Sharing Stories, Building Community

October 19, 2017

We started the school year with such a burst of joy–from greeting new families and welcoming old friends, to celebrating our community at Panther Picnic. As always, being at Prospect Sierra gives me a tremendous amount of happiness and sense of purpose. This year I made it a goal to spend at least a few hours in every classroom or grade level in the first six weeks of school so that I could get to know the students better, observe our teachers in action, and more selfishly, to participate in all of the rich curriculum and activities that Prospect Sierra students are engaged in every day.

The classroom visits were, in a word, awesome. Besides doing challenging academic work in every subject, from geometry veiled as art in kindergarten, to researching and debating constitutional amendments in 8th grade, I had a chance to play tag, paint, engage in literary discussions, learn a song and dance, do a science experiment, practice improv games, and sit on the rug for quiet story time. Every day that I devoted to classroom visits was enlightening, inspiring, and tons of fun! I witnessed how thoughtful our teachers are in designing their programs, not only for their own students, but also across disciplines and grade levels. I was impressed by how our students embody our school’s values of empathy and inclusion through their classroom collaborations and outdoor play. To experience Prospect Sierra through the eyes of your students provided me with countless moments of appreciation for our school and our community.

In stark contrast to the vibrancy of each school day at Prospect Sierra, the world around us has been through a devastating time. In the last few weeks I have felt overwhelmed by the devastation, violence, and natural disasters that have hit our country and very close to home. We have wanted to do our part to engage students in conversations about the hurricanes, Las Vegas, and fires, while also protecting young students from developmentally inappropriate information and making sure that they feel safe and hopeful. This is not always an easy task. Below are resources that you may find helpful as your children continue to process difficult news. Please remember that feeling sad builds empathy, and empathy leads to action. It is okay for children to feel sad, as long as you remind them that they are safe. Being industrious and taking action can also build students’ agency and hope. 

Finally, one way I process overwhelming emotions is to write. In 2005 I moved to New Orleans, just weeks before Hurricane Katrina. I evacuated to Houston temporarily and three weeks after that had to evacuate again to Dallas because of Hurricane Rita. To say that I experienced loss, confusion, and instability is an understatement. Surprisingly however, as I wrote, I gained a sense of perspective that was profound and continues to support me through difficult times. You are welcome to read the essay that I wrote below, which was originally published in The Houston Chronicle and is now being used in a school writing curriculum and textbook. I believe that stories bring us together as a community, and we are all in need of community in times like these. I hope you will find some connection to my story below, especially if you have experienced loss or instability recently. My heart goes out to all who have been affected by recent disasters and tragedies. If you have been through a trying time, I hope you will feel comfortable sharing stories and being cared for by our community.

Published as “Vietnam Revisited: “I Was a Refugee Long Before Katrina” in The Houston Chronicle, October 16, 2005

Recently, I’ve found myself struggling to describe where I come from. I have lived in Houston for just over a month, since the day my husband and I left New Orleans with our son and dog, two days before Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast.

As New Orleans was destroyed before our eyes, I wept for all those who lost their homes and their lives. As sympathetic friends and family called me, begging to help, however, I found it difficult to feel too sorry for myself. Losing my home is not the most momentous thing to ever happen to me. I don’t consider myself a victim of Katrina. I lost my home long before the winds and high waters swept over New Orleans.

I am a refugee from Vietnam, not New Orleans. Thirty years ago, my mother left Vietnam with her six children, carrying little else but a valise packed with sepia-toned photographs and a heart full of courage and faith. My father was in prison, and my mother had to make the decision to leave without him in order to save her children from re-education camps or death. She was headed for America, where she didn’t speak the language, didn’t know anything about the culture, and knew no one.

In 1975, when we came to the States, we were refugees. We huddled together at Camp Pendleton in California, until we were sent to Alexandria, Virginia, where a Roman Catholic church had offered us sponsorship.

Shortly after we arrived in America, we learned of my father’s miraculous escape from Vietnam, just hours before the fall of Saigon. With incredible fortune guiding him, my father made the perilous journey from the South China Sea, and eventually to a camp in Pennsylvania, where a U.S. soldier gave him the bus fare to meet his family.

We were very fortunate. Yet, we started with nothing. The church found us housing, but my parents did not have jobs; we had no clothing and no toys. We learned English from scratch, and tried to create a home for ourselves in our new country. We folded paper to make toys and taught ourselves to read. We wore whatever the church parishioners donated to us and had no idea what was fashionable, which in a way gave us some freedom. We were different, but we didn’t try too hard to fit in. And most importantly, we didn’t try to recreate our old lives, the lives we had known in Vietnam.

After their narrow escapes from Vietnam, my parents managed to confront the most daunting task of all—to raise their children in a foreign land.  My parents held full-time jobs, worked overtime and modeled for all of us that perseverance borne out of extreme hardship.  What amazes me most about my parents is that they accepted right away that their stay in America was not temporary. They would never return home.

I, on the other hand, could not help but find my way back to the place where I was born, some 25 years after I had left Saigon. When I arrived, however, I found myself very much a foreigner.  I dressed, walked, and talked differently.

Some locals spoke to me doubtfully in Vietnamese, but I could see on their faces that they didn’t expect me to understand them. I sought out my parents’ former home in Saigon, and snapped some pictures. Later, I found out that I had never actually lived there.  In my search for home, I only found myself to be a stranger.

When I hear from others affected by Hurricane Katrina that they are mourning the loss of their childhood home, or the home that belonged to their family for generations, I feel great sympathy for them. In a strange way, I also feel envious that they have such a clear image of what was their home. After all of these evacuations and refugee experiences, the only thing I’m sure of is that I can’t call any place home. My home no longer exists as a picture in my mind, or as a warm memory embedded in my soul. I don’t have a home.

Yet, I didn’t lose my home to Katrina.  In fact, I have lost nothing. I have only gained. I have gained perspective. I have gained a deep sense of gratitude for all those who have reached out to me and my family 30 years ago and today. I have gained a powerful resiliency and, most importantly, an appreciation for the grace that I have experienced in my life.

My one-year-old son talks a lot, but up until last week, had never completed a coherent full sentence. All of a sudden, a few days ago, he said, “I love you.”

I don’t know how my journey has led me to this place—America, Houston, in a grocery store parking lot with my son and hearing his first full sentence. But I do know that feeling the comfort of home is not what’s most important.

I suppose I will always be searching for my home, but I am also certain that I will never find it. And I hope I never do. The journey, as difficult and tiring as it can be, is worth it.

Resources
“How Teachers And Schools Can Help When Bad Stuff Happens,” Anya Kamenetz, KQED Mindshift
“Explaining the News to Our Kids,” Common Sense Media