By Hieu Q. Nguyen
For The Catholic Messenger
(Editor’s note: This is the second column in a three-part series about Hieu Q. Nguyen, 23, a native of Vietnam who immigrated to the United States with his family when he was 14. Today he is an undergraduate student in journalism at the University of Iowa and a member of the Newman Catholic Student Center.)
The flight from Vietnam to the United States was long, but my family and I landed safely on July 25, 2008. My relatives in Davenport picked us up at the Quad City International Airport in Moline, Ill. In my mind, I was thinking, “I can’t believe I am here in America and I’m seeing my grandparents.” I felt happy to meet my grandfather and the others. Personally, I was glad that I finally made it to America.
My family immigrated to America because my grandparents and some relatives sponsored us. After my grandparents, aunts and uncle moved to Iowa through the Humanitarian Operation program, they filed immigration applications for my family and another family. The Humanitarian Operation program allowed former South Vietnamese prisoners of “re-education” camps to immigrate to the U.S. My grandfather was sent to the camp because he was an Army captain during the Vietnam War.
The Vietnamese communists taught me lies about the Vietnam War. They stated that the Americans and the French were foreign invaders and that the government of South Vietnamese was the “puppet state” of the U.S. On the other hand, the North Vietnam and Vietcong were seen as the saviors of Vietnam. I learned about the crimes that South Vietnamese and Americans committed during the war. After moving to Iowa, I learned about the truth from my family members and history books. The post-Vietnam War government has been telling lies to people since the fall of Saigon.
I lived on the west side of Davenport with my grandparents and aunt and uncle for a couple of years. My family then moved to a new house near the Davenport Municipal Airport. After our arrival, my family joined Sacred Heart Cathedral parish in Davenport. My parents often go to the Vietnamese Mass and my sister and I go to English Mass.
During my first few years in the U.S., I often felt homesick and missed my friends and the delicious Asian cuisine. I also missed the good times and the simpler life. Sometimes I wished I could go back.
I entered West High School in Davenport as a freshman after enjoying my first summer in Iowa. I did not know what to do at first because I couldn’t understand the language. It was difficult because I was new to the country and the school and didn’t know anyone, but I met new friends during my four years at West.
As a newcomer, I often felt lonely and isolated. I did not feel like I belonged to any group in school. Teachers were helpful; they explained concepts and assisted me with my homework. I joined the school newspaper, Chess Club and Asian Club. Through these extracurricular activities, I met new people, volunteered, learned new things and had fun. I began to feel better because I belonged to a community.
I learned English in the ESL program (English as a Second Language) and also music. In following my interest in reading, I borrowed “manga” novels (a serial comic book style popular in Asian countries) and nonfiction books from the public library. I practiced speaking, reading and listening. I also decided to start thinking in English instead of Vietnamese. Interestingly, I picked up the new culture as I was learning.
At first, it was very hard for me not to try to translate the words. However, as time went on, I gradually began to understand more and more. Back in Vietnam, I was excited to learn English; teachers only taught me how to write and read. When I was given the opportunity to learn how to speak and listen, expand my reading and writing skills and interact with English speakers, I embraced the challenge.
High school was hard for me and I thought life would never get better. However, I would soon learn that life is better after high school. I decided to go to college.