Sunday, May 25, 2014

"I Always Loved Abraham Lincoln:" Thao Mong Nguyen Remembers Leaving Vietnam

I Always Loved Abraham Lincoln

Thao Mong Nguyen Remembers Vietnam

We went to Guam for a couple of weeks after we left Saigon, and then we were flown to Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. My father left there first. A church in Connecticut sponsored us. My father went ahead to find a job and our sponsors found us a place to live.

The teachers in Connecticut all called me by my sister’s name and put me in the wrong grade. They called her by my name. We stayed there in Connecticut for one year. In school everyone fought to be our friends. They argued so they could sit with us at the table. And they were always giving my presents. Jewelry and other things. A little girl named Tiffany always drew horse pictures and gave them to me as gifts.

I had two birthdays and that confused the American children, beause we followed the lunar calendar. I gave the kids both dates in school for my firthdays. I found it hard to explain to them.

I was way ahead of all the other kids in math and the teacher kept slowing me down. And I could speak French then but not English, and the kids were amazed by that. I had no English at all. I communicated generally in sign language at the time.

My aunt moved from Connecticut to Washington state with her husband. Soon after that, I remember the morning she called and told us that her daughter had shot herself with a gun they kept in the house. They had all been downstairs talking and the children were playing upstairs. The little girls found the gun and they were playing with it and it went off and shot her through the head. At the hospital she was still crying, “Mommy! Mommy!” But she died there. And my aunt called us and I remember telling my class about it in school. I had to use a lot of sign language and French and Vietnamese to tell my classmates what had happened. And while I was telling them I was crying. Sobbing.

I knew my cousin. It was strange because when the phone rang at three in the morning and my mom answered it, I got up and went into her room. After she talked on the phone my mom and I went outside. It was snowing then, at night. It was the first time I had ever seen or felt snow. It was a bright night outside and everything was white in the night. It was just before Christmas. And it affected me deeply, her death.

I remember that I cried that night. So did my mom. Several months later, in the summer, we moved to the state of Washington. We drove all the way from Connecticut to Washington. We drove across the entire United States in this fifty-collar car that my dad bought. He’s a good mechanic and he kept it in good running condition. We drove across the country in that old Oldsmobile, all of us kids in the back seat with three in the front seat. We saw Mount Rushmore with Abraham Lincoln on it. I always loved Abraham Lincoln.

It took us one month to cross the country and to learn about it as we crossed it. We stayed with friends or in motels. We met all sorts of Americans at rest areas along the highways and talked with them. It was another big family adventure and we all loved it.

Then we went to my cousin’s grave in Washington. I remember feeling a lot of anger at that time. What was the gun doing in the house? And why should she die in the United States after all we went through in Vietnam. It did not make sense to me. But I didn’t dwell on it because I thought I would crack if I did. I knew that. So I didn’t dare dwell on my cousin’s death.

At the cemetery they had these trees and they had little nuts growing on them. I picked one and kept it. I don’t know why I kept it. But I did. I still have it.

We moved to Seattle. My mom’s sister married an American, a white American, and my dad thought that he might be a bad influence. My dad worked with Americans, spoke their language well, got along with them just fine but he did not want any of us to marry one. I thought that was strange, actually.

In Seattle there were more Asians than in Connecticut. I was still in an ESL [English as a Second Language] program at that time. I started to do well in my regular classes, too. I still had this drive inside me to be number one in whatever I did. That has stayed with me since I was in Vietnam.

We were in Washington from third to seventh grade. My dad had friends down here in California. And they helped him get a job here, so we came down. I feel bad for saying it, but there are too many Vietnamese here, I think. I feel like I shouldn’t say it. But I wonder who they are. Are they traitors or are they patriots? Who are they? There are so many of them.

I’d like to go back to Vietnam to visit. I have this identity thing. I sometimes forget that I’m Vietnamese. And then I’ll look in the mirror and think, “Oh-oh, you’re Vietnamese, Thao. Don’t forget it.” It’s really hard. At the Olympics or on the Fourth of July, I feel completely American. And I am curious. If Vietnam was in the Olympics, I would cheer for America. This is my country now. I think that’s why I don’t like to be around too many Vietnamese.

I don’t dream about Vietnam. I look at pictures of Vietnam and I can’t remember things. I remember some things, a few, but with no real details. The older children remember more than I do.

I resent the fact now that people label me something. I don’t fit in with the whites that well, or with the Vietnamese either. In Washington all of my friends were white Americans. Once I picked up English I fit in really well. And when people hear us but don’t see us they think we are white Americans. Yet they find it very hard to accept that we are really Americans now.

My older sister lives in San Francisco. She’s an artist. She’s very creative. Right now she is writing a book. But I try to stay away from conversations about her. You see, she lies with her boyfriend. My dad has disowned her now and never mentions her name.

I go into depressions sometimes. It’s family-rooted. I don’t handle stress too well. My sister put my parents through some rough times, and I resent that. I go out. I have more male friends than female friends. And they are of all nationalities.

I want kids some day, but only after I’ve done my own thing. After I figure out what I want to do in life.

I go to the university, but I pay for my own schooling. I work as a secretary. At home I’m like the other kids. I don’t have to pay for rent or food at home. But I am responsible for my younger brothers and sisters.

I’ve always dreamed of having a big kitchen to cook in. But I’ve always worried that my dad would not like my cooking. I love my dad, with all my heart. But I detest all the things he stands for, almost as much as I love him. I understand his side and his past. But at the same time I believe he should try to understand my side and my sister’s side. Our side and our life. We don’t live in Vietnam any more, and he doesn’t seem to realize that. Vietnam is yesterday. So we just don’t really talk about important things at home. I’m always the only person who talks in the house. I talk but he does not. He sometimes gets upset with what I say and he sends me to my room. End of conversation! Whenever we have a problem, when my brothers or sisters want something, I end up asking for them and taking the blame for them and getting sent to my room again.

Lately, I sort of want to move out. My dad said, “If any of you marry a white boy I’ll disown you.” And my mom said, “Did you all hear that?” I understand why he says it, but it really hurts me. If we all just marry Americans, we’ll lose something of course. But he just doesn’t understand.