by Phong Taylor
IBM Vice President, Systems Technology Group, Competitive Sales
Dear Phong –
Life experiences are most memorable because they define who you are and give you the courage to face your future. You may not know it now, however, looking back you will see how some of those defining moments really built the foundation that shaped who you are.
The week before April 30th, 1975 as you, ba and Nguyen left our house to go to bac Tai’s for the night, never to think that we would ended up in United States of America.
Our intent was to stay at bac Tai’s until the war calms down a bit in our neighborhood then go home. Little did we know, we will never see our home again after that day. Do you remember leaving our dinner on the table rushing to pack all important school papers, birth certificate and any documents that were of value and one week worth of clothes and running to get to a taxi to bac Tai’s house?
The streets were complete chaos as people were streaming out onto the streets looking for ways to leave. We were among those, with no specific ideas on how to get out but to go and stay at bac Tai’s until this was over.
As we get to her house (she owns a pharmacy store front and her house is behind the store), we realized that she and her family had arranged for way to get out of VN and was on their way to the US, along with co Can and her family. Co Bich and her family was also looking to get out of VN, however, we did not know how she was going to do it.
After one night at bac Tai’s, ba told us all to get to the harbor where the Naval ships were stationed and see if we could talk our way into one of those boats. As our uncle Trung was with the Army and not the Navy, they were not going to let us and his family board the ship. As we were standing there wondering what to do, ba over heard some people saying that further down the ship yard a bit, there were fishing boats that are about to leave Saigon, and that if we hurry we could catch them. The next thing I remember is running toward the boats and uncle were tossing all of us kids and ba and his wife onto the boat. As the boat were filling up with people (almost 1000), we were packed into this fishing boat tight as sardines, the owner rushed to pull up the anchor so that people could not board anymore, as we were over the weigh limit and people were still jumping to get on.
We left Saigon on April 30th, 1975 as Saigon fell into the hands of Vietcong. It was almost 18 years before you came back to see your childhood home and neighborhood again. The journey was long and difficult, as we did not set out to go to the US… The thought was to go some island and wait until everything calm down then head back home. The owner/captain found out later that was not an option and that we are leaving VN for good. We headed out to international water and see if we could be rescue by US boats with final destination of America… wow, we had no idea what that meant.
It took us over 6 weeks to get to Guam (port of entry for all Vietnamese refugees), as our boat keep breaking down and we needed towing from other boats. We had to conserve food so the captain collected all the food from each family then cooked and divided to each family each day so we all can live. We had 2 meals per day, with each person receiving a fist full of cooked rice and some meat to go with, later it was rice and salt since we ran out of meat… We were rescued 4 weeks later by another boat, who brought us supply and food and towed us to Guam.
At Guam, we were processed and given permanent visa status so we can live and work in the US as legal aliens, and begin our new life. We were sent to Fort Chaffee to live temporarily waiting for our sponsorship. We begin learning English and the basic daily stuff as we begin our journey and assimilation into the US culture.
We were very fortunate to be sponsored by a family in Florida, they have 3 teenage children and decided to take on 2 more teenagers and a grandmother. They took us in as part of their family and begin to help us assimilate and transform. You remember arriving in Melbourne, Florida and meeting them for the 1st time? This is when you became head of house hold, at the age of 14. You represented our family to the Turners, our new sponsor as they welcomed us into their family.
You were enrolled in 9th grade in high school (as you had finished 8th grade in VN when we left), your brother was enrolled in 8th grade. Ba (grandmother) was getting various seamstress and house cleaning jobs to make money. We lived with them for 2 years until both grandma and you can get full time work, then we moved out to our own apartment. High school was very difficult as you did not speak a word of English and when you entered 9th grade, you had to spend a lot of time consulting dictionary to get by. We managed, both your bother and you graduated high school then onto college, graduated college got jobs and became responsible adults with family of our own.
As I look back on this journey, there are several things I’ve learned –
Human being is the most resilient of all, we are the most adaptive and creative creature on this planet. We can do and accomplish anything, no matter how difficult as long as we focus and have an end goal to reach.
Embrace new challenges as life handed them to you. You don’t know how good you really are until you take on those challenges. Don’t quit because something seems difficult, if you quit, you have wasted all the time and energy that you have put into it… Like running a race and never cross the finish line, if that’s the case, don’t start and waste all that time.
Life experiences do make you stronger, but more importantly, it makes who you are. As I look back on my journey, maybe there was some luck that my bother and I did not end up on the wrong path, but the lessons I learned on how to work hard, overcoming obstacles (no matter how big), taking on responsibilities at early age and the determination to be in a better position than where I was had made me who I am.