Điệp Mỹ Linh  

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With Love and Appreciation for America

Translation by Merle L. Pribbenow

(While vacationing in Russia, Điệp-Mỹ-Linh, a member of Ngay Nay’s editorial staff, watched the television in horror as the terrorist attack on America unfolded and hijacked commercial aircraft crashed into the World Trade Center towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. This short article was written at the airport in Frankfurt, Germany, while the author was waiting for a connecting flight home to the United States.)

As I stepped out of the Trafalgar Tour Company’s bus, I immediately noticed a group of old Russian men sitting on the left side of the entranceway, next to a small canal. Each man was carrying a military musical instrument – saxophone, trumpet, clarinet, etc. I didn’t know whether or not they had heard the tourists speaking in English, but suddenly this little band stood up and began playing the American national anthem.

The entire tour group stopped in surprise, because we were in Russia. The American tourists among us placed our right hands over our hearts. Looking at the band as they played, I thought to myself that they might have been very young soldiers who fought in the Second World War. I was touched with sadness as I watched these old, weak soldiers trying to use their failing breath to make a living by playing the national anthem of their former enemy, because a Russian veteran’s pension is very small.

The music ended. The tourists smilingly dropped money into a small bag placed in front of the musicians. The musicians sat down and began playing “America, the Beautiful.” I stood still, extremely moved.

The emotions I was feeling were similar to those that I felt in 1977, when my oldest daughter, Xuan-Nguyet, then in the 8th Grade, won first prize in the entire state of Arizona for her essay, entitled “What Makes America Beautiful?” My family was assisted with transportation to take Xuan Nguyet from Yuma to Phoenix to receive the award in a wonderful and solemn ceremony. That was the first time I heard the song “America, the Beautiful” as the entire audience joined in singing. I suddenly realized that I was crying. But then the rhythm and the words of the song calmed my emotions. I regained my composure as I accepted hugs and congratulations from the Americans standing near me. From the congratulations spoken by these people whom I had never met before, I realized that they thought I was crying tears of joy for my daughter’s success. That was true only in part, because, in addition to a mother’s pride, my tears also reflected my worry and homesickness as I faced future challenges that I did not know if I could overcome.

After more than 26 years and after great sacrifices and efforts, my family has overcome many difficulties. My children and their spouses are now devoting the abilities and the knowledge they have gained in this nation to contribute to building a prosperous, educated, and cultured land. As for myself, in addition to culture and prosperity, I see that the American people had truly enormous hearts. Only such good, great hearts would have sent planeloads of medicine and volunteer medical personnel to save the starving people of Africa. Only such great hearts would have written and sung a song like “We Are the World” to raise money to send to Africa to stop starvation. Only great hearts would have sent doctors, pharmacists, and medical supplies to Russia to help when the Russian reactor at Chernobyl exploded. Only great hearts would have sent emergency flights to evacuate orphans from Vietnam in April 1975. Only great hearts would have helped wave after wave of refugees coming to this country. Among those millions of refugees were the members of my family. My family is truly grateful to:

  • Retired Marine Corps Major Michael Z. Smith and his wife, who sponsored us out of the Camp Pendelton refugee camp. Mr. and Mrs. Smith have three children: Michael, currently a captain in the U.S. Air Force; Kristin, whom they adopted from Japan; and the youngest girl, Heather. Mr. Smith is currently a pastor in California.
  • Mr. and Mrs. Collins: Mr. Collins was a Vietnam veteran. A Vietnamese family hid and supported him when the ..... were hunting for him. Mr. Collins told us he owed a debt to the Vietnamese people, so he loved them and wanted to help them with all his heart. This was fortunate for us, because we were the only Vietnamese family in the city of Yuma.
  • Mr. and Mrs. Collard, who loved my family like their own. They always happily and proudly introduced us to everyone as their own children and grandchildren. I was not aware that Mr. Collard had been a veteran of World War II, because he never once mentioned that terrible war. Only when Mr. Collard died and a shipmate of his gave the eulogy at his funeral did I learn that he had been at Pearl Harbor during the Japanese attack. Mr. Collard had saved many lives, including that of the man who gave the eulogy, and had been the last man to leave his ship.

My knowledge about U.S. servicemen at Pearl Harbor, Normandy, and other such battles is very limited, because it is based only on books and movies. However, my knowledge of the sacrifices and courage of U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam is rather vast – much better than that of authors who never saw the war in Vietnam. I believe that, even though the war ended precipitously and unfairly, it had to come to an end, because so much Vietnamese blood, from both North and South Vietnam, and American blood had been shed that it permeated every inch of the ground of my poverty-stricken country.

After South Vietnam expired, the South Vietnamese Navy evacuated more than 100,000 Vietnamese, rescuing them from the horrors of communism. If, however, it had not been for the presence of the U.S. 7th Fleet in the Pacific, and if we had not received the unconditional support and assistance of the American people, where would this massive flood of refugees have gone? Thanks to the humanity of the American people, we entered the United States with a spirit of gratitude and confidence that we could recover and rebuild our lives. After untold difficulties and challenges, the Vietnamese have recovered and have contributred to the building and the defense of this nation.

When the Gulf War broke out, I was worried and frightened when I said goodbye to one of my youngest and most beloved readers, Navy Lieutenant Hoang-Quoc-Tuan, who was serving aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Independence and sailing off to the battlefront in the Persian Gulf. In a letter he sent me from the Gulf, Tuan wrote, “…American servicemen are trained to defend the United States, not to start wars.” Countless Vietnamese-American young men and women who shared that wonderful spirit have graduated or are now studying at famous U.S. military academies, like West Point, the Naval Academy, the Air Force Academy, etc.

In addition to their significant participation in military service, Vietnamese young people have contributed and continue to build this nation in every area and facet of society, including the media, education, medicine, science, space science, etc.

While Vietnamese young people have made such enormous contributions, the efforts of the first generation of refugees are no less significant. If one looks at large cities such as Los Angeles, San Jose, Houston, etc., one will notice that areas that twenty years ago were open land are now bustling business areas owned and operated by Vietnamese, and if one looks at the rosters of employees of companies, factories, and offices throughout the country, one will see countless people with last names of Nguyen, Le, and Tran.

As contributions to this country by Vietnamese continue to grow, suddenly sabotage and terror struck right in the heart of the nation that my family had now taken as our second homeland. The news about the attacks on New York and Washington using hijacked airliners arrived as I was eating lunch with a group of tourists after hours of sightseeing. I sat motionless; my heart filled with rage. Not that I was not afraid, but the fear and worry I felt was completely different than the terror of a young girl who had to flee home with her parents as they saw strange aircrafts with tricolor markings [French aircrafts] bombing and strafing their poor village. The aircrafts attacked anything that moved, so the people were afraid to go out to work on the fields. The livestock were slaughtered, leaving the people to starve and to lack even the most basic necessities of life.

After living for twenty-five quiet years in South Vietnam and more than twenty years of peace in America, I thought I had nothing to fear from bombs and shells anymore. But no! On the TV screen, one tower of the World Trade Center belched smoke as another airplane flew straight into the second tower. Both towers collapsed, and the anger in me grew apace with the black columns of smoke rising from the wreckage of the Twin Towers. The pain I felt was exactly the same as what I felt a quarter of a century before, when the Việt-Cộng shelled Saigon. As a woman whose education had been aimed solely at raising children and serving my husband, all I could do after I viewed the tragedy that faced my native land of Vietnam was to write – write to praise the courage of the soldiers of the Republic of Vietnam and to honor the indescribable sacrifice of their mothers, their wives, and their children, because whenever a soldier fell the hearts and the lives of those close to him were crushed as well.

Now, as I saw the senseless and brutal carnage and loss of life in New York and Washington D.C., my soul was touched and I wanted to write out my private thoughts about the place that had given us a home and to which my family is still so grateful. Those thoughts took away most of my enjoyment of the tour, which I had only taken out of curiosity and the desire to understand the vast country of Russia.

Russia is a vast nation, but Russian lips are tight and they do not know how to smile and laugh. Russian food usually consists of tough, tasteless pieces of meat of unknown origin (even the menu does not say what kind of meat it is) that is fried with eggs or flour and eaten with potatoes. Every once in a while they will serve chicken. American foods, such as candy, ice cream, and different soft drinks made by the Coca Cola Company, are sold everywhere. I saw a few McDonald’s and Pizza Hut restaurants. Russian handicrafts, such as glassware and wood products, are extremely beautiful, because they are all hand-made. The Russian “Metro” subway system is very modern, even though it was built a half century ago. Every 30 seconds (and I emphasize that this is seconds, not minutes), a high-speed train arrives and another passes going the other direction. In their daily activities and work Russians, unlike Americans, do not dress in casual attire. While I was enthralled with the ballet and the ice skating performance, the Russian folk dances and folksongs touched my soul. The music of Russian folk songs reflects the sad, mournful fate of the nomadic peoples of the steppes.

Russians are very proud of Red Square, because it is the symbol of the capital. When I saw the square in photographs and in movies, I thought it must be magnificent, but after seeing it with my own eyes, I decided, and not because of any political prejudice, that Red Square was not as grand, because it failed to blend the natural and the man-made together. Red Square is paved in red bricks and is located on a gently sloping hill. The entire square covers an area only about one third the size of Tienanmen Square in Beijing. The highest points in this area are the government house and Lenin’s tomb. A cathedral with gaudily painted onion-shaped towers lies at one side of the base of the hill. The other side is just a large roadway. During parades to display its military might, Russia’s Red Army troops, tanks, and vehicles used this roadway as an exit. Now a high building has been erected there with an open roadway through the ground level to allow pedestrians and small cars to pass through. At the entrance to the other end of Red Square, the cathedral side, many cement barriers have been erected to prevent tanks and heavy vehicles from entering the Kremlin. At night in front of the Kremlin, while young lovers whisper sweet nothings in each other’s ears, older Russians walk with halting steps, their thoughts turned toward a capital whose name has been changed to St Petersburg.

St. Petersburg is a city steeped in the history of the Russian Czars. St. Petersburg did not win my heart with its old cathedral, still bearing the scars of the bombs and shells of the Hitler era, or with its colorful paintings by Ivan Aivazovsky, Wassily Kandinsky, and Pavel Filonov, but I formed a deep affection for the rivers of St. Petersburg. The quiet, peaceful waters that stretch through every part of the city are challenged at every turn by proud, quiet, and strangely magnificent palaces. Sailing down the Neva River, while everyone else was watching the drawbridges being raised to let ships pass through, I could only think about the things I had seen along the road after crossing the Russian border.

Along a stretch of rough road I had seen small clusters made up of rundown huts and shacks. Once in a while an ancient automobile could be seen parked under a tree, but I could not tell if the car was still usable or just a piece of junk. In the narrow yards, each house had put up a small shed, with a roof and walls covered with plastic sheets, to grow vegetables. I saw that the rural people farmed by hand rather than using machinery.

These scenes of poverty stayed in my mind constantly, but when we got to Minsk, all these images were thrust into the past, and all I felt was the inner pain of someone who had just learned that the place where she had lived for more than twenty years had just suffered a serious attack! From Minsk to Riga, I noticed that all the flags in the cities were flying at half-mast, and all the local people appeared to be worried, constantly watching their televisions or anxiously waiting for the hourly news.

The event that moved me the most deeply happened at noon on September 14 at the Scandic Hotel in Helskinki, Finland, when the hotel management asked everyone to stand still for five minutes of silence to commemorate the tragedy. While I stood there in silence, the reports by the CNN commentator from the television on the wall of the conference hall filled my thoughts. I felt the same pain in my heart that I felt in 1968, when I learned that the Việt-Cộng had attacked and captured the city of Hue, the home of my maternal grandparents.

After American and South Vietnamese forces regained control of Hue, I was anxious to return to see the destruction that had touched the home of my relatives. Now, at the Helsinki airport as I waited for a flight to Frankfurt, I was also anxious to return to a place I now called home.

After looking at my ticket and seeing that I was not a Caucasian, the Lufthansa employee told me:

You have a ticket. I will put your name on the list, but you will not get a seat. You will have to wait, because this is the first 747 flight from Germany to the United States.”

“I bought my ticket a long time ago. Why do I have to wait? And how long will I have to wait?”

“I am very sorry, but I do not know how long you will have to wait. Whenever we have a seat, we will notify you. Right now we have a huge backup of passengers because there have been no flights for several days. And this flight, from Helsinki to Frankfurt and on to New York, is reserved only for...”

Too impatient to let her finish the sentence, I interrupted,

“I left home just two weeks ago. Can you tell me why I can’t return now?”

The woman looked at me in surprise.

“Home?” she asked.

I replied, my voice shaking as if I was about to cry,

“Yes, it’s my home.”

“Let me see your passport.”

After glancing at my passport, her entire demeanor changed.

“Yes, you are an American citizen. You will receive priority boarding on this flight.”

I bent down to pick up my luggage, silently saying a prayer of gratitude to the United States, the place that had taught me the true value of freedom, democracy, and justice, and where, in every respect, America had given me the opportunity to demonstrate my independence as a woman.

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