New to America, this young Vietnamese refugee wanted to ‘erase’ his past

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Marco Werman: This next story is rooted in what happened 40 years ago when the capital of what was South Vietnam, Saigon, fell to the Communist north and ended America’s involvement there. For some South Vietnamese, it meant a rush for the exit and a new life in the US. That’s what happened to the sister and brother we’re about to hear from. Thu-Thuy Truong and Sy Truong. Sy was 8 and Thu-Thuy was 13 at the time. They arrived at a refugee camp in Arkansas before settling in California. Here’s Thu-Thuy.


Thu-Thuy Truong: It was a long journey flying, and we were in the military camp, and there were these barrels of cold water with floating red delicious apples. “Oh, wow! We’ve finally landed in the US and the US has plenty of fruits,” and somehow that made a big impression for me. And later on when we started living in Berkeley, California and staying in a small apartment, even though life wasn’t that luxurious, it was our little home and those were my favorite moments in the early days in the US.


Sy Truong: I remember going on BART one time--BART, which is the rapid transit here in the Bay Area--and understanding the fact that as we go in between, say, Oakland and San Francisco, it actually goes underneath the bay. So, my imagined greatness of this new world was, “We’ll be in a tunnel where we can look out into the ocean and see the fish swimming and everything.” But the reality was it was dark. But still, every little thing for me was a new experience of something radically different than what we had growing up in Vietnam. At the time, I didn’t see any value--being a child--of holding onto this culture of ours that I saw as the past, and the only way to move forward and progress in this new world was to fully immerse and become an American. I almost wanted to erase that part, for some reason. But what I found was that it was actually a cool thing to be different.


Thu-Thuy Truong: I remember we got kicked out of our apartment because we were too noisy, we were on the second floor, right? So, “How are we going to find another apartment? We’re new to the country,” and all of that. So, with mom, the one thing she says was, “We survived going from Vietnam to America with nothing. We can survive anywhere.” So, that’s the one thing I take to heart--any time when we’re in hardship, we survive--we didn’t have anything except the clothes on our back, and we got to where we are today. We can survive again.


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Werman: Thu-Thuy Truong talking with her brother, Sy Truong, and her story comes to us through a collaboration between StoryCorps, and PBS’ American Experience. You can hear more stories from Vietnamese-American refugees gathered by StoryCorps. We’ve got a link at PRI.ORG. And stick around for another Vietnamese refugee story. Later on the world, I speak with Miki Nguyen, whose family made a miraculous escape from Saigon in a commandeered chinook helicopter.