Philip Phu Bui
THIS TIME OF the year our mailbox is often filled with mail from various charities soliciting support for their cause in helping the less fortunate, the sick and the needy.
As a way to express our thanks to the American people every year we chose several charities to contribute. Our favorite ones are the local church, Food Bank, American Red Cross, Habitat International and UNICEF (United Nations Children Educational Fund).
Our family feels the obligation to contribute back because what we have today is due to the compassion of the American people who took us in as refugees, gave us temporary shelter and food during our first days of resettlement .
In the spirit of Thanksgiving I also would like to share with the readers my first Thanksgiving in the new land.
In the summer of 1975 I arrived in the United States as a refugee from Vietnam penniless, tired, worried but also excited.
The Vietnam war had just ended. The fate of history brought me to the United States, soon to be my adopted country. That year I was invited to celebrate Thanksgiving with an American family of a Berkeley parish that sponsored me out from refugee camp.
My English then was very limited so at my new friends’ house I just sat quietly, listened attentively and tried hopelessly to understand the discussion around American football that was on television all day long. I recalled seeing this kind of sports on an American TV channel in Saigon while the U.S. soldiers were still fighting in Vietnam not long ago.
As a teenager I only knew the United States as a country with advanced technology, great movies and wonderful music. I loved to watch Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood movies and became a fan of music groups such as the Carpenters and CCR.
However, American sports like football and baseball were strange to me.
While watching the games on television, momentarily my friends would ask me about sports in Vietnam. With my broken English I told them we do not have football like the one in the United States. The Vietnamese play a different kind of game my poor English produced no appropriate vocabulary in which players kick the spherical ball on the grass field, not using hand to grasp the ball and run like in American players.
Over the dinner table people said a special prayer for me and my future in the new land. They were also interested in knowing the other side of Vietnam instead of the war. They asked me how the Vietnamese celebrate different holidays and I tried my best to help them understand my culture. Throughout the conversations I learned a little bit more about American culture and customs. My vocabulary was also enriched with new words like soccer, referee, touchdown, pumpkin and yams.
I tried stuffed turkey with mashed potato for the first time in my life. It was not too bad. I liked yams since this yellow sweet potato is abundant in Vietnam. Cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie were my favorites.
I also shared with my host family the story of my escape by boat from Vietnam during the evacuation out of Saigon and how I left behind my family. I was worried because I did not know what happened to my parents and my six brothers and sisters since I had no news in the past six months.
Later my host family was able to help me reconnect with my parents.
Twenty-two years have passed. I reunited with my parents, a sister and a brother. Ten years ago while working with the United Nations in Southeast Asia refugee camps I met my wife.
She had also resettled in the United States thanks to the U.S. refugee programs. We got married five years ago and now have two children.
With my working and traveling abroad experience, I have learned that there is no other country on earth as generous as the United States in taking in and resettling refugees, immigrants like my family.
Helping the newcomers has become the American tradition which we truly appreciate and cherish.
Philip Phu Bui is a public school teacher and a writer. He worked with the Peace Corps in Africa and United Nations in Asia.
[Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, CA) – November 30, 1997]