Wednesday, November 28, 2007

My First Thanksgiving in America

Originally published by New America Media, Commentary by Andrew Lam, Nov 15, 2007

A week before Thanksgiving 32 years ago, my father showed up on our crowded apartment's doorsteps in the Mission District in San Francisco. He was in his civilian clothes, and had a small traveling bag in which he kept his South Vietnamese army uniform, practically all that he'd brought from Vietnam. He was haggard and thin, someone I barely recognized, but he was alive. My mother, grandmother, sister and I had arrived at that same apartment only a few months before him, fresh from the Camp Pendleton refugee camp, having fled Vietnam two days before the war ended. We joined my oldest brother, a foreign student, and my mother's sister and her children. My aunt, who was not a refugee, had been married to a career diplomat who had divorced her. With us showing up, there were 11 in that apartment.

My first few months in America I suffered a recurrent nightmare. In dreams, I would be left behind in Saigon. Except for myself, the house is empty. I frantically search for my father when, suddenly, a few Vietcong enter through the metal gate. I scream and run upstairs. They give chase and one catches my ankle and again I scream -- and wake in cold sweat and tears as I stare out onto that dimly lit parking lot with the fog drifting, feeling confused and lost. My mother, who looked careworn, whose eyes were hollowed, didn't say it to us but it was easy to read her mind. There had been no word of father or his whereabouts. Father, a South Vietnamese military official, who opted to stay behind, out of his penchant to be patriotic and loyalty to his men, would fight on regardless of the outcome. I had heard her whisper these words to my aunt -- "Tu thu": defending to the death. Some nights I went to sleep, weeping; "tu thu, tu thu," I'd hear the words echoing ominously in my head.

In Vietnam, father was the center of our universe, and his absence left a horrible void. Across the street was the parking lot of the supermarket. My cot was by the dining room windows: I went to sleep every night watching the fog drift by, watching the soda pop machines glow in their eerie and seductive lights, listening to the wind, and fearing sleep. But then one afternoon the phone rang at the restaurant downstairs. Mother picked up the phone. On the other end was father's voice. She gasped. She cried. She was speechless. Then she laughed. When she hung up, she and my aunt hugged each other and cried. I watched from the counter, feeling both fear and elation. Father had survived and he would soon join us.

In school, a few weeks before father showed up, I'd learned the word Thanksgiving. "Ssshthanks give in," I repeated after my teacher, but the word tumbled and hissed, turning my mouth into a wind tunnel. A funny word, "Ssshthanks give in," hard on my Vietnamese tongue, tough on my refugee's ears. But Mr. K., my seventh grade English teacher, was full of encouragement. "Very good. Repeat after me. Thanksgiving."As I helped him tape students' drawings of turkeys and pilgrims and Indians on the classroom windows, Mr. K. patiently explained to me the origins of the holiday. You know the story: Newcomers to America struggling, surviving and finally thriving in the New World, thanks to the kindness of the natives. I could barely speak a complete sentence in English, having spent less than three months in America, but Mr. K.'s story wasn't all that difficult to grasp. But before my father showed up, I had no reason to be thankful. But that thanksgiving, my first in America, I did.

After Father, another aunt and her children showed up, the apartment was now filled pass its limit. There were 17 people in all. That Thanksgiving we ate on the floor, with newspapers spread out as our table. We wore clothes and ate turkeys donated by a religious charity. We talked and laughed and told stories of our escape to one another. There will be heartbreaks, of course, disappointments, and disillusions. There will be trips to Disneyland, to Europe. There will be marriages, divorces and births and deaths and family quarrels. Our thanksgivings these days are elaborate, celebrated in grand suburban homes with expensive cars parked in front and replete with wines and champagne. But the Thanksgiving I remember with the greatest fondness is the first one, when my father was returned to me, and we ate on the floor and wore oversized donated clothes, and I was just learning to pronounce the word.