The Yang, a translator.provided by the IRC, is a refugee himself, a Hmong tribesman from the mountains of Laos
In the afternoon I sometimes see her riding a bicycle down the alley behind my house. If the weather is warm she wears loose-fitting brown slacks and a blouse, but I have seen her on rainy, windy days wearing a blue nylon jacket and a faded green stocking cap.
Tran Due Tam and his brother decided to make a run for it. They broke a window, climbed out, and made their way down into the streets.
There is a tired but crafty look in her eyes as she searches the trash bins for aluminum cans; when she finds them, she stuffs them into a bulging Phone Store bag and continues down the alley on her bicycle. The woman looks to be in her late forties, but I often wonder if she looks older than she is because of what she has been through.
Janlee Wong notes that often the refugees’ emotional problems don’t surface until long after the refugees themselves are in the U.S.
She is Vietnamese, one of the refugees from Indochina now arriving in San Diego at the rate of 500 every month. A few months ago her family moved into an aging two-story house in Hillcrest; like other boat people — the second great wave of Indochinese refugees to this country since 1975 — they had probably endured long months in a squalid refugee camp in Singapore or Hong Kong or Thailand, waiting for a chance to emigrate.
Moch Van Nguyen flew off to study Medieval painting in Bordeaux.
Sponsored at last by a volunteer U.S. resettlement agency, they arrived here one morning on a jet with little in the way of language or job skills to help them get by. Collecting aluminum cans and other recyclable materials such as newspapers and glass is discouraged by the resettlement agencies; it can lead to confrontations with American neighbors and even the police. But the lesson was learned long ago, and the grapevine is strong: collecting these materials is one way of generating income, however meager, so desperately needed in this strange land.
Kun Yin and Leh Souk and children. When the Communists took over, Kun Yin was afraid they would try to kill him, so he and his family crossed the border into Thailand.
For me this woman is one of the few tangible legacies of the war in Vietnam.. The newspaper accounts, the governmental deceptions and cover-ups. the protest marches, the emotion that drove apart families — all are gone now, their place taken by this woman who pedals through the alleys of Hillcrest gathering aluminum cans.
For the refugees themselves the past is still fresh.
For the refugees themselves, though, the past is still fresh: the bombings and deaths, the uncertainty of not knowing what will become of relatives who were left behind. Preoccupied with these memories, they find themselves in the midst of an alien culture, where the pressure to succeed is intense and the only certain insurance for the future is cold cash.
Cambodian refugees have been noted by officials here as the group that suffers most from depression, homesickness.
On the evening of April 28, 1975. Tran Due Tam went to his job in Saigon as a telephone operator for AID. (AID — Agency for International Development — is a branch of the United States Department of State that helps to modernize and economically develop foreign countries.) Tam, who had been trained as a telephone operator by AID. was twenty-five years old: he worked nights at the switchboard, from seven in the evening to seven in the morning. There was bombing and shelling that night (in the U.S., newspapers were reporting North Vietnamese troops rapidly approaching the city), and in the morning a general curfew was imposed. Since Tam couldn't go home, he phoned his parents to tell them he was okay, and asked them to send him some food. Later that morning his brother showed up at the AID building with breakfast. Around ten o'clock, Tam heard a radio announcement that all Americans had to leave the country within twenty-four hours. He called his supervisor, who advised him to stay at the AID building until he (the supervisor) called back. Not long after that, Tam saw the last U.S. Marine leaving the building, locking it up as he went. The Marine asked him if he wanted to stay or leave. Tam said he would stay.
As the hours crept by, though, he began to get nervous. His supervisor hadn't called back, and Tam couldn’t get through to him despite repeated attempts. At three o’clock he and his brother decided to make a run for it. They broke a window, climbed out, and made their way down into the streets. Gunfire could be heard in all directions. When he saw a bus going by driven by an American, Tam flagged it down, showed the driver his AID identification card, pulled his brother aboard with him. and rode to the American embassy. Within a few hours the two brothers were in a Chinook helicopter en route to the U.S. aircraft carrier Hancock. They eventually flew to Guam and arrived in the United States at Camp Pendleton. Tam finally contacted his parents, the.first word they had had of him since the April day when he left Saigon, four months later.
Today Tam works for the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, one of the five resettlement agencies for Indochinese refugees currently operating in San Diego. A boyish-looking man with a sparse mustache and goatee, he speaks rapid and nearly flawless English. "Nationwide. LIRS has handled about fifteen percent of the refugees from Indochina,” he told me one morning recently. "Locally it’s about the same; right now we’re taking care of three to four new' families each month.” LIRS. like other resettlement agencies, is contracted by the state department to assist the relocation of Indochinese refugees. The state department provides a flat fee of $500 per family, which the resettlement agencies use to rent a house or apartment and provide the newcomers with cooking utensils, beds, and other basic furniture. "You don’t just give the refugees $500 and say good-bye.” one resettlement official noted laconically. Left-over money is used to buy food, and is usually meted out by the agency to the family on a weekly basis.
Inflation and the cost of living being what they are, $500 doesn’t go far toward the support of a family, and the LIRS. again like other resettlement agencies, relies on donations to supplement the state department's funds. Tam explains that when a large refugee family arrives, LIRS often asks individual Lutheran congregations to help sponsor them. But even this money doesn't go far, and many refugee families end up on welfare after just a few months here. Most of the boat people emigrating now are unskilled and relatively uneducated, and although some bring with them gold that their families have saved for generations, they need time to learn the language and job skills necessary to enable them to find employment. (Refugees are not required to attend English-language classes unless they apply for welfare, but they are usually encouraged to do so by the resettlement agencies if their English is not fluent.)
“The evacuation in 1975 was geared towards people in the big cities — Saigon, DaNang, places like that,” Tam points out. “They picked up a lot of high-intellectual, high-skilled people. But what could they do for the rural areas?” Now. he explains, many of the refugees arriving here are farmers and fishermen from the coastal areas; they are the ones with the best means of escaping. For them, “the first problem and the biggest one is language. And language creates another problem. If you don’t know the language, you can’t get a job. If you go for a job interview, how can you get hired if you can’t answer the questions?”
Those refugees who do go on welfare usually qualify under the Indochinese Refugee Assistance Program (IRAP). Currently, there are more than 7000 people on IRAP’s rolls in San Diego County. Their numbers have risen dramatically since President Carter’s announcement last summer to allow 14,000 Indochinese refugees to enter the U.S. each month, and the rise has prompted an ugly backlash from some of the Americans receiving welfare here. Rumors have surfaced that the Indochinese are receiving more money than American citizens, or that they are soaking up welfare funds that might otherwise go to Americans. Such rumors are, however, untrue. Authorized by a separate act of Congress in 1975, IRAP’s program pays to refugee families about what American families receive under the Aid to Families with Dependent Children welfare-assistance program. The average refugee family on IRAP assistance consists of a mother, father, and two children; they receive about $490, plus about $155 worth of food stamps and medical care, each month.
Some of the refugees arriving these days are trained professionals, but even they usually have difficulty obtaining jobs, according to Tam. “They try to look for something that fits their background. If he’s a lawyer, then he wants to be a lawyer here. That’s what he thinks, but the realities are different.” In the case of a lawyer, for example, the laws of the two countries are substantially different, so that even a successful Vietnamese lawyer would have to undertake a long and costly education here before opening a practice. The result is that many professionals must take the first available jobs they can get, often menial work such as dishwashing or electronic assembly.
Even jobs such as these, however, are often preferable to nothing at all. Most Indochinese refugees arrive here with their traditional social and cultural values still intact. Men are seen as providers and are expected to support their families. Being unable to do so can lead to emotional stress and, in some cases, chronic depression. Indochinese women, traditionally the caretakers of the home, discover that it is socially acceptable for them to work here; to actually do so, however, often results in even greater embarrassment and emotional turmoil for their husbands.
Such problems — the psychological side of refugee adjustment — are the concern of Janlee Wong, director of the Indochinese Community Health and Education Project. Wong, a Chinese-American raised in Riverside, California, notes that the pressure (and sometimes inability) to land a job and provide for family needs is probably the greatest cause of emotional stress among refugees, but it is only one of the causes. Others include guilt about leaving relatives behind, and difficulty in coping with the cultural changes taking place in one’s own children. “Some of the common comments we hear are things like. 'My children speak only English now,’ or. 'My children talk back to me now,’ ” Wong says. Even such things as allowing teen-agers to date can cause family arguments, since dating is not an accepted practice among most rural Indochinese.
Wong explains that his office was created to train a limited number of Indochinese refugees as mental-health counselors for the burgeoning refugee population. Ultimately, the reasoning behind the project was a practical one: to help the refugees adjust quickly to American culture and make them working members of society instead of welfare recipients. As part of their training. Wong’s counselor-trainees do a certain amount of field work w ith refugees who are having emotional difficulties, and this has put Wong in close contact with the refugee community. “The refugee is different from the immigrant, who leaves his country more or less voluntarily,” he says. “The refugee feels forced to leave, and he’s psychologically not prepared to accept being cut off from his friends and his family. There's a tremendous feeling of insecurity, powerlessness. and inadequacy.”
Wong makes a distinction between mental illness and mental health, and says his counselor-trainees deal only with cases involving the latter, “people who can function on their ow n, but are depressed or in a state of high anxiety; people who have insomnia or arc arguing with their relatives all the time.” The project’s training manual details a number of case histories, such as the Cambodian refugee who recently moved to a rural California town where there are no other refugees. Plagued by nightmares about his past and the relatives he left behind in Cambodia, he took a night job to avoid sleeping. Because of his tired and nervous appearance, his employer has offered to let him have time off, but the man refuses to take a vacation, works as late as possible, and frequently talks of suicide. Another case involves a Vietnamese woman who took a job for the first time after coming to the U.S. Her husband opposed the idea, and when she came home late one night after working overtime. he accused her of infidelity and beat her severely. The woman ran away from her family, and her husband subsequently tried to commit suicide with a razor blade. Tran Due Tam knows of one refugee in San Diego who saw his wife raped twice by pirates while his family was escaping by boat from Vietnam. Since arriving here, the man has been unable to talk to his family and seems to be withdrawing more and more from the everyday world.
There is no systematic survey of refugees to turn up those who are depressed or show other signs of emotional turmoil; usually Wong or the counselor-trainees at the project learn of specific problems from someone with a firsthand knowledge of the people involved, such as police summoned to the scene of a wife-beating, or resettlement officials who notice one of their charges acting strangely. Wong estimates that less than five percent of all the refugees actually receive mental-health counseling, although he says that as many as half of them probably go through a major emotional upset. “Most of them cope very well,” he admits. “After all, they’re the ones who escaped in the first place — they’re the survival people.” Wong notes that often the refugees’ emotional problems don’t surface until long after the refugees themselves are in the U.S. Tran Due Tam echoes this point, emphasizing the irony of the refugee who is unable to sleep or eat when, for the first time in months or years, he has a safe place to stay and plenty to cat. Tam adds that, in general, older refugees have had the hardest time adjusting to leaving their homeland. “Young children adapt more easily; it takes time for people twenty-five to thirty-five to adjust, but in a few years they can do it,” he says. “But for the older people — say, over forty-five — it’s very difficult. They work all of their lives to save everything and then they have to leave. . . . Also, in Vietnam the retirement age is fifty-five, generally, so many of the older people were starting to look forward to retiring. Then they come here and have to worry about getting a job or starting a new career. It’s very hard for them.”
In spite of their personal tragedies, most of the Indochinese people look for work eagerly. ’“One thing I’m proud of — the Indochinese people try to always improve themselves,” Tam says. And studies have shown that sixty-two percent of the refugees are off the welfare rolls after eleven months. Recently, though, some leaders of the refugee community have expressed dissatisfaction with the current system, in which a refugee is required to take the first available job whether or not it is suitable to his background and skills. Kathy Do, director of the Indochinese Service Center, said that she would rather see professionals such as doctors or lawyers retrain in their own fields, even it it means staying on welfare for a longer period of time. Her argument, that the easy-to-get .menial jobs are usually the first to be eliminated in an economic crisis, and do not provide refugee families with long-term security, is hard to refute; but it is not likely to find favor with tax-weary Americans already grousing about the sizeable welfare budget for refugees.
No matter what their difficulties here are, though, most of the Indochinese refugees do not view returning to their homeland as a practical option. When I asked Tran Due Tam if he ever considered returning to Vietnam, he grew thoughtful. “I can’t speak for most of the refugees, okay?” he said. “The older people, for them there is a Vietnamese tradition: when they die, they will die peacefully if they are buried in their own soil, in the village where they were bom. The older adults, many hope they will have a chance to go back.
“For myself. I’d go back on one condition: no communism.” The communists, he said, have put pressure on those with relatives now in the U.S. by limiting their food and subjecting them to political harassment. (Tam’s parents and six of his brothers and sisters still live in Saigon; he stays in touch with them by mail.) “Anyone who can leave would not hesitate to leave,” he told me firmly. “For the Vietnamese people there is a joke, a bitter joke: if electric poles — you know, light poles, utility poles — if such as they could walk, even they would leave Vietnam now.”
Moch Van Nguyen grew up near Hanoi, a city he remembers as “a very beautiful place — a lot of lakes all over the city, and a lot of nice architecture.” His parents were wealthy landowners who had a large farm on the city’s outskirts. From time to time they would provide shelter for people trying to avoid the authorities, people such as communists (before they came to power) and Catholic priests from France (after the communists had taken control). When Moch was eleven, the family fled the north, taking with them several Catholic priests who feared for their own lives. The Nguyens eventually made it to Saigon, where the priests, eager to express their thanks to Moch’s parents — and not coincidentally, to extend the influence of their religion in Vietnam — offered to send Moch to a Catholic art school in France. His parents agreed, so Moch flew off to study Medieval painting in Bordeaux, at a tightly run religious institute he now jokingly compares to a prison. Three years later he returned to Saigon, where he worked as an apprentice to a Vietnamese master artist. Under the tutelage of this man, Moch learned the traditional Vietnamese arts of silk and lacquer painting, wood-block printing, and the use of oil and water color. He studied these crafts off and on for the next seventeen years, even after fighting throughout Vietnam intensified and he himself was drafted into the Navy. Technically, he became a navigator, but, stationed alternately in Saigon and on ships at sea, Moch would return to work part time with his master whenever he could. In 1969 he visited the Naval Training Center in San Diego as part of his officer training; when he returned to Saigon, he got married, and soon his wife had a daughter. Eventually, because of his artistic skills, he served a four-year stint as director of a naval print shop in Saigon, which produced training manuals and other printed materials for the South Vietnamese government.
In April of 1975, Moch’s superiors in the Navy decided it was time for him to serve another tour of duty. On April 27 he transferred on board a destroyer newly out of drydock, and on April 30, with North Vietnamese troops closing in on Saigon, the destroyer steamed out of port and down the Mekong River toward the South China Sea. By the time the ship reached the sea on April 30, Saigon had fallen and the Americans had evacuated the last of their troops and embassy staff. Moch never set foot on Vietnamese soil again.
The destroyer, in radio contact with other South Vietnamese vessels and the U.S. Navy, waited near the mouth of the Mekong for a day and a night. In that short time nearly 150 ships packed with refugees gathered nearby, and on May first they formed a long line and set a course for the Philippines. Moch’s destroyer was the last one in the line; if one of the other ships became disabled, it was his destroyer’s job to take the passengers and crew on board, then fire on the disabled ship until it sank. This happened several times, and lengthened the relatively short journey to the Philippines to two days. In the Philippines, the destroyer was turned over to the U.S. Navy — after a ceremony in which the South Vietnamese anthem was played one final time, Moch and the rest of the crew threw their uniforms into the ocean — and soon Moch was on board an old U.S. cargo ship that took him to a hastily assembled tent camp on Guam. “From there, my life begin,” says Moch, whose English is fluent, if a little unpolished, despite the fact that he never studied it formally. “Guam was my second rebirth — I have nothing.”
As the weeks dragged by on Guam, Moch longed for something to do. He couldn't leave the camp (he had no money anyway), but eventually he traded his watch to one of the guards in exchange for some paper and brushes. Using things like fruit juice and dirt for pigment, he painted water colors of the camp and some of its inhabitants. His work did not go entirely unnoticed; on July fourth he exhibited a few of his paintings in the house of Guam’s governor. “It was just something I did to stay busy, so I wouldn’t think about the past,” Moch remembers.
Sponsored at last by a friend who had once worked for AID in Saigon, and who how taught at Syracuse University, Moch finally entered the U.S. late in 1975 and went to live in New York. His goal was to make a living as an artist, and for a while he was successful. Some of his oil-on-wood paintings now hang in the Museum of Modem Art in Washington, D.C., he says, and he has had shows in galleries in Toronto and Paris. “I did not take any penny from the U.S. government,” he insists with pride. “Always I paid for everything myself— rent, telephone bill, toilet tissue — everything.” Somewhere along the way his wife and daughter fled Vietnam and joined him, but Moch doesn’t like to go into detail about when or how. “My wife and I have agreed not to talk about it anymore,” he says simply. “We’ve locked the door and thrown away the key . . . now we don’t want to go back in that dark room any more.”
After a year or so of trying to make a living as an artist, Moch decided to try something else. He was making money but he was spending it even faster on travel expenses, advertising flyers, tools, and equipment. In 1976 he moved his family to San Diego and began to look for work. In December of that year he answered an ad for a graphic artist at Cal-West Graphics in Kearny Mesa, and, based on his experience at the naval print shop in Saigon, he got the job.
Last month I went out to see Moch at Cal-West. We sat on a curb in the parking lot beneath a gray and threatening sky, eating our lunch as we talked about his life. Moch is one of the luckier refugees — he arrived here with job and language skills that have enabled him to cam a steady income from the start — but he still feels some of the pressures of being a refugee. “My whole life is screwed up, ” he told me almost wistfully. “I’m not even talking my own language any more.” As he said this he pointed to his mouth and gave a short, sardonic laugh.
“I want you to know that every Vietnamese refugee has hostility,” he went on after a pause. “You look at their faces and it’s just, hmmmm.” He turned an expressionless face toward the sky. “But inside they are dead. Most of the Vietnamese people I know are not happy.”
I asked him if he had had a hard time adjusting to American culture, and he thought for a moment. Some refugees have spoken of the “jungle” of the American governmental bureaucracy, but Moch admitted that for him, adapting was easier than for most. For instance, possessing an international driver’s license enabled him to avoid studying for and taking the driving test, a slow and bewildering process for many newcomers. “Americans are very different from Vietnamese,” he said finally. “They’re friendly, but they’re different. One thing I can think of: In Vietnam, if you eat seafood, you are poor. If you eat chicken, it means you are rich. Here it’s opposite.
“Another thing: I have worked here now [at Cal-West] for about four years, but I never ask for a raise. In Vietnam, the employer takes cars of that himself — it’s his duty. If I do good in my duty, then they should do good in their duty.” Moch said the looseness of American family structure concerned him. In Vietnam, families are much more tightly knit; children live at home until they are married, and arc expected to support their parents in old age. “We very afraid of old folks’ home," he said. “We try to keep away from family organization in this country.”
Moch and his wife recently bought a house in North Park. About a third of the money for the down payment came from the sales of his paintings, he told me, and the rest from what his wife was able to bring with her when she left Vietnam. Like many middle-class Americans, he now spends a lot of time working around his house. He and his wife grow spices for their Vietnamese food in their back yard, and he is in the process of fixing up a studio in his garage where he can work on his art. Since exhibiting some prints two years ago at the Tarbox Gallery in La Jolla, Moch has not shown any of his artwork formally. He said he eventually plans to do some wood-block prints, but for the time being, working full time at Cal-West leaves him little time to do anything else. The problem is exacerbated by the types of art he is interested in — wood-block printing, lacquer painting, and silk painting are all crafts that require long hours of preparation and execution.
Moch’s parents and family still live in Vietnam, and he writes to them frequently. He told me he plans to apply soon for U.S. citizenship, but more for convenience than for patriotic reasons — it will enable him to travel more easily. Most of all, he said, he wants “to stay really busy, so that I don’t think too much about the past.”
It was raining the first time I went to see Kun Yin and his wife Leh Souk in their North Park house. The house is located not far from my own, and about six months ago it became apparent that someone new and probably foreign had moved into it. Almost overnight the front yard was converted from a patch of tall grass into a vegetable garden — a conversion not exactly kosher by suburban American standards, but what a garden! There is a tall palm tree in one comer of the front yard, and neighbors told me that the new family had even made use of the seedlings this tree produced, eating them when they were still green and tender and tasted. I suppose, like some Southern California approximation of bamboo shoots.
Kun Yin, Leh Souk, and their six children were sponsored by the International Rescue Commission (a nondenominational resettlement agency), and as I turned up the walkway to the house, raindrops pattering on the vegetable plants all around me, I saw The Yang, a translator.provided by the IRC, waiting for me in the front doorway. The Yang (pronounced Tay Yang) is a refugee himself, a Hmong tribesman from the mountains of Laos, but I had been assured by the IRC that he was an excellent translator. When he saw me, he gave a big, friendly wave, and when he introduced me to Leh Souk a few minutes later, I found out the IRC was right.
Leh Souk is Cambodian and speaks no English. She regarded me shyly, nervously; to her I must have seemed like one more official from the well-lit halls of American bureaucracy. Kun Yin was away at English language class, along with their eldest child (a daughter, eighteen), but Leh Souk agreed to sit down and answer my questions through The Yang. The front room of her house was furnished with an old green couch and nothing else; the walls were bare except for a calendar that hung in one comer. As we spoke, her four youngest children sat and stood in a ragged assembly at her knee, eyeing me curiously.
She had lived in a refugee camp in Thailand for the last two and a half years, she said. Her mother and father were still there, waiting to emigrate. She and her husband and children had arrived in San Diego about five months earlier, with no possessions other than a few clothes and blankets. When I asked her why they had left Cambodia in the first place, her lips curled with scorn, and she said simply that it was because they didn’t like the communists.
Cambodian refugees have been noted by officials here as the group that suffers most from depression, homesickness, and general emotional upset; in many ways they bear the worst scars from the strife in Indochina over the last fifteen years. Since the communist Khmer Rouge government came to power in 1975, nearly half of the entire Cambodian population is said to have died from execution, starvation, and lack of medical care. In spite of this, Cambodians are the smallest numerically of all the Indochinese refugee groups. The Indochinese Community Health and Education Project estimates there are' currently only about 12,000 Cambodian refugees in this country, and about 1000 in San Diego.
I talked with Leh Souk for an hour or so that day, but I saw no signs of intense grief on her face — just the wary, somewhat nervous expression that many of the Indochinese refugees seem to have. Several weeks later, I returned to talk to her husband, Kun Yin. He met me at the front door with a gracious smile and welcomed me into his living room. Like the rest of his family, Kun Yin has skin the color of rich brown chocolate, and big, almond-shaped eyes. He spoke firmly and with great dignity. The Yang was on hand again to act as an interpreter, but even so, the language barrier presented some rather intriguing difficulties, When I asked a question. The Yang and Kun Yin would discuss it in Thai, which The Yang spoke more fluently than Cambodian. Then The Yang would translate the answers from Thai into English, all of which made the task of recording Kun Yin’s words about as hard as trying to identify a bird hiding in a dense thicket. As we spoke Leh Souk sat quietly near her husband on the couch.and let him do the talking.
He had owned a farm in a rural area in Cambodia, he said, a small farm that produced just enough food for his own family. When the communists took over, he was afraid they would try to kill him, so he and his family crossed the border into Thailand, never dreaming they would eventually wind up in the United States. He was unhappy in the refugee camp in Thailand — not enough food, no freedom to go outside the camp — but with the communists in Cambodia still firmly in control, he had no desire to return home. After more than two years, word came that the U.S. would accept many new refugees, and when Kun Yin heard everyone describe the U.S. as being more rich and more beautiful than any other country, he decided to emigrate.
When he and his family first arrived in San Diego, The Yang, assigned to their case by the IRC, was the only link they had to American culture. The Yang showed them how to cross the street at stoplights, how to catch the bus, how to shop for food at the Vietnamese store in Hillcrest. Now Kun Yin and his family are on the IRAP welfare program; every weekday he studies English for six hours at the adult school on Fifty-fourth Street and University Avenue. He would like to get a job, he told me, but he has no skills, and anyway, he knows he must learn the language first before anyone will hire him.
I asked Kun Yin what seemed most different to him about this country, and he replied it was that there were so many places to buy things. Some of them were very far away, he said, but getting to them was easier than getting to even nearby stores in Cambodia, because you could take the bus here instead of walk. He added that it seemed unusual to him to always buy food at a store. Where he came from, you either grew your own food or went to look for it in the jungle; if you wanted fish, you went to the river.
Kun Yin said his children were happy here — they had good health care (better than in Cambodia) and plenty to eat. I asked him if he was afraid they would become too Americanized, and his answer surprised me. He said he didn’t worry about such things. It was a different and free country, he explained, with its own customs, and if his children grew up with American customs, he was willing to accept it. if for no other reason than that he couldn’t prevent it. He did say, though, that he liked his own country very much and that he would like to return there if it ever became free again; if the communists remained in power, he would stay here. His relatives in Cambodia have told him they' would like to come to the U.S., he said, but for the time being he is going to wait and see what changes the future might bring.
Now and then as I put the questions to The Yang, and listened while he repeated them to Kun Yin in Thai, I thought I detected a mournful note in his voice. It occurred to me that my questions might be causing him to remember some sad event out of his own past. I asked him how long he himself had been in the U.S., and he replied since April of 1976. Prior to that he had spent a year in a refugee camp in Thailand. He was just twenty-five years old. he told me, and he seemed proud (with good reason) of the fact that he spoke five languages; his native Hmong as well as Thai. English, Cambodian, and some Chinese.
For The Yang, such skills will undoubtedly see him through to a prosperous future in this country. For Kun Yin. it will be an uphill struggle. Even if he does find work, he will have to come to terms with his own sorrowful past. He and his family may also have to face a growing backlash from Americans who resent the refugees for soaking up tax money. For now. though, they are content to be here and to be safe; Kun Yin said he sometimes visits friends in other parts of San Diego, and that he spends a lot of time at home, reading.
I left their house in the evening. smiles all around. And as I made my way down the front steps toward the garden, I remembered the last time I had been over to their house, when Kun Yin was away at English class. Somewhere in the course of the afternoon I had asked The Yang if he happened to know how I should spell Leh Souk’s name in English. He wasn’t sure and was reluctant to venture a guess. He asked Leh Souk, who hesitated at first; but in the end she offered to write it down for us, at least the first part, the part she knew. Perhaps Kun Yin had learned how to spell it at his English class and had taught her in a spare moment. At any rate, she borrowed a pen and paper from me and went to work. She drew the letters painstakingly slow: L,” the lines made carefully and rigidly straight; E.” the bottom two prongs drawn first, the top one added almost as an afterthought; ”H.” looking a little like a "K.” but clear enough to complete the capitalized English version of her name. She wrote it the way one would draw a picture, as if it was one of the most important things she had ever done in her life. And in a way. it was. It was her new identity.