Refugee At 6, Man Feels Like A Native

November 18, 1990|By Dianne Williams Hayes | Dianne Williams Hayes,Staff writer

The war-torn life Minh Le left behind when his family escaped from Vietnam to Annapolis is all but a blur to him now.

During those rare moments he steals for himself, he recalls faint memories of smoke-filled air, sounds of helicopters hovering, and his five brothers and four sisters clinging to each other on the floor of a military transport plane as they were flown away, leaving behind their parents' home in South Vietnam and much of their culture.

"It was a sacrifice," Minh said. "We left with just the clothing we had on and dog tags in case we got lost.

"I remember a lot of the chaos, a lot of traffic. My parents didn't come because my dad had to stay in the military and my mom had a chance to leave, but wanted to stay to take care of my dad."

Minh, 21, was 6 when his life changed more dramatically than his parents could have envisioned when they sent their children with their son-in-law in 1975 to the United States. It was eight years before the family reunited.

"When I saw them (his parents) at the airport, I mean, it seemed like I didn't know them too well," Minh said. "We hugged and did the usual things, but it was almost like seeing a stranger. I was so young when we left.

There was one night that I cried when I realized that I might not see them again for a long time, then I had to move on."

But those memories seem removed from the success he has carved out in his new life.

The dark-eyed, 5-foot-7 former refugee maintains a 4.0 grade point average at Anne Arundel Community College and is the first recipient of a $1,800 full-time renewable scholarship presented annually by the college foundation. He plans to transfer to University of Maryland to study physical therapy.

Retracing his life is something Minh admits he still grapples with, partly because his family seldom talks about the past.

"I have always wanted to find out a lot of things," he said. "There are a bunch of gaps."

He smirks when he talks about the childhood game he remembers playing with aggressive crickets.

"My friends and I would spend hours training them to be fierce competitors," Minh said. "We would put them in a match box and have them fight to their death. We would use a dead cricket propped up on a toothpick and poke it at them to make them aggressive.

"As strange as it may seem, I also missed my dad's bamboo lashes. These are the things that flash through my mind."

He has only recently discovered old newspaper clippings of the family's escape. Their leaving was in large part due to help from a love-struck Do Dinh Dung, of Annapolis. He was a wounded veteran, who had volunteered in the South Vietnamese army, and returned to Saigon to bring back Minh's family and to marry Minh's 19-year-old sister, Le Kim.

In addition to academics, Minh is well-known on the Arnold campus as a peer tutor for introductory biology classes with the Supplemental Instruction program, captain of the tennis team, and president of the International Student Association. The latter organization provides an opportunity at least 30 other foreign-born students to share their similarities and differences.

Living in a household headed by his oldest sister and brother-in-law for much of his life, Minh did his part by working his way through school as a physical therapist's aide, nursing assistant, fitness trainer, by stringing tennis rackets and by giving tennis lessons.

"We were all pretty independent," he said. "There was no one there to look at your report card, so it was really up to you and how you wanted to do."

Minh was forced to learn English and keep up with studies at Central Elementary in Edgewater, but so far, his parents have refused to learn English -- almost as a gesture to hold on to part of their heritage, Minh said.

"The fall of Vietnam effectively changed my life," Minh wrote in an essay for a college English class. "I lost part of my country and some of our customs."

His parents only rarely share the horrors they experienced after being left behind.

"We left three days before the fall of Saigon," he said. "That was the last place the North Vietnamese took over. That was a close call.

"My mom said some people just wanted to die. They would go into a field and dig their foot into the ground and bleed themselves to death. They just didn't want to suffer anymore."

Discussing his heritage is something Minh has much more trouble with than mastering his college course work. But he said he is working on it.

"I thought I was mature enough think about this, I guess there is still a lot for me to learn about that part of my life."

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