In 2012, Carol Muller and Kathy Richardson set out to memorialize the spirit of inspiration that their close friend Anita Borg brought to their lives. The original project, a community blog known as Anita’s Quilt, showcased the array of people whose lives Anita influenced and energized. This year, we celebrate the 30th anniversary of Systers—the online community that Anita Borg founded to support women in tech—by republishing some of our favorite Anita’s Quilt stories.
A version of this post was published on Anita’s Quilt on April 24, 2014.
by Phong Taylor
Life experiences are most memorable because they define who you are and give you the courage to face your future. You may not know it now, but looking back you’ll see how some of those defining moments really built the foundation that shapes who you become.
In 1975, as Bà (Grandmother), my brother Nguyen, and I left our house to go to Bác (Aunt) Tai’s for the night, we never imagined that we would wind up in United States of America.
We planned to stay at Bác Tai’s until the fighting calmed down a bit in our neighborhood. Little did we know we would never see our home again. I remember we left our dinner on the table—rushing to pack all-important school papers, birth certificates, and valuable documents along with a week’s worth of clothes—and ran to get to a taxi to Bác Tai’s house.
The streets were complete chaos as people streamed out onto the streets, looking for ways to leave. We were among them, with no specific ideas on how to get out, other than to go and stay at Bác Tai’s until this was over.
As we arrived at Bác Tai’s house behind the pharmacy that she ran, we realized that her family had arranged to get out of Vietnam and were already on their way to the U.S., along with Cô (Aunt) Can and her family. Cô Bich and her family were also looking to get out of Vietnam.
After one night at Bác Tai’s, Bà told us all to go down to the harbor where the naval ships were stationed to see if we could talk our way onto one of the boats. But because our Uncle Trung was in the Army, not the Navy, the captains weren’t going to let us board any of the naval ships. As we were standing there, wondering what to do, Bà overheard some people saying that there were fishing boats further down the shipyard that were about to leave Saigon. If we hurried, we could catch them!
The next thing I remember is running toward the boats. My uncle was tossing all of us kids and Bà and his wife onto the boat. As the boats were filling up with people, we were packed into a fishing boat, tight as sardines. The owner rushed to pull up the anchor so that people wouldn’t overload the boat. We later learned there were almost 1,000 aboard!
We left Saigon on April 30, 1975, as Saigon fell into the hands of Vietcong. It was almost 18 years before I came back to see my childhood home and neighborhood again.
The journey was long and difficult, made even more so because we never intended to set out for such a long trip! The crew’s original plan was to head to some nearby island and wait until everything calmed down. The captain found out later that this wasn’t an option, and we needed to leave Vietnam for good. We headed out to international waters to try and see if we could be rescued by American boats. We had no idea what that meant!
It took us more than 6 weeks to get to Guam, the port of entry for all Vietnamese refugees. Along the way, we had to conserve food, so the captain collected all the food from each family then divided it equally to ensure everyone would survive. We had 2 meals per day, with each person receiving a fistful of cooked rice and a little meat. Later, when we ran out of meat, our rations were simply rice and salt. After 4 weeks, we were rescued by another boat, which brought us supplies and food, and towed us to Guam.
Once we landed in Guam, we were processed and given permanent visa status to live and work in the U.S. To begin our new life, we were sent to Fort Chaffee in western Arkansas to wait for our sponsorship. We began learning English and the basics of daily American life as we began our assimilation into our new culture.
We were very fortunate to be sponsored by a family in Melbourne, Florida. They already had 3 teenage children and generously decided to take on 2 more teenagers and our grandmother. They took us in as part of their family and begin to help us assimilate and transform. I became head of our household, at the age of 14. I represented our family to the Turners, our new sponsors.
I enrolled in 9th grade in high school (I had finished 8th grade in Vietnam before we left); my brother was enrolled in 8th grade. Bà was taking various seamstress and housecleaning jobs to make money. We lived with the Turners for 2 years until both Bà and I could get full-time work and move to our own apartment.
High school was very difficult as I didn’t speak a word of English before coming to Arkansas. When I entered 9th grade, I had to spend a lot of time consulting the dictionary just to get by. Both my brother and I graduated high school, then college. (I earned a bachelor’s degree in finance and computer science.) We got jobs and eventually became responsible adults with families of our own.
As I look back on this journey, there are several things I’ve learned:
- Human beings are incredibly resilient. We are the most adaptive and creative creatures on this planet. We can accomplish anything, no matter how difficult, as long as we focus on our goals.
- Embrace new challenges as life hands them to you. You don’t know how good you really are until you take on those challenges.
- Don’t quit because something seems difficult. If you quit, you have wasted all the time and energy that you’ve already put into the task like running a race and never crossing the finish line.
Life experiences do make you stronger, but more importantly, they make who you are. As I look back on my journey, maybe there was some luck that my bother and I didn’t end up on the wrong path. But the lessons I learned about working hard, overcoming obstacles (no matter how big), taking on responsibilities at early age, and being determined to achieve a better position — all of these have made me who I am today.
Do you have a story of persistence that honors Anita’s legacy? Share it with us for a chance to be featured here.