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When Her Family Left Vietnam, She Carried A Backpack Full Of Rice During The Journey

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In 1939, a 14-year-old Jewish boy escaped Nazi Germany, leaving his parents behind. He brought with him a single toy, a stuffed monkey. And years later, that monkey helped reunite him with family he didn't know he had. We told his story last year, got a huge response. And after it aired, we asked if you had any similar stories.

Loan Pham did. Pham was born in Vietnam 34 years ago. She came to the U.S. for asylum. Her father was branded a war criminal because he had fought alongside American troops during the Vietnam War. Her whole family was punished for that.

LOAN PHAM: Our family didn't have any assets, as in a boat or a home or even a cooking pot. And we just sat out there in the rain, starving, hungry all the time. I kept on stealing bananas from the village market. And one time, I did get caught. The vendor was obviously very unhappy because bananas were her livelihood.

She decided to tie me up. And she spread hay all around me, and she said, I'm going to burn you. I think her emotions got to her. And she started shrieking when the fire got too great, and it was going to get to me. That was when a farmer walked on by, and he saw what was going on. He snatched me and saved me.

When word got to my mom, my mom began to cry. And she broke off a branch of bamboo, and she started whipping me with it. She was ashamed that her child resorted to stealing because she couldn't tolerate the hunger.

In 1991, we went from our village of Quy Lai outside of Hue in central Vietnam to a refugee camp in Thailand and then onto a housing project in Oakland, Calif. I was so excited, was on a train. It was just unbelievable. You might as well take me to Mars.

The whole time, I was in charge of a red backpack filled with loose rice. We were afraid of starving in the United States. We were afraid that there would be no rice. I had never seen this much rice my whole life. It was a really happy backpack.

I grew up without a backpack. I had no idea how to put it on. I had no idea how the buckles snapped or the zippers zipped, but I insisted on taking charge of it. And I never allowed it to escape from my view. And I nibbled at the rice kernels just to make sure they were real. And that's how we sustained ourselves for the first few weeks. And I used that backpack to go to school at Fruitvale Elementary here in Oakland.

Since coming to the United States, my dad is a janitor. My mom paints nails. They don't earn a lot of money, but they're pretty content people. My mom's wish when we were growing up was that she would eventually own a nail salon, and my sister and I would work at the nail salon with her. That was her dream. That was never my dream. And as of last weekend, all five kids have graduated from the UCs.

KELLY: Loan Pham - she's now finishing a PhD in military history. As for the backpack that she carried from Vietnam to the U.S., it was only used for a little while. It was flimsy. And worse, it was red, and the color reminded her father of the communist government. When a charity gave her a new American-made backpack, she threw the Vietnamese one away.

Over the years, her parents sent money back to their village to help pave roads and build an elementary school. And Pham has since returned there for both professional and personal reasons. She says people recognize her and welcome her.

PHAM: Actually, during the last business trip I took, I was walking through the village market. Then this woman said, child, do you want to buy some bananas? And I was like, oh, no thank you, ma'am. And she said, you don't remember me, do you? And I said, I really don't. I'm sorry. And she said, I was the one who tried to burn you. And then I laughed. It was such a small world. It was funny to see that she can laugh about it, and I can laugh about it as well.

KELLY: That was listener Loan Pham.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRUCE BRUBAKER'S "OPENING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.