How does one condense the most impactful event of their life into five pages? For me, it starts with two words: Orange Juice. I was five years old, shy of six by just one month, when my family uprooted themselves from Vietnam and immigrated to the United States. The process of preparing for immigration for my family had taken thirteen years. The decision had already been made for me even before I was born.
As a five-year-old, I did what most children like to do: eat ice cream and have tea parties. I was still using a bright red potty chair. However, on the day I left for America, as if I understood that my whole life was about to change, I asked my mom to let me use the adult toilet. That day and milestone marked the first time I had to grow up and be an adult.
With only one suitcase each, my parents and I were driven to the airport by my mother’s side of the family. My grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins who I had known for all of my life came to say their farewells. It was a tearful send-off, but I felt no sadness. I was too excited to travel by airplane for the first time. Moving to the United States felt like traveling to a new theme park. I said goodbye to all my relatives, not knowing that I would not see them for the next ten years. The people who raised me would end up becoming strangers to me. Their clear sad faces have been blurred by time and age, soon to be unrecognizable and just distant memories.
The trip through the airport was a blur either because my mind was over-stimulated and needed a break or it was mentally preparing for the journey that I would take. On the plane, my family took our seats, which I demanded to sit on the window side. My mother sat next to me in the middle while my father was the furthest away in the aisle seat. We stuffed whatever carry-on we could fit into the overhead luggage and prepared for a long 16-hour plane ride. I remember the heart-racing feeling in my chest as the plane ascended into the air. It felt like my heart was leaping out of my chest, moving faster than my body could handle. My family held each other’s hands as the plane took off. None of us have ever been on a plane before, yet this one trip would change all of our lives forever. My mom grabbed my hands tightly, terrified of heights and filled with adrenaline. I looked out the window, only to see the white clouds as Vietnam faded away. Being from Nha Trang, a coastal city in mid-Vietnam, the beaches were the city’s main attraction. The blue-green ocean was the last visual I saw before we ascended into the clouds.
To prepare for our new life in the United States, my parents had taken language classes to learn some basic English. The first person to teach me English was my father during our plane ride. He taught me how to count to ten; I struggled with the number six. We had been on the plane for some indeterminable amount of time, and our stomachs were growling for sustenance. We only had the standard peanuts for a light snack, and we were ready for a meal. The flight attendants walked by to tell us the menu and take everyone’s order. The meal options were unexciting to me. I was a picky eater, which my mom knew before ordering for me some meat and rice. When the attendant asked us for our drink options, we were stumped. Amidst the excitement for our new life, we wanted a drink to match our feelings, something different, unique, and even a little bit risky. The attendant offered various drinks, speaking slowly so my dad could understand and translate for us. I watched him mentally translate the words before turning to us to say “orange water.” My mom and I were silent for a little bit, not sure what orange water was. We have had orange soda before, so it must taste similar. My mom agreed to the drink, enthusing that she loved oranges. Looking back, I am sure Vietnam had orange juice, but I just never had the chance to taste it before.
When the drink arrived, it did not look like orange soda. The tiny cup was filled with an opaque orange liquid with floating pulp. We had only ever had “orange” juice in the powdered form where it was mixed with water. My family all took a sip from our cups as if we were celebrating together. The taste was sweet and refreshing, perfectly encapsulating our new life in America or what we hoped it would be like. It was obnoxiously sugary, which was addicting for a five-year-old with a sweet tooth. I savored every sip like it was a luxury. It reminded me of summer in Vietnam at the warm beach. The refreshing taste felt like the first sip of ice cold water after enjoying the whole day swimming in the ocean. Filled with food and drinks, we were content and drifted off to sleep for the remaining ten hours of the flight.
America did not look much different from Vietnam. That was my first thought as I exited the airport. I was merely two feet tall at my age; my line of vision was mostly at other adult’s kneecaps. I probably failed to notice their faces and varying skin tones that would become the new reality of my life. My mom held my hand tightly as we navigated the exits of the airport. I could feel her anxiousness, but I could not tell if it was due to being in this airport or arriving in America. After retrieving our suitcases, my family’s next step was to find our ride to our new home.
It was colder in the United States. The breeze hit my bare legs, exposed from my dress. It would take my family many years to adjust to the winters of Southern California. We were greeted by a lady that was around my parent’s age. I learned that she was my aunt and my family’s sponsor. My parents thanked her profusely, which made me feel a sense of obligation to be grateful to her, even though I did not understand what a sponsor was. She greeted me warmly and asked me to play a game to find her car in the parking structure, giving me a hint that the last three digits of the license plate were “888”. We unloaded our luggage into her green Jeep and embarked on our car ride home. It was my first time in a car. To be fair, I had had many firsts in the past 24 hours, so the excitement of riding a car was not as prominent. I finally noticed the first difference in American culture: everyone traveled by car. There was not a single motorcycle in sight, unlike the streets of Vietnam that were littered with them. My parents also raved about this difference, saying that it was safer to travel, and they would no longer have to deal with the hot beaming sun while driving.
We arrived at a house on the corner of the street. It looked like one of those American suburban homes I would see in movies, with trees shading the front and a giant American flag near the door. We entered from the back door, which was odd to me. I would later learn that the home owners did not think my family deserved to enter through the front door because we were not good enough. Upon entering, we were greeted by familiar strangers, people I would now have to call family. These strangers demanded love, trust, and respect from me even though I had never met them before; I only knew that I had to be grateful. There, I met my father’s side of the family. My only aunt, two uncles, and my grandparents had immigrated years before us. We were the first family to come from my aunt’s sponsorship; two more families would come in the subsequent months.
Much of that night was a blur, and I was too exhausted from the journey to stay awake at night. That next morning, I remember waking up at five A.M. due to the time difference. I was greeted with my first American breakfast staple: waffles. Like most children, I drenched my waffles in syrup and whipped cream. The sweetness made me parched, and I noticed a familiar opaque drink next to me. It was orange juice like from the airplane. I gulped it down hastily. It tasted just as sweet and memorable as the first time. Satiated with my hunger, I felt excitement for my new life in America. The reasoning may be silly, but as long as I had orange juice, I knew I could overcome any hardships along the way because there were more of America’s new delicacies to embrace.