Becoming an American


In light of the recent Executive Order curtailing immigration and refugee resettlement, I am sharing my own story of becoming an American citizen. Coincidentally, it’s been almost exactly 20 years.

In 1996 I was a junior at Brown, working towards a degree in International Relations. One day, I heard that Robert McNamara was coming to Brown to give a talk, but attendance was strictly by invitation only.  Upset that such a figure could come to Brown and not address the entire student body, a friend and I sought out the professor who brought him there. We expressed our disappointment and concern about such limited access.

Enter Jim Blight, a dear man, who along with his wonderful wife janet became my mentors and close friends. Jim was impressed by our gumption and asked us if we would work for him as research assistants on a new critical oral history project about missed opportunities to end the Vietnam War. Not knowing what we had gotten ourselves into, we said yes.

Shortly after joining the research team, I was planning for a project conference for February 1996 in Hanoi–it would be my first trip back to Vietnam since I left as a child in 1980. I was excited and a bit anxious.  When I informed my mom of the trip, she was adamant that I should not go.  In fact, she forbade it. Her argument was simple: I was not an American citizen and I did not have a passport so therefore I should not go. She was afraid that the Vietnamese government would not honor my US permanent resident status and I would be detained. In disbelief, I protested that surely the Vietnamese government wouldn’t create some diplomatic row over little me when I was accompanying Robert McNamara and the two countries had just normalized relations. But she was unyielding. No passport, no trip.

I reluctantly told Jim about my predicament, flinching at how ridiculous this must all sound. He listened patiently and asked if my mom would allow me to go if I had a passport. I said yes. He paused and declared that I just needed to become an American citizen.  With barely two weeks before departure, I blanched. There was no way to make that happen.  Jim just told me to let him figure it out.

What happened next was nothing short of a miracle:

– Jim called Senator John Chafee’s office.
– Senator Chafee’s staff called me to schedule a citizenship test.
– I crammed for 2 days for the exam–luckily (and strangely) I am a colonial history buff.
– I showed up for my test and was asked to do the following: Write a simple sentence. Read a simple sentence. Identify the first president of the United States.  Voila! Congratulations, I passed the test. It had taken less than 3 minutes.
– 16 years after I first emigrated to the US, I attended a naturalization ceremony and got my passport the next day.
– I was on a plane heading to Southeast Asia within two weeks.

Thus began my foray into a 5-year engagement with a high-profile project with Robert McNamara as a principal investigator. I would spend the next five years traveling the world, with frequent trips to Vietnam to attend conferences and conduct research into declassified documents. I was often the only woman at the table, surrounded by male government officials, military staff, and historians.  I provided interpretation services for Robert McNamara and the rest of the team, helping them navigate cultural and historical complexities.

Those years went by in a blur.  The work was interesting and often intense, with geopolitical undertones and diplomatic maneuvering. But above all, there was the personal journey that I couldn’t appreciate until many years later. Here was a young woman, caught between her family’s history and her new country.  I was both the Vietnamese daughter and the American college student, and the contrasts were great and difficult to resolve.

Obviously, none of this would’ve been possible without that passport, without Senator Chafee, without Jim and all the other people who went out of their way to help me.  I keep this in mind as we watch the scenes of protest unfold at airports across the country tonight –from JFK and Logan to O’Hare and SFO.  This is a country of immigrants and we will rise.


More about the Missed Opportunities Project:
The Missed Opportunities conference reflects the “critical oral history” approach used by the project’s organizers at the Watson Institute. While the conference focuses on face-to-face exchanges between high-level leaders on both sides who participated in the historical events, the critical oral history approach adds two important elements to ensure that all exchanges conform to the historical record. First, each delegation will include respected scholars who have mastered the historical record and understand the significance of the discussions. Second, scholars and participants from both sides have had access to thousands of pages of new and existing documentary evidence, including recently declassified material, that bears directly on the substance of discussions. The project resulted in a series of publications, including Argument Without End.

For more about my journey from Vietnam visit my blog post A Story to Tell from December 2015.

For more about Jim and janet: Visit my blog post Time and Place from April 2015.  

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1 Response to Becoming an American

  1. Suong Pham-Teh says:

    Your mother should be proud of your success!
    I throughly enjoyed reading this piece.

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