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  Vietnam Scrapbook

Jennifer Woebke
St. Paul, MN, USA

I'm not Vietnamese or a Vietnam vet and I was only a little girl when the war ended but America's involvement in S.E. Asia has had a major impact on my life. I don't remember the events of April 30, 1975, but I made an entry in my diary soon after about POWs coming home, and ever since then I've felt deeply drawn to that part of the world.

In 1980 our high school had a large group of refugees from S.E. Asia. They didn't mix with the American students. I saw the Asian students there in their own classroom and was overcome with curiosity, so I volunteered to be a peer tutor. I was endlessly fascinated by these students and their lives before America. They told me about Vietnam and Laos and Cambodia, they taught me to eat with chopsticks and to love fish sauce, and they shared their heartbreak. I learned about wearing little red scarves in school, family members who were dead or missing, exchanges of hoarded gold for room on creaky boats which set out in pirate-infested waters, and refugee camps with monotonous meals of canned beans and rice.

In college I worked as a tutor in the Asian center, and again spent many hours with my students learning about their pre-America lives. There was the shy accounting student who told me he was a "sky soldier" with long hair and a big gun in Laos, the vivacious math student who talked about the shock of using a western toilet on the airplane, and fragile Coung with the amazing literary skills who wrote of her escape from Vietnam in broken English that sounded like poetry.

I began to learn a little Vietnamese and could make small jokes with my new friends. They persuaded me to perform at their Tet celebration that year. A young woman taught me an old Vietnamese folk song, and another loaned me her ao dai--the traditional long dress worn by Vietnamese women.

That night the auditorium was packed. I hadn't anticipated so many people watching me sing with my weak voice. The celebration started with the presentation of the South Vietnamese flag and the melancholy music of their national anthem. I found myself in tears thinking of so many people exiled from their homes.

When I appeared on stage in my borrowed ao dai the audience applauded. I sang in Vietnamese about a girl who rebels against her parents to see her boyfriend and then lies about it. I asked in English, "Do you believe me?" and the audience roared "NO!" I shrugged my shoulders and said, "Neither did my mother!" Their laughter carried generosity toward my off-key singing, along with amusement and appreciation for my heavily accented Vietnamese.

For years after that performance almost any time I was in a local Vietnamese restaurant someone would approach me and excitedly point and name the song. Just a few years ago a waitress approached me as I was eating pho, a kind of noodle soup. "Aren't you Jennifer?" she asked.

My relationships within the Vietnamese community here helped to fuel my curiosity and interest in that part of the world. Their friendliness and generosity encouraged me to think that I'd be safe traveling in foreign lands. Since those college days I have studied Chinese and Japanese, and lived and worked and studied and traveled throughout Asia.

I feel so much gratitude toward the Vietnamese people here in the Twin Cities, for their kindness and willingness to share their stories and culture with me. I have often felt a sense of wonder that such a terrible tragedy in a place so far away could have ripple effects that influenced my life in a positive way. Their presence here truly opened the world to me, and I'm always humbled to recall that their presence in my life is a result of war.

In all these years I have not managed to make it to Vietnam. It's at the top of my travel list now, and I eagerly read accounts of other people's travels there. I hope to get there soon. I've always suspected it will feel like coming home.


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