St. Cloud, Minnesota

I don’t remember the landing. It’s been a very long flight. Nor do I remember walking through the airport. We have no luggage anyway, like none.

My first memory of America is sitting in the back seat of TuAnh’s uncle’s car — an Oldsmobile wagon with wood panel trim. I’m almost eleven and a half years old, and this is the second time I’m in an automobile, a car car, which is much smoother than a bus or a van, and you’re not squished between strangers. The Oldsmobile is taking us straight home, not having to make a million stops along the way like my last bus ride from Saigon to Mũi Né.

Home is in St. Cloud. I’m not yet aware of how far it is from Minneapolis. It’s dark outside, around midnight dark, but my eyes are fixed on the passing landscape. I’m tired but I want the ride to last; I feel like I belong to a rich family that can afford a car.

TuAnh is my oldest brother’s wife. She’s the prettiest lady. The uncle’s family will share their home with us, and us being six people. The uncle and aunt have six kids of their own for a total of 14. (This is the first time I pause to realize this number. When you live in Vietnam, and there’s still floor space in the house to sleep on, then another kid will be born. My mother comes over to America and thinks it’s an utter shame to use garage space for cars. My goodness, a family of eight can live comfortably in this spacious 2-car garage.)

The aunt has chicken phở already made. It’s the first time I have the chicken version. She says the mint is from her garden. You’re supposed to eat phở with basil, but nobody cares, there’s mint in St. Cloud!

I will sit and watch the news with the uncle. I have no idea what they are saying, but I just like seeing white people’s faces and listening to how fast they talk. The best part is there’s always something on TV, there’s no curfew. I have two favorite shows, The Price is Right and Happy Days. You don’t have to understand very much English to watch The Price because prices are numerical, and English numbers look the same as Vietnamese numbers, except Americans are weird to write $50 instead of 50$. They claim to read from left to right too. I like Happy Days because it’s a show with cute boys, Chachi and Fonzie. (My family calls me Fawnzie. My name morphed from Phương to Fawn to Fawnzie. More recently, my son Gabriel probably sensed that I was stressed in our conversation and said, “Mom, I need you to be Fawnzie right now.” And I knew what he meant.)

English class is the hardest. Each word has way too many letters. While sitting in the school office waiting for the uncle to enroll me, I learn the spelling of the word(s) you say when you want to thank someone: THANK YOU. I don’t get it. I don’t hear the YOU part at all when people say it; until then, I thought it was one word, you know, THENGKEW. I believe Vietnamese is a monosyllabic language. Vietnam is actually Việt Nam. Saigon is actually Sài Gòn. While Nguyen might be the longest Vietnamese word (I don’t know, is it?), it’s just one syllable, so it’s Nguyễn, not Noo-yen. I spend hours breaking up each word into parts, I can only remember the word BECAUSE by seeing it as BE-CAU-SE to write it down. I am a mute in all my classes. I only talk when I’m with my ESL teacher, Mrs. Schnettler. Then eventually — a long long time really — I wake up one morning and realize my thoughts are in English. Someone has flipped the switch in my brain. Except it’s one direction, I can’t flip it back.

I spend the first eleven years of my life seeing only brown eyes, so it’s pretty cool to see other colors, shades of green and blue. Weirder is when kids from the same parents have a mix of colors. Weirdest is when a blue-eyed person sees the same red color on an apple as a brown-eyed person. Speaking of eyes, or just eye, Graham Smith has only one good brown eye, and he’s the one who yells at me to go back to Vietnam. The uncle’s daughter translates his words for me. I want to punch him in the face, knocking his eyeball out of his head, but then he’d be blind.

My sister Kimzie is three years older, so we’re now 12 and 15. (Her name went from Nga to Kim to Kimzie, which is dumb, at least Phương and Fawn start with the same sound, she says she wants to go from three letters to three letters and no more.) We know two lines from a Peter McCann’s song, “Do You Wanna Make Love,” and we belt them out at all hours of the day. Just two lines over and over again: Do you want to make love… Or do you just want to fool around… Then one day, my brother’s friend asks him if we girls knew what the words “make love” meant. We shake our heads and continue singing.

The six of us have now moved out to our own house. It’s a big white house with a big yard, there’s a porch too. In the winter, the snow would pile up as high as the single detached garage in the backyard. I make Jell-O by just leaving it outside for 30 minutes. I remember the few days in the dead of winter when we run out of oil to heat the house. I learn to ride my bike around the block, in the summer that is. A friend was surprised to learn that I didn’t know how to ride a bike until I was 13. I told her it was kinda tough to learn to ride when I didn’t own a bike growing up. Obviously, I didn’t know how to swim either. What sad kid doesn’t know how to swim in the “land of 10,000 lakes.”

I get to visit St. Cloud this August; it’ll be my first time back since I left in 1979. I’ll be facilitating a full-day workshop, and St. Cloud will just be 70 miles away. I’m flushed with nostalgia and gratitude — going back to my first home in America.

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43 Comments

  1. Lewelyn Lee
    Posted July 3, 2018 at 3:27 am | Permalink

    Wow. Thanks for sharing. I’ve always enjoyed reading your personal stories. They make your blog posts more real. This one reminded me of my own journey to Canada from the Philippines.

    All the best in your presentation in St. Cloud!.

    • Fawn
      Posted July 4, 2018 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

      Hi Lewelyn. Thank you so much for dropping in and leaving me a note. I’m really excited about the trip.

  2. Bob Lochel
    Posted July 3, 2018 at 5:29 am | Permalink

    This is beautiful.
    Thanks Fawn.

    • Fawn
      Posted July 4, 2018 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

      Hello Bob. Thank you so much! Small world that I was at your old high school in Philly last month. Hope our paths cross again at one of these conferences!

  3. George M Selden
    Posted July 3, 2018 at 5:55 am | Permalink

    I am so happy to have read this. Thank you for brightening my day.

    • Fawn
      Posted July 4, 2018 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

      Hi George. And you just brightened my day too with your comment. Thank you so much.

  4. elzabeth baker
    Posted July 3, 2018 at 5:57 am | Permalink

    Once again. inspiration!

    • Fawn
      Posted July 4, 2018 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

      And always always, Elizabeth, thank you so much for your kindness.

  5. Teresa Orpen
    Posted July 3, 2018 at 6:24 am | Permalink

    Thank you for sharing Fawn. And welcome back!

    • Fawn
      Posted July 4, 2018 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

      Hi Teresa. Thank you for dropping in. I can’t wait to be back!

  6. Kim Webb
    Posted July 3, 2018 at 6:32 am | Permalink

    Fawn, thanks for sharing. You’ve motivated me to write my own story. I’ve been thinking about it for years. I too left Vietnam in 1975, when I was 6 years old. Thanks for the inspiration!

    • Fawn
      Posted July 4, 2018 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

      Hi Kim. Oh, wow, your comment completely made my day. Thank you so much.

  7. Jessica Breur
    Posted July 3, 2018 at 6:51 am | Permalink

    Beautiful post Fawn. We are happy to welcome you to Minnesota.

    • Fawn
      Posted July 4, 2018 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

      Thank you very much, Jessica. Thank you for being a big part of making this happen! <3

  8. Eliz
    Posted July 3, 2018 at 6:54 am | Permalink

    I love your story. Thanks for sharing it.

    • Fawn
      Posted July 4, 2018 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

      Hi Eliz. I love that you love my story. Thank you so much for reading it and letting me know.

  9. Maureen H. Sikora
    Posted July 3, 2018 at 6:59 am | Permalink

    Fawn, you are a beautiful writer. This gives us all great insight into out own students who have immigrated. Thank you!

    • Fawn
      Posted July 4, 2018 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

      Hello Maureen. Thank you for your very kind words.

  10. joe
    Posted July 3, 2018 at 7:30 am | Permalink

    This is a great story, you should write a book. Did you ever watch THE MARY TYLER MOORE Show (Ted was kinda cute) or listen to Garrison Keillor? Classical MPR is the best radio station ever! I always stream it in my class, the students love hearing about the snow!
    We missed you at UCSB this summer🎲
    Best wishes for a great workshop and a restful summer!

    • Fawn
      Posted July 4, 2018 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

      Hi Joe. I never did, sadly. I learned more about her show after it was off the air — what an incredible trailblazer she was. We didn’t have enough folks registered for the UCSB summer week, so we had to cancel it. Thank you so much, Joe.

  11. Laura Lopez LeRoy
    Posted July 3, 2018 at 7:41 am | Permalink

    Thank you–words just flow from you!! Have new insights regarding human experiences. Am sure you will enjoy St. Cloud!

    • Fawn
      Posted July 4, 2018 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

      Hi Laura. Thank you so much for dropping in and leaving me a note. I can’t wait to visit, I get all emotional just thinking about it.

  12. Posted July 3, 2018 at 8:02 am | Permalink

    Beautiful, Fawnzie (does Henry Winkler even know what he has wrought? ;)… and thanks for giving me something to post about tomorrow…

    • Fawn
      Posted July 4, 2018 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

      Always always, Shecky, much obliged. It’s a shame Mr. Winkler doesn’t know how cool I am. :)

  13. Posted July 3, 2018 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    Thank you for sharing this Fawn. Your layers are amazing and profound and inspiring.
    You inspired me to write about my first visit back to Israel in 37 years!

    Best to you,

    Amy

    • Fawn
      Posted July 4, 2018 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

      Hi Amy. When will I get to see you again? You know what? We made one stop before my arrival in America (Minneapolis), and it was Israel! You are so kind to me, Amy, thank you so much. <3

  14. Carol
    Posted July 3, 2018 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    This is a BEAUTIFUL story. I am always amazed at my ELL/ESL students and how quickly they pick up. I try to imagine living in a place where no one speaks my language and trying to function. So glad you are part of our American family and part of the education family. Thanks for sharing!

    • Fawn
      Posted July 4, 2018 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

      Hi Carol. I’m glad I was younger at the time as I know it gets tougher to learn a new language as we get older. Hard enough as it was. And I’m thankful every day that I am part of the American family. Thank you so much for dropping in, Carol.

  15. @cheesemonkeysf
    Posted July 3, 2018 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    <3

    • Fawn
      Posted July 4, 2018 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

      <3 <3 <3, there, I beat you by a factor of three, Elizabeth. And this, xox.

  16. Erik Teather
    Posted July 3, 2018 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    Thank you for sharing
    You are amazing!

    • Fawn
      Posted July 4, 2018 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

      Hello Erik. I tell people how amazing I am too, just kinda blurt it out every now and then. All I got back is eye-rolling. Rude, right?? :) Thank you so very much, Erik.

  17. Posted July 3, 2018 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    Thanks for opening your heart and memories to us.

    • Fawn
      Posted July 4, 2018 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

      I don’t know how it is that we haven’t met IRL, Shireen. I truly hope our paths will cross someday soon. Thank you so much.

  18. Posted July 3, 2018 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    As many have already said; thanks for sharing your story.

    • Fawn
      Posted July 4, 2018 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

      Hi Cynthia. Thank you so much for your kind note.

  19. Posted July 4, 2018 at 7:00 am | Permalink

    These kind of posts are what made me fall in love with your work back in… 2011? 2010? In fact, I still think it’s what got me into #MTBoS and blogging in the first place. Even in moments of doubt, confusion, and overwhelming fatigue, I still treasure the time I have with your stories. Thank you.

    I relate to this particular story very much – and would somehow love to hear more. As you know, I also moved when I was young (~12 years old). Although to Canada, not America (something I am thankful for, especially in light of the circumstances in the US). Many parts of your story resonated with me.

    Thank you.

    • Fawn
      Posted July 4, 2018 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

      Hi Jimmy. I wish we lived closer! Wonderful to finally meet you; there was never enough time to visit. I need to hear your story. Thank you so much, my friend.

  20. Mary Jackson
    Posted July 4, 2018 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    Thanks so much for your story. How important it is for us all to remember on Independence Day the benefits our country has because we welcome immigrants. I am a better math teacher because of you. Blessings to you as you visit St. Cloud.

    • Fawn
      Posted July 4, 2018 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

      Hi Mary. Thank you for reading and dropping me a note. Blessing to you, always.

  21. Thach-Thao Phan
    Posted July 5, 2018 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    My mom was 9 months pregnant with me when she and my 3 siblings (ages 6, 4 & 2) fled after finding out our father was captured and sent to a prisoner camp for 13 years. I didn’t meet him until I was 18, and visited the homeland for the first time at 37.

    There are so many of us with these life altering experiences which have shaped who we are today…successful citizens, making a difference and giving back.

    Thank you for being so inspirational Phương!

  22. Posted July 8, 2018 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

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  23. Lisa Perkins
    Posted July 13, 2018 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

    Fawn, Your life is a continual amazement to me. I adore your intelligence, humor, and insight that, to you, is just every day living. Hugs, dear friend.

    Do you tell on your website of your escape, floundering in South China Sea, and eventual transition to camp to US?

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