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Into the great American melting pot. From Vietnam

IN the summer of 1979, when a boy of 18 or 19 from Southeast Asia was given a summer job as a lawn maintenance worker in a mobile home park in Florida, the other workers there found his real name too difficult to remember or pronounce. So they gave him a name of their own: Suki. Suki held no grudges at all. In fact, he adopted his new tag so he would fit. He lived in a house that was maintained by a local Protestant church.

Suki was one of thousands who fled South Vietnam during the fall of Saigon in 1975. His knowledge of English was a collection of assorted American slang, probably picked up from GIs. I came to know him on a coming-and-going basis between jobs. I often earned extra money doing odd jobs for the park residents. What I remembered most was his persistent happiness and joy, no matter what occurred during the day.

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This boundless enthusiasm was not only quietly inspiring to me, but for Suki it was probably a necessity. Happiness and joy were his armor. The park manager, not a very pleasant sort, had Suki doing every degrading and demeaning job he could come up with. Some of the tasks he performed would put a frown on my face, but not on Suki's.

The manager would cruise daily around the park in his Cadillac, making sure workers were not loafing. He would see Suki doing something he didn't approve of and get out of the car and give him a nasty scolding. Suki was the only individual I know who could smile during a berating like that. Of course it was possible that Suki only understood half of what the manager was saying.

No matter how angry the words spoken to him, Suki did not respond in kind. It wasn't in him. There was also another answer. The worst verbal anger, or the most degrading and difficult of jobs, couldn't compare to what he must have endured in 1975, fleeing his native land, and getting separated from his parents.

We often ate lunch together. I finished the job I was doing and would see Suki digging a ditch in the 95-degree heat. He was scarcely over five feet tall, standing up to his ribs in that ditch, trying to find China with his shovel. The ditch would fill with water rapidly, and he would watch it, wondering how to keep it out. We would pause and have a bite. His temporary guardians gave him a tuna fish sandwich, an apple or banana, and a jar of orange juice. He ate the tuna fish, but he wasn't enthusiastic about it. Hot dogs and hamburgers were his love.

As we sat there on the huge dirt pile, I wanted to find out how much Western culture he knew besides the hamburgers and hot dogs. He knew many expressions; ``no problem'' was one. He was impressed by the Cadillac the park manager drove around so pretentiously. Suki would jab his finger at it as it went down the road, and smile at me. ``Big money...,'' he would say over and over, ``biiiig money....'' I wanted to teach him the park manager's name, but there was a slight resistance there. The entire summer the park manager would always be known to him as ``Mr. Big Money.''

I asked what he knew about America, and was striking out much of the time. The President then was Jimmy Carter. But that didn't register. Suki's face was happy, the poached-egg eyes were alert for any word or phrase he knew. Former President Richard Nixon played a major role in ending involvement in Vietnam. But still the lines of communication were down between us. Politics wasn't working. But there was another avenue unexplored. Pretending to strum an imaginary guitar, I asked if he knew the name John Lennon.

Lightning had finally struck. ``OOOOOooohhhh, John Lennon good. ... You like?'' He spoke with glee. He also knew the names Elvis Presley and Mick Jagger. I laughingly wondered if entertainers shouldn't be schooled in foreign policy, since they have a more far-reaching effect than political figures do.

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Reluctantly he had to get back to work and finish the ditch for the construction of new sewer lines, which would come later when the earth had dried. ``Mick Jagger good...,'' he called out to me as I said goodbye.

I saw Suki regularly until Labor Day, 1979. Then he was gone. He was to be transported to a special refugee housing project somewhere in the state of Washington, or so I was told. I have read constantly in publications of the high rate of scholarly ability the Asian students have. I'm willing to submit he's not digging ditches today.

Just knowing Suki for the summer was inspiring. He had the attitude of trying to be a little better in some area than you were the day before. He didn't know much of America back then, but he understood the dream. He knew the possibilities were there, even though he couldn't express them. The way it was yesterday was not the way it had to be tomorrow.

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