CHI THANH, Vietnam – Sixteen people crowded around a long table at a rustic riverside restaurant best reached by riding a motor scooter on a winding path past rice paddies, coconut trees and humble homes where chickens wander freely.
The table was laden with a four-course feast of Vietnamese spring rolls and all varieties of seafood, much of it caught from the river only a few feet away, some of it cooked right on the table. Sauces were doctored with peppers and limes; squid and fish were turned over fiery pots by hands more used to working the fields or scrubbing the week’s washing in a plastic tub.
A chance to eat like this was truly an occasion. Thuy was home.
The 16 people were the extended family of Thuy Bliss, who was raised on a farm in south central Vietnam, lost contact with her family for 25 years, worked as a servant on a military base and fled to America at the end of the war in 1975. She is now a happily married resident of Jacksonville, Fla., mother of two and grandmother of one, with another on the way.
The extended family – brother, sisters, nieces and nephews, even great nephews – was extended further this year to include my wife and me, an American couple on a trip of discovery.
Thuy calls us her “parents.”
On a chilly autumn day in 1975, Le Thi Ngoc Thuy got off a plane at the Jamestown airport, coming from the refugee center in Indian Town Gap, Pa. A tiny, frightened girl, she was wearing only a thin sweater against the bitter wind, carrying her few earthly possessions in a cardboard box.
My wife, Noreen, and I were there to greet her, knowing practically nothing about her background but eager to be her sponsors and welcome her to our home. Lutheran Social Services had handled the paperwork and was taking something of a chance on us, somehow believing that we could give her the start she needed in a new land.
A couple in their 20s with two small children – Benjamin, 6, and Abigail, 2 – probably had no business taking in a 20-year-old girl who spoke no English. We just didn’t know any better.
Years later, Thuy (pronounced Twee) told us, in her characteristically blunt fashion, that she had a choice of sponsors and picked us from a photograph that told her we were “young and poor.” We seemed a good match.
It was not always an easy year for Thuy or us. Coming from a tropical country where the temperature rarely drops below 70, she experienced snow for the first time. Many days she stayed in her bedroom, listening to tapes of sad Vietnamese songs. Once she could speak to us, she told us that she had no mother and no father and did not even know if her brother and sisters were alive.
We didn’t really know what to feed her. The first night we tried rice and crumbled-up hamburger; it was not a hit. But it turned out that food was what brought her out of her shell.
Thuy started cooking Vietnamese food for us, putting a cutting board on the floor and squatting to chop vegetables, magically making one pork chop or chicken breast feed five people. We arranged for her to get a job cooking at a restaurant in Jamestown, which got her out in the community functioning on her own. She was proud when the restaurant featured her signature recipe, calling it Thuy’s Oriental Soup.
She got help from Literacy Volunteers, and we got support from other Vietnamese refugees living in Jamestown, who translated for us until we could communicate with each other. Having young children in the house was a plus, as Thuy learned English vocabulary along with them – and by watching the afternoon soap operas. She particularly relished caring for our young daughter.
Thuy met and married Bob Bliss, a voracious reader who drove a truck for a living, and they moved first to Brocton, then Erie and ultimately St. Augustine, Fla. It was too much to expect her to stay permanently in the land of ice and snow.
We have maintained a close relationship over 38 years, going to Vietnamese New Year celebrations in Erie and attending her children’s weddings in Florida. But it was not until we accompanied her to Vietnam that we could begin to understand her life before she came to us.
Passing familiar sights triggered old stories for her. Seeing this hectic, energetic and exotic country through her eyes helped us understand the feisty, resourceful woman who came to us as a lost and terrified girl so many years before.
Thuy was born in 1955 in a remote village in Phu Yen province, south central Vietnam. She tells how she could shimmy up a coconut tree to knock down the ripe fruit. She worked the rice paddies with her family. And she ran for cover whenever bombs fell from the sky.
Her parents had both been married before meeting each other, and they had a combined five children, whose whereabouts remain a mystery. They then had five more children, known in the Vietnamese way by the number of their birth order – Kien, Sister Six; Ly, Sister Seven; Thuy, Sister Eight; and Dao, the long-awaited boy, the ninth child. A 10th child died in infancy.
In 1965, her village was destroyed by a firefight, and the family was forced to move to an Army refugee camp. The next year her father was injured when he stepped on a booby trap and died after gangrene set in. The following year, her mother died during a cholera outbreak in the camp. At age 11, Thuy was an orphan.
For the next two years, Thuy and Dao, two years younger, somehow survived on their own. Toward the end of 1967, it became clear to family members that they could no longer make it together, and Thuy was forced to work for the family of a naval commander. She tells the heartbreaking story of when she had to leave Dao behind. She would not see any of her siblings for nearly 25 years.
For eight years, Thuy was basically the indentured servant of the naval commander’s domineering wife. She lived with them at the Cam Ranh Bay naval base, spent a year in Saigon at the family home and then four years at a river assault base in the Mekong Delta. When Saigon fell, she accompanied the family to America.
The woman thought she was bringing along a servant; Thuy, thinking her family was lost forever, knew she was taking a chance on a new life.
Even as she became a wife and mother and took on a variety of jobs in a new land, Thuy was determined to find out what had happened to her brother and sisters. It took years of inquiries with people in Vietnam, but in 1990 she learned that Dao, Kien and Ly were alive, scattered to new communities. Two years later, she was able to fly to Vietnam for an emotional reunion at the Saigon airport.
Thuy and Bob have returned regularly over the years and have been able to make a huge difference in the lives of her family members. They built a house in the heart of Chi Thanh where they have their own rooms and Dao lives with his family. Thuy bought him a camera and it changed his life. The little boy left by the side of the road, who spent years doing farming and construction work, is now an award-winning photographer specializing in scenes of Vietnam’s distinctive countryside and rural people.
The house, open to the tropical breezes and with beautiful tile like many in Vietnam, has room for Dao’s photography business and his son-in-law’s computer repair operation in front. But living spaces are tight; Thuy’s niece, her husband and two sons share a single room.
Thuy’s sisters still live off the land, land that is incredibly fertile, producing rice, bananas and peppers with a distinctive bite. Kien, who is a widow, lives in a home with a dirt floor, but she dresses impeccably and has a quick wit. Ly has an easier time since she gets help from a daughter, Huong, who moved to the United States and is able to send money home. We already had a special connection with Ly since our daughter, Abby, the 2-year-old when Thuy arrived, became an attorney with experience in immigration law and was able to arrange for Huong to immigrate to Florida.
Thuy’s regular visits are special for the family connections and for practical reasons, too. Since American money goes a long way in Vietnam, she is able to help out financially, including buying the nightly meal, so the family eats much better than usual.
It is around the dinner table that we learn much more about the life of this remarkable woman. The Vietnamese people have a very special relationship to the food they eat – all of it coming from the verdant countryside or the nearby sea, spiced beyond what Western pallets can tolerate and shared communally. It is what family is all about. And family is what Thuy is all about.
We came to realize that Thuy is a lot like the country that produced her – resilient, determined, energetic and fiercely independent. Those are the qualities that got her through her early years in which war and loss were constants, got her to the United States to fashion her own life and then got her back in contact with her family to make a difference where it really mattered. The little sister had become the big sister in almost every respect.
No one in Thuy’s family speaks English, so all dinner conversation was channeled through her. But each night we shared more stories and more laughs. We learned about each family member and feel that in small and subtle ways we know each of them and understand their lives. We think the family got to know us, too, appreciating our enthusiasm for the beauty of their countryside and our interest in their ways. And it became clear that we all shared a connection through Thuy.
We had a fascinating two-week trip to Vietnam, the country that was so central to the lives of those of us who came of age in the 1960s. Of all that we saw and experienced, far and away the best was climbing on the back of Dao’s motor scooter for a ride through the jungle and sitting down to dinner with Thuy’s family, a group of people we couldn’t really talk to but still thoroughly enjoyed.
Looking down the table at all the smiling faces, I marveled at the circumstances that had brought us together. It still seems incomprehensible that Thuy, who we once thought was alone in the world, was the center of such a boisterous clan. I knew this was the moment I wanted to remember. It was our reward for reaching out to help a stranger so long ago.
Half a world away, we learned an enduring lesson about family.
If Thuy really does consider us her “parents,” that is something to be proud of.