Everybody has a story: Touching, tragic times teaching English to Vietnamese refugees

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In the fall of 1975, I volunteered to be part of the Vietnamese Relocation Project at Camp Pendleton in Southern California. The program was led by Jerry Jones, a professor at Central Washington State College in Ellensburg.

Four of us, all recent graduates, traveled in two cars — a Volkswagen bug and my 1967 Dodge "muscle car." We were supposed to trade off drivers, but none of the ladies had the strength to push down the heavy accelerator in my car, so I drove the length, stopping at every Denny's along the way to load up on coffee to stay awake. At our final Denny's stop, our waitress recognized our accents and we discovered she also was from Washington — Ellensburg, to be precise. In the end we stayed in a motel in San Clemente, on El Camino Real.

Our local coordinator was a shadowy, powerful and impressive man named "B." I later learned he had worked with the CIA. Whether he was with the agency at the time, I don't know.

Our job was to teach spoken English, idioms and American customs to those who were evacuated from Vietnam. Most of them could read English but couldn't pronounce it. We used a series of hand signals for listen, model/repeat and respond. We also used a set series of pictures for various facets of American life. Vietnamese is a tonal language, and many of the same letters and combinations can have wildly different pronunciations.

I worked during the days with children up to the age of 7 years old, a group called "the babies." Many of the older children brought their brothers and sisters with them. Each teacher was given a facilitator and mine was a 17- or 18-year-old named Cuong. His English and pronunciation were very good. We became close at camp.

This is where I learned Vietnamese "qu" is pronounced "tr." My confused students responded to a picture of a duck with a loud "track track track!" Cuong straightened them out. "Ch" was a killer, and they nearly choked on "church." But most of them were Roman Catholic, and "Mass" was much easier.

Night classes were for adults. Men and women attended separately, as was the custom in South Vietnam. I was assigned to a class with "the generals" — 27 men who were all generals in the South Vietnamese army. They were there to learn about life in America — sans a command.

Most of the South Vietnamese "campers" were Roman Catholic and middle-class merchants. These people were afraid of what an atheist and communist regime would do to them and their children. The families stayed in tents and were served meals under dining flies. They learned about American food the hard way. Hot dogs were "No. 10," or the absolute worst. But hamburgers were "No. 1," the absolute best.

Also among those relocated were Cambodians, in a far-away camp. The Vietnamese and Cambodians were hostile toward each other. There were also so-called "Black Thai" or Tai Dam people from northern rural areas. And there were many Chinese, who were merchants and bankers and usually Buddhists. The Chinese had a built-in community to accept them.

There were also those that didn't want to be there. Some got on the wrong transports. There were many suicides. One I witnessed. About 100 feet away I saw a man drinking from what looked like a canteen. Then with a shout and a spark he set himself afire. I later learned he was Viet Cong, had got on the wrong plane, and died cursing America.

The camp would close in November '75. The Vietnamese were all "sponsored out" by American families. This wasn't always good. One of the Vietnamese coordinators was dressed in a monkey suit to chauffeur his sponsor around. This man had been a general and was accidentally separated from his family. He returned to run the program.

I would lose track of Cuong. Sad. I had been honored into his parents' home and was introduced to the French/Saigon fusion cuisine. None finer.

I loved the people there. The motel owner treated us like his children. The San Clemente populace laughed at our accents but treated us wonderfully. Prof. Jones treated us like royalty. "B" took me on a helicopter ride and we went over the Western White House. Nixon was out of the country.

The college kids and other volunteers were hardworking and fun. But the "babies" and their grateful parents are forever frozen in my memory. One mother who began my class pregnant but then stopped coming, reappeared as we were departing to tell me her baby was "born American." She wanted to honor me by naming the newborn after me, but she couldn't pronounce my name so she said, "How in America?"

I told her. I can still see her beaming face.


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