Refugees Magazine Issue 95 (The international year of the family) - Life's biggest lemon

Refugees Magazine, 1 March 1994

A Vietnamese-American youth examines his family's successful struggle to adjust as refugees in a strange land.

By Nguyen-Vu Nguyen, Harvard University

In the American South, where my Vietnamese family made our second home, there is a saying: "If life throws you a lemon, make lemonade." That lemon, for us, is our refugee experience. And we have made the largest glass of lemonade from it. July 1981. My father completed his sixth visit to the local government's office. Since his release from the concentration camp, he had gone there monthly to inform the Vietnamese authorities about the details of his life. That weekend, my family packed a change of clothes for what I was told would be "a long journey."

A nine-day voyage on a wooden boat brought us to Malaysia. My family waited at the camp for a year before we were flown to the United States. Like many refugees, we restarted life in America with several disadvantages. We had no relatives here. Everything that was familiar to us was left behind in Viet Nam. Our English was not good enough to tell people at the local Thrift Store that we needed shoes, and the prospect for employment was not at all certain.

After the refugee experience, the task of recreating meaning and purpose in life was the greatest challenge and perhaps most valuable achievement for my family. During those years, waking up and facing life each day were acts of courage for my parents. Life was not prefabricated. One had the option of hiding inside the apartment and drowning under the demands of the new environment. The alternative was to stand up and face life with the ferocity of a hungry canine when it sees its first prey. How much strength and courage my parents have had in order to continue life under such circumstances!

American society is completely foreign to a refugee. It differs from his native culture in language, customs and attitudes. For a person without the support of a family, life can be intolerable. Fortunately, my family has been the source of comfort and protection for all of us ever since we escaped Viet Nam. My parents have always absorbed the hardest financial and emotional shocks. For many summers, my father would take on a second job to earn extra money so that his children could attend camps, take music lessons or join the Little League baseball teams. We never had to interrupt our education to work and support the family. My parents took this burden upon themselves.

In addition, they have acted as a repository of Vietnamese culture for us. As a young refugee looks around, he sees the ubiquitous American culture, but often his own culture is rapidly disappearing. My siblings and I in return have served as our parents' liaison to the larger society. It is through us that they reached out and made friends with other Americans. Twelve years have passed since my family first became refugees. Today, we no longer have to lift crates at warehouses on night shift. There is no more washing dishes or waiting tables at ethnic restaurants. Instead of survival strategies, we now discuss Christian ethics and social issues at our dinner table. Many of my parents' dreams have been fulfilled.

Through the church and work places, my parents have found ways to become contributing members to the American society that embraced them. My father founded a Boy Scouts of America unit for Vietnamese youths in our city. He also teaches Bible classes in the church. My mother, likewise, is socially engaged in her work to assist immigrant students from Mexico, Viet Nam, Somalia, Haiti and Bosnia. She also worked at World Relief to help refugees adjust to their new lives in the United States.

As for my siblings, when asked, "How have your refugee experiences affected your outlook on life and your future aspirations?" my 19-year-old sister thoughtfully responded: "It made me more sympathetic to the needs of people who have difficulties defining their places in society." She taught summer programmes to introduce art into the lives of Vietnamese and African American youths. She presently studies English at Amherst College and plans to become a physician specializing in tropical medicine.

My brother is 20 years old and studies biology at Presbyterian College. He finds that our family's refugee experience has deepened his understanding of human suffering. "A homeless man in the street of Boston lacks not only money," he told me. "You often see people giving spare change to these poor folks, but they are afraid to stop and talk." Having once been a refugee, he knows what it is like in the periphery of human society. "This homeless man also needs human companionship, so I stop and talk to him." My brother has also been involved with former President Jimmy Carter's project to build homes for low-income families in urban areas. He hopes to become a missionary doctor.

I, too, realize that the refugee experience has carved deep into my physical and emotional being. To recapitulate, it is the biggest lemon that life has ever thrown me, but I have also made the largest lemonade for myself. Hardships give birth to endurance, and suffering yields greater compassion. Every time I think that any task I have here at Harvard is unmanageable, I am reminded that nothing is as difficult as picking up the pieces of one's life.

Like my father, I see that the refugee experience is only temporary. For our family it lasted a year, but its impact is felt for a lifetime.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 95 (1994)