Swickard: Their First Day in America

© 2015 Michael Swickard, Ph.D.  On this last day of October every year I like to tell the same story. It is about perception and cultural diversity. The story was told to me by a friend named John who was an Immigration Intake Counselor for the Vietnamese Boat People in Long Beach, California in the 1970s.
            These refugees came to America from South Vietnam before the war ended in April of 1975 and afterwards. Many refugees fled knowing that if the North Vietnamese caught them it would be death. After the country was reunited and was just Vietnam there still was quite a flow of Vietnamese who came to America.
            My friend John spoke their language well because he served two tours of duty in South Vietnam in an organization, the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam referred to as MACV. Rather than being in an American unit, his job was to live in small villages and help the South Vietnam soldiers of those areas.
            From two years of living among the villagers his speech, accent and understanding of their culture was excellent. At the intake center in Long Beach his job was to walk around helping the people coming through the center with what they needed to do.
            For these people who had until then lived their whole life in Vietnam, it was their very first day in America. Almost all of the people did not speak English. John tried to show them that America was a good place and the immigrants were safer in America than they had been in their homeland.
            John liked to sit in his office next to the main walkway. He would listen to the people as they walked by chatter excitedly about how wonderful it was to be in America. He heard many times how the people were glad and grateful they made it safely to America.
            The first thing each morning John would work on daily reports and paperwork to the music of these people walking by talking happily about being in America. That was except for one day. John was busy working on paperwork when he became aware that the people outside his office were agitated. And they were not happy.
             He looked up from his desk and saw their frightened unhappy faces walking by as they talked excitedly. This was very unusual and out of character for the refugees.
            John stepped quickly to the door and tried to catch their conversation. To his surprise he heard some say they were going to kill the headmaster for talking them into coming to this terrible and evil land. Several said the Communists were right about how awful it was in America.
            John was in shock. He had never heard anything like this before from the people and could not spot the problem. Another group was saying the same things. Frantically John made his way through the crowd. The normally happy people were sullen and pulled back from him.
            He tried to speak to several groups of people, but they did not reply and moved away. What a mystery since usually they were so very glad to find an American who spoke their language.
            On his way to the office to report this amazing change of behavior his American perception came into focus with his time in Vietnam. While he had not participated in a quaint American tradition, he suddenly noticed the center's staff had decorated the center for Halloween. He remembered that the Vietnamese do not celebrate Halloween.
            Many Americans in the center were dressed in costume. The Vietnam people's first view of a real American that day turned out to be a woman dressed to the hilt as an evil witch with purple skin and green hair.
            It was touch and go the next hour as John and other counselors explained to the immigrants that this was merely a charming and quaint American tradition. At last everyone settled down and the happy chatter returned somewhat, though he heard several groups comment that Americans seemed to be good people but sometimes did crazy things.
            The Vietnamese immigrants have quite a story to tell about the very first day they spent in America since they happened to arrive on Halloween.