Thursday, September 1, 2011

Destiny With America

By Anne Khanh Van


When my father’s mother was still alive, she often told stories from "once upon a time" to us. Besides fairy tales, legends of wizards and witches, my grandmother also recounted real life stories. Her narrations were mesmerizing, so every time she began a new tale, my siblings and I always competed to get the closest seat to my grandmother so that we could hear clearly every single word from her soft and soothing voice.

One day, while telling stories, my grandmother also opened an album to show us. It was a family album from the youth of my father and his siblings. Upon seeing my father’s photograph, my youngest brother shouted, “Oh, there’s my picture!”

My grandmother rubbed his head and smiled, “That is your father’s picture, not yours! This photo was taken when your father was six years old, older than you are right now!”

Having seen our father’s photo as a child, my siblings and I could see our youngest brother’s indistinguishable resemblance to our dad. No wonder when he saw the snapshot, he thought it was his own image.

To avoid further “wrong recognitions,” between turning the pages of the album, my grandmother slowly informed us who the people in the photographs were, where the picture was taken, and their age at that time. Upon arrival in front of a picture with a burned corner, my grandmother stopped and became silent. She made all of us very nervous and anxious, because the people standing next to my father in the photo did not have any resemblance to being Vietnamese. They seemed very pleasant. They also hugged my father in their arms as if they loved him very much.

Grandma began a new and different story.

“This is the only picture I was able to keep of them. They are your father’s foster parents. They are Americans.”

All of us gasped at the same time, echoed an “Oh,” and then asked my grandmother, “Um, did our father really have foster parents who are Americans, Grandma?”

“Yes… Your grandfather passed away very early when your father was only three years old. Observing that I worked by myself, sewing diligently to raise five children, one of my American regular customers introduced me to an American association. This organization had a program to adopt Vietnamese children. In the beginning, I did not agree, because I accepted being poor and miserable, and I would never give away my children to anyone. However, people from the association explained to me that this program placed importance on supporting the family, not on taking your children away from you once adopted. For that reason I felt safe and agreed. After that, I took the whole family to take photographs and proceed with the necessary documents.

When an American couple saw our profile and pictures of my children, they only picked your father from the five siblings as their foster child. Every month, they sent money to pay for school and everything that was necessary for your father. They came to Vietnam a few times; your father had a chance to know them. They loved your father very much, thus promised to sponsor him to the United States to attend college or whenever he wished to visit. Because of their love for your father, your aunts and uncles also benefited. They also received good education.”

At this point of my grandmother’s story, my siblings and I began to marvel. In our minds, we suddenly felt proud and happy to be our father’s children. We kept on thinking that my father must be very special, that was why the American people cared and loved him that much. Afterwards, we had a chance to ask our father about his foster parents, my dad only smiled gently and said, “I was not any more special than other people, but if that was true, then it was only by luck that I was a very little bit better than them.”

However, luck does not come often to one person in life! My father’s voice became sad, and his smile also began to fade away…

If counted, my father had missed opportunity to go to America at least five times; and the odds were virtually 100 percent every time!

The first setback was when my father finished high school. His foster parents were prepared to sponsor him to the United States for college. However, at the same time, my father fell in love deeply, and "they" refused to be apart. Instead of going to America, my father joined the Air Force, married the love of his life, and I was born a few years later.

The second setback was that burning exploding day known as Vietnam’s D-Day, April-30, 1975. Father worked at the airport, and he could have gotten on the plane by himself to leave the country, but he decided to stay. He went back to our family because by this time, Dad said he had given his heart to me, and I was just a newborn baby of six months old.

When Saigon fell and changed powers, my grandmother was worried about our family’s relationship with America so she burned all documents with any evidence of my father having foster parents; we then lost all contact. If we were able to maintain evidence that my father was a foster son to an American family, our family would have had an opportunity to go to America a long time ago.

Later, the HO program came into existence, but my father was missing a number of records, thus a little less than qualified! Seeing so many people go to America but not your own children, my grandmother was very disappointed, dismayed, and often blamed herself for destroying everything connected to the Americans. My grandmother thought doing so would avoid problems for her children, not expecting that her actions to protect them actually prevented them from opportunities for better lives.

My aunt made it to America and filed a petition for family reunion, thus sponsoring us to come to America. My grandmother, as the head of the family, was the primary name on the petition. Grandmother unexpectedly stopped breathing right in the Passport Office, just moments before receiving the passports.

My grandmother had a heart condition, and her extreme delight and happiness for us exploded my grandmother’s heart. She left all of us and “departed” alone.

I could not forget the dreadful images from that day. That summer morning, my father drove my grandmother to the external services agency on Nguyen Du Street to process paperwork for the family’s reunion trip. From the motorcycle, Grandmother kept turning her head back to look at us, while we still stand at the gate gazing at the silhouettes of my father and grandmother as they moved farther away. It was a joyful day, so everyone in our family was thrilled! We knew that once my grandmother and father returned, everyone would have passports, then visas the following week, and then possibly leave Vietnam within a month.

No one anticipated what was about to happen, when all of a sudden, a taxi stopped in front of our house. The taxi driver opened the door. My father sorrowfully carried my grandmother out of the car and wept, “Grandma has passed away!” We were frightened; we could not believe the truth, and cried, “Oh! Grandma, why did you have to die? Don’t die, Grandma! We don’t need to go to America. Just don’t die Grandma….”

Because Grandmother’s name was the primary one on the family reunion petition, my father did not get to go to America. Consequently, we did not get to go to America either. Father reasoned, “It probably means that our family is not destined to go to America.” If this was true, then there was no one less destined than me. I have missed a chance to go the United States more than 5 times.

When I was little, I often wondered why Vietnam constantly had enemies and wars, why our country was always dominated and conquered. I learned in school that "it is because Vietnam is a land that is rich in resources and situated at a good and convenient location." These were good reasons why Vietnam had always been a good “temptation” for other countries that already had much, but were still on the conquest for more.

Therefore, I philosophized that if every country were about the same size, with the same richness in resources, then citizens of each country would stay in their land. There would be no battles, no war, and no hatred? Though this is unrealistic, I still had another thought. If Vietnam is rich in resources and situated in a good and convenient geographic location, if our country will continue to be a temptation for more powerful nations, why citizens of Vietnam are not able to live in and cultivate their land, but they are displaced everywhere in the world? Everyday, there are more and more people hoping to leave our homeland to obtain a better future elsewhere.

I was not even ten years old yet when I first got on a boat to escape Vietnam. I just followed my uncles and aunts, without comprehending why I had to leave my parents. Neither did I know where exactly I was going. I only knew that it was time to pack and accompany my uncles and aunts down the boat to leave in the night, with faith and hope that out there will be a new dawn. In the midst of tired chasing, sounds of gunfire, facing death, and a failed attempt to escape, I matured from a little girl of nearly ten into an “older” person, who believed that she had gradually begun to understand many other profound matters.

What was it in our country that gave so many normal people extraordinary strength to overcome so much distress and anxiety? They were willing to get on a boat and leave their kin, their homeland, and the land of their ancestors. What power had forced them to risk that much, especially since they had no way of knowing what was waiting for them? Would they live or die? Would they succeed or fail? Would they find freedom or imprisonment?

As I grew older, I became more empathetic to the silent sorrow in my father’s heart. I knew that Father was sad, disappointed and regretful when his family, especially his children, no longer had hope of reaping the benefits of his opportunities for brighter futures. The pressures of daily living and existence drove the thoughts of leaving Vietnam far from the minds of my parents. However, I still nurtured such notions in my mind.

I truly believed that there must be a reason that was powerful enough to make people daring and brave, as I witnessed with my own eyes on every attempt to escape. I want to also “arrive on the other side of the ocean” so that I could figure out why there were so many people who had dared to gamble with fate in order to transform their lives. But how could I leave when every possible opportunity continued to evaporate in front of my eyes?

Ever since I was young, I had often been told that I might have a chance to study abroad if I were a good student. Even though I was not very clear on what studying abroad really meant and where I’d be allowed to go, I had already silently started wishing.

I still remember the time when I returned from the unsuccessful escape attempt by boat. Our family was utterly broke. My mother had to work tirelessly, but there were still days when we had to sell our old clothing to feed ourselves. At one point, I almost had to give up attending school, but I begged my mother, “I only need to eat one meal a day, and I only need two sets of clothes. I can also sell lottery tickets after school, and I will stay up until 1, 2, or 3 am to help you, but I don’t want to give up school.”

Attending school became a privilege, and it seemed as if I was the only one who understood why I needed to study well. I figured that I could starve for a few days while our family was financially strapped and still not die. However, if I were starved of words and knowledge, then I would always be hungry throughout life, and to me, this was death. For this reason, I tried my best to study as well as I could. I hoped one day to become a light, although a small one, to rekindle and somehow warm the heart of my less-than-fortunate father. Someday, I would turn into reality the wish that my father thought was never to be an opportunity again.

From this point on, education became the "vehicle" that would give me an opportunity to leave Vietnam.

I seized such an opportunity fifteen years ago, when I left my family. I arrived in France all by myself, but I was happy to realize my father’s wish for us to leave Vietnam. Then days passed, and I became more mature while faced with a life of freedom and civilization of the West. I had a chance to observe, evaluate and compare the two cultures in my visits back to Vietnam. I slowly began to understand the meaning of the words “better future” that I had heard so often.

After a period of time of studying and working in France, everything unfamiliar gradually became familiar, and even friendly. Once I grew to become fond of everything, I often thought that, "this is where I will settle and grow roots."

As I grew more accustomed to living with the French, I noticed that they were not very fond of America. They usually criticized Americans as being too materialistic and too capitalistic. As a result of living in France and getting acquainted with the French way of life, I was influenced by their opinions. I was proud to be living in France, proud to have French citizenship, proud to speak French and proud to be able to learn and explore the French culture. Even though my family had a "history" with and relationships in America, I no longer see going to America as a necessity. I could go on vacation anywhere, but I often hesitated at the thought of visiting the United States, even just…to know. However, one question remained (more questions again!): "Even though the French does not like America, why is America still the place where so many people from many countries still wish to live in the most?" At last, I finally decided to take a trip to the United States to get to know America, to understand more about the Vietnamese people living in America and to answer many questions prior to setting my roots in France.

Thus, my first trip to America…

I will always remember the day I arrived at the U.S. Capitol. Looking at that white building, its magnificence, its reflection showing on the flat surface of the lake, I abruptly felt a peculiar longing sentiment. Something inside me had been awakened back to life. I missed my father; and I missed that photo with the burned corner that my grandmother had shown us long ago; I missed those Americans in the picture who had adopted my father as their foster child; and I sorely missed my petite, lovely, special grandmother, a widow at the age of thirty-three, who sacrificed everything for her family.

I silently spoke with my grandmother, “Grandma! I am now in America, the land that we tried so many times to run to, the land with a family whom you said you were indebted to. Grandma, where are my father’s foster parents? Please guide me so that I can find them and tell them, ‘Dear foster Grandpa and Grandma, I am the daughter of your long lost foster child.’ Grandma, do you think that they will also love me? Will they recognize me? After all, I have a face that is similar to the little boy that they had picked as their child!”

I suddenly recalled my father’s words from a long time ago, “I hope one day to put my feet on American soil and to arrive in Washington D.C. I will say thank you, America!”

At that moment, I whispered to my father on the other side of the ocean, “Dad, you will come. I cannot thank America for you. You have to come here, and personally give your own thanks!”

After two weeks of traveling from coast to coast in the United States, I returned to France. I seemed to have given my heart to the American sky. For reasons I couldn't explain or even understand, I was compelled to return to the United States. The US was now so different from other countries that I had visited in my travels.

At the time, my life in France was established. I planned to sponsor my family to France to live with me. Surprisingly, my plans changed because I was no longer convinced that I would now be settled in France permanently. Once again, my father’s hopes of leaving Vietnam had been disappointed.

I traveled to the United States several times. On the last visit, whether it was by luck or destiny, I found a job and authorization for residence after much hardship.

I was very unhappy with my early days of living in the US. To be honest, at first I did not like the American lifestyle at all. I compared everything to France and was a harsh critic. I criticized American cuisine because almost everything was “fast food.” I disapproved of the American clothes and shoes for lack of fashion. Even the fragrance of perfume in the US seemed stronger and heavier.

Everyone in the US was constantly racing against time. A person may work two or three jobs, always working, working, and working. It was difficult to have time to think of friends, family, and relationships. When I lived in France, I worked for the government, thus I only worked 35 hours per week instead of the US norm of 40 hours. Every year, I had almost 7 weeks of vacation. I was paid salary for thirteen and a half months each year. Was that not a better life? My friends in France all told me that I must be very crazy to leave everything I had built there to move to the US. I did not know how to respond at that time, so I blamed it on “destiny.”

Oh how things change! Now that I have adapted to American life, I consider French life too leisured. France is ideal for sightseeing, vacationing, resting, relaxing, dreaming, and for falling in love. However, the US is the ideal place to work, to carry out ambitions, to compete, to advance, and to be richer. Now, my questions about life in the US seem easily answered. Not everyone is tempted by America because it is rich and powerful, but because it is truly a free and democratic nation. Also, the opportunities are abundant for those with ambition, to advance and go further in all areas.

Having witnessed the accomplishments of Vietnamese-Americans, I am proud to have Vietnamese blood coursing through my body. The Vietnamese have proven to the world that we are intelligent, enduring, brave, ambitious for advancement, and resilient in the face of difficulties. Furthermore, we maintain an important characteristic, and that is our richness in affection and loyalty, remembering to focus on our loved ones and those around us.

Life in America could be somewhat “materialistic and machine-dependent” as the French have often pointed out, but it really depends on how one balances.

Every day, many Hispanics still find ways to cross the border to the US, knowing the many dangers such as fences, guards, and the threat of dying from thirst on the way to cross the border. The Cubans did not hesitate, did not fret over perils on the ocean, they continued to create tiny boats to escape to America. There are still merchant ships from China with cabins that, upon discovery, carry hundreds of people yearning for the “American life.” White Europeans, black Europeans, Africans, South Americans and many other Asians that I know were sad, hopeless, concerned whenever their paperwork expired and they had to return home because they wanted to live in America. The homelands of these people, like Vietnam, no longer had wars, and were not too poor, yet they still looked for ways to leave. Did they leave to find something that they were missing, that they still did not have, did not own?

Now that I am a US citizen, I am more confident in claiming that I have destiny with and owe a debt to this country! My father had American foster parents, who opened up their hearts, and adopted him as their foster child. They fed him and provided him with an opportunity for an education. Today, America continues to open its arms in giving me an opportunity to realize my father’s and my own dreams and wishes. I want to thank America and also want to thank France, for being the bridge that had connected me from the land of my father’s birth mother to the land of his foster mother.

Dear Dad, our family is not really that ill-fated in America. Even though our journey has been very long and filled with obstacles, challenges and loss, I am waiting for the day to welcome you to the country of your foster parents so that you can personally thank America.

Anne Khánh Vân