As they strolled along the brownstone-lined streets of Brooklyn’s Williamsburg, Katherine Anderson couldn’t stop admiring how the soft reds of the autumnal trees shedding their leaves twinned with the traditional brown-bricked houses. Brooklyn was new for Tran Ngoc Dung, her Vietnamese-American friend. But for her, it was home.
“I think I am fortunate that I grew up in the east coast. I could enjoy the seasons one after the other, every year and strangely enough, could never ever have enough of them. The magnolias, daffodils, flowering dogwood and cherry blossoms in early spring followed by lilac, tulips, peonies, azaleas and rhododendrons…and then the roses, in the peak of summer. Those millions of weekends that I have spent frolicking in the Central Park! And then my favorite, nature’s last and greatest show of the year, fall and the colorful foliage. Oh, how I have missed all of these! And winter…Jeez…I so hated ploughing that terrible snow-covered driveway of ours, all through January and February. And now, after two years in California, even that seems endearing. When did I turn so home sick?”
Katherine looked around and closed her eyes, trying to absorb the beauty, as if it was all so new for her. Her smile declared how content she was.
“I can imagine, Katherine. Having grown up in New Orleans’s sub-tropical climate, I have only known the hot summer and hurricanes in the name of seasons. These colors too are a first for me, in my long list of firsts which I have been experiencing ever since I got here and I am stunned, to say the least. Why don’t we walk around in the city today? And meanwhile, you could help me in planning the next three days of sight-seeing before the grueling session starts in the university. I can’t wait to witness the magic of ‘The Big Apple’”, Tran chuckled, with his excitement evident in his voice.
Katherine and Tran were members of a team from their university for the ‘Stanford in New York’ program which aimed at experiential learning through an intensive academic quarter in ‘The Great American Melting Pot’.
“Oh, sure. Even I am looking forward to seeing the gingko trees in the park which must have turned bright yellow by now. And you would also get to see the shops, bars and restaurants with some of the best Halloween themes and decorations on the way!” Katherine replied with an enthusiastic smile.
So, they hopped on the subway, from Brooklyn to Manhattan.
Getting out of the subway station as they started walking down the streets, the voices of the never-ending attractions called out and enveloped Tran in awe. The sidewalks were congested with pedestrians, mostly tourists from all over the world, speaking all different languages. The streets were filled with an atmosphere which appeared like that of a young child on a shopping spree in a candy store. Yellow cabs went to and fro in numerous directions.
The buildings pierced the sky and Tran looked up and bent backwards until his neck hurt, trying to figure out how far they reached. Gazing at the skyscrapers, he remembered the pictures of the city which he had pasted on the walls of his room, as a child and his great American dream. He was now living it.
Gradually, the smell of food from the exotic restaurants started surfing through the air. But the aroma of the hotdogs and halal food from the food trucks was no less intoxicating. And to add to those was the scent of the spiced pumpkin pie.
They stopped at Heartland Brewery, one of the finest microbreweries of the city. Tran had the flavor of the season, the pumpkin beer, while Katherine sipped some hot apple cider.
Crossing the Rockefeller Center, Times Square, Radio City Music Hall, Madame Tussauds, Empire State Building, and the St. Patrick’s Cathedral, they walked past the super luxurious retail stores on the Fifth Avenue. Gucci, Prada, Tiffany and others. Outside the stores, on both sides of the Streets, in the adjacent Avenues, the vendors sold imitated stuff of the same super luxurious brands, at about one-tenth of the original prices. He also noticed the homeless men sitting with placards, begging.
“The city isn’t only for the riches, after all”. Tran thought.
And soon, they arrived at the gates of an urban oasis. The lungs of Manhattan- the Central Park. Ambling about, from one delightful section to the next, they stopped by the Loeb Boathouse for lunch.
After ordering steak frites and braised short rib, they sat back relaxed, watching the couples boating, down in the lake.
Sitting in one of the most romantic settings of the city, Katherine thought this was a great opportunity to strike a casual conversation with Tran. While she had surrendered her heart to him about two years ago when they first met in college, he seemed completely oblivious about it. She had fallen for his intellect and talent, but more than that, his chivalry, honesty and humility.
“Hey Tran, despite spending so much of time together over studies and workshops, we hardly know each other. Why not tell me about your family and your life back home?”, she asked.
“Children of the dust”, said Tran, thoughtfully, after pausing for a few seconds, in a voice little more than a murmur.
“What? What does that mean?”, asked Katherine, curiously.
“Well, that’s what they called us. ‘Children of the dust’, ‘half-breed dog’ and many more”, sighed Tran and looked down at the lake.
Katherine was turning impatient now. “Can you please elaborate on what you are talking about? I am feeling completely clueless here!”, she asked, sounding just about irritated.
“In April of 1975, Saigon was falling to the Communist troops from the north and rumors went around that southern Vietnamese who associated with the US would be massacred. That’s when Operation Babylift started. The President announced plans to evacuate 2,000 orphans, to the US and other countries. Most of them were Amerasians, the American-Asians who were the leftovers of a shunned war. With one leg on each side of the two worlds, they belonged to neither. Most never knew their fathers and were abandoned by their mothers at the gates of orphanages. Schoolmates taunted and pummeled them, mocking their features that made them look like the enemy.
The first official flight carrying the children, crashed in the rice fields outside Saigon, killing hundreds of people, most of them children. South Vietnamese soldiers and civilians gathered at the site, some to help and most to loot the dead. I remember that flight. I was about 7. I was playing in the garbage ground, outside my orphanage nearby. I remember holding the nun’s hand and crying out loud looking at the devastation in front of us. We were born under a dark star.
Despite the crash, the evacuation program continued. I was sent to the USA as a ‘refugee’ when I was 10,” Tran paused. He was choking up.
He further said that he had never tried to locate his parents because he had no idea where to start.
Katherine kept staring at him, without batting an eyelid. She was dumbfounded. She now knew the reason behind his round blue eyes and light skin which had always intrigued her. He was the abandoned son of an American soldier.
She held his hands firmly, trying to comfort him. Her admiration for him had grown manifold.
“From falling Saigon to Stanford! Yours is an incredible journey Mr. Dung. Would you mind obliging me by joining me and my family for the Thanksgiving dinner this year?”, Katherine pleaded sweetly.
The dinner was an exhaustive spread, comprising of turkey, stuffing, gravy, sweet potatoes, cornbread, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce.
For the “wishbone tradition”, Katherine and her brother Jeremy pulled the bone. Katherine managed to get the larger part.
The wishbone is found attached to the breast meat in the turkey’s chest. After, the meat has been removed and the wishbone has had a chance to become dry and brittle, two people each take one end of the bone, make a wish, and pull. Whoever ends up with the larger part of the bone, gets their wish granted.
The Andersons’ hospitality for Tran was sweeter than the apple pie, the dessert for the night. Tran was overwhelmed with their love and warmth. Never in his life had he known the privilege of a family dinner.
Amidst all the fun and laughter, Katherine noticed the tears of joy that had welled up in the corners of his eyes.
Tran and Katherine kept coming back to New York City for Thanksgiving, every year. Katherine’s wish did come true. They got married and were working for two tech-giants in the Silicon Valley. Junior Tran, who they had lovingly named ‘Binh’, meaning peace in Vietnamese, was the next generation Amerasian. But he was a lucky lad. Unlike his father, not only did he have the love of his parents, but also of his grandparents.
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