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Coming to America
A first-hand account of fleeing Vietnam and coming to America for freedom
NhiHo story galllery Coming-to-America
(Left) Nhi's sister Lan and Nhi in the Thailand refugee camp in 1981. (right) Lan and Nhi in an Atlanta park in 2011. - photo by Submitted photos

Most people, when they first meet me, automatically assume that I was born and raised here in America because I do not speak with an accent - except for a slight Southern one. I also pause when someone asks me where I am from, not knowing if they're inquiring about my origins or my nationality. So then, I usually break out into the Cliffs Notes' summary of where I was born and how I came to Atlanta. Then the usual response in return is, "Oh. I was just wondering if you're from Georgia. That's all..."

I knew bits and pieces of my personal history growing up but only in recent years have I learned of how truly remarkable my boat story is.

My Ong Ngoai (maternal grandfather) apparently built the small boat that my family used to escape from Vietnam. The first attempt to flee was in 1978 after my older sister was born. The first attempt was unsuccessful because my family was afraid they were going to be discovered and be caught by the Vietnamese communist government.

Shortly after I was born, my mother, father and sister once again got into that small boat along with 13 other people and tried again to flee in 1981. The voyage from Vietnam to a refugee camp in Thailand took three days at sea. While I was interviewing mom, she said, "God really loves you because you could have died." She said that although we weren't caught in a sea storm, it was an overcrowded small boat in not so calm waters and a big wave swell almost took my life.

Three days later, we arrived safely in a refugee camp in Thailand where we stayed for six months. From there, we left Thailand to stay at another refugee camp in Indonesia for seven months. My family arrived in Los Angeles, Calif., in 1982 when an American church sponsored us to live in America.

The new freedom we attained by just stepping off the plane and setting foot on American soil was not lost on my parents. After we relocated from Anaheim, Calif., to Atlanta, dad studied for his citizenship test and became an official American citizen in 1987. Mom took her test in 1989 and when she passed and gained her citizen, her new status automatically became mine and my sister's as well. All four of us were official - American citizens.

After mom acquired her citizenship, she made immediate plans to set in motion the paperwork and documentations to begin sponsoring other family members so that they could also experience what freedom was like and live in a country where they would not be perpetually afraid of their governments.

Mom's younger sister Thuy and sixth in line by birth order, also left Vietnam to come to America. Her plight was much more difficult than ours. My auntie arrived at a refugee camp in Malaysia in 1987 where she ended up staying for seven years. The refugee camps by then had gotten more and more strict and they made life difficult for the refugees. The camp officials kept telling the refugees to return to Vietnam because they weren't going to allow people to come to America anymore. My auntie was adamant about coming to America and that's why she stayed in Malaysia for as long as she did.

"We were treated poorly as if we were prisoners but I refused to return back to Vietnam like so many people did. They gave up and went back. I refused to go back," my auntie said.

By sheer determination, stubbornness, my mother's constant dealings with paperwork and documentations to get her sister to America and more importantly, God's grace, my auntie finally arrived in Georgia in 1994.

Having been born in Vietnam, but raised in America and living here almost my entire life, I know more about American history than I do Vietnamese history.

I tend to almost always grow quiet any time someone speaks about the Vietnam conflict, only because I don't feel that I'm educated enough in that subject to voice my opinion. Over the years I have accumulated various sources to educate myself on the matter including a giant book, "Vietnam: A Visual Encyclopedia," and a four-disc DVD, "Historical Documentaries. Vietnam: America's conflict," with over 23 hours of documentary footage.

All I know is that when celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain said on his Travel network show, "No Reservations," that one of his all time favorite cuisine is Vietnamese foodies and that he wants to live there, I was pretty proud of my rich Vietnamese heritage.

And yet, it is not lost on me that as we celebrate America's freedom this Fourth of July, I am grateful to call this my home.


Nhi Ho is The News Copyeditor, choir director at the Vietnamese Rockdale Alliance Church, graduated third in her class at Mt. Zion High School in Clayton County and is a Georgia State University alum.