"We came onto the dock with nothing"
This story was provided by StoryCorps. StoryCorps preserves and shares humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world.
Joshua Nguyen was 10 years old in April 1975 when he, his mother, and siblings boarded a boat and fled Saigon, a city under siege. Determined to bring out more family members, Joshua’s father had ventured back into the city, and became separated from his wife and children. Joshua sat down with his wife, Colette, and talked about the family’s stay at a refugee camp in Guam, and their first days in the United States.
Listen here, or read the full transcript below:
Joshua Nguyen: When we arrive in Guam, they put us into a big camp. It was then I realized that my dad's still not with us. And I said, "You know, if we got here, I'm pretty sure he will come along any day now." So I noticed there was a bus of people coming in almost every day at a certain time. So every day, I would make it out there at that time and I would jump on every bus that comes through there. And I would say, "Bah," real loud, hoping he would recognize my voice and responded. And every day, there was no answer. But, you know, I never gave up. One day I jump on the bus, did the same thing, and I heard his voice. Just like, "Hey, dad, you know, where you been? Mom's looking for you." No big deal. He was crying, but to me I didn't know any better. So I took his hand and take him back to the -- where we were staying, which is my mom staring out the window. And I say, "Mom, hey look, Dad's right here." They started crying. I was like, "What's going on? Why are you all crying?" We arrive in Boise, Idaho on July 3 and the next day there was this big celebration. And I'm thinking, "Hey, wow, look at that, fireworks for us. They really want us here." I thought, "Wow, this is a great country. You know, all this for just some people they never met before." And I didn't know until later somebody told me that was Fourth of July and they did that every year. So it kind of busted my bubble.
Colette Nguyen: Another funny story is your first Halloween. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Joshua Nguyen: Yes, later that year we were at the church family's home and they told us, "OK, let's get ready. You're going to dress up." I said, "I don't have a costume." So they grabbed me a sheet, threw it over my head, and tell me, "OK, I want you to go through the door, knock on the door, and says, "Trick or treat." And I said, "What?" "Trick or treat." So I did. I knock on the door, "Trick or treat," and the people give me candy. I said, "Wow, how strange is this. They have no idea who I am now with the sheet over my head, but yet they gave me candy. This is great." So I spent all night up until midnight just ringing on everybody's doors, getting all these candies. And I thought, "Man, what a country this is." I was sick the next day.
Colette Nguyen: What about your experiences in elementary school and I mean, did you speak English when you came to America, or --
Joshua Nguyen: I knew a total of four words: hello, thank you, how are you, and fine. I picked up most of my English from watching Sesame Street's, and Electric Avenues, and cartoons, and Scooby-Doo's. I remember the one time, they had these little cards that you're supposed to pick up when you leave the room to go to the restroom. I thought, "Huh, "B" stand for bathroom, and "G" stand for green." So I thought, "OK." I was thirsty and I needed something to "grink." So I pick up the "G." I walked out to go get my water. When I came back in the whole class start to laugh. Yeah, it's "B" for boy and "G" for girl. I did not know that.
Colette Nguyen: Looking back, can you think of what your most difficult, or your family's most difficult challenge was?
Joshua Nguyen: Assimilation -- where we were from, you walk out the door every morning, there are people walking everywhere. They wave back to you and say hello. Here, everyone seems to kept to themself and everybody seems to be so, so busy. The language and the cultures are very different. So we kept to ourself. And the refugees kept to themself. We all kept together. But once we were in school, I think the kids -- the younger ones assimilate a lot quicker than my older brother or my mother.
Colette Nguyen: What would you want your daughters to know? I mean, I think that this is something that's really important for them to understand and to know about their dad. What would you hope that they would understand about it or know about it?
Joshua Nguyen: If anything else, they need to know that I love them, that I came a long way to be their father, and that they should not take anything for granted. I thank God every day of my life and this experience reinforced that we are here for a reason.
Recorded and produced by StoryCorps for the WGBH/American Experience First Days Story Project. The project was inspired by the film "Last Days in Vietnam." Listen to more stories at pbs.org/firstdays.