by EVAN THORN, for the Sun Gazette
I have always seen Arlington as a very diverse and accepting community. If you look in our schools, our neighborhoods or our workplaces, you will find people of many different origins. All of them carry something unique, from their race or gender to the stories they have to share.
Each of these communities could warrant an entire project of their own; it would be doing them a disservice to categorize them as one. However, I believe that to truly immerse a person in your writing, it is best to write about what you know best. While I may not be capable of properly capturing the achievements and struggles faced by many communities, I would be lying if I said I had no insight whatsoever.
In 1975, my grandparents, like many others in their position, immigrated from Vietnam. They came to the U.S. to escape a war that threatened reconditioning and oppression should they stay. However, they were not the only ones seeking a new life in America. Through a process of interviews and research, I have come to possess the stories of several Arlington families; recountings from people who have experienced the uncertainty and hope of immigration.
I write this article in hopes that – through reading these narratives – you will come to understand and identify with the diverse communities of Arlington a little bit more. If I can spread awareness of the varying cultures in our county, then I will consider this article to be a success.
I believe it best to write about things you know, so it seems only fitting that I should begin with a story of my own – or rather, that of my grandparents.
On April 30, 1975, both my grandmother and grandfather (my Bà and Ông) were forced to uproot themselves and the majority of their family.
This date marked the fall of Saigon and, consequently, the fall of South Vietnam. Bà’s brother had arranged for a boat to take them to America, and they made haste, packing only their essentials.
However, even gathering all family members on a boat proved to be a difficult task. Not only were several uncles and aunts accompanying them, but my grandparents were also responsible for the care of two children: my aunt and uncle, Anh (age 4) and Vu (age 2). If things couldn’t get more strenuous, Bà was three months pregnant with my mother. The city and its people were panicked, and in the rush to flee, my family’s first boat left without them.
They managed to buy passage on another vessel, but conditions were poor. The ship carried four thousand people. There was only enough room to stand, and you would lose your spot should you move. To contribute to the already numerous complications, the engine refused to work properly until noon that day. Even once they had begun to move, progress was slow, as they were burdened by low tides, a heavy load, and bothersome mud.
It was then that the radios started announcing the Fall of Saigon, sowing the seeds of unrest and anxiety. People feared that – were they caught – they would be sent to jail or, killed. They argued about whether they should turn back or not, and in their state of panic, people began shooting each other, as well as looting.
There were no lights beneath the deck, and many used that to their advantage, stealing from others. At last, one man took charge, forcing others to hand over their weapons. These he promptly threw overboard, and through these acts he became a peacekeeper throughout the journey, if only by unseemly methods.
The boat not only was drained of food and water, but also broke down after only two days. A ship from Hong Kong found and rescued the people, taking my family and others to a hospital and refugee camp. Had they stayed at sea for even one more day, Vu likely would not have made it.
Eventually, after months spent in a refugee camp, they secured a sponsorship to come to America. They bounced around between several states before eventually settling in the Virginia-Maryland area.
They were not alone. After the fall of Saigon, waves of Vietnamese immigrants came to America. Many ended up in Virginia and, more specifically, Clarendon. Construction of the Metro system through the region had just begun, and the significant reconstruction of the area led to a rise in inexpensive, short-term commercial leases. Vietnamese immigrants, eager to find ways to support their families, snatched up these opportunities quickly. There was an influx of Vietnamese shops and businesses.
Rents eventually rose, forcing many to pack up and move their services to areas like Falls Church and Seven Corners. However, the influence of Vietnamese culture still left its mark on Clarendon.
Despite its notable Vietnamese population, Arlington is home to many other families born from immigrants.
My first source had a grandmother who immigrated from Guyana, a country in South America. Her life was no paradise. One of the oldest of nine children, her family lived in extreme poverty. When she was young, her father left the family, forcing her to help her mother in caring for the younger siblings. Much of her early life and teenage years were dedicated to family-related work.
She wanted a family of her own, yet she knew that the area she lived in was not suitable to raise a child. Guyana was infested with criminals, and that partnered with her poor living conditions made her seek a life in the U.S..
The path to her dream, however, was not without impediments.
To afford the flight, she saved up money through babysitting other children, though this only rewarded $1 per hour. She was also faced with the challenge of convincing her mother, who – should she leave for America – would be forced to care for her siblings alone.
Eventually, she was able to make the journey to the U.S., one she took alone at 21. For the first 10 to 15 years in the country, she was considered an illegal immigrant. She lacked money and assistance, and it took time before she could lead what would be seen as a normal life; one free from constant hardship. She was forced to work trying jobs simply for the essentials of food, water, and housing. She fell in love with a man who neglected the duties of fatherhood, making her the primary provider for their child. Nevertheless, she did not give up, and her family has remained in the Virginia area since she migrated.
My second source had a father, grandparents, and uncles who migrated from Seoul, South Korea, in 1974. Her grandparents (in their 30s at the time) lived a financially stable life; in fact, rather wealthy for South Korea. Her grandfather worked as a pharmacist and owned a store.
Despite having money to sustain themselves, the grandparents wanted a better life for their children. The U.S. presented better economic and educational opportunities for their family, and the tension added by North Korea only strengthened their decision.
While the journey to the U.S. was mostly uneventful, the adjustment her family was forced to endure proved to be demanding. While her father and uncles learned to adjust to both cultures, as they were only 4 at the time of immigrating, the grandparents suffered the challenges of many migrants. They struggled to learn English, and for some time they wrestled with money.
Despite all of this, my source’s family landed on its feet. Her father, who got a job in the government, moved to Arlington and has been there since.
My final source had two parents, both of which immigrated from separate places only to meet each other in the U.S.
Her Japanese mother resided in Brazil, while her Spanish father lived in Argentina. They both traveled to the States for different reasons (her father for a job offered by his brother, her mother to see what life was like in America), but they both sought out opportunities in their new home.
Her mother flew straight to Fairfax, while her father initially stopped in Los Angeles before moving to the Washington area.
They were not without their share of challenges. Both were fluent in Spanish, yet struggled to master English. Her mother would also experience occasionally the subtle racism of certain Americans. Alas, they did not go through these alone. They met at a recreational soccer game that her father was playing at, and the rest is obviously history.
I’ve now recounted all of my stories; stories of hope, love, hardship, and struggle. If it is still unclear to you why I’ve dedicated so much effort into bringing these narratives to you, allow me to enlighten you.
Arlington is far more than a county that’s only a couple minutes from D.C. Arlington is more than a place with nice weather and good schools. Arlington is built around its people; its community. This area was forged by the decisions and work of its people. Whether you like it or not, we as its citizens represent this area.
For someone to understand Arlington – to truly know what life is like here – you have to see it from the people’s eyes. A disconnected news article throwing around the word “diversity” will not provide proper insight. I wanted to give others a chance to truly see what life is like for many who have come here.
Arlington is no stranger to migration. Thirteen percent of its population is immigrants, and one in six Arlington workers is an immigrant. We have heard of how diverse our county is, but we seldom get the opportunity to look through the eyes of the subjects. I truly hope that this article has given you new insight into the world of Arlington immigrants.
Thorn is an 8th-grade student at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Arlington.