Adjusting to life in the U.S. after the Vietnam War
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
In January 1975, President Ford declared the Vietnam War “finished as far as America is concerned.” But a war is never finished for those who live through it.
Rose Vu was born in Vietnam in 1961 just as the United States entered the war. When Saigon fell 14 years later, she fled with her mother, her three brothers and two sisters along with 7,000 other refugees and the last of the Americans. For Rose Vu the Vietnam War was her childhood, and it has never been “finished.”
Vu: I came from Saigon, Vietnam, as a political refugee from the Vietnam War. My father was a colonel in the South Vietnamese Air Force. And at the end of the war we had to leave or we would have been killed or persecuted. I was almost 14 when we left; in fact I turned 14 eight days after I got here.
Gallacher: What was it like for you to leave your country?
Vu: It was sad for me, but I also witnessed the chaos at the end of the war as people were frantically trying to get out. I knew that not getting out was going to mean death for me and my family and a lot of other people. So a part of me was happy but the biggest part was sad. And I guess I shouldn’t have been.
Gallacher: But leaving your country is a very sad thing.
Vu: Yes, it is.
Gallacher: When you were living in Vietnam were you in danger?
Vu: Yes, we lived on the air force base and we were never totally safe because we had to be ready for mortar attacks. The Viet Cong would fire mortars into the base to try and disable the aircraft. We were constantly hearing gunshots and mortars.
Our house was surrounded with sand bags. We got so we could tell from the sound of the incoming mortar if it was going to be close or not. One or two mortars were nothing to worry about, but if we heard three or four we knew that it was a serious attack and we needed to take cover. Our ears were our eyes.
Gallacher: When did you finally have to leave?
Vu: It was April 27, 1975. We were supposed to leave by boat but then, at the last minute, my dad got word that we were going to be evacuated by air. We only had a few minutes to gather our things.
Everyone in my family was packing and I was just playing. I was outside just trying to take it all in and counting the last few seconds I had. But, because I played instead of packing, I ended up having very little to bring to the United States of America. I brought a few items of clothing and some beads.
My dad frantically drove us to the bus that would take us to the plane. He had to stay and fight so that was a very hard time for my mom and us kids. One of my memories was of riding on the bus. People were running alongside yelling, “last chance to trade Vietnamese money for American dollars.” My mom wouldn’t do it. She hung on to the Vietnamese money because she was afraid it might be one of the last things she had to remind her of my dad.
They loaded us on a C130 transport plane. There were no seats but it was like flying first class compared to some of the flights that would come later. We were very lucky. Everyone was packed in tight because they were trying to take as many people as the plane could hold. I remember that a baby was born on our flight from Vietnam to Guam.
When we got off the plane at the air force base in Guam a bus picked us up and took us to a hangar for debriefing. We got in line and the officials there went through our possessions and dumped things out. I don’t remember what was taken and what was left. That time was all a blur for me. I’m good at tuning things out when life gets to be too much. My mind goes blank and I don’t remember. I think that skill has helped keep me alive.
We stayed in a refugee camp in Guam for two weeks before we were moved to Camp Pendleton in California. There we were housed in *Quonset huts along with other Vietnamese refugees, and we started going to school to learn English. Everyday we would go to the Red Cross station and check the bulletin board for information about my father. That was a really sad time for all of us, because we didn’t know if we would ever see him again. What we didn’t know then was that he was flown out by helicopter three days after we left. And he was trying to find us. It took weeks, but he finally did.
We had to stay at Camp Pendleton for quite a while because we needed a sponsor, and it was hard to find one that was willing to take a family of eight people. Finally we found a Vietnam vet and his wife in Orem, Utah, who were willing to sponsor us.
We started school in Orem, and I am pretty sure we were the only Asian family in that town back then. It was hard not knowing any English. When I walked down the hall of the school my eyes were always down. I never looked up.
When I complained to my father he said, “It is either sink or swim. This is America. You don’t know the language, that is your problem, not theirs. You want it. Learn it. When you speak Vietnamese they don’t understand either. So now you know how they feel.”
Gallacher: So how did you manage?
Vu: I just started speaking English with friends, listening to the news and going to the library. And there was this one girl who helped me a lot. Her name was Cindy, but all the kids called her “Stinky” and “Fatty.” She was so kind to me. She taught me a lot about English and helped me pronounce words correctly. She showed me around the school and helped me understand what to do and what not to do. She was my angel.
My dad got a job as a garbage man and started going to technical school at night to learn to be an electrician. My mom didn’t want him to be a pilot anymore, she said she had worried enough. On the weekends and after school we all worked in the orchards picking apples and saving money. Within a month, we had saved enough money to move out of our sponsor’s house and into our own place.
In 1979, dad graduated from technical college. We had planned to move to California where there were more Vietnamese people and the climate is kinder, but the economy was bad and my dad was lucky enough to get a job as an electrician in a soda ash mine in Green River, Wyoming. That’s where he stayed for the next 20 years.
When my parents moved to Green River, I decided to stay in Orem. I had finally made friends, and I told my dad that I didn’t want to start over again. But it was hard to be on my own, and after six months I moved to Green River. I never really adjusted to school there, and I eventually dropped out and got a job waiting tables.
I think my work as a waitress helped me become more comfortable being Vietnamese. I wasn’t trying so hard to fit in like in high school. There was a lot of prejudice back then. Some people treated me like I was the enemy, but I learned to speak up. “I had nothing to do with the war, I was born in it,” is what I used to say. I blossomed as a waitress. I went from being the little girl with thick glasses to a self-reliant young woman who was easier on her self. The more I accepted myself, the easier it became to live here.
*A Quonset hut is is a lightweight prefabricated structure of corrugated galvanized steel having a semicircular cross section.
Immigrant Stories runs every Monday in the Post Independent. To read other Immigrant Stories go to http://www.immigrantcolorado.blogspot.com.
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