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Lan Cao was just 7 years old when military forces launched an attack in her city outside of Saigon, Vietnam, in 1968. But she still remembers the chaos: the sound of automatic gunfire, the fighting near her house, how the sky lit up at night from explosions.
The North Vietnamese army and the Viet Cong launched similar attacks in more than 100 other South Vietnamese locations in what became known as the Tet Offensive. It was one of the biggest military campaigns of the Vietnam War and it began 50 years ago this week.
For Lan, the siege changed her life.
The Viet Cong captured her grandfather, who was a landlord, and killed him.
"My father found that my grandfather had been beheaded, and they had put his head onto the body of a pig," Lan tells her daughter, Harlan, in a StoryCorps interview in Westminster, Calif. in January 2015.
In 1975, Lan's parents told her she was going on a short trip to the U.S. with a family friend, John Fritz Freund, or "Papa Fritz," who was like a second dad to her, she says. The plan — as she understood it — was to stay with his family in Connecticut for a few weeks. So she packed her stamp collection and some books. She wanted to bring her German Shepard, Topaz, but she tells Harlan, Communist forces killed him.
It wasn't until she arrived in the U.S. that it registered that her move wasn't temporary — and she would need to adjust to American life.
"I would watch the American nightly news and see that each city was falling. That was when I realized that, oh my God, I'm not going back to Vietnam, and I'm going to be stuck living in this country without my parents," she says. "I was only 13. So that was when I began to seriously learn English."
Her parents joined her in the U.S. about a month later, and they eventually settled together in Virginia.
In those early days, Lan poured over library books and taped shows on cassettes, putting them under her pillow to play overnight so she could absorb the language.
She later graduated magna cum laude from Mount Holyoke College and earned a law degree from Yale. She's now a law professor living in Huntington Beach, Calif.
"You know, life is like a lotus flower. The lotus flower lives in mud and is open and blooms," she says. "If you come as a refugee with nothing, no matter what trauma you went through during the war — no matter what you have lost — you have to have the mental toughness to start over and to succeed."
That's what she's most proud of, she tells Harlan: "That I did not collapse, and I'm able to pass that on to you."
Audio produced for Morning Edition by Kerrie Hillman and Aisha Turner.
StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.
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