From Danang to Pho 99

It was 1975, the war was coming to its awful conclusion, and I was in my junior year of high school. We’d been watching newscasts from Viet Nam for as long as I could remember. There were daily body counts, stories of skirmishes and battles and peace talks and protests and war crimes. It went on and on and on, year in and year out. Finally there were those awful television images of helicopters making their last departures from Saigon, desperate refugees hanging from the runners. There were scenes of Navy men pushing helicopters over the sides of their aircraft carriers. The mission had changed; we needed room for our new passengers.

Three years later, in college, I met my first Vietnamese refugee. He was Hmong, actually, and couldn’t speak a lick of English. Not one word. My friend and I did our best to communicate with him, but we didn’t have even the smallest fragment of common language to share. Nonetheless, we managed to get across to him that he was welcome at our school and that we were glad to have him.

As the years went by and our new Americans came into Southern California in increasing numbers, they began to fill the colleges and start businesses. Today Vietnamese Americans are moving out of their little Saigons into the suburbs just like any other Americans on their way up. They are an impressive people, having achieved more in a half of a generation than many native born Americans will achieve in their entire lives.

Today, I make it a point to stop in to Pho 99 from time to time. Pho 99 is a Vietnamese restaurant chain in Southern California, and my particular haunt is not much different than any other Vietnamese restaurant. After eating there ten or twelve dozen times, the food no longer seems exotic or foreign. I look into their faces and can’t imagine the warriors of a generation ago.

A couple of days after September 11, 2001, I was at Pho 99 having lunch, reading a Newsweek recount of the mayhem in New York. The manager came over to me, and seeing what I was reading, looked into my eyes and said in a quiet voice, “It’s so sad, isn’t it?” Her accent faded away.

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