-Anthony Hung Cao-
Perhaps I should have written this story back in September of 2008 when it was exactly twenty years on the day I put my first dazed steps on the American soil. Some sort of embarrassment to write about my own life for other people to read made me come up with many excuses to delay writing. “Perhaps my life is not much different from many other Vietnamese refugees enduring hardship in their lives to achieve what they have now…” It was my very first thought. Then there are many other excuses that I tried to come up with in order for me not to write about my life. However, some sort of guilt crept into my mind arising from my reading of the stories on “Writing On America” from many other writers who shared what had happened to them on their ways to get to what they are now in America.
Seasons changed, and the month of September came and went away. On the count of September, it was one more year of my life in this adopted country. Yet I got the urge to write about my life in America with a built-up crescendo in composing the lyrics “Hanh Khuc Viet Ve Nuoc My” (Let’s Write on America) into music. The sonnet transformed into music by my own composing ringing in my mind, and in my ears seems relentlessly. “Let’s write for the next generations to know what hardship our first generation had to go through to build our future…”
Then a few days ago, I was honored to be invited to appear in the Little Saigon T.V talk-show hosted by Professor Pham Thi Hue on her program “From School to Life”. During the talk-show, Professor Pham asked me a few questions that triggered my memory of the time when I just came to the U.S and started my classes at Santa Ana College. Prof. Pham asked me to share how I prepared for dental school when I first came. During the interview, I imagined the presence of parents and young students sitting in the audience to listen to what I would like to share about my preparation for dental school.
Unfortunately, the interview time of the TV talk show was too short, not allowing me to share more things I had in mind. However, shortly after that, I received many emails from the students’ parents and the students seeking my advice on some problems they were facing with. I felt somewhat awkward but content to become an unofficial “counselor” to have a chance to share and answer many issues that they were having in school. Proudly and fondly, I thought of my constructive answers that might have significant impact or valuable to their lives. A thought suddenly went through my mind. The story of my life, if published, not only beneficial to my own children, but beneficial as well to readers to learn something and get out some practical application for them.
It took me a while to choose the title for this story. “My Memoir” sounded too important for the connotation. Why not “My Life”, the same words of the title of the former President Bill Clinton’s well-known book? Perhaps one day, some young students or even my children or grandchildren while conducting internet search on the U. S. history and the biographies of the U.S Presidents, they probably would find former President Bill Clinton’s famous memoir “My Life”, and my piece of “My Life” along side. That may catch the young aspirant student’s curiosity to read about me. Indeed, this was truly a “deliberate opportunity”, by my own account of my past twenty years in America, the land of opportunity, and those of upcoming Vietnamese generations.
I’d like to begin the story “My Life” from the day I was still very young and grew up in Vietnam.
*YEARS IN VIETNAM…
I was born in 1969 in Hoa Hung, Saigon, one year after the tragic Tet Offensive “Mau Than” in 1968. If someone had a chance to read all of my brother and sisters’ birth certificates, he or she could realize that my dad had to move from place to place as a soldier in the Army. My oldest brother was born in Thu Duc, where my mother’s side was settled for generations. My parents’ first sight of love started when my father met my mom at the occasion when my grandmother took my mom to visit the hospital which was also my grandmother and father’s workplace. Among a few chances of exchanging greetings and some words of love with my mother, my dad was overloaded with too many injured soldiers who were brought back from the fighting frontlines. Two years later, after her marriage, my mother made her maiden trip – her first venture out of her hometown-to accompany my father to relocate to Qui Nhon, a small fishing city in Central Vietnam. My three elder sisters were born there. One year after the 1968 Tet Offensive, my father was reassigned to work in Saigon in 1969, the year I was born. Two years later, my family had to pack up again, as my father was reassigned again to work in another Army Hospital in Binh Duong province, the birthplace of my youngest sister.
My memory of early childhood attached to the small wooden house adjacent to the back of my aunt’s large and fancy house where my entire family was allowed by my aunt to stay as temporary lodging in transit. My aunt owned a large and well-known drugstore right in front of Bung village market. Our new tiny house was built next to the river bank where many of my childhood memories blossomed. There was days when the water level from the river was raised so high that the current inundated our small front yard. When the water receded, there were always some small fish stuck behind in scattering pools of water. The small fish were the joy to me and my youngest sister. We were wading in the water and scooped the small fish in our tiny hands just for fun. My mother had a small clothing shop inside the Bung village market, but lack of business experience forced her to close down her shop.
Day by day, the fighting got worse and more violent, eventually leading to the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975. My lasting memory of the war was our entire family’s packing, and we run for safety as we were barely escaped Lai Thieu town, some 12 miles north of Saigon, heading toward my father’s native town at Chanh My, Binh Duong, about 25 miles away, on the eve of the fall of Saigon. Frightened, my father rushed our family out to escape as Vietcong troops closed in and severed Quoc Lo National Route no. 13–the vital link to Saigon. The road was filled with army tanks, marching people, and soldiers rushed toward Saigon direction. My family ran in the opposite direction, to Chanh My hometown. For our safety, my father decided to use the short-cut country back-roads, walking through many small springs and rice fields. My vivid memory of our family’s escape was connected to some nice farmers living in those poor cottage houses. Instead of sheltering themselves in the bomb shelters, they came out and helped us to cross a small spring as we got stuck after a small wooden bridge collapsed. In the afternoon of that day, we had to head back Quoc Lo 13, as we circled around the back-roads. I was so scared for the first time in my life, at the sight of scattering dead corpses and injured bloody bodies left along, by the side of the National Route. Finally, we reached Phu Van hamlet where, by all of a sudden, the gunfire between two sides broke out fiercely with thundering explosion and the sound of grenades. We ducked in the shelter of a family acquaintance until the battle died down. We crawled down underneath a wooden bed, and it seemed like the waiting was forever. We were so hungry, and luckily we managed to eat some rice in a hurry then continued to head forward to my grandfather’s house in Chanh My hamlet, about more than an hour from Phu Van. It was late in the afternoon when we reached our destination. The cool winds from the quiet rice fields gave us some sort of calm feeling. My grandfather gave me a hug and gently rubbed my hairs. From that day on, my childhood was tied to this rural yet peaceful place.
After graduation from middle school, we had to pass the test in order to get transferred into high school. I was the youngest student in class, but had the highest scores on the test. I still remembered my Math teacher challenged us by saying: “I have never had any student who could score a maximum 10 points on the test. If any one of you could do that, I would carry you on my back around the school yard.” That year I got a perfect 10 on my test, but my teacher pretended to forget her promise. Even if she indeed offered to do so, I would not let her carry me on her skinny back anyway.
Besides Mathematics, I loved to study Literature and Poetry. In my fifth grade, after my grasp of basics of poem structures, I started to write my first piece of poems. My spare times were divided between poetry and hobbies. I did not play with other kids in my neighborhood. Instead, I created many games to play by myself. I found a small toy car and used my imagination to make a game out of it. I placed a small rock inside the car to pretend that it was my “superhero” to drive the car around to disband bad guys. The “bad guys” were the ugly rocks which I made them play the role of the communists bullying innocent villagers and always found ways to get money out of them. During my middle school years, when I started to write a story about my “superhero” based on my imagination, I hid the notebook away from my parents because I did not want my parents to be worried about my early anti-communist thoughts in my story. At the end of my ninth grade school-year, I was among the top five students selected from different schools all over Binh Duong province (formerly known as Song Be) to represent my home town to compete at the national level. With this honorable achievement and the highest score of 36/40 on the final exam at the end of the middle school year, I was selected to attend the advanced classes in high school. My academic achievement was a grain of solace for my father and family, as we were facing tough times due to the severe downturn of the economy resulting from failure of the Vietnamese communist government. Their poorly designed socialist economic model in the mold of Russia and China did not work in Vietnam. In the 1970’s and early 1980’s, Vietnam’s economic performance was dismal, and Vietnam was one of the poorest countries in the world. In the village of Chanh My, villagers were poorer and suffered the dire consequences of governmental economic policies such as “Money Exchange Program” with the new currencies, the abolishment of private property ownership, innocent villagers were deprived from their own piece of land except one portion tillable left for rice growing, catering to the ration based on the number of family members, and they had to pay tax in the form of rice at the end of each crop harvest.
I was just thirteen or fourteen year-old when I had to work on the rice field with my parents after school. Although we all worked hard all day long, but we still did not have enough food to eat. We had to eat rice mixed with corn or potatoes, and my brother and sisters tried to swallow the staples. Day in day out, every early morning, and my mother only spared enough money to buy food for my father because he needed enough energy to survive a long day out on the rice field, and for my youngest sister and me because we were at the age that we needed food to grow. A tiny sticky rice pack bought from the old female village vendor seemed so sweet and delicious. Every early morning, I had to go across the street to buy three packs of sticky rice from the lady whose skinny hands were so careful as if she measured each scoop of sticky rice before she put it inside the banana leave. Those leaves were usually wiped carelessly by a wet, dirty cloth. Poor me as I found myself, a small pack of sticky rice was never enough to fill my hungry stomach to walk to school and spend the whole morning there. Usually, I ate up all my small portion of sticky rice right after I bought it. One day, I could not resist my hunger, so I opened up my father’s pack and took a little bite of it. When I handed my father his pack of sticky rice, he held it, looked into my eyes and asked: “Are you still hungry?” I looked down on the ground and felt so shameful of what I just did that I could not say anything. I was about to turn my head and run away when I heard my dad said softly, “Son, finish up this pack and go to school. But, do not let your mom know, OK?” I looked at him surprisingly, and I wanted to ask him, “But, Dad…What are you going to eat? You need food because you have to work the whole morning in the field.” My father put on his worn-out shirt in a hurry, walked to the gate with the hoe on his shoulder and left me standing alone in the front yard with tears in my eyes. I just wanted to run after him in order to hug his back and said to him in tears, “Daddy, I loved you so much.” A wind just blew by, and I could see some tattered pieces of his worn-out shirt flapping.
After graduating from the middle school, I was selected to attend the Advanced Math class of my high school after passing another tough exam. At this time, my family was received the sponsorship documents from my uncle in the U.S. The sponsorship paper was the only hope that my family could go to America.
Hoping that one day I would have a chance to go to the U.S, I spent a lot of time studying English. Since I did not have money to buy an English grammar book, I had to come to my English teachers’ house to write it down, page after page. At the end of my high school year, I attended the English national competition. Being a student from a town, then passing all the English examinations until the final round to compete with all the students from other provinces of the country, including big city such as Saigon, I felt very honorable and proud of my achievement as a hard working student. At the end of high school, all the students were required to take the graduation test, and once again, I got the highest score at that time with a total score of 36/40. However, instead of making a big announcement and gave me the Highest High School Achievement Award at the graduation ceremony as a tradition, the principal of my high school and her staff totally ignore it. The main reason was because my father worked as a soldier under the old regime, and the school official did not want to honor his son.
Back in that time, all the students were classified into categories before they took the admission test to the university. Being a son of a soldier from the old regime, I was ranged eleven on the one-to-thirteen classified chart. The higher the number, the more points the students had to have in order to be qualified to attend certain majors in the universities. As for my classification, I realized the chance for me to get into medical, dental or pharmacy school was extremely difficult. However, with the academic high performance, I should be automatically accepted into Saigon University of Education without even having to take an admission test.
When it was time to go to the university, the only thing I had to do was to go to my village administrative council head’s office to ask for a “transfer approval” to stay at the university dormitory in Saigon. I would never forget that summer afternoon when I rode my bicycle to his office to get his signature for approval to transfer. The village administrative council head of the village gave me a cold welcome as if he was the king. He asked me to sit down and wait while he started reading my application. He kept on looking at me under his tiny eyes as if he wanted something from me. After a while, when he saw no reaction from me, he then wrote something on my application and put a red stamp on it.
I left his office with my application, and suddenly, the sky seemed to collapse on me when I took a look on what he wrote with his bad handwriting as if he was only graduated from elementary school: “The applicant had the pending sponsorship from his uncle to go the U.S. Recommend not to let this applicant to attend the university.” My main concern at that time was that if I did not get accepted into the university, I would be soon forced to join the army. I did not know for sure when I would have a chance to go to the U.S, but on the other hand, the communist government would be more than happy to force young people like me to join their army without even bothering to “classify” us or to verify if we were holding any sponsorship papers to the U.S. or not.
Fortunately for me, at that time, Binh Duong province opened its College of Education to recruit and train high school graduates for its middle-school teacher program. I rushed to the College to register, but I did not have any high hope, especially with what I had just been through. However, this time, my mother had more “experience” with my situation; therefore, she bribed the village administrative council head with some money. It worked; indeed, as I got the red stamp and good recommendation, and he intentionally ignored my pending sponsorship to the U.S. As a result, I was accepted to the Binh Duong College of Education, and more important, was avoided to join the army that made many young people got killed at the battlefields.
It was a long distance from my house to the College of Education, over an hour of riding on my old bicycle. The College was also the place where I met some new friends as peers. At the training class, we developed common bonding, and we became very close friends. Most professors who were hired to teach in my class came from Saigon University of Education where I was supposed to attend if I did not have any trouble with my application. Many professors had to take the intercity bus every week from Saigon to come up here to teach us. Some nights, we had tried to stay awake by singing because we were assigned the duty to patrol for the College. Those sleepless nights and days of hard studying had brought us closer together. I earned the esteem of my peers in sharing my knowledge in English.
In my second year of college, our class was cut by many hours because the school ran out of money due to budget problem in hiring professors. There were many days that we came to class and did not study anything at all since there was no teacher. Some of my friends suggested that I should prepare the lectures for presentation in my own class. It worked pretty well, and all my classmates were very content with my role as a “substitute instructor” for my class. Years later, I still received words from my own pals really appreciated what I had done for them.
Finally, after ten years of tired waiting, my family was granted the permit to go to the U.S. Unfortunately, my eldest brother and sister were left behind because they had already got married. On a summer day of May, 1988, I emotionally said goodbye to my relatives, friends and many happy and sad memories that I had since I lived in Binh Duong to leave for America and was not sure if I ever had a chance to return to visit my homeland.
*LIFE IN AMERICA…
After four months in Bataan Refugee Camp, our airplane landed on L.A.X on the last day of September, 1988. My uncle and my cousin came to the airport to pick us up. I still remembered that it was cold as the weather turned into Fall. It was a bit shivering for a young guy like me from a tropical climate. When the car left the airport, I looked around at the scenery along the side: freeways and high-rise buildings. Many freeways were built across on top of the others where many lanes of cars ran fast yet orderly without any noise of honk, and many tall buildings were constructed right along the freeways. I wanted to absorb all the scenery and seized this moment. At last I was here in the Land of the FREE, with my family, with all my loved ones. The strange feeling was mixed with the joyfulness, but there was absolutely no feeling of fear in my mind. I could feel the land of opportunity opening her arm to welcome me, a young man with many expectations and energy. I already told myself no matter what would happen to me, it would not mean anything compared to what I had been through in Vietnam, under the communist regime.
After spending a few days at my aunt’s home, my family rented a small house close to Little Saigon, at the corner of Bolsa and Euclid. To save money, six of us crowed into a rented two-bedroom house. My parents stayed in one room, and my three sisters lived in the other one. I was given the old couch, and my life from that time on was tied to the couch in the waiting room. I did not have my own room until I was transferred to Loma Linda University, School of Dentistry.
The next day after my family set our foot on the American soil, I went to Santa Ana College for registration. I found out that the Fall semester already started more than four weeks. My alternative was enrolling into an E.S.L class at Lincoln Adult Center in Garden Grove, upon my cousin’s suggestion. I was confident with my competence in English. I was always proud of my English grammar as my friends in Vietnam gave me a nickname “A Walking English Grammar Book”. I could translate from Vietnamese to English and vice versa with ease. However, I was embarrassed and shock, during my first few weeks when I spoke a long sentence with correct grammar, but the young American English instructor could not understand what I wanted to say. On the other hand, I could only hear and understand half of what my teacher said. From that experience, I came to realize that no matter how much I learned from listening and speaking English in Vietnam, I could only listen and understand the Vietnamese teachers who taught English back home. The English language that was spoken by the Americans was much different, and even worst, I had the bad common habit of speaking English so fast and did not pronounce the ending sounds clearly.
Besides studying at school, I tried to earn some money by delivering newspapers in the morning. It was getting cold by the end of November and early December. I had to wake up early around 5 o’ clock in the morning and put on two to three layers of clothes to keep myself warm to drive to the newspaper distribution) place to wrap the newspapers before delivering them. I was very skinny, about 110 or 115 lbs, but I had to carry a large stack of newspapers and walked into many apartments to deliver them. The weekend newspapers were much heavier because of many coupons inserted inside. My overloaded old car ran and moaned. I was experiencing with brake problems, as its brakes were used so many times, and its shift was switched back and forth between “P” and “D”. There was one time at the rush of early morning paper delivery, carelessly, I shifted the stick into “N” instead of “P”. As I just walked out of the car with a stack of newspapers on my hands, my car continued to roll and hit into the back of another car in the parking lot. Panic at first, I dropped the stack of newspapers and almost ran away. Regained my composure afterward, I wrote a note in a piece of paper and stuck it into the windshield with my home phone number saying that I was a poor student, a newspaper delivery boy earning meager money for college.
For the ensuing hours, I was so nervous and worriedly waited for a call from the damaged car owner. It was so depressed to think of the long haul of months of newspapers delivery earning to have enough money to pay for the repair of the dents and repainting. In the afternoon, my heart seemed to stop beating when I heard the phone rang. “Hello” I picked up the phone and greeted by a shaking voice. On the other end, I heard the voice of a middle aged woman. In a slow and soft voice, she called my name Hung, and engaged into a conversation about the car damage, but nothing about the money compensation needed to fix the car. She told me that she was a retired teacher, then went on to advise me to drive more carefully and try hard and try my best to study. She wished me a lot of luck then hung up. I was so touched that I almost broke out in tears. My thought of big troubles and depression disappeared. I felt lifted by the kindness of the so gentle American lady. Now there was such a person to call me not only be so kind but also advise me to try all my best to study hard. This only happened in America!
Back to the issue of registration and enrolling facing me as the next move to attend Santa Ana College in the spring semester, I was advised by some of my new friends to wait for one full year. According to them, one year of California residency will save me the college tuition. In addition, I would be qualified to receive Cal-Grant B from the government. However, I figured what was the best option. I made a quick calculation that if I had to wait until next September, I would lose at least three semesters, and if I took a minimum of twelve units for each semester, I would end up losing at least 36 units. I decided not to follow this advice because if I had to pay for the tuition, I could borrow the money from Financial Aid, and I would lose a few hundred of dollars if I was not qualified to receive Cal-Grant B. To compensate for that, I would spend less and look for a job because I thought the first few semesters, the classes would not be that hard. I rather went ahead with my registration application than wasting one year before I attended college.
Thanks to attending college one year earlier, I could graduate one year earlier and earned my income many times better than the money I could have received from Cal-Grant B. Another thing was far more important when I knew a few people who delayed enrolling to college and went out to find a full-time job to work while they were waiting for one year to become California resident. When those people had money from their full-time job, they went on buying new car which was easily financed by the bank if they had a job. Then came the responsibilities of making monthly car payments, and car insurance payments, etc. By then, the pressure from those payments made the goal of going full-time to college seemed impossible for them. The only way they could do was to work full-time and study part-time at night. As a result, it would take more time to graduate from school. As for me, I already made up my mind that if America gave me the opportunity, I had to grasp it.
During my first semester, I had to work part-time in order to have money to buy books and gasoline for my old car. My first job was to work as a waiter in a Vietnamese restaurant since I had high hope that the fellow-countrymen would be easy to sympathize and help each other. My job was so hard because the restaurant owner wanted me to do almost everything in the restaurant from vacuuming, mopping the floor, cleaning the chairs and tables besides taking orders from the customers. We usually left the restaurant very late at night long after the last customer had left. Even though we worked very hard, but when the customers left some tips, the restaurant owner kept all the tips and never gave us even a penny.
There were many nights when I came home from the restaurant, I felt so tired, and my whole body was so sore, but I had to keep my eyes open to study and prepare for school the next day. A few weeks after the school started, I still did not have the money to buy a Calculus book, so I had to borrow the book from a friend to make copies. One day after work, I asked the restaurant owner why I had been working for more than two weeks and still did not get paid. I told him the reason I asked because I needed the money to buy a Calculus book. The owner did not even bother saying a word. He just opened the cashier and threw a $50 bill on the counter. I tried to push down my anger and took the money. The Calculus book that I used that money to buy, I still kept it until now. The book would be old and out of date, but it would be a gift I gave it to my child as a souvenir the day my child going to college. After having a bad experience working in the Vietnamese restaurant, I looked for a part-time job in American restaurants for better environment and nicer treatment. The first fast-food restaurant where I worked was Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant. A couple of challenging problems emerged. My first problem was that I was not familiar with all the foods displayed on the restaurant menu, therefore, I was confused to take the customers’ orders, especially when they drove and ordered through the “drive-thru”, because they could not help me by pointing at the food they wanted to order on the big menu board as the walk-in customers did. One week later, I started to get used to the names of different kind of chicken, and the side orders as well as the beverages and deserts. My second problem was giving the correct changes to the customers. I was not familiar with the cash register; therefore, sometimes I hit the wrong key and gave back the wrong change to the customers. Most of them were honest enough to return the extra money back to me right away. It happened that, there was one night that the KTC manager found out it was $20 short at the closing of the cash register. Fortunately, he knew that I was a newcomer to the U.S; therefore, he knew I made a mistake, not cheating. Nevertheless, he told me, if he had to make report of the $20 shortage, I would be fired for sure. I asked him to give me a chance by letting me go to my car to get $20 to pay for it because I needed the job.
I continued working there a few more months until one night close to the end of the first semester. It was a night that I would never forget. While I was finishing up cleaning the floor, I was hurried to get back home because I wanted to prepare for the final exam on the next day. Suddenly, I slipped and fell. Unfortunately, my right hand was put into the boiling oil pot which was used to cook the chicken. Perhaps the pain from the burn was so substantial that I did not feel the crucial pain but was scared instead as I watched the emergency crew cut away the skin which was peeled off from my hand, piece by piece as the crispy chicken skin that I saw every day. The only thing I was worried about at that time was how I could hold the pencil to do the final test the next day with all the bandages wrapped around my hand.
When I got home, the pain started to kick in. I tossed and tumbled on the couch groaning in pain even after I took some pain relief medication. I had to bite on a small towel so that I would not scream too loud because I did not want to disturb my parents’ sleep in late night and make them feel hurtful with my pain. With my left hand, I tried to hold the book so that it would not fall down, but the words seemed to dance around in front of my eyes and were vaporized in smokes as the ones that came out of the cooking oil in the restaurant. There was times when the pain from the burn seemed unbearable with wave od sharp pain and made me almost passed out. I was dreaming and saw myself playing and putting my hot burned hand into a small water pool to catch the small fishes at my childhood wooden house by the river bank. How cool the water from the small pool seemed to be! Sometimes I was so tempted to remove all the bandages in order to put my hand into a wash-basin of cold water to release the pain. I tried to stay alert to stop myself from doing anything crazy. I used some papers on the table as a fan to blow some cool wind to the burned hand to calm down the pain. From that point on, I was reading and fanning my burned hand until the next morning.
Back then, the student still took the tests by blackening the correct square box on the scantron with a pencil. Before going to class, I tried to practice with my left hand to blacken the square box, but I found it took too much time for me to be able to finish the test. There was no other way to do, and even the hand was still painful every time I moved, I used a small knife to cut open the bandage, so that I could free at least three fingers to hold the pencil. I only prayed that my hand would not be disabled because I was too young to be a partial handicap. Thank God that a few months later, my hand completely healed even though the scar on my hand was still remained until today. Since that terrible accident, I lost my appetite whenever I saw any fried chicken.
After that job, I still continued working a variety of other jobs such as delivering pizza, doing inventory for retail supermarkets, etc. On one occasion to apply for a job, the manager looked at my resume and joked with me that I had so many job experiences that he had never seen before. The main reason I changed so many jobs because I only worked part-time and wanted the best job that could fit with my class scheduling.
In the Spring semester, I took a Sociology course besides English and Calculus. That was the first mistake I made since I over- estimated myself that I could handle it. Oh My God! That was what I said almost every time of the first few weeks whenever I stepped inside that class. There were many times that the professor was explaining something in his lectures and I had no clues what he was talking about with all the “strange words” that I had never heard of during my short time living in America. While other students in my class listened and took notes of what the professor was lecturing, I tried my best to stay focused and listen to him, but I could not understand most of what he said in order to take notes. A few weeks later, I came up with the idea to bring a tape-recorder to class to record his lectures and took them home to listen to them over and over again while taking notes and read the new chapters in advance so that I could understand and be familiar with the new words in advance. I had to admit that I had to spend three or four times more efforts compared to an average student to survive this class. I got the first B grade in my life, and I promised to myself that I would not let that happen again. Learning from the experience of the first semester, I took classes such as Math, Physics, Chemistry, and Biology for the next semester because those subjects did not require lot of English skills and were easier to get an A.
From my second semester in college, I tried to save time by finding a job from the school work-study program on order to work in the campus to cut down the travelling time. Even though I got paid less, but my job was much easier. With my background as a student specialized in Math major from the days in Vietnam, my job as a Math tutor was so easy, and I had lots of free time whenever we did not have any student to help. As it turned out, I had more free time to meet my girl friend in the college library as in the song “Love Story of a Student’” that I composed after I graduated from dental school because even I loved to write and compose music, I wanted to concentrate on studying first. The “girl friend” who I met in the library is my wife now.
Since we met during the hard and busy time of being students, we fell in love, respected and supported each other to finish with school. Ngoc-Bich, my lover’s name, shared with me many up and down time in her role as a girl-friend and a study-mate as well. I remembered there was lunch time, we had only a few dollars left. We went to a Chinese fast-food restaurant to buy some rice with pork meat. We asked to have two spoons and a small bag of soy sauce, and we ate lunch together happily and talked about our study and future. Those were the most delicious meals in our lives. Even though we had many more fancy banquets and dinning after we graduated and got married, I still remember the college meals that we both had with rice, pork meat and soy sauce.
On the weekends, I drove to Costa Mesa out-door swap-meet to get hired to set up the tent or stay back to help selling merchandises in order to earn some money for school and personal spending because besides the little money I borrowed from Financial Aid, I did not receive any (other) grant from the government. On Saturdays and Sundays, I had to wake up around 4 o’clock in the morning to drive to the swap-meet. There was no guarantee to find a job because there were always more helpers seeking works than needed. It happened a few times that I drove there early in the morning, just to find out that I could not find a job, moreover, I wasted two dollars to pay for the ticket to get in. However, I always tried to find a positive thing out of that by telling to myself that at least I would have more time to stop by a library to study or do my homework. Time was the most precious thing that I always wished to have more during my college, therefore, I was very upset whenever I found out that nowadays many youngsters who were lucky enough to have the support from their parents so that they did not have to work and study at the same time as many people in my generation, but they wasted lot of their time and did not concentrate on studying.
There was one more thing that I wanted to share with many young students out there, especially, for those who just finished high school. Except for some exceptionally-well students who were awarded with the scholarships, most students after their high school graduation had the intention to attend the universities right away, instead of continuing to go to community colleges. There were many reasons for that. First of all, the newly high school grads saw their friends transfer to universities, therefore, they wanted to do the same so that they can have their friends to hang out. Secondly, most graduated high school students were at the age when they wanted to gain independency. If they had to attend local community colleges, they did not have their chance to move out and find independence.
In my opinion, a direct attendance to university right after high school is not always a very good choice, especially for those students who want to go to medical, dental or pharmacy schools. There are many good reasons to attend community colleges first, before transferring to universities. First of all, based on my own experience, the units that I took from community colleges were still as equally valuable as any units that I took from university. Many required classes for medical, dental or pharmacy schools can be fulfilled at community colleges, and these units are calculated in the student’s final G.P.A. Secondly, the college tuitions are much cheaper than the cost for the same class in university which will save lot of money for parents whose children are not received any scholarships to cover for university spending. The next important thing is that the environment from community college makes it easier for the students to earn an A., because the same class if taken in university, one student has to compete with many more students in order to get a good grade. Last but not least, the most important thing I encourage high school graduates’ parents to advise their children to attend community college because the high school graduates are still easily influenced by some bad friends if they move out of the house and live by themselves in university’s living environment. On the other hand, if the high school graduates choose to attend a local community college, their parents can be around to support them if needed.
Another decision that I made and thought that it might be helpful for those who want to become a dentist. After completing all the units that I could take from community colleges, I was accepted to UCLA in my junior year. During this junior year, I took my DAT examination instead of waiting until my senior year. The result of the DAT exam was 24/30 (a score of 21 or above provides a good chance to be accepted into dental school in addition with other requirements) and my high GPA gave me a good chance to apply for dental schools. I got accepted to a few dental schools in my junior year. I selected Loma Linda University, School of Dentistry because it was close to my house, and I heard many good things about this school. In summary, by taking the DAT exam and applying to dental school early in my junior year, I saved one year, and I was able to graduate from dental school earlier than most of my college friends. Most dental schools did not require the candidates to have a BS degree, as long as the candidates have a good GPA, a high score on DAT, and complete all their required classes plus a good letter of recommendation, etc. This is one important point that pre-dental or pre-medical students should pay attentions to by doing their own research. Many counselors in the community colleges sometime do not know all the updated requirements for each dental or medical school. It was the right decision that I was glad that I made, and as a result, I could become a dental student in one of the most famous dental schools, which happened only less than three years since the day I stepped into my first class at the community college.
During my four years in dental school, financially I was probably still the poorest student in class. Most of my classmates were from families with middle or high income, and even most of my Vietnamese friends whose families had came and settled in the U.S for a long time. They did not have to worry too much about the room and board or other expenses and only had to concentrate on studying. Also in those four years in my school, perhaps I was the only student who had to spend eight hours in class plus some lab times and yet had to work in the sterilization room at night time to earn money to pay for my expenses at school. The loan that the school let us borrow was not enough to cover for all the school spending. I only slept an average about three to four hours a day during my four years in dental school. Sometimes, I was so tired that I fell asleep right in the medical and dental study lounge and walked back to my apartment the next morning. On my junior year, I got a scholarship from the university. From that year on, I worked fewer hours than before until I graduated in 1996.
On the day of graduation, when I stepped on the stage to receive my diploma in the celebrating music, I broke out in tears. It was the first time during my student’s life, I cried. These were the joyful tears because I realized that finally I achieved my educational goal.
This is the story of my life as I gave it the title “My Life”. I hope that whoever reads this will find something useful for his or her life. We will strive ourselves for the better in the mainstream of America, and we always in search for excellence in this Land of Opportunity and Land of the Free.
Anthony Hung Cao