As millions of us gather at tables to offer thanks during this uniquely American holiday (OK, Canada has one, too, but without our Pilgrims), most will express gratitude to God for freedom and material blessings. This year, as in every year since 1989 when she escaped with other "boat people" from communist Vietnam, Kim Vu will offer thanks borne out of a deep gratitude for what America has meant to her since she and so many others risked their lives for something they regarded as even more valuable: freedom.
A generation has grown up since the boat people caught the public's attention. To many in what has become a self-indulgent generation, it may be difficult to fathom how anyone could go to such lengths to achieve something too many of us take for granted.
Vu was 20 years old when her father urged her to follow her brother, who was the first to escape. She is now 41. Vu says she was not afraid, though the Vietnamese communists sank boats they could spot and killed many who tried to escape. Vu tried twice to escape, but pulled back when she sensed danger. On her third try, she succeeded.
Vu's father, a retired officer in the South Vietnamese Army, gave her two gold bars to pay for the journey. She was taken in a small boat that held no more than three people to a larger boat that waited offshore in darkness. "We spent seven days on a trip to Malaysia with no food, only water and the water consisted of three bottle caps each day."
Later she was transferred to another refugee camp in the Philippines where she spent six months before the paperwork was completed and she was allowed to come to Virginia where her older brother lived following his escape.
What does freedom mean to Kim Vu? "It means a lot, because I lived with communists, who wouldn't let me go to school," she says. "I am very appreciative to live in this country." Vu became a U.S. citizen in 1995.
What would she say to her now fellow Americans who might take their freedom for granted and not appreciate the country as much as someone who once experienced oppression? "They need to see what other countries don't have that we have here," Vu points out. "Some people don't see, so they don't know."
Vu now cuts hair at a shop in Arlington, Va. I ask her what she likes best about America. She laughs and replies, "Everything is good."
How many native-born Americans think this way?
Vu maintains contact with relatives still in Vietnam (three of her six siblings are now in the United States). And while things are "better" in her native country than when the communists first took over, she says, "It is still a government-controlled country." Citing as one example the restrictions on her Catholic church, Vu says the church must ask permission from the government "about what time they can do the Mass."
America is too often criticized for its actual and perceived shortcomings. Critics seem incapable of appreciating America's exceptionalism, including President Obama who has dismissed the notion by saying everyone feels their country is exceptional. If that were true, why do so many want to come here? Perhaps it takes someone like Kim Vu to remind the rest of us not only of the cost of freedom, but just how fragile freedom is and how it must be constantly fought for if it is to be maintained.
More than anything else we might possess, or hope to possess, freedom ought to be at the top of every American's list of things for which we should be thankful every day, not just at Thanksgiving.
© 2010 Tribune Media Services Inc.