The Character of a Man: The Woman that Showed me the Importance of Love for Country
05 May 2021
FORT MEADE, MD --
I lived in Rhode Island in the fifth grade, and as one of the 13 colonies, when we learned about the American Revolution, it gave me a sense of pride and a sense of belonging -- this is my country and it’s filled with patriots.
One of those patriots, Samuel Adams, lies in an unassuming cemetery in Boston. Samuel’s entire life is summed up in four roles: Signer of the Declaration of Independence, Governor of this Commonwealth, A leader of Men and an Ardent Patriot.
As a first-generation American, the words independence, leader, and patriot mean a lot to me. I’ve always felt these words were so special because my family escaped their country for this one.
When my grandparents died, I learned so much more about them and I understood more of where I came from. I was born into a family of patriots, fearless leaders and humble servants.
My grandmother was the well-loved mayor of Vung Tau, a small beach town in southern Vietnam. What I know about her is summed up in two letters my uncle translated for us when she died.
The first letter was from her fifth grade teacher to her parents. He laid out a case for why they needed to send her away to become more educated. He’d taught her everything he could, and she needed to keep going because she “had the character of a man,” and she would be the leader her country needs one day.
She continued her education on her own terms, hiring a teacher to educate her through the ninth grade. She then passed it on and taught her friends, eventually opening an elementary school in Vung Tau.
She met my grandfather in Saigon. They were both part of the resistance movement against the French occupation of Vietnam. The second letter was one she wrote to her best friend about what she’d learned after fifty years of marriage.
She wrote about the journey it took for her family to be where they are today. She said that the most important thing to cherish your family and the history that built that family.
My family’s history is intertwined with the idea of revolution, the fight for independence.
When the French left, Americans came. And when the Americans left, my family, like many others chose to leave the country they loved, the country they fought for, and headed into uncharted waters.
In the Spring of 1979, my family escaped from Vietnam in a small banana boat. Without the convenience of today’s GPS systems, my uncle guessed at the direction they were headed, which wasn’t even anywhere specific -- they had two options: Malaysia or the Philippines, but not further than that, because the van engine my uncle converted for the boat, would not make it in the open ocean.
The escape, orchestrated by my grandfather, only accounted for 40 people. Seventy nine people showed up. The boat was so full, one of my uncles told us he sat on the bow of the boat and his feet touched the water.
They crashed on a beach at their unknown destination after six days with limited food and water.
It wasn’t until the authorities showed up that they knew where they were, Miri, Malaysia. The policemen took the 79 to the International Red Cross and Red Crescent station where they were taken care of for a week, while the Malaysian navy fixed the boat they came on and sent them away.
No one wanted to leave. They were being carried down the pier and onto the boat. The fear of the uncertainty of the sea and the fear of capture overcame them as the Malaysian navy tug boat pulled them away from shore.
My grandmother jumped off the boat and swam to the pier. She pleaded with the authorities and stood her ground on the pier.
The governor of Sarawak, Malaysia happened to be driving by during the incident and stopped his motorcade to see what was happening. He decided to let them stay -- they’d all be transferred to the refugee camp in Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia.
My family spent a year at the refugee camp waiting to be accepted by any government. April 30, 1980, they came to the U.S. through San Francisco.
As my family celebrates 41 years here in America, I feel a renewed sense of honor to wear this uniform and a renewed sense of pride to be an American. I feel a sisterhood with my grandmother that crosses generations, countries and causes.
I am proud to be a service member, a wife, a mother, a daughter, a granddaughter, a niece, Vietnamese, and a first-generation American. All these titles were given to me by the journey taken first by my grandmother all those years ago.
By example, she taught us to be informed, to lead with compassion, and to serve those around us. I am grateful to do the same today.
The Department of Defense joins the nation in paying tribute to the Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Native Hawaiians who demonstrated selfless service and sacrifice in the U.S. Army, Army Air Forces, Marine Corps, Navy, Coast Guard, and National Guard since World War II.
The service of Asians, Pacific Islanders and Native Hawaiians before and during World War II, paved the way for future generations of men and women to join what would become in 1948, a desegregated U.S. military.