Refugee-turned-citizen values his right to vote

Philip Phu Bui

I CAME to this country as a refugee from Vietnam. I left my homeland because its government locked up dissidents and showed no respect for people’s basic rights. Since arriving in the United States, I was able to pursue my education, get jobs and choose a lifestyle as I wished.

America is indeed a land of freedom and opportunities. However, I could not participate in the democratic process until I became a citizen.

In the spring of 1982, after having lived in the United States for more than five years, I became a U.S. citizen by naturalization, like millions others have done. With the certificate of citizenship still fresh in hand, I registered to vote and went to the polls for the first time in November.

I remember the 1982 election in which Californians had a difficult choice between State Attorney General George Deukmejian and Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley in a tight gubernatorial race which Deukmejian won by a scant 50,000 votes. By casting my vote for the first time, I am privileged to have exercised my right in a democratic way.

Being a U.S. citizen not only gives me the right to vote, to run for public office or to get employment with the federal government, but also the opportunity to serve my adopted country. In 1983, after graduating from UC-Berkeley, I joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Togo in West Africa to teach high school.

I was in Togo in 1984 when Americans re-elected President Ronald Reagan for a second term. The U.S. Embassy in Lome did everything to keep us informed about the campaign issues and encouraged us to vote.

The night of the election many volunteers, embassy staff and Togolese gathered at the U.S. Information Center to follow poll results live through the Voice of America and Radio Armed Forces. Early in the evening, presidential debates dubbed in French were rerun so local people could understand.

It was interesting to watch Walter Mondale, Geraldine Ferraro, Ronald Reagan and George Bush all speak French fluently. Campaign hats and buttons of both parties also were distributed. We carried the pictures of our favorite candidates with pride.

Many volunteers were Mondale’s supporters, therefore when news of Reagan’s victory was announced a roar of disappointment erupted. Togolese at the party expressed their disbelief that many of us did not support Ronald Reagan and had shown our disapproval in the presence of the embassy personnel. Our freedom of expression and celebration of democracy caught the Togolese friends by surprise because they never had those basic rights.

Having emigrated from Vietnam, yet resided abroad as a U.S. citizen, I realize that Americans sometimes take things for granted and do not much value the right to vote. I found the United States of America has a short span of history; however it has many democratic principles for other people in the world to look upon like freedom of expression, freedom of association and free elections.

Let’s vote on Nov. 5. Democracy calls for our participation and voting is not only a privilege but also a citizen’s duty.

Philip Phu Bui is a public school teacher and a writer. He worked with the Peace Corps in Africa and United Nations in Asia.

[San Ramon Valley Times (CA) – November 3, 1996]

About Bùi Văn Phú

Bùi Văn Phú is a community college teacher and a freelance writer from San Francisco Bay Area. He worked with Peace Corps in Togo, Africa and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Southeast Asia. Bùi Văn Phú hiện dạy đại học cộng đồng và là một nhà báo tự do sống tại vùng Vịnh San Francisco, California. Trong thập niên 1980, ông làm tình nguyện viên của Peace Corps tại Togo, Phi Châu và làm tham vấn giáo dục cho Cao ủy Tị nạn Liên hiệp quốc tại Đông nam Á.
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