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."
What does freedom mean to Kim Vu? "It means a lot, because I lived with communists, who wouldn't let me go to school. I am very appreciative to live in this country." She became a U.S. citizen in 1995.
What would Vu 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. Some people don't see, so they don't know."
Kim 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 U.S.). 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."
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.