This is just a simulation of
our beloved essayist at work.
We really are not sure what
his creative process involves,
we just print the results.
Mrs. Quang’s Present
I didn’t think we could just sit here idly and say, ‘Let those people die’. We
wouldn’t want the rest of the world to say that about us if we were in the same
situation…Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you. – Former Iowa Governor
It is the all-American photo that would make any family proud, a graduation
from the Naval Academy at Annapolis. You can tell that it is an extremely bright day
as the male adults are sporting sunglasses. Behind them on the blue and yellow
stadium’s wall are the names of some of our navy’s finest moments, Wake Island,
Guadalcanal, New Guinea.
Three grandchildren in uniform, a young man and woman in their dress naval
whites and a third young man in his air force blues. A proud uncle, who is a police
officer in a major metropolitan area, stands behind them. On the other side of these
three youngsters, stands his sister, who is a community leader in Iowa. Her
Facebook page is a Who’s Who of modern American politics, Clinton, Obama, Cory
Booker, etc. She has been on the school board and a part of dozens of
organizations that have improved people’s lives in Des Moines, Iowa and across the
state. Their two siblings bookend the photo. Both of them successes and the people
you would want your kids to be. All four of them have attended college.
This all-American family surrounds a little wisp of an elderly woman in a
flowered long sleeved top, black pants and sandals. Even though she looks like a
good stiff wind could blow her three counties away, she is a tower of strength. Her
black hair pinned back in a bun, she has that smile that only a proud grandmother
can possess. Not only is she seeing one of her grandchildren’s graduate from
college, but she is seeing our nation’s capital for the first time!
In the little Norwegian community where I grew up, she made the best cookies
in the world. A lifetime later, I still long for those cookies. When I was in their kitchen I
would eat as many of them as I could and then try to snatch a couple of more when
she wasn’t looking. She even gave my mom, who is a wonderful cook, the recipe!
My parents even paid her to make those cookies for my high school graduation.
They were that good and I wanted them that bad.
Can you picture this family?
I forgot one minor thing. They’re not white. When I think of what it means to be
American, I think of the Quang family. I don’t know many other families that have
given as much back to America as this family has. The Norman Rockwell painting in
my mind of what it means to be an American contains hues of brown and yellow in it.
Their lives are a world away from what anyone could have predicted they would be.
I say minor because as a little kid it never dawned on me that they were any
different than the rest of us. I do remember my friend Vanlop, who now goes by
Vinnie, standing in front of my class, my elementary teacher standing behind him
with her hands on shoulders, saying, “This is Vanlop. He came from halfway around
the world to be a part of your class. You should be honored. Make him feel at home.”
I doubt any of first graders understood her nervousness or even what was
going on. He probably didn’t either. When you are a kid, you just kind of adapt. Your
world begins and ends in the playground, your home, and your friends’ houses. I
cannot even imagine what he thought as he looked out at this strange sea of faces
looking back at him.
Iowa is a long way from Southeast Asia. His journey to my little town began in
an ill-conceived war and the humanitarian efforts of a newly sworn in Republican
governor of Iowa named Robert Ray. When South Vietnam fell, Cambodia was
already in tatters, and Laos about to topple. There was a humanitarian crisis.
125,000 refugees found themselves searching for some place to call home.
The difference was, Gov. Robert Ray spent his newly found political capital to
say to them that they could come here. It was an act of political courage. Small, little,
rural Iowa took in 1,400 Tai Dam people in the first wave of resettlement. The
Quangs were one of them.
A few years later, Americans watched their television sets in horror as a
second wave of refugees, which became known as “the boat people,” sought their
escape. Packed into rickety boats, they faced starvation, drowning, and even pirates
as they tried to find a new place to call home. Their stories even today can make
you weep. The more things change, the more they stay the same. More than
100,000 refugees made their way to America.
Moved by what he was witnessing, Governor Ray sought to change the law so
that Iowa could take in more of these people. His justification was simple, “I think
what it shows is that everyone can do something and make a difference in this
world. We might not be able to do it all but we can do something, and isn’t there
great satisfaction in that? The happiest people I know are people who are doing
things for other people. Think about at Christmas time; what makes you happiest? Is
it what someone gives you or what you give to make somebody pleased?”
Not everyone agreed with the governor’s decision. I do remember some of the
racist comments, fears, and concerns expressed by some of the older people about
these people coming in that we just didn’t know. What did we really know about
these people? How were they going to adapt to our culture? Some of them did not
even speak English. They certainly did not share our values. Comments about crime
and bad guys, and why should my tax dollars go to help these people hung in the air
like cigarette smoke. Even the most racist among us would not use some of the
words that were tossed around as commonplace back then. Instead we veil them in
terms like “extreme vetting.”
Still, the funny thing about being a kid is grown up concerns and attitudes drift
away with the wind when you find someone to play kickball with you, someone who
needs a seat next to you at the lunch table, and you discover has the same common
humanity of just wanting to be a kid. Oh, not everything ran smoothly all the time.
There were misunderstandings, a time or two teachers had to separate us, and
sometimes kids are just jerks. Yet, before the year was out, Vanlop had been
promoted to the class above us and eventually became one of the most popular kids
in school, as were his siblings in their classes.
I would have had a much different childhood if it were not for the Quangs. I
would have lost out on so many good times, laughs, wrestling meets, play practices,
late nights of watching movies on cable TV and even, on one occasion, rightly being
scolded by Vanlop’s oldest sister for saying something stupid and racist as a
teenager. It was a learning experience I treasure to this day.
I believe in America first, but I am not arrogant enough to say I completely
know what being an American means. I know I have part of the answer, but so do
the Quangs, so does the Muslim family down the street, the African-American family
nearby, the gay couple celebrating their wedding anniversary, the dreamers, the
single mother working two jobs to make ends meet, and you.
Governor Robert Ray was wrong about one thing. He talked about allowing
the Tai Dam people in as giving a gift to them. In many was it was, but the gift was
really ours. When I lived overseas, I had a dear friend named David Kim. He was
Korean and loved America because it was Americans who gave the gospel to Korea.
His dream in life was to be a Christian missionary to America, which seemed strange
to me. Yet, he often said, “You gave us the gospel. Now we would like to return the
favor by helping you understand what it means.” He died of cancer long before he
could make this dream come true.
We gave people like the Quangs the dream of America, a new home, and they
have shown what being an American means by patrolling our streets and schools,
defending our country, influencing our politicians, and strengthening our
communities. My little town was made so much richer by their presence in ways that
cannot be described or even fathomed. You must use all the colors in the coloring
box to draw a complete picture of America, just something to remember when you
want to put America first.