A straightforward way to learn about Vietnamese refugees is to acquire one. This my family did on a frigid dawn in March 1975, after the fall of Saigon. Sandy clanked down the ramp of a 747 at Dulles, wearing a silken ao dai and clutching a large purse. It was all she had. She weighed 90 pounds and wobbled from exhaustion. She approached my mother and, with the Vietnamese disregard for terminal consonants, lied, "I so happy come United Steak." The meeting was almost preposterous: a retired federal mathematician and the dragon child from the stillness beyond Can Tho.
She was also on the verge of shock and just maybe suicidal, which diminished the storybook pathos. Politicians on the radio were testing the wind as we drove home, saying that the refugees were freeloaders looking for the easy life on welfare. The freeloader theory overestimates the joys of losing forever one's family, friends, country, culture and language. For months Sandy spent much of her time in her room, crying over disintegrating snapshots of her family. Refugees across the country were similarly depressed. They slept -- hour after hour, trying to forget.
It's hard to say which was more surprised by her arrival, Sandy or rural King George. After minor racial mutterings, the county accepted her -- accepted her as a matter of principle and then, astonished, found they liked her. She soon perked up enough to reveal Vietnamese traits that the GIs effortlessly missed, like a bubbling sense of humor, a love of the absurd, quick intelligence and a polite stubbornness that could be exasperating. The Vietnamese are not a weak-willed people. Their ideas of propriety are categorical, and some things are bad, like letting elders work. Never mind that my father wanted to mow the lawn for the exercise. Children are supposed to do the work, and Sandy was going to do it, and that was that. She did.
Sandy went to Buckingham and became a waitress. A variety of critics said the refugees would gravitate to the slums and become criminals. In fact, they gravitated to Arlington and became short-order cooks. It was predictable. They are an instinctively middled-class people and have much too high an opinion of themselves to
The writer is a columnist for The Federal Times. live in squalor. One might say they are unpleasantly class-conscious: Vietnamese are not in all respects lovable, but neither is anyone else.
For the next few years, Sandy and her people quietly made hamburgers and opened restaurants. Commercially, they are carnivores, quite suited to capitalism. The papers never wrote of the Vietnamese problem because there was none. Their children excelled in school, often standing in the top of their classes after two years' exposure to English.
Westerners have an almost irresistible and sometimes unconscious tendency to patronize the Vietnamese, who seldom have heard of Mars or Roger Staubach. Condescension is a mistake. "Unsophisticated" is not quite the word to apply to a woman who is natively fluent in a Montagnard dialect and in Vietnamese, who speaks fair French and good English, who is at home in three widely different cultures. Twenty-five years in an Asian war results in a worldliness that few enjoy. But hers is a sophistication that most people are ill equiped to detect.
These odd new Americans were exotic even in Arlington, where nameplates run to Kims and Chandras and Wangs. Before she married, Sandy sheltered Viets until they found jobs. There was Hsua Ksor Alexander, a brown speck of a Montagnard woman from near Pleiku, neither a round-eyed Khmer nor a slant-eyed Viet, but something lovely and in between. Genetics get confused in the fringes of Asia. Late at night, when she missed the hills, Hsua talked of going with her grandfather to hunt dinner with a crossbow -- a long trip from Washington. Phuong was a deep brown Cambodian Viet from the border near Rach Gia who, due to casual record-keeping, didn't know how old she was. "I don't know how old me," she would say wide-eyed. It was curious to watch them in the kitchen, chopping vegetables and chattering. Today they are all married, working, or both.
Sandy married a promising young Marine, settled in Alexandria, and is doing well. She works long hours in a franchised restaurant, but doesn't complain. Vietnamese of her generation expect less from life than we do. I had almost forgotten the sheer variegated disaster that haunts the Vietnamese. Recently Sandy befriended a family of the arriving wave of "boat people." They had found an abandoned baby crawling on the sidewalks of Saigon and taken him in. Though bright and cheerful, he can't move his eyes properly and has an uncontrollably twitching arm. The tentative diagnosis is brain hemorrhage. Sandy wants to adopt him, an adventure on a corporal's pay. The Vietnamese tend to raise children without undue regard to their origin.
Anyway, that's our experience in raising a refugee. We recommend it.