There was no dragon dancing for Le Thanh this year.
No decorations around the house. No sweet cakes. And no visiting friends and relatives throughout his tiny Vietnamese fishing village to celebrate Tet, the holiday marking the beginning of the lunar new year.
A fisherman like his father, 29-year-old Thanh sat awkwardly on the edge of a chair in the small Wheaton house that is still too strange to feel like home. His brown eyes radiating energy, he tried to speak, in bits of English, for his gray-haired parents and seven brothers and sisters, all seated on chairs and sofas donated by helpful Americans.
"Everything is so different," he said motioning around the stark white, prefab walls of the living room. "We hope to learn English soon. Now we feel very much like outsiders."
Only four months have passed since 11 of the 13 members of the Le family escaped from Vietnam and came to the United States. The eldest son, who was separated from the family and boarded a different boat during the escape, is still in a refugee camp overseas and hopes to join the others soon. A married daughter remained behind.
So for the Les this New Year, their first in a strange land, was a strained one conflicting emotions. Although glad to be alive and together with a roof over their head, the roof is nothing like the thatched ones they knew in Vietnam. Gone are their friends and relatives, the rural village life their family had lived contentedly for centuries until the war.
Although there is no note of celebration as the Les sip ginseng tea on the chilly Sunday afternoon that is the second day of Tet, they are proud to have survived their ordeal and are hopeful for the New Year.
"In the future we hope to have more income so we can visit friends on Tet and have them here to treat them to good food as we used to do," explains 51-year-old Nhuong Le, the father who was a fisherman and village chief and now works as a janitor. "This first year we are just trying to make ends meet."
The family once lived in the province of Ca Mau, in South Vietnam near the South China Sea. The men fished and Man, the mother, kept a shop in the front of their home.
After the war Nhuong, as a village chief, was imprisoned by the new Communist government along with his eldest son.
Man, his 48-year-old wife, now ill wich cancer and glaucoma, sorrowfully recals her struggles to feed her small children while her husband and son were in prison. A tiny gray-haired woman, dignified in a cowl-collar sweater and dark slacks, she tells, through an interpreter, how she fled, built a hut and became a peddler to support the family.
"We had to live like animals," she recalls. "They were very unhappy times."
When the two Le men were released after three years in jail, the family fled in a small boat to Pulau Bidong in southern Malaysia. Twice refused entry, they finally forced their way into a refugee camp, where they spent eight months in wretched living conditions they would like to forget.
Finally the Buddhist Social Services helped them come to Washington, where the American Refugee Committee, a local nonprofit group that helps families like the Les, found an Episcopal congregation on Albemarle Street in Washington who wanted to help the Les start a new life.
With the help of the parishioners of St. Columba's Church, the Les rented the small brick house in Wheaton. Here they live with Ly, 20; Thuy, 18; Nga, 16; Ha, 12; Cong, 10; Loan, 8; Phong, 6, and Phuoc, 4.
The church volunteers donated not only the furniture, but also many hours of their time. They taught the Les how to use American money, shop for groceries and rake leaves. They took them to doctors and schools. The children are now in Montgomery County schools, and PTA members have joined with neighbors to make the family welcome and a part of the community, according to Ed Worthy, who heads the St. Columba's group.
"We feel very strongly for us as a group that this has helped us grow a great deal," he said. "We've come together to work for a common cause."
The Les, although grateful to their American benefactors, look forward to becoming independent. In fact, they've already started. Using a well-thumbed dictionary, they invited one of their neighbors over for spring rolls -- Vietnamese-style eggrolls -- on the first day of Tet.
It was just a little burst of celebration, but for the younger children who don't recall the old days of Tet feasting and visiting, it was a vast improvement over the Tets they spent hungry and worrying about their imprisoned father and brothers.
"Those years there was no Tet," says 16-year-old Nga solemnly. "This is the best Tet ever."