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Thy Pham overcomes fears, longs for home in Vietnam

Thy Pham-Nguyen is an international student at Fresno Christian Schools, one of many participants in the AmeriStudent program. AmeriStudent LLC. works with incoming international students to secure a safe homestay and offer support through cultural and educational integration.

Thy Pham-Nguyen | The Feather Online

Wearing their traditional Vietnamese dresses, senior Thy Pham (left) and her cousin, Han Vu, pose outside their Catholic church on Vietnamese New Year’s Eve, Feb. 16, 2019.

“Alone and abroad.” While this term may scare many international students, I still thrive. I thought of life abroad as filled with colors and opportunities, but nobody told me about the difficulty of fitting into American life.

When I’m alone in my host family’s house, I miss home. Memories, jokes and the closeness that I felt when I was with my people keep spinning around in my head. 

Before I left for the United States, I felt restless, trapped and anxious to leave Vietnam. I would watch American T.V. shows like “Love Story in Harvard” and want to explore and see the world for myself. While I loved Vietnam, I knew there was more out there to learn and experience.

When I first arrived as an international student in the USA in 2016, I felt ambitious and optimistic. After three years abroad, many of those colors and opportunities I expected have been realized. My transition into the U.S.A. was difficult despite my determination to fit in. It feels like I still have not arrived and miss my family greatly.

It makes me sad to think about missing out on others’ lives just because we don’t live by one another.

In the old days growing up in Vietnam, every morning when I woke up and came home after a tiring day, the dinner table in my mom’s kitchen was full of delicious dinners. My mom made sure that every belly in my family was full and everyone had all the strength and energy to continue work.

When in my host family’s home, I start to remember everything: the food my mother cooked at home, the laughter from the casual conversation with my loved ones or just simply lounging on the comfortable couch and watching my favorite TV channels.

Every morning in my hometown Ho Chi Minh City, after my mom dropped me off from her motorbike in front of the school gate, I folded my arms and bowed my head to say goodbye to her. Then our time ended with a kiss. 

Besides that, I really crave the feeling of sitting behind my parents on their motorbikes, resting my head on my their backs and holding their waists tight whenever they drive me somewhere. It gives me a solid and protective, but very gentle and warm feeling that nothing in the world can be compared to.

Courtesy Pham-Nguyen family

Thy Pham, ’20, celebrating her 2-year-old birthday with her dad, Tho Pham in Vietnam.

I know very well this is dangerous, but sometimes I squeezed my parents’ soft tummy to tease them and it usually ended up with me getting scolded for being cruel.

Today, a sudden rush of emotions comes whenever I hear someone mentioning “mother”, “dad”, “family” or “home”. I have never felt that I have so much affection and respect for my family like now.

With all the types of fun memories of my family, calls, texts and even FaceTime is not enough for me while in Fresno. Day by day I slowly have to accept that everyone’s life back home is continuing all fine, even without me. 

I realize I’m alone most when I have to start an independent life. There’s a whole new system to get used to and only I am there, trying to handle everything whether I want to or not. Although I have many new friends, I’m still alone much of the time.

On the bus, shopping, studying, eating dinner, eating lunch in the cafeteria, sitting in class and also when traveling, I realize I’m alone, physically and mentally.

Sometimes when I’m anxious and broken, without the people who understand me and can actually motivate and comfort me, I only get one choice: to calm my nerves by taking a deep breath, in and out, put on a smiley face and . . . move on.

Sometimes, being in my host family’s kitchen after a hard-working day and cooking for myself is the best way to relax and release stress, worries and anxieties.

I realize I’m alone when I think differently than before. It seems I have two different personalities. On a daily basis I speak two languages, eat food from opposite cultures and adapt to different weather and roads.

The roads I walk on are so strange from my home country. Instead of wearing fitted uniforms at school, today I wear sweatpants, sweatshirts, loose T-shirts, jeans and leggings almost all the time. I don’t usually do that in Vietnam.

I look for people like me and understand me instead of filling the space with superficial things. I have endless questions about life between cultures, what my life is going to be like in the future? What am I going to do? Is it suitable and going to work for me?

Courtesy Pham-Nguyen family

Back in Ho Chi Minh City, Thy Pham, left, and her father, Tho Pham, often spent afternoons at Dam Sen Water Park.

There are days I go outside to find my old life in a different way, sometimes talking to myself. “Oh, we have that kind of the same building in Vietnam, too.” I took out my phone, wondering if I should take a picture of it. Then, after I arrived home, I cried while looking at that picture.

The alone time when studying abroad is not totally a normal thing with so many friends and people around; I’m not alone but inside, I feel alone. 

Through film, America is beautiful, flashy, modern. San Francisco with the world famous Golden Gate Bridge is majestic. Washington, DC’s buildings are steeped in authority. Los Angeles’ movie stars are glitzy. Yes, those images are true, but they’re only a small part of America. 

The rest of the United States, unfortunately, is not so flashy, gorgeous or romantic. Many American universities are located in quite remote areas and many of their surroundings are simple and plain .

I studied in Michigan the first year I came to the U.S., indeed, it was really quiet and lonely. The snow, cold and winter’s darkness surrounded me. Later, when I had the opportunity to travel to Fresno, I was a little less lonely.

I guess with everyone in Vietnam, everyone must have a desire to see, touch and play with snow. In my romantic moments, I guess I wish I could throw snow like Bae Yong Jun of “Winter Sonata”, or like Belle of “Beauty and the Beast” or go to school when the snow flies like in the “Love Story in Harvard”.

When I first arrived in America in 2016, I saw snow and extremely excited and ran right outside to let the snow fall into my hands. Later on, the dream of snow vanished and quickly became a hatred. New snow falling: white, cotton, clean; but after that, it melted and mixed into the dirt in the road, then becoming terribly dirty. 

Staying in Detroit, Michigan, while covering myself with the blanket, reading and listening to music, I often watched the snow fall outside the window. I learned snow is also quite dangerous. The roads become slippery and even the surface froze so accidents happened while driving or walking. 

When I decided to study abroad, I brought a box of medicine from Vietnam as many are not easy to buy in the U.S. Many medicines must have a doctor’s prescription to buy them and they are not cheap.

Courtesy Pham-Nguyen family

Senior Thy Pham, works on her articles in order to improve her writing skill in publications class.

Headache and fatigue caused by money problems directly effect the psychology of some international students. The 25,000 Vietnam dong is equal to $1 U.S. My family is not that well-off. Sometimes I do not want to ask my parents for money because I love them so much and I am afraid they will have to work harder.

Moreover, studying well and maintaining a good academic achievement is an integral part of the studying abroad experience. I always have to try harder and harder to make my parents proud and be worth the money that they spent on me.

Back in Vietnam, over two years ago, I was watching American action movie characters shooting each other. Yet, when I came to America, I saw the guns and was frightened because they used real guns and bullets. It was all over the news on CNN or NBC

The first day in the United States I was having trouble sleeping, so I turned on the television and became shocked when watching a reality show depicting how the U.S. police force chases car thieves or armed robbers; the gun scene was horrible. I really felt the first culture shock when I came to America. 

The reality is that when I study abroad, I experience a lot of cultural shock. Then there are many surprising stories, such as robbery and mugging. And in America, people put their own parents in a nursing home or the elderly live alone and away from their children.

I have read stories of poor people in the United States still begging at the crossroads, pavements and/or must live on government welfare stamps.

Before I left for the United States, I felt restless to leave my country. While I loved Vietnam, I knew there was more out there to learn and experience. 

Courtesy Pham-Nguyen family

Thy Pham, when she was 5 years old, with her mom, Mai Nguyen after an outdoor music concert in Saigon.

During the first days in a new country, I did not dare to do anything without thinking ahead; I was concerned and aware that I would offend someone. I have never felt so nervous and worried about everything around me. 

However, that fear soon passed. I tried to stay alert and try to observe what should and should not be done. The “free” culture in America is scary but freedom often results in behavior that is offensive or takes advantage of others. I have become acutely aware of my surroundings and continue to adjust myself to it.

The studying and living in this country has cultivated, trained and given me more confidence in my own abilities. I now dare to stand in front of the crowd to present my ideas and views. 

Thanks to that confidence, I have done many things that I could not reach, even in my previous dreams.

As we all know, each nation has a separate picture. I learned a very good lesson to not judge others because those differences make for interesting relationships, discussions about cultures, history and personal choices.

Through many difficulties, challenges and losses, my dream of studying in America has never let me down because I felt trapped and confined when I was back in my home country.

It also helps me stop being a “frog sitting at the bottom of a well” (a Vietnamese folk quote). While at home, I felt like I was just looking up at the sky through the well from the bottom and never get to know the world.

Today, I’m very grateful to America for allowing me to meet the amazing teachers and friends I got to know. Now, the most important thing for me is to “just dream, to continue to dream”. My tomorrow begins today.

For another column, read COLUMN: International student strives to improve English skills, communication. For more articles, read BREAKING: Fall concert introduces chamber choir, new music, Oct. 21 or Megan Conner takes on campus drama program with creative ambition. 

Thy Pham can be reached via email.

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