Each life that touches ours for good...

Have you ever wondered why certain people come into your life?  Sometimes it is blatantly obvious and other times it comes with time.  I met Mylan six years ago.  This fiesty 4', mother of two was one of my co-workers that inspired me the most during training as a Dental Assistant at AccuCare Dental Centers.  She was a good dental assistant and doctors liked working with her because she mastered the trait of assisting.  I wanted to be just as good as her some day...  Six years later, we are no longer co-workers but we are family.  As you read her brief summary of her story, you will see the impact that people can have on others.  

My name is Mylan Vo, and I am from Saigon, Vietnam.  I come from a family of seven siblings, five sisters and a brother.  My country is very beautiful.  As a child, my relatives and village members would talk about their experiences in Vietnam.  Before 1975 life was good. “The neighbors were together, everyone was so happy.”  This of course comes as a surprise to me, because the country I live in is not so.  The communist government has so much control over us.  In a village, a “policeman” is assigned over 30 families.  Everything we do is recorded and kept by this government official.   Records of who we talk to, where we go, and the food we eat all gets turned into the communist government.  If a relative wanted to visit from another village they had to get permission before they could visit.  Each family had to write an accounting of all family members and their history.  Education and religion was also controlled by the communist government.  Religious leaders had to report the membership, the attendance, and even the number of people who sang in the choir.  Education beyond high school was almost unheard of.  Upon graduating from any level of school, there was an extremely difficult exam that was administered to determine whether a person could advance or not.  The entrance exam for university was virtually impossible.  Out of 10 classes, only one student would be permitted to a university.  Religion and family history had a lot of weight on whether or not you got in.  If your exam scores were bad, but you were a son of a communist government official you got in.  If you were lucky and did well on the exam but you come from a long line of Catholics, you can just forget about chances for higher education.  This is the Vietnam I know. 


It was in my senior year that I realized that there was no future for me.   My family and I are staunch Catholics, and the government had total control of the people.  A woman from church approached my mom (in secret, of course) and asked if anyone from my family wanted to go.  Escape the country that is.  It would seem logical that my brother would be the one to leave, but because he was the only son, he had an obligation to stay and take care of the family.  Four of my sisters were married and couldn’t leave. Between me and my other sister, I got chosen to go.  My age (<18 years old) was the deciding factor.  At that time, anyone caught under the age of 18 was released immediately and those 18 and over were thrown into prison for at least six months.  Escaping was dangerous.  In 1982 a niece died trying to escape.  But a nephew's survival gave us hope that I would have the same fortune.


In the middle of the night, when it seemed no one was paying attention, we made our way to the boat, our vector of escape.  We waited at the house of the woman from church that approached my mother about escaping.  We had to be very quiet.  There was continual police surveillance.  We waited for a signal and headed for a small boat.  This small boat took me to a larger boat (12 meters long by 5 meters wide).  107 people crammed into this boat.  There were more people than those that were scheduled to leave, but in fear of drawing attention to the whole group and risk getting caught, no one said a word. 


The first day the boat didn't work.  The engine died.  I was so scared and thought I was going to die.  With a miracle, the engine turned on and our journey began.  There was very little water on the boat.  Each person was allotted one cap full of water a day.  Eating was the farthest from my mind, all I could think about was water.  The only other source of water was from watermelon.  Rotten watermelon.  They kept all the women in the lower portion of the boat (basement).  We were told to stay below in fear of "pirates".  [I asked her, what are pirates?, she said, other ship looking to take advantage of their ship.]  It was horrible, the smell of throw up and the oil from the engine added to my sea sickness. 

We soon ran out of water.  So we were left to the mercy of the passing ships to trade for water.  The first big ship we encountered was from Thai.  They filled our oil bottles with water and in exchange we gave them our valuables.  Those were some scary times.  As the boat crews did their exchange, the women had to stay below.  We didn't want to give any of the other ships a reason to enter our boat.  You know how it is, men at sea, any sign of a woman and they would have taken control of our ship and did as they pleased with the females.  I saw some interesting things.  Because I was very tiny, I was able to hide in front of the boat.  I saw men, big men.  In one case I saw a huge, black man who was only wearing his underwear.  It was so hot, you wouldn't think it would be hot being on the ocean, but it was so hot.  The wood, the ocean, the lack of water- it was HOT.

On the sixth night we saw an island.  Before we reached land, we were hit with a big storm.  Our boat creaked and rocked as it was tossed by the stormy sea.  I prayed for my life.  Hoping that I wouldn't die.  The storm ceased and then we approached the island, which we thought was Malaysia.  My heart was filled with prayers of thanksgiving for surviving the storm and being led to Malaysia.  We jumped off the boat and swam to shore.  The was the first good night sleep that we had.  We slept because we knew we were safe. 

The next morning we were awakened by the Thai people and police officers.  We were saddened to hear that we were not in Malaysia.  But they allowed our boat to leave and they pointed us in the direction of our destination.  You can imagine how happy we were when we got to Malaysia.  We arrived on Kolumpia- an island for refugees and were admitted to a refugee camp. 


Refugee camp was hard.  While we were waiting for the third country to grant us entrance, Kolumpia was our temporary home. I stayed in the juvenile barracks with others my age.  Every day we were given 5 gallons of "sweet" (drinkable) water for drinking, cooking, bathing and other personal uses.  We stood in line for food.  For breakfast we had one serving of ramen noodles.  For two meals we were given 2 grams of chicken.  Some days we had 2 eggs.  One egg per meal.  It was so stressful waiting for refugee status.  One never knew how long they would stay.  Many people were at the camp for seven years.  One of the tragedies I saw at Kolumpia was seeing young women who tragically got pregnant and became young unprepared mothers.  "My belief in God, kept me a good girl at refugee camp."  I went to church everyday and I even sang in the choir.  It was interesting how much we bonded.  We were strangers and yet we loved each other.

I missed my family so much.  But I could never go back.  I knew that the third country would light our life.  My mom used to say, "if the light pole had legs, it would walk to the third freedom country."  If given the opportunity, everyone and everything would try to leave for the communist country, even the light pole.  Thoughts of my family at home, my god and the hopes of a future in the third freedom country.


My ideas of America came from letters and pictures of relatives abroad.  I saw pictures of my nephews and visualized that this is what it would look like.  Freedom never looked so beautiful.  For the most part I was content with America.  The only disappointment I experienced was with the Vietnamese lady of the house.  I felt as if I were living with Cinderella's evil step mother.   She yelled and treated me so bad.  I cooked, she never ate.  If I didn't cook she would complain.  I cleaned and she would clean right after me.  She hated me and I didn't know why.  They only agreed to let me stay there for a year and it was only because of my nephews.    I was enrolled in high school shortly after arrival.  It was extremely difficult for me because of the language barrier.  But I worked hard.  I studied till 2 or 3 in the morning with a dictionary at my side.  I achieved remarkable grades.  I was a good student and my teachers loved me.  Before I could complete high school, the woman of the house kicked me out.  I was left with no home, no job and no car.  My nephews took care of me, they gave me just enough money for bare survival.  One of my nephews worked as a bus boy while attending high school.  For six months I didn't have a job, didn't go to school and I didn't know English.  These were hard times, but better than it  would be back in Vietnam.  I moved around seven times before I was settle in an apartment and a job.


During that time, I devoted all my time to church service.  When times were hard it was my strong belief in God that "make me alive".  I worked with the children, and taught them the bible, I sang in the choir and I visited the sick and the afflicted.  It was working with the elderly at the nursing home that seem to evoke the most emotions in me.  The pastor would go to the nursing homes to hold mass, and I went along to help.  It was a strange concept for me to see the elderly in isolation.  In my country, the elderly are regarded with the highest respect.  Each family took care of their grandparents and have great love for the older generation.  There in the nursing home I met some wonderful people, some of which were very successful.  I remember vividly an old woman who showed me a picture of her in her younger years.  Oh, she was so beautiful, and she was rich.  It make me very sad to see her situation now, she is in a home with no family.  They were so happy to see us every time we come.  It's true what they say, selfless service brings happiness to both those receiving and giving service. 

One of my friends at church introduced me to a Vietnamese girl who became one of my room mates till I moved to Arizona.  She became one of my very good friends.  We lived in a one bedroom apartment with two-three other females. 

Kim was a Vietnamese dentist that gave me my first job.  The first couple of weeks were a nightmare.  I had to learn all the names of every dental instrument, be familiar with the office procedures and do all of this with very little English.  She was demanding!  But it forced me to work hard, and in a short period of time, I was able to master the skills of dental assisting.

Continuing education was the next thing.  I started school at a community college.  Everyday I caught the bus to school and then I went to work and then back to school in the evenings.  My English improved with ESL classes.  The confidence gained in speaking English helped me in working with the patients at work, at school and of course socially.  I paid for all my classes with the money earned from working with Kim and in 3 years I graduated with an Associate of Arts in Accounting.


Life was good in California, For five years, I lived in the same apartment with the same roommate, I now had a car, I had a college education and I was still working with Kim at her dental office.  I was very comfortable and confident in my work skills.  I decided that I wanted to attend Arizona State University so I left California for Arizona.  So I met with an advisor at the school, we went through my transcript and discussed the program I would be in.  She told me about tuition and because I wasn't an Arizona Resident, I had to pay out of state tuition.  I wasn't working yet, and have never gotten financial aid so I thought I would wait a year for in state status and then start at ASU.  So for the next year I worked part time at night with Western Towing and attended Phoenix College for a semester.  The tuition was $3000.00 a semester so I didn't have the money to pay for a second semester.  I didn't think of working at a dental office because I thought I wanted to do something with my degree.  So it was Western Towing for me.  It was an interesting experience for me, I never hear so much American bad words before.  Customers would get so angry because they couldn't understand me.  They asked to speak with someone else and when that wasn't an option they would say bad words to me!  After 7 months of that, I decided that maybe I should start look for a job in the dental field.  I responded to an ad in the paper for a dental assistant at AccuCare Dental Centers and they replied right away. 


My dream guy would be someone that was actively involved in helping the church.  Most definitely he had to be older than I was.  Someone that had the same goals and I guess someone that I had a lot in common with. 

At the time I had a nephew living in Arizona and he had a room mate by the name of Vinh.  Vinh was the youth group leader at his local church.  He was very active in the catholic church.  In his own words, "I wasn't occupied with chasing girls and partying at the bars, rather my time, money and everything that I had was dedicated to the church. 

Vinh was from Vietnam as well.  He is the fourth of seven children.  His story is very similar to Mylan's.  His escape from the communist government was made possible by his God-father.  It is fascinating to hear of his story.  He tells of a brother who trained as a pilot in America and a father who was an officer in the special force created by the United States.  The communist government despised any association with the United States and their lives were threatened.  In fear of losing their lives, their family moved to the very south of Vietnam. 

In my house, there was a goal, everyone must graduate from high school.  While my family moved, I stayed behind with my sister and her family till I finished high school.  We were isolated in the jungle, and I had to walk 3 km (~2 miles) to school.  In Vietnam it rains 6 months out of the year.  I had one pair of trousers that I wore to school.  Everyday after school I would come home and try to dry my pants for the next day.  My sister took care of me.  She fed me, washed my clothes and made sure everything was taken care of. 

My God-father who was imprisoned and persecuted by the communist government was my avenue for escaping.  After high school, he requested that I come and see him.  And it was then that I decided that I would follow him.  I knew he loved and cared for me and in hopes of maybe repaying him for everything that he has done for me, I would of gone to prison with him.  The night of their escape, his God-father and he got separated.  The last set of instructions from his God-father was if the chance come to go then go.  Do not wait for me.  Go.  And so I escaped on a sail boat.  Upon entering the boat, I was overcome with confusion.  I thought of my family, how poor they were.  The conditions of Vietnam and the reality of nothing there for me.  And yet, I was afraid, maybe that I wouldn't make it, I could be arrested or even die.  I thought that I might never see my family again.  And just then a guy behind me, pushed and kicked me in.  He said, "GO! this is no time to make decision" 

On the second day of the try the rutter broke and all I kept praying for was that my body would drift back to Vietnam so that his family would see him one last time.  But God took care of me and I eventually ended in a refugee camp in Indonesia.  Nine months and fifteen days later I was approved and allowed to enter the United States on refugee status.

We dated for two years and were then married on April 19, 1997.  Now we have two beautiful, healthy boys.  Vinh has been with the same company for years now, and Mylan works for a private dentist in Scottsdale.  They own our home and we have a minivan and a new Chevy Colorado.



How do you perpetuate your heritage and cultural beliefs while living in a foreign country?  At home we speak Vietnamese.  Everything is Vietnamese, we eat vietnamese dishes and we teach them about the culture, our families and religion.  But we also encourage them to join society.  Get involved in school, ad society.  I feel that my children can contribute more to society with the background of their culture and heritage. 

Everyone has an idea of America and what it would be like.  How were your expectations met? 

Vinh- No disappointments at all in America.  In Vietnam, I lived in the worst situations, its like living in prison.  Now in America, I have freedom, What more can you ask for?

Funny story...

Mylan-  One day I missed the bus, and I was so worried that I was going to be late for work.  I waited at the bus stop hoping and praying that someone would pass by.  Maybe a friend, someone, anyone could give me a ride to work.  Just then a pick up truck stopped and I jumped in.  It was an older man.  He started to rub my arm, and I was so scared.  I didn't know what to do, I was afraid something bad was going to happen to me.  I screamed, "I'm under 18!".  He stopped the car and I just jumped out and ran all the way to work! 

Any last words?

You know in society, we have different cultures.  Different languages.  There is bound to be miscommunications.  Someone once told me that miscommunication leads to misunderstanding.  Hopefully in remembering that we can have patience with others.

Most important things- Families, God and Respect for the Elderly.

I remember back in the villages, very one respected the older generation.  If a child was misbehaving, it wasn't uncommon for someone of another family to reprimand or correct that child.  Everyone helped each other. 


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