Ask A Former Refugee
Hello there! If you are here, you are very interested in the refugee experience and conversation. Allow me to introduce myself, I'm a Vietnamese American who survived the war and came to America as a teenager in 1975 when South Vietnam fell to the North Vietnamese Communist Regime. Every Vietnamese refugee experience is unique and their trek to freedom might be a lot more harrowing than mine and I consider myself very lucky. I invite your questions, engagement as a reader and/or as a refugee to add to the oral and written history of our country here in America. Here are some questions I received from my Facebook Page Guests and Followers.
Please leave your questions for me in the comment section below and I will add it to this blog post with my answers and on my Facebook Page Chi Being Chi, http://facebook.com/beingchi.
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Note: I will only use the first names and the cities of the person who asked the questions in this post.
Emily, Fair Oaks, CA: What was the most surprising thing, place or event for you as a refugee when you first came to America?
In 1975, We moved to Pinedale, Wyoming to live with our sponsors after four months of living in Camp Pendleton (the refugee camp in San Diego, California). These were some things and events that made a lasting impression on me:
1. I saw my first working cowboys and dairymen in their cowboy boots, hats, and jeans and some of them had blond eye lashes!
2. Our family was the only asians in town and people followed us around and stared at us wherever we went!
3. Our sponsor's friends took us to an auction and heard the auctioneer for the first time calling out prices for cattle and sheep. That was very theatrical and entertaining even though we didn't understand what was going on.
4. Had my first McDonald's cheeseburgers and learning to line up everywhere we went.
5. Fruit left on trees unpicked and littered on the ground unused.
6. Supermarket automatic doors, opened refrigerated food sections, and check stands.
7. Airport escalators, Los Angeles International Airport and advance infrastructures like roads, bridges, freeways, and buildings.
8. Drive-thrus, fast foods, processed boxed foods in grocery stores.
9. Junior High and High schools' students dress codes and their open interactions with boys (Girls wore low-cut tops and tight jeans)
10. Cleanliness of streets, freeways and a sense of general abundance and wealth
Most of all, I noticed generosity and philanthropy from our second sponsors in Fresno, California, a Lutheran Church Congregation who took care of our every need and helped us with acculturation and assimilation.
Rachel from Santiago, Chile
I would really like to know: 1) what was your biggest fear about coming to the U.S. prior to arriving, and did you wish you had been able to go to another country instead? 2) Did you understand that you'd be spending a significant portion/the rest of your life outside of Vietnam when you left? 3)What experience do you think is universal for refugees, regardless of where they came from or where they went to?
1) I knew that safety was no longer an issue, so as a teenager I thought a lot about our family's welfare on how we could learn the language to get jobs in order to have shelters, food, and education. My father had the best command of the English language of all in our family since he's worked with the US Military Advisers, but older siblings and I had only a few years in school and didn't have 100% fluency. I feared most about how our large family of nine could survive in the new land with so many mouths to feed, clothed, and schooled. Assimilation would be my biggest fear.
I think that survival was of paramount and I didn't wish that our family could go to another country. I was working hard at proficiency in English when I started learning it and planned for an exchange year to America so I was overwhelmingly grateful to be in America and how well our family was treated in the refugee camps by the Americans.
2) We left Vietnam for political reason first and foremost and in 1975 we accepted the fact that we could never come back to our home, though it was harder to live with that thought as time went by because "never" is a long time! The North Vietnamese Communist Regime wouldn't look kindly upon the South Vietnamese Military Officer and his family coming back once they left the country, to put it mildly.
3) I could only speak from my experience as a refugee but as human beings, we have the most basic and fundamental needs to protect and provide for our family, and I would venture to say that universally, we want to be able to assimilate, acculturate, educate ourselves and our offsprings, and becoming contributing citizens of society and the world at large.