Taking Refuge

Leaving Vietnam: From ESL Student to Teacher

September 25, 2015

Thi Thi knows what it's like to learn a second language out of necessity. Perhaps that is what makes her such a great teacher - when she walks into the ESL classroom, Thi Thi can picture herself as a student because she once was one.

Thi Thi came to the United States with her parents and five siblings in 1987. She was thirteen years old. Born in Vietnam, Thi Thi grew up during the aftermath of the Fall of Saigon, the event that signaled the end of the Vietnam War in April 1975. According to Thi Thi, despite the war's end, Vietnam was rife with fear and anxiety.

My parents were very protective so my siblings and I never really had a lot of venturing out. I would even use the word 'sheltered' - not in a negative way - just because...[there were] a lot of new developments, a lot of changes everyday...We weren't always able to understand [their protection], but now reflecting on my parents raising six kids at that time, I finally understand their anxiety and fear.

Emphasizing her parents' protectiveness, Thi Thi explained that she and her siblings were home-schooled. Thi Thi learned only the bare minimum - some language arts, Chinese, and mathematics - but she is grateful as this was a better education than many other children growing up in Vietnam at that time received.

By the time Thi Thi and her family were looking to leave Vietnam, several of Thi Thi's relatives had already fled the country and reached America. Termed the "boat people," they were part of a group of refugees who made the dangerous journey by boat to neighboring countries. Ultimately, many of these refugees ended up in the United States, like Thi Thi's relatives.

The surge of people fleeing Vietnam, combined with the dangerous - and often lethal - conditions of the journey, triggered a crisis. But for Thi Thi and her family, the crisis had a silver lining: it contributed to the launch of the Orderly Departure Program (ODP). To create a safer, legal mode of exodus from Vietnam, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees launched ODP in 1979. The program encouraged families already resettled in the United States to sponsor their relatives still trying to flee Vietnam.

It was under the auspices of ODP that Thi Thi and her family arrived in California in 1987. Though she trusted her parents, Thi Thi describes the move as "traumatic" for her:

[First] we stayed in the Philippines for five months at the Refugee Processing Center. That was pretty rough for everyone...The Refugee Processing Center could hold something like 18,000 refugees. And it's not just for Vietnamese; it's for other countries as well...It's emotional to recall some of the things because the housing and the climate and a lot of it were not what we expected.

The one fun thing Thi Thi recalls about the Philippines was school. She remembers attending a joint middle-high school with her older sisters where she got to make pizza for the first time. Thi Thi was so excited when she came to the United States and visited her cousin’s pizza shop: "When I saw it, I was like 'I actually had that in the Philippines!' And nobody believed me," Thi Thi said laughing.

Attending school in the United States, however, proved more daunting. It was Thi Thi's first experience with public school and she knew little more than the alphabet.

My public school experience was pretty traumatic because I didn't have a lot of English...I remember learning the alphabet and a few phrases in English. I was put in a bilingual program in middle school and then after one semester I got promoted to high school - without me [even] knowing!

Thi Thi was laughing again. She has a great sense of humor, but still appreciates both the difficulty she endured and how fortunate she is to have had a strong support system throughout her life.

I was lucky - my family is very close - so we supported each other and did what we could to make the best out of our situation [in the Philippines and America.] We are grateful to have gone through something like that [emigration] and yet we're not too traumatized. It's not like we can't move on from it.

Thi Thi says it took her "at least a decade" to adjust to life in the United States. Living in San Francisco where she was surrounded by numerous other immigrants, it was difficult to immerse herself in American culture. It was not until college that she felt more integrated into society.

Today Thi Thi is a community college instructor. When I asked her about her work, her tone completely changed - her voice lit up and I could hear the passion emanate, even through my iffy phone connection.

Thi Thi teaches ESL and linguistics and is also involved with an organization called Best in Class Education Center. Started by two refugees, Best in Class provides education and enrichment programs to help students from a variety of backgrounds, many of whom are immigrants. Thi Thi and her sisters currently partner to run one of the Best in Class centers. Thi Thi finds it inspiring that while there's an exciting entrepreneurial aspect to running the center, she still gets to pursue her true passion - education.

Though challenging at times, especially because of the lack of funding and value allocated to education, Thi Thi says she could not imagine doing anything else.

There are many issues [with education], but when I'm in the classroom, it's always wonderful. I'm inspired by my students; I learn from them. And I think that's the beauty and positive side of education.

Meet Thi Thi - a Vietnamese refugee, now a successful ESL teacher, living in California.

Scrambled Egg Rice. "It's a dish my maternal grandmother used to make in Vietnam. We'd like to commemorate and honor her for her love and teaching." - Thi Thi

Scrambled Egg Rice
  • 2 cups jasmine rice
  • 2-3 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon fried garlic
  • Specks of pepper
  • 1 teaspoon sesame oil
  • 1 teaspoon soy sauce

  1. In a rice cooker, mix the two cups of jasmine rice with three cups of water. Allow the rice to simmer and cook evenly.
  2. In a separate bowl, crack 2-3 eggs. Add the salt, fried garlic, specks of pepper, sesame oil, and soy sauce. Whisk the eggs and seasonings together.
  3. When the rice is almost done (rice is tender and no water is simmering), pour in the egg/seasoning mixture. DO NOT use a spoon. Use chopsticks to stir gently so the egg mix can get to the bottom. Cover the rice cooker and allow additional time.
  4. Serve hot with a sprinkle of cilantro.