Their Struggle, My Future

Su Family Photo

Credit: Kimberly Su

I am the child of refugees.

And being the child of refugees carries more weight than anyone could ever realize. My parents both struggled in their lives to come to America, to escape the hellish environment of their beloved home country. They fled to to a country that had promised help their homeland, only to watch from the sidelines as their new home withdrew from the war and left a mess behind. My parents were refugees of the Vietnam War.

Children of refugees are constantly told about the struggles that their parents went through to give them the life they have. I can’t describe how many times my parents scolded me for wasting precious moments of my privileged life, as if I didn’t understand what their hardships were worth. It’s sad to say, but as a kid, I really didn’t. I remember one day, sitting and staring out the window, watching the bright, California sun. I wanted to be out there, playing in the grass of the front lawn instead of being inside doing multiplication tables.

I whined my head off to my parents. My mom scolded me fiercely for taking my life for granted. She would go on about how I was lucky to have this free time to focus on my studies. I never understood why she felt so strongly about those multiplication tables. I can still hear her scolding me–in a voice full of anger, frustration, and a hint of wisdom–tell me time and time again about her own childhood. How she barely had time to study because she had to arrive home from school and immediately clean the house, cook meals, help her four younger siblings, and every other chore my somewhat absent grandparents doled out to her.

Getting older and going to college teaches you to appreciate so many things. As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to understand so much more of my family’s history. I’m a first generation American, and although my dad went to college in the U.S., he had to supplement school with numerous jobs: working at a library, in a mailroom, as a janitor, as a tutor, and other meagerly-paid jobs. He told me stories of endless lunches of cheap white bread sandwiches with cheap off-brand mayo. Stories of wearing shirts until they practically fell off his body before buying new ones from Ross clearance racks. Stories of living with eight other people in an apartment made for two, so as to avoid paying on-campus housing. My dad got a good education in computer engineering around the time the field started picking up in popularity so he could help his parents and sisters. He worked hard every day of his life and saved every piece of spare change in a water jug since the day he left his home in Vietnam. He wanted to create a future that would be better than the life he was living.

My mom was no different. She couldn’t get a college education due to finances, so she worked a cubicle job at a company that made computer chips. A dead end job of long hours and taking plenty of overtime so she could save for the future of my brother and I. Growing up I rarely saw my mom, as she left home early in the morning and didn’t return until well after eight or nine at night, often working during the weekends. I vividly remember hearing her car start up at five, staring out the window to watch her leave for work. I remember thinking, “Why is Mommy leaving without saying goodbye again?” Well now I know the answer. It’s because she wanted to make sure I could get a good education, so I’d never have to face the same difficulty when I had my own child.

Ever since my junior year of high school, around the time I started to look for colleges, an anxious terror has taken over a part of my mind. A fear that grows every day and makes me reevaluate every little detail of my life. I sit in class, in my room, and everywhere in between, feeling the fear sink its claws deeper into my mind.

It asks, “Are you doing enough for them? Is this the best you can be?”

After all my parents went through, I am currently attending college for free. My parents are paying for the entirety of my education. That knowledge is terrifying. I am constantly afraid that I will not honor my parents’ hardships and struggles. That if I choose wrong then I might render their sacrifice worthless.

I don’t know if what I’m doing in college is truly honoring what my parents had to struggle through to get me this life. I’d like to think that as long as I make the best of the life I have, I am doing them justice. If I take pride and make sure I have no regrets at the end of the day, I am on the right path. Maybe that’s good enough and maybe it isn’t. I can never really know, but I can always keep trying.

I’m lucky enough to get that option.

By: Kimberly Su

Journey to Montana

Image Credit: Darcy Christofferson

Image Credit: Darcy Christoffersen

My journey to Montana started with an airplane. More accurately, with two airplanes. It was just my dad and I on yet another one of our wonderful college visits. Almost every high school senior knows what that’s like. The packing, planning, and stress that accompanies the visits that take you one step closer to the inevitable choosing.

This trip was to Carroll College in Montana. A small liberal arts school, it was one of many that I applied to, that I thought suited me perfectly. But all I really knew was that I wanted a small school in another state, to see what it was like to live outside of California.

I am still not much of a flier. Starting as I watched the enormous green agricultural fields and the towering skyline of buildings of Sacramento grow smaller as the plane climbed into the clouds, the knots in my stomach persisted through Salt Lake City, Utah and Butte, Montana. I held onto my dad’s hand for dear life, as if that would somehow protect me. My hands clenched onto his, tightening with each bump and bounce that the plane hit.

With the final descent, I squeezed still tighter and braced for the impact that I felt was inevitable. We did not die. In fact, we landed completely safe at the tiny airport in Butte. As we stepped off the plane, we were greeted by a brisk wind and the darkening of the Montana sky, an imminent sign that the cold was welcoming us with more cold.

Butte was the complete opposite of home. Sacramento was hot and dry and didn’t get much colder than 40. I lived in the same house in the same city from the age of two. All my family and friends were in Sacramento. It was a large city in a large state with millions of people, and while I knew where everything important to me was, there were always new things to discover. I loved it and I didn’t know anything else.

The Butte airport itself was no larger than a Target and resembled a warehouse that would one day be converted into a Costco. It was February, snow was everywhere, and it was freezing cold. All things I had never really experienced in Sacramento. My dad planned the timing of our trip specifically so I could get an idea of what it would be like to live there.

We left the airport to walk to the rental car and we were immediately surrounded by a blanket of fluffy white snow. It was as if someone placed an enormous down blanket over the town of Butte. But more than that, there was a peaceful feeling in the air. There were no cars out, no traffic noise, no people talking around me. Everything was silent. It was as if my dad and I were the only two people in the whole town. It was eerie being so far away from the hustle and bustle that you experience everywhere in California. Montana was so far removed from everything that I knew. No family. No familiar weather. No loud noise. How was I supposed to find a new home when I recognized nothing?

The car ride from Butte to Helena enabled me to take in the beauty of Montana. As I looked out my window, everything was flat. The land looked as if it went on for miles, buried under a thick layer of freshly fallen snow. Gazing out at the scenery was indescribable. There was a tranquil atmosphere surrounding the landscape that lulled you into a sedate state of being. The feelings of contentment, peace and serenity overwhelmed you. Your thoughts drifted out of you, like a sailor to sea. It was unnerving, but also exciting.

This was not the world that I knew. Montana was quiet and scenic. California was overpopulated, loud and industrial. But it was my home. How could I move so far away from it? I was proud to be from California and I loved being a part of such a diverse and interesting state. Montana was beautiful, but so silent. How could I live in the silence?

As I sat staring out of the car window, watching the snow begin to fall, I turned my head to look at my dad. In that moment, I was so confused and unsure about my future, but I felt at peace. I didn’t know where I was going to be next year or in the next ten years, but I knew that wherever I was I would find my way. My dad always said that “life has a way of working itself out,” and I believe him. This is what I tell myself as I watch the falling snow cover my window and obscure my view of the scenic plains that stretch out into forever.

By: Darcy Christoffersen

Visiting Lisbon as a Dumb Teenager

Image Credit: [Renard frak, Top View of the Tower]

Image Credit: [Renard frak, Top View of the Tower]

When I first arrived in Lisbon I noticed three smells. One was cigarette smoke, from the streets of a city that smokes like America did in the 50s. The second was espresso, from the carts that sit and steam on every street corner. The third I couldn’t place, something slightly sour and bitter, like if the smell of broken rock was somehow soft and mushy as a jack-o-lantern in December.

My father was there for a Rotary International conference, having just been dubbed president by a secretive council of elders that met on Thursdays at lunch in the back of the Corvallis Country Club. I had little interest in that, and a Che Guevara t-shirt that I was very proud of, so I got a week with which to scamper around a city that I didn’t know had been freed from the hands of a right-wing authoritarian dictatorship during the Nixon administration. There was a lot I didn’t know.

I was sitting in a large public square that had probably been used for some revolution or other, trying to choke down a bica (espresso, one of the first words I learned) when I saw an honest-to-god protest break out. An ordered group in green tee-shirts unrolled a long painted canvas reading JUSTIÇA PARA BRASIL! Beneath it, for my benefit I assume, Justice for Brazil! My father had just learned the secrets of the camera hidden in his iPhone, and was taking pictures as the protestors, each with a Brazilian flag painted on their face and printed on their shirt, chanted in Portuguese.

When my father left for the convention center, I was free to talk to them without risking him scooping me into a forced and embarrassing picture with some uncomfortable revolutionary.  I learned via French, the only shared language between me and a young political science student, that the Brazilian government’s decision to host both the FIFA world cup and a Summer Olympics had led to a horrific exploitation of laborers made possible by the high unemployment rate. My new friend’s father was a day construction laborer who was being charged a third of his daily wages to simply take the bus to work. The funding that had previously gone to the public transit system, she yelled over the press of the crowd, was going to the increasingly racist military crackdowns on crime-ridden neighborhoods. The discourse that pervaded the higher echelons of the government was akin to “taking out the trash”, with the idea that the inhabitants of the favelas were an embarrassment who needed to be safely swept under the rug or imprisoned before the international community arrived in force. I was fascinated, partially by the insight into the dark side of FIFA and partially because she reminded me of Hermione Granger.

The idea that soccer could be anything but an international bonding experience was shocking. I’d always seen it as a sport perfectly in line with my teenage globalist ideology, as dictated by Coca-Cola ads of African, Latin American and European children running around having a good time, oblivious to words like “corporate colonialism” or “sweatshop labor”. The evidence to the contrary was in front of me, telling me about the eight builders who’d died from unsafe conditions and the thousands who were kept in the most abject forms of wage (and in some cases literal) slavery.

When we left, we connected through Los Angeles, and took a train into town during our layover. In one of the stations I noticed a familiar smell, the one I hadn’t been able to name in Lisbon. Rare in the streets of my college town, but common enough here. Sacks of garbage overflowed from the dumpsters, souring in the heat. I still miss the smell of coffee, cigarettes and garbage sometimes, when I forget the blessing of clean cool Oregon air.

By: Wynton Davis