61: Welcome to Tent City

61: Welcome to Tent City

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Kind (of) America

Welcome to Tent City

If you take advantage of everything America has to offer, there’s nothing you can’t accomplish.

~Geraldine Ferraro

When my family and I first set foot on American soil in 1975, we were physically exhausted, emotionally devastated, malnourished, dehydrated, homesick, and penniless, having survived the perilous journey from our war-torn homeland of Vietnam as one of the first waves of “boat people.” And yet, it was still the happiest day of our lives because we had arrived in America, the land of safety, freedom, and kindness.

We had lived a life of privilege and comfort in Vietnam. My father was a successful, self-made man who had married my mother, the sheltered daughter of my industrious, widowed grandmother. We had servants, nannies, and a driver. Life was very good.

This life of privilege was abruptly ripped from underneath us when the Communists overthrew the existing government of South Vietnam on April 30, 1975. Our beloved home was no longer our home. My family and I had to flee the country during this terrifying mass exodus. We barely made it out, with just the clothes we wore and fear in our hearts. We had lost everything.

Beset by chaos and unrest, we boarded a small, dilapidated ship to flee the country. Our journey was plagued by physical hardship, extreme seasickness, and harsh storms. I have a blurry memory of nearly falling overboard when a severe storm rocked the ship violently, throwing my father — who was holding me in his arms — off-balance as he stood too close to the railing. I did not know how to swim, so had I fallen into the treacherous waters below, it probably would have been the end of me, and the end of my story.

Another frightening obstacle that we faced was the inadequate quantities of food and water. I remember asking my mother if we could go home because the drinking water on the ship smelled like gasoline. My mother replied simply, “We can never go home again, so please drink the water, Mai.” She must have been devastated, terrified, and grief-stricken, but she did her best to remain calm.

After what seemed like an eternity of sea and air travel, we eventually landed in Camp Pendleton, California, as a result of the U.S. government program called Operation New Life. Through various collaborative efforts by the American Red Cross, the Catholic Church, and other humanitarian organizations, we received medical care and much-needed hope.

According to The San Diego Union Tribune, nearly 900 Marines and civilians worked for six days to erect “Tent City,” a collection of 958 tents, 140 Quonset huts, a newly installed sewage system and communication lines. Tent City would eventually shelter, clothe, educate, feed, and even entertain 50,000 Vietnamese refugees. If this massive undertaking wasn’t a feat that was propelled by kindness, compassion, and generosity, I don’t know what is.

In retrospect, I realized that some of those same Marines may have either gallantly fought in the Vietnam War, known someone who had fought in the Vietnam War, or had lost someone who fought in the Vietnam War. And yet, there they were, working tirelessly to build a temporary home for thousands of Vietnamese refugees who were preparing for a new life in America in the aftermath of this terrible war. This realization moved me tremendously.

Even though we were living in makeshift tents, our life was finally calm for the first time in weeks. While I was too young to remember many specifics, I do have some lingering, fond memories of playing Frisbee on the warm summer days, standing in lines for delicious American foods like hot dogs and doughnuts, and seeing the smiles of the kind American Marines stationed at Camp Pendleton who helped us in innumerable ways. Considering that the Vietnamese are a race of relatively short stature, these American Marines looked like gentle giants next to my father and mother, who both stood five feet, one inch tall.

Through the Catholic Church’s efforts to help Vietnamese refugees, a benevolent sponsor family took us into their home and hearts. While we lived with this sponsor family for several weeks, they were instrumental in helping us to rebuild our lives. Mom and Dad learned to drive and found employment, while my siblings and I enrolled in school. Everyone had to learn English in record time. Looking back at this time, I am certain of one undeniable truth: Had it not been for our sponsor family, there was no way that we could have successfully assimilated into our new lives. For this, I am eternally grateful to them. I am still in touch with my sponsor family, and I am so thrilled to be a part of their lives.

Forty-two years later, I am extremely proud to call myself a Vietnamese-American. When I remember those days at Camp Pendleton, I remember the kindness of the Marines, the Catholic Church, the American Red Cross and volunteers who helped to lovingly welcome us to our new home. When I think of my sponsor family, I think of the kind Americans who enriched our lives, nurtured our souls, and gave us faith in humanity, with open arms.

I am forever indebted to the compassion, hospitality, and generosity of the Americans who welcomed us in the summer of 1975. I wish that I could reach out to the countless Marines and volunteers of Camp Pendleton to express my gratitude for their kindness and to reciprocate in some way. Regretfully, I don’t even know any of their names. John F. Kennedy once said: “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.” So, I will repay their charity from those many years ago by being the best American I can be. And by being kind and offering a friendly welcome to the next newcomers to our nation.

~Kristen Mai Pham

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