Often new Chapters begin with a change in lifestyle. Marriage. Children. A career move. An empty nest. Divorce. Health concerns. A conscious decision to just do something different.
That’s what I always thought as I talked to people about their various Chapters.
Then one day, my friend Tonya shared her story…and I realized a new Chapter can begin pretty much at any age.
What were you doing when you were twelve years old? Do you remember life before you became a teenager? You were probably in middle school or “junior high” as we used to call it. The awkward stage when you’re not a cute little kid anymore and not a full-fledged adult either.
I remember being in 7th grade, worrying mostly about cheerleading tryouts, my hair, my clothes, changing into a gym uniform in front of other girls, getting my period, and wondering if I’d ever grow boobs…
I worried if the eczema on my hands was going to flare up and make me the subject of teasing by the other kids. I worried whether or not I’d make it through another day unscathed. It did. I was. I didn’t.
But my twelve-year-old challenges didn’t amount to a pinch of dust compared with what another girl faced. When I heard Tonya’s story, the young woman who does my manicures and pedicures, I realized my twelve-year-old life compared to her twelve-year-old life was a world apart. Literally.
Growing Up On the Other Side of the World
Tonya was living in Saigon with her parents and older sister where her family had a small beverage shop. It was the end of the day and Tonya anticipated a typical night at home after helping her mother close the store. But this night would be anything but typical.
This night Tonya’s mother locked the door, tapped Tonya firmly on the arm and sternly said, “Follow me.” Little if any conversation was exchanged. Tonya had no idea where they were going but the tone of her mother’s voice indicated she was to obey and not ask questions.
They walked for several blocks before arriving at a bus station where Tonya’s mother gave her a quick hug and pressed a $20.00 bill into her hand. She took a long and serious look at her daughter as she said, “The bus driver will tell you when it’s your stop. Don’t get off this bus until then.” It was 1982 in communist Vietnam. Tonya was being smuggled out of the country which was unlawful and dangerous.
There was no time for long good-byes. No opportunity to say what either might like to say before going away anywhere. No chance for last minute words of wisdom or caution. It was only the briefest of hugs . . . . too many tears would give them away . . . and then the doors of the bus closed.
Tonya watched her mom disappear through a cloud of exhaust fumes. She was twelve years old.
The Hope of Opportunity
As she told me this, Tonya’s eyes filled with tears. Mine did too. We are both mothers and those tears are emotional ones. Tears of fear. Of separation. Of sacrifice. Tonya vividly remembers every detail of her own emotions. We both only imagine what it was like for her mother to put her on that bus, desperate to have Tonya find her way to the United States.
Whenever I replay Tonya’s story in my head I think of what her mother experienced as she pressed that $20 bill into Tonya’s hand. I think of the range of emotion. How anxious she must have felt. How she must have watched that bus pull away, unsure whether or not she’d done the right thing for her daughter.
I think of her walking back to the shop and telling Tonya’s father that their daughter was hopefully on her way to America. She must have been scared too. Scared for her family. Scared they might be caught. And what might happen if they were.
“My mother had told the bus driver that I was meeting someone and eventually I was met by a complete stranger who said very little. I had no idea who else I was to meet or where we were going but I did exactly what my mother said.
We got on another bus and transferred several times but eventually we met up with my older sister and my cousin.
I was so happy to finally see someone I knew and then I realized what was happening. I was scared of course but the only thing running through my head was, “We’re going to America! I’m going to be an American!” I had no idea of the journey ahead of me.
The three of us were taken to a small fishing boat where we hid below deck for 4 days, waiting until a large boat arrived to take us out of the country. Large boat? Ha! When it arrived, we ended up with 30 people crammed on board a vessel that looked something like a catamaran. There was no below deck so we were totally exposed to the sun and rain. We had no food or water but luckily my mother had packed a small bag of provisions—-Tang powder, raisins, loganberries, and yellow bean cake.
Once at sea our small boat was met by pirates who gave us water and rice and fish but they took anything valuable they could find which wasn’t much. I still had the crumpled $20 bill in my fist and they never thought to look there. We were lucky because my sister and I didn’t get raped. Others were not so lucky.
A second encounter with another pirate ship didn’t turn out much better. We were fed but since we had nothing left of any value they took the small motor on our boat. The only thing we could do was to paddle by hand and bail as best as we could.
We were drifting late at night when it was so dark we could barely see anything. And then almost out of nowhere we began to make out the shape of a huge ship. We had no idea what it was but we yelled and banged whatever pots and pans we had to make noise. They spotted us and one by one we were lifted to the deck of an American Oil tanker. They took us to a refugee camp in Thailand where we stayed for nearly three years.
Even though we had sponsors in the United States, the Thai government would not allow anyone to be released to foreign governments like the US, Germany, & Canada. And so we waited.
Eventually, we were transferred to an American refugee camp in order for us to learn English. We’d made a little “school” in Thailand so I learned a little bit of English there . . . not exactly the American style of speaking but enough for me to be able to get by.
Each day a list was posted with the names of people who would finally be released to their sponsors. I’ll never forget the day I saw our names. It meant finally we were ready to go to America.
Our plane landed in Illinois where we had relatives who’d escaped Viet Nam years earlier. It was early April and there was a little bit of snow on the ground. I looked at the snow all around me . . . just looked . . . taking it all in . . . and I said, “Oh my God! It’s like heaven!”
It had taken four years but finally Tonya was in America.
Can You Imagine The Feeling? The Relief? The End of The Journey?
It’s what I try to do when I think of this part of Tonya’s story. If you’ve experienced the end of winter snow in the Midwest it’s not very pretty. It’s usually gray and dirty and slushy and sloppy. Not many would call it heaven. But Tonya saw something so beautiful through her sixteen-year-old eyes she still cries when she tells me what that day was like for her.
My first shopping trip was to K-Mart for underwear and I was shocked when I stepped inside. It was huge and so big and bright. I could hardly believe what I was seeing! And then we went to the Salvation Army and I was speechless when they told me I could pick out anything I needed and it was all free!
When was the last time you felt the kind of giddiness she must have felt? Can you begin to imagine Tonya’s awe and absolute delight? To visualize the reality of something she’d only just imagined?
Appreciate Your Opportunities
I love Tonya’s story in so many ways. It’s about a parent’s love and sacrifice. It’s about the risk you’d take for a child. It’s about trust and bravery and not knowing what the next day brings. It’s about luck and coincidence. It’s about resilience.
But when Tonya said, “It was like heaven, ” I realized hers was a story about seeing our country, our way of life, our slushy and messy and not so pretty days through a fresh pair of eyes.
It’s a reminder to all of us to appreciate everything we have.
Was there ever a time you had so little, you were overwhelmed by finally realizing you had so much? Are you able to look . . . really, really look . . . at the everyday people and places in your day and see them through fresh eyes? Through eyes that don’t take for granted some of the simplest things we enjoy without a second thought?
Do you ever take a moment . . . or two . . . and simply be grateful?
You might not have everything.
You might not have a lot.
But you just might have more than you think.