via Phoenix New Times
Arnold O. Beckman High School

Op-Ed: McCain, my third grandfather

The phrase “war-torn Vietnam” is one that my older sister and I overuse in our personal statements. It is one that carries the weight of our heritage and the generations before us; it is a bookend in our ongoing life story. Most of all, though, it is a reminder of our grandpa.

Born and raised in Saigon, Ong Ngoai — the Vietnamese term for “grandfather on the mother’s side” — is a revolutionary.  He fought alongside men of honor and passion, Southern Vietnamese blood coursing through their veins. The man fought until his heart of gold could not allow him to fight any longer, until his family cowered next to him under the shadow of the North.

Then, he ran.

To this day, he still tells and retells again the story of his flight from Communist Vietnam.  We joke that it’s a politically bad sign if a naval general like himself was fleeing from his own country, on that April thirtieth of 1975.

Ong Ngoai was a proud soldier and, to this day, remains fluent in politics. I can’t help but see John McCain in him, or him in McCain. In fact, if American troops hadn’t interfered in the war, my very own grandpa might not have made it out of Vietnam alive.  The two admirable men are closely tied, more closely than one could imagine.

This is why, two generations later, McCain’s death hits so close to home.

John McCain in the military (Photo courtesy of

Ong Ngoai and my grandma, Ba Ngoai, visited my family’s house every day in my childhood. When he arrived, he would immediately put his forehead to mine to “transfer brain power” and exclaim “make good decisions!”  

We would also find him on our rocking chair watching CNN on the beat-down TV or sifting through our mail to find the latest TIME Magazine issue. My mom paid for that subscription because she knew he’d want to read it every time he came over.

Ong Ngoai, contrary to the rest of his children and most of his grandchildren, was obsessed with knowing the news. However, he emphasized that he didn’t identify as distinctly left or right. Instead, he was focused on learning what each side had to offer — like McCain, a model bipartisan.  

It took me a long time to realize why.

Myself, left, Ba Ngoai, center, and Ngoai, right, in 2011 (Photo courtesy of Brianna Pham)

One of the few things that Ong Ngoai’s transferred brain power failed to prepare me for was passed-down political beliefs. As a child, my instinctual reaction was to take everything remotely enticing a parent or adult could offer me. This instinct had gained me multiple chocolates, some expensive toys, and a lifetime supply of generalized politics.  

This instinct is why, during the 2008 election, I wagged my finger in disapproval at Obama’s televised face — he, after all, would make us all pay more taxes. During whatever political discussions one could have in the first grade, I not only undyingly supported McCain, but a warped conservative viewpoint in general. Taxes and money were everything to selecting a president, I reasoned.  McCain was a Republican, so he should be president.

The ugliest part of it all was not my uninformed perspective, but that many students in my class had agreed. Their parents had advised them similarly, so they accepted these views as truth.

I did not realize my generation’s grave mistakes until some time later, when I discovered the miracle of YouTube. I still remember watching, my mouth agape, McCain on CNN. I wholeheartedly applauded when he took the microphone from a supporter and demanded that,no ma’am, Obama was a decent family man and citizen, that the only thing that separated the two men were disagreements on politically fundamental issues. Most importantly, I realized that both Barack Obama and John McCain were principally two humans who were trying to improve our country, and that I should look at both of their proposed solutions objectively.

There was a reason why I started picking up the TIME issues when they came in the mail, why I write such fervent political pieces today. I was fueling the torch ignited by McCain and held by Ong Ngoai, two grandfathers of my time.

“No ma’am” McCain, via CNN

John Sidney McCain took Ong Ngoai’s place in war-torn Vietnam and his own in my life.  He lives on through Ong Ngoai and my love for current events; he is remembered by the legacy he has forged in our nation, our hearts, our lives.  Above all, he taught me what no brain transfer or first-grade experience could ever fully bestow: the intrinsic ability to think freely.

For years, I’ve tried to master the audaciousness possessed by these two grandfathers of mine — biological and the one of many of our country. I could never pull it off.

To compensate, though, I remain steadfast in my print subscription to TIME Magazine.