The New Life
by Thong Ba Le
I look at the row of terminals as I count money for the completion of a cash pick-up. The red light at terminal #6 is blinking, which is the signal that the cashier needs assistance. I stop counting, drop the money in the safe and step out of the office to go help the cashier. Some regular customers are waving and smiling and calling hello to me. There are many friendly and likable clienteles who live near this supermarket, which is located in the heart of Falls Church, near Arlington, which is also home to a large group of Vietnamese refugees.
I approve the check for the customer and thank her for shopping at Giant Food. As I walk away, I look outside to see if the snow has stopped falling. It is the month of December and snow has been falling for many days. The store is always very busy during a snowstorm; whenever the news channels forecast bad weather, people panic that they will run out of food. They rush to the store and empty the shelves of food and household items. The customers buy enormous amounts of eggs, milk, hot dog buns, fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry, toilet paper, paper towels, diapers, pet food, bird seed, beer, wine and anything else you can think of. Even when the forecast calls for a light flurry, rather than an inch or two of snow, people still panic. The first time I saw this mad rush, it reminded me of the war back home when we had to stock up on fish sauce and rice, on which we survived for months.
I was hired to work for this supermarket chain at the end of 1975, when I had just arrived in Washington, D.C. Without knowing the habits and reactions, as well as the urgency of Americans, I admired their patience while waiting in long lines at the checkout counters. It was completely different from our impatience and our habit of cutting in line whenever possible. When I was in a food-line at the refugee camp in Wake Island, I had just turned my back for a moment and there was a person, trying to look very innocent, sneaking in front of me, just like that.
On that first snowy day, I was so impressed that when I trudged tiredly through the door of my simple home, I told my wife about these patient Americans. My wife was very surprised and she praised the native people highly.
Every night I came home exhausted and went straight to bed, my hands and feet aching from standing all day long at the checkout terminal without taking a break due to the lack of help.
Every morning when snow was falling, I woke up very early and ate the cup of noodles that my wife prepared for my breakfast. I would kiss my wife goodbye and grab my lunch bag, which usually contained a submarine sandwich, an orange or apple and a can of soda and left for the bus stop near my house. It was winter and the snow was falling steadily, the howling of the cold wind clearly audible. I remembered my philosophy of life that I had held for a long time, which I intended to use as a guideline for my life in this strange country. I always reminded myself that I came from a poor and miserable nation with more challenges and obstacles than this free and rich place and I still overcame them and my will to survive and to keep my self-respect was always foremost in my mind.
I remembered that I stated in my resume that the reason I wanted very much to have a job was because: "My goal is to support my own family so we do not become a burden to this society."
I believed that we left our beloved country for one and only one reason: to live freely in a democratic nation because we didn't want to live as slaves under the Communist regime in Vietnam.
My stubborn belief in my philosophy of life had been a part of me since I was in the Vietnamese Maritime Special Operations in the enemy's waters north of DMZ in the area called " The Black Sea Zone." That philosophy was my only hope when I had to hide for 26 days underground and survived the Communists who were searching for Vietnamese soldiers during the Tết offensive in my hometown in Huế City. And later, that philosophy of life became more meaningful and even stronger the night my country fell apart. I stood silently on the pier of the Naval support base in Nhà Bè, with sorrow in my heart and tears in my eyes as I witnessed the departure of the entire Vietnamese Navy fleet running away from an enemy who had not come to the nation's capital.
As I was walked to the bus stop, I kept thinking about my past sad experiences but I was truly happy with my own philosophy of life. Therefore I forgot the bitter cold and heavy snow that kept falling, but my teeth still did not stop shivering due to the blizzard. They seemed to chatter involuntarily. My wife was afraid that I'd catch a bad cold so she made me put on many clothes before I left for work. That day I wore a shirt, a sweater, a jacket and a big raincoat from the church. The raincoat was so big that it made my children laugh because it did not fit me at all. They thought that perhaps it belonged to a very tall and big member of the church. I did not want to wear so many clothes, first because I could not move comfortably and second because it made me look fat. But when I complained about it, my wife said in her sweet voice, "I already told you, dear, that it's very cold outside, but you won't believe me. If you are sick, I have to take care of you. Please wear more warm clothes, okay?"
At that time, I was mumbling under my breath, "My love, you only know what they said on television. You have not gone out there yet." But I had to agree with her as I was standing in the bitterness of the blizzard. It was so cold that the wind felt like a knife against my face. My skin looked frozen and my teeth started chattering once again.
To reach the store, which was located at Spout Run in Arlington, I had to change buses from the one close to my duplex. Therefore, in order to be on time for work, I had to leave home at least one and a half hours before I was scheduled to arrive. The last bus stop was about a mile from the store. As I was walking through the snow from the bus stop to the supermarket, I remembered the movie "An American in Paris," in which the actor Gene Kelly was singing in the rain. I imitated him and sang as I walked, but unlike Gene Kelly, I did not sing because I was in love. I sang in order to forget my sorrows, for the part of me that was gone forever, the warrior of the sea in the Far East. And then I thought about my philosophy of life and I raised my voice higher and stronger, to mix with the falling of snow.
I was hired by Giant Food, Incorporated for a Management Training Program; I would be groomed to become a general manager of one of their stores in the future. On my first day, I reported to the store manager, who seemed very surprised when he saw me juggling a big brief case that contained books and manuals and a lunch bag filled with sandwiches, oranges, a coke. He shook my hand in a friendly manner and told me that his boss, the district manager, had informed him that he was designated to train me at his store. I would be in the "on the job training" management program, and once a week I was to attend classes at the Company Training Center located in Greenbelt, Maryland to implement what I learned at the store level. I also enrolled in different management courses such as Business Administration, Marketing, Business Law, Effective Communication and Accounting at Cornell University's Home Study Division to enhance my knowledge and to improve my management, leadership and communication skills. In order to fulfill those requirements, I would have to rely on my own transportation, which meant that I had to buy a used car.
That first morning, after showing me around and introducing me to the store's employees, the general manager assigned as my first duty to help a young porter clean the store. During the first three hours, we both mopped and cleaned almost every room and alley, including the restrooms, in the store. My back was sore from the constant bending and my hands were tired from handling the mop. I remembered a time when I was a Midshipman in the Naval Academy, more than 15 years ago, when I complained of the hardships I had to endure when the Master Chief Petty Officer punished me for not mopping the ship deck properly. Later, he finally taught me how to let the mop do its job by twisting the handle and using the mop head to clean, instead of using the strength of my arms. This was the first time I had to mop a big area like the supermarket since I graduated from the Academy. Standing and watching me do the cleaning, the African American porter was so surprised and admiring of my dexterity with the mop, he just stood there without helping me, saying "wow...wow," over and over.
Three months went by with me doing the same thing every day. I cleaned the floors early in the morning and when the bakery trailer came, I went outside to push stacks of bakery goods inside and helped load breads onto shelves. As soon as the store opened for business, I was the first cashier to check out customers. I felt that the Americans in that store were very racist, particularly the ones who worked in the front office. I had been hired as a management trainee and they were to train me in Accounting, Customer Assistance and Marketing at the store level, per the instructions of their supervisor. But even after three months, they still had not handed me the keys to the front office, never let me inside to learn how to do a cash pick-up and never taught me how to answer the customer phone line. I decided to report what was happening to my District Manager when he asked me what kind of progress I had made in the previous three months. I told him the truth and soon after, I was transferred to store located in Rockville, Maryland. Shortly after my arrival at this store, I was handed the keys to the front office and started my role as front-end assistant. I was in charge of managing the store at night. I was very proud of being able to utilize my leadership, administrative and management skills that I learned from my experiences during the Vietnam War as a senior Naval Officer in the Vietnamese Navy. The only thing that did not please me was the long commute from my house to the store. The drive was truly an adventure when the weather was bad and there was freezing rain and icy roads. Sometimes when I drove, my car would run over a sheet of ice and skid. I would feel a strange sensation traveling from my neck to my hips and I would know that whether or not I hit the brakes, I would still run into a ditch. So after many accidents, I did not like snow at all.
In 1963, when I came to Seattle, Washington with the Vietnamese crew to receive a Landing Ship Mechanized (LSM), HQ406 that was transferring from the United States Navy to the Vietnamese Navy, I visited Mount Rainier, a beautiful snow-capped mountain with its peak piercing the blue sky. I took many pictures and sent them home to my wife. In the attached letter I wrote to her that I wished that she could have been there at that moment to witness the beauty of the snowflakes floating in the air and to hold a freshly packed snowball. The first blizzard we ever experienced occurred in the winter of 1975, only months after we arrived in the U.S. The storm that produced too much snow lasted for days, and when it finally stopped, my wife took my youngest daughter grocery shopping at a supermarket within walking distance from our home. They slipped and fell many times on the ice and snow; later that night, my wife rubbed her bruised skin and said, "It is so nice to watching snow from inside the house but it is not fun when we have to walk on snow-covered roads."
Keeping in mind my pledge to not become a burden to the American taxpayer and a problem to the society, as well as to keep my self-respect, I decided to find a job so that I could support my family. And at the end of August 1975, two weeks after we arrived in Washington D.C., I got my first job in America. I found a job as a waiter at a country club in Arlington. Actually, I was a "busboy," one level below a waiter. I learned that a waiter took the orders from the customers and then gave the orders to the chef and then served the food once it was ready. A busboy's responsibility was to take the plates to the kitchen once the customers were finished eating and cleaned the table.
It was so difficult for me to explain this "complicated procedure" to my wife that she locked herself in her room. She thought that once again, I was not telling her what I really did during the day, like when I worked in the Vietnamese Maritime special operations. I couldn't convince her that I was telling her the truth this time until I showed her the black bow tie and my white shirt and name badge with the name of the Country club printed on it. Then she held me tightly, kissed me and whispered in my ear, "I am so sorry. Because I saw you leaving early and coming home late recently, I thought that you had met your American counterparts who worked with you before in the "Force" and that you planned to return and liberate our home land!!!"
I thought then that my wife was so innocent if she believed that I was still capable of doing such a great thing. But after emotionally kissing her back, I realized that she thought she was being truthful. More than anyone else, she believed in her heart that I was her true hero. But things had changed with our exodus and I, her heroic husband, was temporarily unable to exercise my capabilities and skill. Even so, she knew that with my determination and willingness to work hard, before long, I would soon find a suitable job and a prestigious position in this society.
"It was always a challenge in the beginning," I reminded myself whenever I faced a sad or difficult situation, which was often. I always thought of my wife and my children, who depended on me and loved me so much, and the thought of them gave me the strength to overcome whatever came my way.
But regardless of my efforts, I was not used to the busboy position. That night, when I said goodbye to a young Vietnamese waitress who had married an American GI long ago and come to America before 1975, I was overwhelmed when she tipped me a dollar from her night's earnings. To this day, I still remembered this Vietnamese American waitress.
One dollar was not much, but her heart was so big and the love that shone in her eyes would never be forgotten. I would never see her again because that night, after I transferred buses twice and got home late, my wife suggested that I find another job that would better suit my skills. She also volunteered to go to work while I took care of our children, but considering my lack of experience with the children, as well as the fact that my cooking skills were limited to boiled eggs, we decided that I would find another job for myself and she would stay home. She had a big smile on our face when we agreed upon the decision and held our youngest daughter tightly.
Then luck knocked on my door and a few days after I quit my job at the country club, I was hired to work at Dart Drug, which was near my house, as a stock clerk. I could go home for a hot lunch with my wife and two youngest children. I worked hard at this job and continued to send my resume to banks, supermarkets, retail stores and hotels for a management position. I was disappointed to receive rejection letters from these companies with the words "We are very sorry..." in every one. They informed me that I was overqualified for the job. From time to time they called me in for an interview and sent me home after saying, "We will let you know in a couple of weeks," which meant that I would receive another rejection letter in the mail.
We rented a duplex in Arlington, very close to the career center, so my wife could take ESL and other classes. My neighbor was a Navy retiree and he had served aboard different types of ships in two wars, World War II and the Korean War. He was pleased and delighted to learn that I was also a sailor. When I first introduced myself, he said that when people talked about "sailors," they spoke of a certain kind of person who loved adventure, who chose the open sea as their lover and the sky, with the clouds overhead, their home. I treasured my friendship with him and his wife and I was grateful that they treated us with dignity, rather than as low-class refugees. I think they saw us, as we were, unfortunates who came to their land for the freedom, which we preserved in ourselves forever. Our neighbors were very fond of my youngest daughter who was three years old. They gave her candies and read her fairytales that she did not yet understand. Sometimes my wife was afraid that my daughter might bother the old couple, but they assured my wife that they loved my daughter's company because they did not have any children.
During the first week that we were living in the duplex, we were watching the news on television after dinner when I heard knocking at the front door. I was surprised to see my neighbor at the door, wearing formal clothes. I invited them in and the wife handed me a cake, saying that she had baked it herself. We served them green tea and the chocolate cake and they seemed to like that very much. After talking awhile, the old sailor pulled an envelope from his pocket and handed it to me. I carefully opened it up and we were filled with emotion when we saw, in the middle of a greeting card with the words that read "Welcome to America," a 20-dollar bill laying neatly. I tried to return the money and keep the card, which was more than enough, but he extended his hand and shook my hand tightly, looked into my eyes and said, "Please."
This humanity, along the changing of people's behavior during the fall of Vietnam made me wonder who were my true friends and whom could I trust. Who were ones who took advantage of the system and who were the ones who upheld honor? It was too confusing and too complicated to understand. With the defeat of an entire Army due to a lack of leadership from the South Vietnamese government, there were about two million refugees who had fled their homeland for only reason, to be free, and who settled around the globe in search of opportunity. While working and struggling to better their lives, they were more and more surprised to see things changing in the Vietnamese attitudes day after day. They were saddened to see that others had reversed their belief in the cause that forced them on their exodus.
For me, I was delighted that my philosophy of life that stayed inside my heart. I was proud of being able to retain my honor regardless of the burdens that I shouldered, now and forever more. I felt inspiration flowing through me, and like the last time, I sang while walking through the snow, only this time I raised my voice to chant a verse of my poetry:
" The changes in life
are sometimes followed by
the changes in style
but never in my mind"