Huong Lam: Proud to be an American
By Connie Barnard
In 1980 Neil Diamond penned these stirring lyrics to the hit song “Coming to America.” That same year, a beautiful little Vietnamese girl named Huong was born in the city of Saigon. Her young parents had survived the Vietnam War only to find themselves living under the stern rule of the Communists
who took over after the Americans troops left South Vietnam. It was a harsh life in which government officials entered homes without permission, nationalized privately-owned businesses and randomly opened mail and packages arriving from the West. That same year, on the 6th of July, Huong’s 18 year old uncle, Hien Lam, arrived in the U.S. after a two year odyssey which began in a tiny fishing boat off the coast of Vietnam. The courageous young man was very fortunate. Many who tried to escape, including Huong’s father, had been captured and returned. Many others were lost at sea. When her uncle finally arrived in San Francisco, he immediately started paperwork to sponsor each member of his family to come to the U.S. Seven years later, in 1987, Huong and her parents arrived in Myrtle Beach to begin their new life.
Today Huong is a striking, successful young woman, well-immersed in American life. She has sketchy memories of her early years under Communist rule in Vietnam, mostly just a general sense of feeling unsafe and afraid. She remembers trying to avoid drawing attention to herself in schools that were overcrowded and very strict – and being forced to write with her right hand though she was naturally left-handed. However, Huong has very clear memories of her flight out of Vietnam and her family’s arrival at a military refugee camp in Thailand where they spent two weeks surviving mostly on porridge until her parents sold their wedding rings to obtain better food for them.
The family then moved to a refugee camp in the Philippines run by kind American nuns who taught them the rudiments of American culture and administered inoculations required for entry to the U.S. It was a happy time for them, even though they lived in a tiny wooden hut with another family immediately above them. Huong says, “We made many friends there. I remember tearing pages out of magazines and pasting them on the walls – happy pictures to help us feel good about our future.”
Once in the U.S., Huong’s family spent several weeks in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., before choosing to settle in Myrtle Beach where there were a number of Vietnamese families including her aunt, also a boat refugee, who had a good job working for AVX. A tailor by trade, her father found a job making canvas awnings – which he has now done for over 25 years. The family found a home off Highway 15 and immediately enrolled their daughter in Myrtle Beach Primary School. Though seven years old, Huong was placed in a kindergarten class because she did not know English. Her teacher, Evelyn Brown, marveled at the lovely, hard-working little girl who wanted to learn so badly. She says, “Huong was such a gift to my life and our class. My teaching assistant Ginny Taylor and I fell in love with her, as did all the children in the class. Because we had trouble pronouncing her first name, we called her ‘Little Lam.’ Of course the nursery rhyme reference and play on words were lost on Huong, but even today I use that as a term of endearment for her.”
Huong first learned basic survival words like water and bathroom. She was fascinated that her teachers took such close care of the students and found it comical that they were lined up in a straight line to run outdoors and play. Her first day at school, she got off the school bus a block away and walked home. It never occurred to her that she would be delivered to her own front door! The bright young girl mastered English by mimicking her classmates until the strange words took on meaning. Her first American friend was classmate, Ellen Taft. Evelyn Brown says of the friendship: “The two bonded quickly, and Ellen looked out for Huong whenever she needed her.” Huong recalls imitating everything Ellen said and being particularly fascinated with the word polka dot. Despite the fact that it was a new language based on a strange new alphabet, within a year she had caught up and was able to skip first grade. In addition to her teachers, Huong credits a remarkable school volunteer, Judy Springs Haile, for her quick mastery of reading. Mrs. Haile would pull her out of class to work with her one-on-one and remained a tremendous influence on the young girl all through her early school years.
Her parents enrolled in English classes at Socastee Adult Education Center with legendary language teacher Peggy Ryals who recalls the eager, dedicated students arriving at early morning classes after working an eight-hour night shift, many at AVX. Ryals greeted them each morning with the familiar phrase, “Good morning, Vietnam!” and says: “These students were the very best of what makes America great. They were so polite, so hard-working, so eager to learn this strange new language.”
Far, we’ve been traveling far
Without a home, but not without a star
Free, only want to be free
We huddle close and hang on to a dream.
As often happens with immigrant families, Huong mastered English before her parents did and at times functioned as a translator for them. She said, “Math was easy. It is universal, but mastering a new language based on a new alphabet is very difficult. I never felt isolated, however. For years I looked up to my classmates Mary Madison Brittain and Mary Ashley Martin because they made all As. In the fifth grade I did as well. That is when I felt I was truly American.” Interestingly, all three young women are now Myrtle Beach attorneys.
In 1999 Huong graduated from Myrtle Beach High School where the popular student excelled in academics and a host of extra-curricular activities. She had made many close friends, including one special classmate, Craig Milburn, whom she would marry eight years later. Both Huong and Craig attended Clemson where she majored in political science and English.
After graduating from Clemson, she attended George Mason Law School in Arlington, Virginia, while Craig was a dental student at MUSC in Charleston. The couple married in 2007. In the fall of 2011, they became very proud parents of a son named Liam who, by all accounts, is both brilliant and beautiful.
Today both Craig and Huong have thriving professional practices. After working with larger local law firms for several years, Huong recently opened her own practice specializing in bankruptcy, Social Security disability, worker’s compensation and personal injury.
Sitting in the light-filled corner office of her elegant new office, this young woman is a living testimony to the American Dream. The little girl who pasted happy magazine photos on the walls of her refugee hut in the Philippines seems far away in every sense of the word. Asked if she ever thinks about what her life would be like if she had not come to America, she replies, “I think about it all the time. When I was 16, I went back to Vietnam for a visit and was stunned by what I saw. It made me sad to see people my age staring off into space, with nothing to do and nowhere to go. The reason I went to law school was to help give people a voice.”
A few years ago, an employee in the law firm where Huong worked brought in an old photo of her husband when he was an18 year old soldier in Vietnam. He was handing out candy to little children at a Catholic Church school. Huong looked closely at the photograph and immediately recognized one eight year old student. It was her own father, Huy Lam.
With the exception of one uncle, Huong’s entire family has immigrated to the U.S. one by one, each one sponsored by others arriving before them. Her grandfather, once a very affluent entrepreneur, lost everything when his highly successful cycle dealership was nationalized by the Vietnamese government. The day she graduated from law school, he told Huong it made all his losses worthwhile. Huong says, “To my parents and grandparents who made so many sacrifices, being an American means having the opportunity for a better life for their children, to give back something that was so unjustly taken from them: freedom, voice and education.”
Huong went on to say, “To me, the philosophy that nothing is impossible is the essence of what this country is all about. Our hands are not tied; we are not bound by impossibilities; there is always hope. That is why I love being here, why I love being an American.”
Home to a new and shiny place
We’ll make our bed and say our grace.
Freedom’s light is burning warm
…coming to America.
About this writer
- Connie Barnard traveled the world as a military wife and taught high school and college composition for over 30 years. She has been a regular contributor to Sasee since its first issue in 2002.