why he was. Then as he was leaving, I saw tears coming down behind the sunglasses; he wore them to hide his tears. My parents didn’t think they would see us again.

After arriving in the U.S., we were carried off the plane by American soldiers. The soldier who carried me represented everything good about this country to me. It had been a long, horrible flight, and I was so scared and felt so lost. And this man came and carried me. That’s the kind of country I remember in my heart, one that’s welcoming and kind, caring for those in need. That’s not the America I know my daughter is seeing. So I’ve got to run for her. I’ve got to.

This iconic image shows Vietnamese children looking out the windows of an Operation Babylift airplane. (Photo: AP)

The other five year old is a patient I saw the day after the election in 2016. That morning, I held my own daughter and wept; I didn’t want to get out of bed. But like a lot of parents, I had to. When I walked into my office, all my nurses were weeping. And then one of my first patients was this girl who had a brain tumor. Her mother works at a nail salon and doesn’t get health insurance from her employer. But she had just gotten insurance because of the Affordable Care Act, right before her daughter was diagnosed. I looked at this mom, and we just burst into tears. We cried like you wouldn’t believe. I said, “We’ve got to start fighting.” As a pediatrician, I see on the front lines every day the impact on families of not having health care.

I also cried the morning after the election.

I’ve never wept like that. It’s deep and makes no sound.

On Election Day, my 85-year-old mom, my daughter, and I got dressed up and took pictures because my mom was going to vote for her first female president. We thought my four year old would have, for her first time, a female president.

The election was brutal.

You announced your candidacy when it was still thought that any Democrat would have to take on Ed Royce.

People asked me, “Do you want to commit ‘political suicide’?”

He’s the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

One of the most powerful incumbents.

Then he surprised everyone and announced that he was done after 25 years in office. Now, you’re going up against 16 other candidates.

A lot of people ask me why I think I can do this. I’m a fighter! I came over here as part of the airlift and got fostered out to a family –

And after your parents made it here, y’all had to do some desperate things to make ends meet.

We were in rural Oregon, so we picked berries beside other migrant families.

Dr. Tran Harvard
With her proud dad at Harvard.

And you had other rather interesting jobs to pay the bills, all the way into college.

I was actually a security guard! And I cleaned the bathrooms in the athletes’ dorm at Harvard; they were the dirtiest places! The men there also threw away a lot of stuff. I remember picking up a lamp that they had thrown out, and fixing it, and putting it in my room. There was also a cassette player I got from there. Whatever they threw out, I would try to salvage and make the most of it. So I worked as a security guard and cleaned dorms; I also read for blind people.

That’s what we do when we’re given the opportunity. My story isn’t really anything different from what a lot of refugees and immigrants, like those in Little Saigon, have to go through. But I was grateful for the opportunity, and I worked hard. I’m a fighter.

I also fought cancer twice, and I fought for my daughter, going through those eight rounds of IVF. I don’t think most men would survive the pain of all the injections and other procedures!

No one has to convince me that women have a higher tolerance for pain than men do.

But I still get that question when I go out and knock on doors: “Why do you think you can get to Congress?”

I’ll bet that’s partly because folks aren’t used to seeing an Asian woman in Congress. They don’t know about Patsy Mink and other fierce women like her.

When people told me running would be “political suicide,” I said, “Maybe it will take a little lady to slay the giant.” It’s time that we change the narrative and bring a different perspective. You can do anything with the heart and steel in you; it’s not about being flashy or your size.

Here’s a visual: I can see Mother Teresa slaying a giant. That’s the message I want my daughter to have, and what I want the community to understand. We can get things done by compassion and strength.

Dr. Tran with Chloe
Actress and activist Chloe Bennet confesses her surprise that Dr. Tran worked as a security guard to pay the bills at Harvard, in this still from their recent interview for (RUN).

The president has made it clear that he sees not only undocumented folks as a problem for our country, but legal immigrants, too, because he wants to dramatically cut legal immigration. If you could, what would you say to him about the value of immigrants?

A lot! But I’d say, “I’ll be forever grateful for this country, for the people who gave me a secure place to live, and for all the opportunities. Stop vilifying us! Give immigrants a helpful hand, and you’ll have a nation that’s grateful to you.”

And DACA recipients, those who were brought here with no control of their own, should be given their documents. We’ve invested so much into them, and they don’t know life anywhere else. I wouldn’t know what to do if I had to go back to Vietnam right now, either!

For family reunification that so many of us have benefited from, let’s expedite the legal immigration process, the visa application process, and the asylum seeker process. And about separating families, I heard about that asylum seeker who was separated from her five year old, with the little girl going halfway across the country to stay in a detention center. I have to ask, “How is that humane?” Let’s have comprehensive immigration reform that’s truly humane.

The announcement that the Trump Administration will put in jail every parent who comes into the U.S. illegally, sending each kid away, makes me think of what you went through after the fall of Saigon. You didn’t know for months whether you’d see your parents, ever again. These kids don’t either.

It’s so traumatic to a child. Why do they have to do that? Why is that even part of the conversation, separating families?

Dr. Tran Filing
Three generations of Americans.

If I could switch gears a bit – you’ve talked before about your husband’s support.

When I went and filed for my congressional race, I had my mom and daughter with me. I put up my hand and did the swearing in, and I shared that picture on International Women’s Day. But that night I looked at it and thought, “Where is my husband?” I felt really bad that the picture just had my mom, my daughter, and me! So I went back and found a picture of my husband at the Women’s March, carrying a banner that said, “Elect More Women.” I posted that online and wrote that the other picture wouldn’t even be possible without my husband, who not only marched, but he’s cleaned, and cooked, and looked after my five year old while I’ve been campaigning. It’s not just the moms and grandmothers who are getting our daughters to believe and find strength in themselves, but it’s all the strong and supportive men who are helping us to advance the message that boys and girls are all capable.

Being a feminist man is all about being an ally and boosting the signal for women.

I give my husband so much credit. And I want to make sure that my daughter understands that, too. It’s not that we meant to leave Daddy out of the picture, but his support is genuine. It’s hard to teach daughters to want partners like that. Our society still puts so much emphasis, like when I was growing up, on finding a partner with achievements, success, money, and power.

Dr. Tran Fourth of July
Celebrating the “Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,” just like their shirts say.

I know you have to go, but I wanted to close by thanking you for running. I know you’re running in part for your daughter; I feel like you’re running for my daughters, too. Like you, I really want my girls to see faces like their own in office.

It’s also so clear to me that if the voters of this district want to send a message that they reject Trumpism, they’ll vote for you. Your life story is a repudiation of his policies and rhetoric – as a refugee and immigrant, as someone who works in health care and who’s had to fight insurance companies for your own treatment, as an award-winning small business owner, as a woman, as a person of color. Thank you for running!

Oh, thank you! That means a lot.

For more on Dr. Tran’s life, achievements, and what she’ll do as the California 39th’s representative, visit her campaign website at DocTran2018.com. You can also connect with her on social media via Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. And remember to vote on Tuesday, June 5!

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.