By Huong Nguyen
It’s my senior year of high school, and this Army recruiter comes on campus. He’s targeting jocks, so he says, and tells me that he could make my dreams come true. Yeah, right. But I was curious. That’s how I found myself sitting in his office, listening to his pitch.
“You could explore the world. Meet new people. Do exciting, honorable work. Develop discipline and confidence while you’re at it. And, we’d pay for your education.”
Unreal. What’s the catch?
I was 6 when I landed in Green Bay, Wisconsin in 1979. It was the dead of winter. First thing a man—who I assumed was my dad—did was wrap a coat around me. He held me, as we walked through the airport, making our way past a line of lights and TV cameras. I didn’t know what the fuss was all about.
Later, I guessed it had something to do with the church that helped get us here. You see, the mass exodus from Vietnam became a humanitarian crisis. In response, many countries volunteered to absorb the so-called “boat people.” In the United States, communities of faith, particularly the Roman Catholic Church, mobilized and were instrumental in helping resettle families like mine.
Growing up in Green Bay was isolating. The homogeneity, stark. Like the snow. Kids often teased me about my appearance.
“Hey, chink, where ya goin’?”
I’m Vietnamese, not Chinese, dumbass.
“So? Whaddya gonna do ’bout it?”
Lesson: Kids learn fast. After a while, they kept their comments to themselves or risked being pummeled by an insanely pissed off “chink,” “colored girl,” “gook.”
The language barrier was remarkably high. At the time, Green Bay didn’t have school programs such as English as a Second Language. These programs didn’t make economic sense, with so few foreigners. Instead, they put me in remedial classes. What native speakers fail to understand is how hard English really is. Like, why make so many exceptions that swallow the rule? And, why pronounce the same words differently, and different words the same? (Read/read, and read/red.) I recall thinking: “Heavens, I’m not slow. English just makes little sense.”
And home life. Well, that’s complicated. Dad escaped hell, but life in America was no paradise. Imagine starting over in a new land, with a new culture and language. Parenting, alone, three girls whom who you barely know. And likely suffering some kind of psychological trauma from your previous experiences in the American War (as Vietnamese folks call it), “re-education” camps, and journey to the United States. Under those circumstances, who among us wouldn’t take to the bottle? And take, he did, with gusto.
As a latch-key kid, the TV was my babysitter, teacher, and companion. I’d come home from school, make myself food, and turn on the tube until the Johnny Carson Show came on. That’s how I learned about American culture—and accumulated so many useless trivia about ’80s TV shows and music videos. One commercial stood out from the rest, though. It was for the Army. The jingle was ridiculously contagious: “Be/All you can/Be.”
That jingle is going through my head as I page through the enlistment papers. Wait, what does the fine print say? I can’t be homosexual. Whatevs. I’m not.
“Signed, sealed, delivered, oh yeah!”
Read Part One: Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way of Huong Nguyen’s diary blog series.