Immigrant Student Faces the Unknown and Forges a New Future

One isn’t necessarily born with courage, but one is born with potential. Without courage, we can- not practice any other virtue with consistency. We can’t be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest.
—Maya Angelou

Like many immigrant students new to America, Katie (her American name) Do knew little English when she arrived in San Francisco from Vietnam. A high school freshman at the time, she faced isolation due to the language barrier and the simple challenges of assimilating into American teen culture. Katie feels fortunate to be in America, but it has been a hard, scary journey.
“There were moments that I felt like giving up because of the obstacles.” Katie says. “In facing the unknown, my advice is to remain calm and patient, because when you overreact to a situation you won’t be able to make a wise decision.” Here, she shares her story.

Katie Do’s first 13 years growing up in Vietnam were full of hardship, but when the family was given the opportunity to move to the United States, she was understandably apprehensive.

A year before Katie’s birth, her father was released from jail, having been sentenced by the Vietnamese communists for working alongside the US-supported South Vietnamese. While he was incarcerated, his family faced rampant discrimination and lacked provisions for everyday survival.

Katie grew up without the amenities most American children take for granted: toys, new clothes, snacks, and television. But, she says, “I was a happy child who enjoyed playing on the white sand of a nearby river, picking wild fruits up on the hill, eating sugarcane, and playing hide- and-seek with other kids in the neighborhood.”

As Katie grew older, she was aware of how hard her parents had to work in the rice and sugarcane fields all day and into the night to support the family. “Unfavorable weather sometimes destroyed most of the rice and sugar- cane,” she recounts. “My older sisters got married and moved away, so every day after school I cleaned the house, cooked the rice, and fed the animals on our small farm.”

All that changed in 1995, when Katie’s family was approved to emigrate to the US. Katie did not want to leave her older sisters who stayed behind with their families. She was terrified—facing a completely unknown future in a foreign country with very limited language skills. When her family arrived in San Francisco, so many things were new to her, including riding in automobiles.

According to Katie, her greatest challenge as a high school freshman was her English-speaking ability. “I remember one embarrassing moment in art class,” she recalls. “I was sitting at the same table with a couple of other girls for a project. Another student dropped her money on the floor and asked me if I took it. I replied, ‘I don’t see it.’ But she thought I said ‘I don’t say’ and got upset and claimed that I took it. She was very loud, so other people in the classroom turned to look at us. Eventually someone spotted the money on the floor. It was over, but I never forgot that embarrassing moment and how scared it made me feel.”
Katie overcame the challenges she faced and went on to graduate from high school with honors. Now a college graduate, she works in the finance department at Clorox in Oakland, California.

Her advice to others who find themselves transplanted into a foreign culture for the first time is to work hard and don’t give up. “Whether language, money, or relationships, if you think positively and work hard, most likely you’ll overcome everything. Also, there were moments when I felt overwhelmed, but I tried to remind myself to be grateful for all of my blessings—then I was able to get back on track.”

Power Practice
Create a safe place in your imagination. When you find yourself in a state of confusion, stop for a minute and imagine yourself in a calm, peaceful, familiar place. Or think about being wrapped in the arms of someone who has only your best interests at heart.


 You Can Do It

Whatever happens, remember, you can—and will—get through it.

Do you know that mantra “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger”? It’s dramatic, but very true.

When you feel as if there’s simply no way you can continue, that you’ve reached the end of your rope, just repeat to yourself: I can manage this, one step at a time.

Experts agree that what we’re most terrified of is that we won’t be able to manage at all, that something terrible will happen and we’ll lose control. But even at that point, you have a choice. You can give up, or you can tell yourself that you are strong enough, and worthy enough, to rise up and meet this challenge, one step at a time.

Take some inspiration from the many stories of people who overcame tremendous physical challenges to achieve their dreams, like the children with disabilities who were never told that they couldn’t accomplish anything they wanted. There is a universe of inspiration out there. Start with the simple belief that you will survive this day, and that you have the courage to open your mind to the possibility of a better tomorrow.

Excerpted What Would You Do If You Knew You Could Not Fail? How to Transform Fear into Courage, by Nina Lesowitz and Mary Beth Sammons. Used with permission from Viva Editions.

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