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At work a friend and co-worker of mine is always sharing a smile to whomever he comes across with. This is how easily I came to know Tuan Nguyen. He was born in 1969 to a place America shares history with –Saigon, Vietnam. Even at an innocent age he would be exposed to the aftermath of a brutal war in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon.
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Unlike most of us, Tuan's growing years to a young adult was marked with continuous fighting with neighboring countries and within it. Long years of fighting destroyed land, livelihood, and what little infrastructure Saigon had. He recalls life in Vietnam was unstable. His father had a job one day and then nothing the day after. Everyday posed a challenge to make ends meet. The few jobs available were in the service sector like grocery store, the restaurant business, or carpentry. It was a daily struggle for a father whose only wish was to provide for his family.
Tuan's mother and sister faced their own struggle. Local townsfolk belittled and ridiculed his family because his mother bore a child from an American soldier. From the book “Crossing the Blvd” Lana Dinh also had a similar experience (Lehrer and Sloan, 114-115). Tuan has an older half-sister. They are two years apart but separated further by a culture intolerant of a relationship with any foreigners. Tuan painfully witnessed either glaring looks or harsh name-calling thrown at his mom and sister. Under these circumstances, the option to leave their home became easier.
After the fall of Saigon, the Communist took over the country. To continue their momentum they crossed the border of neighboring countries with the goal of expanding their power. Tuan knew that very soon he would be drafted to serve the Communist army or else face the consequences. He would be drafted to serve a government he had no faith or trust in. For Tuan, it was also clear that he must leave his home.
So the journey for Tuan’s family began. His mother started the bureaucratic legwork. Political negotiations between Vietnam and America paved the road for the journey. America would partially lift an embargo in return for American POW’s and Asian-American children. Diplomatic relations improved between the two nations and a U.S. embassy was established.
Tuan’s mother equipped with the little English she knew entered the embassy. Surprisingly, Tuan recalls how fluent the Americans were in speaking the Vietnamese language. The personnel explained to her the provisions and its requirements like letters and photos that would establish her relationship with an American. But confidently she had the only proof that any sensible and intelligent person would need-her daughter. Even without the pictures, her daughter was light-skinned and blonde just like the people working inside the embassy. So their journey to America commenced.
With just a few belongings Tuan’s family first went to Thailand. According to an anthropologist this experience marks “physically and symbolically the transition of human beings between societies” (Mortland, 375). Everyone debark the plane and Tuan’s family were directed to a different room. Tuan said “they placed us in something like a jail cell.” Thailand was a station where they do health exams and screening for potential infectious diseases. He explains that during their flight they cried so much their eyes stayed swollen and reddish that health screeners thought they had pink eye. The entire process of screening took about three months. About 200 people made the best of their time sleeping, talking, and thinking in one huge warehouse. Despite the conditions, their Thai hosts treated them well and they all knew that eventually this would also pass.
“After that…. we stayed in a camp and it was beautiful.” Tuan’s family was in the Philippines. Another station before they reach America. The Philippines provided refugees and asylum seekers assistance (Koltyk, 28). They stayed in a house separate from the other families. U.S. planned for this area as a teaching ground to learn American way of life and English. Here they would wait until an organization from America could sponsor them. Tuan says some people had stayed there for as much as ten years. Orphaned children stayed the shortest. Tuan’s family stayed for one year.
Finally, they were on a flight to America. Tuan says the first thing he noticed was the streetlights over Arizona. There were so many streetlights. In contrast, his hometown in Vietnam at night used only oil lamps. They were also warned about ho high the temperatures could get in Arizona. Tuan hardly noticed mostly because he was in an air-conditioned environment. The following day while outdoors he did find out what Arizona heat was all about.
Tuan currently has his place of his own. He is an American citizen. He has a job and car payment just like any American. The U.S. government promoted programs that increased their capability to be self-sufficient (Koltyk, 24). The Refugee Act of 1980 mandated to oversee refugee adaptation and self- sufficiency (Gordon, 24). Unlike a green card holder, he has voting rights. Tuan’s sister and mother live together. Tuan’s sister got married. They have a house and each has their own room including the new child in the family. She and her husband both work while the grandmother keeps a watchful eye on her granddaughter.
In analysis, In order to successfully assist immigrants prosper in the United States it must be mandated that programs aim at helping them succeed. Programs like English immersion and temporary shelters must be supported. An agency that would work together with organizations to assure the immigrants’ well-being and welfare are protected. Programs to succeed cost less than keeping them dependent on federal aid. Use the resources to educate and enhance self-sufficiency capability and be productive in society.
Gordon, Linda W National surveys of Southeast Asian Refugees:Methods,Findings,Issues in Refugees as Immigrants. Cambodians, Laotians, and Vietnamese in America. New Jersey, Rowan and Littlefield 1989
Koltyk Jo Ann New Pioneers in the Heartland: Hmong life in Wisconsin. Needham Heights,Massachusetts,1998
Lehrer Warren and Judith Sloan Crossing the Blvd, Behind the strip club bar New York, W.W. Norton and company. 2003
Martin, Susan Forbes Refugee Women New Jersey, Zed Books ltd 1992
Mortland, Carol A Transforming Refugees in Refugee Camps, Urban Anthropology. 1987