Tung was a small, grey-haired man sitting in the corner of his living room. Between us a squall of children, grandchildren and extended members of his large family cooked, bantered and played.
His round face was impassive but serene. A benevolent moon in a cloud-cluttered sky. To my foreign mind it was a distant and unreadable exterior.
In meeting his family for the first time, I had brought my own baggage from the UK. Anxiety for the international, inter-generational grilling to come was written across my brow in obvious strokes. I was engaged to his granddaughter and new to America, without even the most simple or illegal means of employment.
My preparation involved anecdotes and jokes designed to deflect attention from my multi-layered unsuitability. The ability to provide comes in a close second to family loyalty in Vietnamese priorities.
My fiancee and I were ushered through a riotous kitchen of chopping boards, bubbling pots and bellowing women. Tung stood up with his wife to embrace my intended as she dodged her younger cousins to reach him.
He turned to me and I put out my hand as if approaching royalty, ready to accept a porcelain shake. His grip was solid and his face broke into a generous smile as he welcomed me into his home.
Wincing beneath the weight of a rictus grin, I prepared to sit down and spell out exactly how a foreign free-loader could improve the financial security of his eldest grandchild.
Instead he nodded a few times murmuring “good boy, good boy”, and I was steered on to another introduction. I wanted to explain. I wanted to justify myself. I wanted the opportunity to calm the doubts in everyone's head.
Tung knew more than I ever would about being an outsider, forced to survive on charity. He was the last person who would ask me to explain myself.
Meanwhile the rest of the family were more interested in feeding me. My stomach faced the only interrogation of the day.
“You like Vietnamese pho?”
“You like spring roll?”
“How you like it?”
“Have some more!”
The Vietnamese do not say “I love you”, they put more food in your bowl.
It would take many more visits before I was able to approach the conflicts and contradictions that Tung had been forced to assimilate on his walk through persecution, fire, famine and war.
His final challenge, and by no means his least, was to make a life for the family in America. The service of the local Catholic Church, and of Father Sheedy, in making this transition cannot be overstated.
The priest arrived at Eglin Airforce Base after a six hour drive, with a name on a letter written a month earlier. It was a Saturday jaunt that owed more to eager hope than expectation.
Other families would have to wait weeks, months, and - in other parts of the world - years for sponsorship. Nga and Phoung left that afternoon, with the rest of the family soon to follow.
“We fixed up a house, made a low deal,” Sheedy recalled. “It was a wreak before we got it. We called in favors and fixed it up.”
“It was not very long before they were independent. With amazing speed in fact. We were lucky to get jobs for them. Many of them didn't speak English. Some worked in the [phosphate] mines. Some of them got jobs in the fish factory. The owner used to call me, 'Send me more of those people'. They worked hard.”
All the money earned was given to Tung's wife, Ngoan, and she would dole out everyone's pocket money. Soon the family were helping settle other refugees.
“The people of Lakeland helped me when I had only five cents in my pocket,” Tung said, “now I had to help somebody else.”
As well as becoming a sponsor for other refugees, Tung began sending money back. He was in contact with his sister-in-law in Vietnam as early as 1976, although a regular postal service would not resume until 1979.
“He had a friend,” Nga recalled, “a very good friend for a long time. And when the Communists took over he lost his job and became very poor. He wrote to my Dad and asked for money.”
At first Tung was angry. Some of those he heard from had been against the betrayed President Diem. Some turned out to have been pro-Communist. “Now they get their wish, and now they beg for money and help.” Still, Tung sent back as much as he could afford.
The family even received a letter from the Communist government seeking money to pay for the upkeep of the cemeteries in Mai Dong, such was the atrophied state of the Vietnamese economy.
This request was ignored, but years later when the 1930's era church in his home village needed rebuilding, Tung didn't hesitate to send funds.
“I am not a good Catholic,” he told me. He stopped going to church after his mother passed away. However, as Father Sheedy said, “It is a great Catholic belief, where you're able, you express relief to those in need. You help people through your actions.”
Mai Dong's new church was completed in 2008. At the front of the courtyard, two large ornate gatehouses from the 1930's building were left standing at Tung's request. The past is still a vital part of the present, even in Florida, ten thousand miles from home.
Eventually Tung gained the independence he fought so tenaciously for. He quit his job fixing TV's at Sears and opened his own business. All of his children went to college. He was blessed with over a dozen grandchildren.
His story is as much one of the American Dream as any other. And while he would never claim that life is perfect, he has made the best of the wicked hand dealt him by distant governments, armies, ideologies and bandits.
He has also benefited from the charity of others. This was something he struggled to accept, having always been the protector and provider. The Vietnamese are a proud people, and Tung is a proud man.
While surviving countless perils, his actions and care over the years have saved dozens of people from death, prisons, orphanages and refugee camps. To allow others to care for him was a challenge he didn't expect to face. It is, after all, human nature to struggle against our savior.
For my part, I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to record his story, and to the family who shared what were often difficult memories with me.
I would also like to thank everyone who has read Uprooted and given me such positive feedback. It is tremendously encouraging to know that Tung's story resonates, and is of value, well beyond the family.