This article is reprinted from FORUM, the statewide magazine of the Florida Humanities Council.
© Florida Humanities Council
We walked arm-in-arm through the bustling Hanoi market. Rows of vendors selling tea leaves offered samples in tiny ceramic cups. It was mid-morning and the streets of the capital city of Vietnam were already crowded with shoppers snatching up fresh ingredients for the day’s dinner.
It was the summer of 2000 and I had returned to Vietnam for the first time since fleeing my war-torn homeland with my family 25 years earlier. I was only 2 years old then, so I had no memory of my birth country and no relationship with relatives left behind.
That morning, as I shopped with a younger cousin, she asked me questions about my life in America. She leaned in and whispered so softly, her voice was barely audible over the roar of passing mopeds.
“Is it true,” she asked in Vietnamese, “that all roads in America are paved with gold?”
I laughed out loud. I grew up in Florida, where potholes rattle my car; where there are riches, but also pockets of poverty and homelessness, unemployment and sickness.
“Nonsense,” I answered back in Vietnamese. “Life is tough in America, too. People work very hard to build a good life for themselves.”
My parents were no exception. We arrived in America as refugees in 1975, settling first in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. At that time, Lancaster was among several communities across the country to erect tent cities, which served as temporary housing for the mass exodus of émigrés from Vietnam.
With help from a sponsor family and their church, my father immediately took a blue-collar job and enrolled in school. In 1979, he graduated from Penn State University with a computer science degree and moved the family to Florida where the warm climate had also lured other expatriates.
My father worked as a computer programmer and my mother assembled small electronic parts in a factory. They bought a tiny, three-bedroom, one-bath home to raise their five children. They had no savings and spent each paycheck on food, clothing, and what they considered basic necessities—music lessons to enrich our lives and braces to straighten our teeth.
I spoke no English when I started kindergarten, but I picked it up quickly. Some of it I gleaned from my mother, who struggled to learn the language. In second grade, when the teacher asked for words that began with the letter “A,” I proudly answered: “al-cah-hawn.” My classmates snickered. That was how my mother, with her heavy accent, pronounced rubbing “alcohol” at home.
The language barrier kept my parents in the dark about many things outside the home. They did not know when report cards were distributed and never attended a single conference with a teacher. They were unable to help us with our English homework and science projects. As long as they saw us studying, they were content.
In second grade, my mother did hear from a friend about a program called Girl Scouts. It sounded like a good activity to her. That year, I happened to be friends with a girl named Amanda, who, over the next decade, would introduce American culture, including Girl Scouts, into my very Vietnamese life.
Amanda always wore the latest styles: Coca-Cola shirts and Member’s Only jackets, stirrup pants and UNITS belts. She tabbed her jeans at the ankle and adorned her wrists with jelly bracelets. Meanwhile, I wore the same pair of pin-stripe pants to school every day. Despite being a head taller, she would loan me her clothes. I still remember my favorite outfit in seventh grade: an oversized sweatshirt with different colored lips on it, paired with bright green balloon pants.
One Christmas, she received a hard-to-find (and signed!) Cabbage Patch doll from her parents. My parents gave my three brothers and sister and me much-needed bath towels.
Many Friday nights, I went to a church youth group with Amanda and her family. Sunday mornings, they picked me up for services. Some Sunday afternoons, I accompanied my parents to the Buddhist temple where we burned incense, chanted and prayed. And every Saturday morning for years, we attended Vietnamese school. In the ’80s, much like today, Florida’s Vietnamese population was spread out across the state. But a handful of families who lived in the Tampa Bay area pooled their money to hire a teacher to instruct their children how to read and write in Vietnamese. They became our social circle. At dinner parties, the parents compared their children’s grade-point averages and SAT scores. Did you hear about Mr. Hung’s twins? Co-Salutatorians. How about Mr. Ha’s son? Medical school.
To them, education was the key to success. It didn’t matter what else we did with our time, as long as we brought home all As. My siblings and I conspired to present our report cards only when we all had good marks. If one of us had a “B,” we waited until the next grading period to reassess. Once, three quarters went by and my mother wondered aloud why she hadn’t seen our grades in a while. We just shrugged our shoulders. It’s not like she could call up the school. She spoke no English.
Because my mother worked in a factory with other Vietnamese women, she didn’t have an opportunity to learn the language. She took English language classes at night, but she had a seventh-grade education. Learning another language in adulthood while working and raising five children was difficult.
It was fun for us. My siblings and I discussed our lives freely in front of my mother. “Don’t tell mom,” my brothers would say at the dinner table in rapid English, “but we’re going out tonight.” My mother just continued eating her rice.
But my parents kept a tight fist around us, constantly lecturing us about our studies. College was not an option. It was an expectation. They told us stories about our cousins in Vietnam who were hungry, lived in huts and had no education. People died trying to come to America, my mother said. I can still see my mother weeping into our rotary phone one summer after receiving news about a cousin’s death. Thai pirates had intercepted a ship filled with Vietnamese escapees in the middle of the ocean and threw the men, including her cousin, overboard.
My parents fled Vietnam to raise their children in a free country, where there is unlimited opportunity if you just take it. All five children, first-generation Vietnamese-Americans, went to college and have achieved success in their own ways. That’s the beauty of America. You are given many paths to travel. Everyone has a chance at an education and has the freedom to choose which path he or she will take.
Perhaps my cousin was right. The roads in America, the ones we travel in life, just might be paved with gold.
Phuong Nguyen, a former Florida journalist, works in resource development at United Way Suncoast.
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