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Chapter 7 A New World We drove for an hour before we arrived at the Malaysia International Airport. The interpreter escorted us into the airport as our curious eyes wandered. While he completed our paperwork with the airline agents, we stood fascinated by what we saw: computers, huge airplanes, different colored cars, elevators, escalators, and big television screens, such things our imaginations had never envisioned. The elevators were so tempting that we had to try them out. Phuong, Cong, Fong, Kuang, and I traveled from floor one to two, and then back to one. After that, we ran up and down the escalators in the opposite direction, to see who was the fastest, an activity that attracted many unwelcome stares and whispers. We were young, naive, and did not care. Everything was too new and exciting for us to care what people had to say. If only I had been able to carry this sense later on in life. It was so lovely to be a child: to be innocent, to have no fear… there was so much freedom, not letting our own minds limit ourselves by worrying about the judgments of others. We played with the phones, we cleaned our faces in the water fountains, and we spun around on the barstools. Mom and Dad came over and screamed at us, “You’re going to hurt yourselves! Now stop it,” they demanded. We listened and obediently took seats beside them. Being children like we were, we became restless. So as the airplanes took off and landed, we imitated them, using our body as the airplane’s body and our hands as wings. We copied every move the guys in uniform made to park the airplanes next to the gates. We duplicated their hand signals and flag waving, as our younger siblings pretended to land. Mom and Dad looked at us. They shook their heads and rolled their eyes in amusement. They smiled beautiful sunshine smiles so big and warm that any child would wish and dream to see them on his parents’ faces every day. “You’re a bunch of silly children,” they said. And true to their words, we were a bunch of crazy kids, having fun was all we knew and danger was a word we did not have a handle on. It was time to board the Pan Am airplane. We quickly picked up the luggage and followed Mom and Dad. We walked through a chilly tunnel and entered the airplane. The flight attendants smiled at us and we smiled back. The interpreter led everyone to his or her seat and sat family members together. Phuong, Cong, Fong, Kuang, and I were not frightened at all, even though it was our first time on a plane. We sat several aisles away from Mom, Dad, our grandparents, and the youngsters. After all the hardships we had experienced, our curiosity was much stronger than our fear. The size of the airplane was unbelievable. The seats were so soft and comfortable that we kept bouncing up and down. The bathroom was so nice and clean that we used it many times just to see the weird faucet, toilet seat, soap dispenser, and above all the soft,


white toilet paper. Our activity must have irritated the interpreter, because he walked up to Mom and Dad. When he was done talking to them, Mom turned to us and gave us her evil stare. We quickly took our seats and buckled up. Voices came from speakers while the flight attendants showed us how to work our seatbelts, how to use the oxygen masks, and how to blow air into the rubber floats. We were so curious about where the voice was coming from that our eyes searched for it instead of focusing on the flight attendants. When the demonstration was over, the flight attendants walked around to see that everyone was buckled into their seats. The airplane accelerated and took off. The sudden speed caused me to hold my breath and grab tightly onto the chair. It was not until the airplane became balanced that I loosened my grip and released my breath. My older siblings and cousins did not tease me, because they were as terrified as I was. We removed the belts as soon as we could. We found headphones and copied the actions of the other passengers by placing them over our ears. To our surprise, there were voices. We were clueless about the music we heard but we loved it just the same. We increased the volume and flipped through the magazines. They were all written in English, so we just admired the beautiful pictures. An hour later, the flight attendants walked around and passed out peanuts and CocaCola. After we had finished those, we asked for more. Although we did not speak a word of English, we had no problem pointing and using hand gestures to indicate what we wanted. We bothered them many times… after all, the peanuts and Coca-Cola were free. I had heard it said if you placed a sign which read “free” in front of a bunch rocks, people would take them… now we were talking about free Coca-Cola. The flight attendants were very professional and generous. And in a ploy to keep us from pestering them, they gave us two decks of cards. We busied ourselves playing cards and eventually lost our craving for sodas and peanuts. We stopped playing cards when the movies came on. The flight attendants served us dinner. It was so difficult getting used to the food that we only ate a little, even though we were starving. Soon after dinner, the airplane encountered turbulence. Our airplane rocked and shook uncontrollably and dove many feet. We were terrified. We started screaming and grabbing hold of our chairs. We closed our eyes and prayed, asking God for help. The pilot said something, and not knowing what he said made us even more frightened. Fortunately, the turbulence lasted only a couple minutes. When the airplane became stable once again, some of us grabbed the paper bags and vomited. Phuong was the first to puke. Mom handed her the bak far zhou. She rubbed it on her temples and its scent carried through the plane, attracting many questioning stares. But we didn’t care and used the ointment anyway so we would not get sick. We landed at Hong Kong International Airport, where we were told we would be staying for two nights. There were technical problems with the airplane, the interpreter informed us. It was our first time staying in a hotel, which made us even more


enthusiastic. Although we were only given one room for the twelve of us to share, it was enough. We were so thrilled to have such big, comfortable beds that we bounced up and down on them immediately after stepping inside the room. Strangely, Mom and Dad didn’t yell at us and tell us that we had no money to pay if we were to break anything. They let us be the children that we were! The bathroom had beautiful marble floors, glass doors, and a grand stand-in shower. We played around in the bathroom and splashed cold water at each other. The floor became completely wet, which made Mom angry. She made us clean the floor and after cleaning it, we loved it so much that we slept on it just to feel the chill. We had no idea how to use the air conditioner, so we simply turned the knob to the highest speed. The room became so cold that we had to cover ourselves with blankets. That was how we spent the hot August day, watching television and huddling under blankets. Soon we were addicted to the Chinese cartoons and movies. It was the first time we had ever watched anything spoken in Cantonese, our native tongue, on television. When the adults asked if we wanted to explore the city with them, we declined. We did not want to give up our newfound television in favor of walking through the hot, crowded streets. Hours later, Mom and Dad came back with an English-Chinese dictionary. “It’ll be useful in America,” Mom explained. Fong, Kuang and I didn’t know what a dictionary was but we simply nodded in agreement with Mom. They spoke about Hong Kong with excitement. Because everybody spoke Chinese, they felt that they belonged there. They loved the tall buildings and said the little stores were impressively designed, with colorful fruits on one side and unique candies and chocolates on the other. The people were fashionable and Mom said, “I wish I had money to visit the boutiques to buy you kids some beautiful clothes.” They loved it so much that they did not even mind the hot, humid and polluted air. The interpreter stopped by our room and told us that dinner was ready. He gave us directions to the dining room. We were delighted to see soup, seafood, beef, pork and vegetables, a typical Chinese feast. We ate so fast that Mom had to shout, “You better slow down before you choke on the food.” Then she threatened us. “There’s not going to be any television watching if you continue to eat like that.” Phuong, Cong, Fong, Kuang and I skipped dessert and ran back to our room to reclaim our seats. It was prime time and there were several kung fu movies on. We observed every move and scream and then mimicked them. Of course, Kuang was the best when it came to Kung Fu movements. He had no fear and had dislocated and injured his hands and legs many times, proving to Fong and me that he was the brave son that Dad had told his friends his eldest son was. He would climb tables, chairs, or clothing cabinets and jump off them, doing his imitation of a Bruce Lee kick. Sure enough, he would make Bruce Lee proud. He would also climb on to the thin beams of the ceiling in our home and walk across them. Mom and Dad believed that it was a miracle he had survived some of his injuries.


The next morning we woke up very early even though we had stayed up late. We ate breakfast inside the room so we could watch cartoons. Once again, we did not follow our grandparents and parents to explore the city. The shows were so great that we skipped lunch, and when it was commercial time, we all rushed into the bathroom at once. The boys peed in the shower and the girls used the toilet. There were simply too many of us and we had to save time. This time our parents came back with apples. We had not eaten apples since Dad had been in the hospital. For the first time we were distracted from the television. Our parents started talking about how Hong Kong had a very high rate of kidnappings, so they were glad that they had not taken us along. Kidnapping was a big issue while we were there; not only were there headlines in every newspaper, but it was all over the television. They even had television shows with story lines which involved kidnappings. That night, Mom wanted us to go to sleep early so that we would not be late in the morning. We whined that in America there would not be any Chinese shows, so this would probably be our last chance to see Chinese movies. Hearing that, Mom caved in. The next morning when we woke up, the television was still on. And Mom did not even yell at us‌ after all, we were heading to America. She was too happy to be bothered by the little things like not shutting the television off. We dressed in our suits, dresses, and shoes. We gathered our belongings and the twelve of us squeezed into the elevator. We sat on the sofa in the lobby and waited for the other families. When everyone arrived, the interpreter took us to the bus and the driver drove us to the airport. Once again, the interpreter did our paperwork as we waited. When he was done, we followed him and boarded the airplane. The seating arrangement was the same, but this time I did not stay awake to play cards or listen to music. I was the first to doze off. We landed in Washington D.C. in the afternoon, where we were to be officially admitted to the United States. We were in America, the land of liberty, justice and freedom! Everything seemed vague, unreal, as if it were a dream. Perhaps I was too young, but being eight years old, I would assume I was old enough to understand what America had come to represent to my parents. Maybe everything just happened so rapidly that my senses were not alert enough to truly grasp the feeling of that moment. Our family was the only one going to Boston, Massachusetts, and since our airplane was not leaving for Boston until the next day, we had to spend a night in a motel. After being escorted to the baggage claim area, we walked out of the airport to a waiting van. Squeezed between Fong and Kuang in the van, I was so exhausted that I fell asleep as soon as I settled in. I awoke when we came to a sudden stop. We had arrived at a town-house motel. Bird families were singing. Butterflies, dragonflies, and bees were dancing upon the loveliness of the captivating flowers in alluring, bright colors, and combined with the sweetest scent of the blossoming trees it gave me a boost of energy. It was as if we were in heaven,


tranquil and peaceful. It was dream-like, sweet dreams after all. Like the room in Hong Kong, there were two large comfortable beds, which the adults took, while the kids took the floor. Although the beautiful flowers and trees in the garden were enticing, it was safer to stay in the room and not have to face the foreigners’ stares. Ironically, The Incredible Hulk was the very first English movie we saw in the States, like it was in the refugee camp… he was a man with strength and power to protect the innocents from the evildoers, we needed not understand the language to appreciate him. We kids simply wanted to be that man even if it meant we would be turned into something green. And green was my favorite color anyway. Later that day, the interpreter brought us a lunch of fried chicken, corn on the cob, bread, and cookies from Kentucky Fried Chicken, our second experience of the American franchise restaurant. It was the same as our last meal in the refugee camp, which we hadn’t touched. Although we did not like the meal and wanted our rice, we forced ourselves to eat: it was all we had. How funny that this food became an immediate part of our American life — Anh and the twins, Kim and Ngan grew up to work in the restaurant later on in life. The next morning, Mom woke us up around six. “The airplane will not wait for us, and there’s only one bathroom!” Mom informed us. Hearing this, we could not possibly ask for that few more minutes of rest. We rushed for the bathroom. Some of us used the sink while the others washed in the shower. We put on the same clothes we had been wearing for days despite the odors they were emitting… they were the only western clothing we had. Our parents wanted us to look sharp even if that meant shoving your feet into those tight loafers, which I had removed immediately when I set foot in the airplane. The interpreter arrived, and an hour or so later we were at the airport. The interpreter bade us farewell and wished us luck and prosperity. He told Mom and Dad, “There will be other interpreters. They’ll meet your family at the airport, no need to worry.” It was time to board, and without any assistance we proceeded to our seats. I was anxious. My heart was beating fast… Boston, Massachusetts…


About the Author The third of seven children, at seven years old, Langelo and his extended family fled communist Vietnam. He arrived in Boston, Massachusetts in the summer of 1980 after surviving a year living in Malaysia’s refugee camps. Langelo achieved his American dream in 1996 — a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering from Northeastern University. He soon discovered that pursuing his artistic dreams brought a deeper meaning and happiness to his life. He began to paint, to write, to dance, after losing his brother in a motorcycle accident. He performs and dances in theaters, exhibits his oil paintings, and is seeking the right representation for his three books, Learning to Breathe: A Memoir, A Blind Step Forward: A Memoir, and a murder mystery Hell: A Place on Earth. He is working on two new books. On January 9, 2007, Langelo opened an art gallery café named Flamepoeira, inspired by his training in flamenco and the Brazilian martial art capoeira. Aside from exhibiting his own work at Flamepoeira, he offers a haven where people can build relationships and exhibit their work. "The sun will shine only if you allow it — dreams die because you let them. Happiness is a gift you have to be brave enough to give yourself.”

Learning to Breathe: A Memoir (Chapter 7)  

a book by Langelo

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