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.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And it's time for StoryCorps. Fifty years ago this week, Lan Cao's family was living just outside of Saigon getting ready to celebrate the Lunar New Year known as Tet. But the North Vietnamese army and the Viet Cong launched a surprise attack on her city and more than 100 other locations across South Vietnam. This fighting became known as the Tet Offensive, and it was a pivotal moment in the Vietnam War that led to a decline in public support back in the United States. Lan Cao was 7 at the time. She shared her memories of the offensive with her daughter, Harlan. And just a warning - there are some graphic descriptions here.
LAN CAO: There was so much fighting very near our house. You could hear automatic gunfire. The sky would be lit up with explosions at night. And then my grandfather was a landlord and was captured by the Viet Cong. They killed him, and my father found that my grandfather had been beheaded, and they had put his head onto the body of a pig.
HARLAN VAN CAO: What do you remember about the day you left Vietnam?
CAO: My parents told me that I'm just going on a short trip with Papa Fritz. He's sort of like a second dad for me. And he was going to take me to Connecticut to be with his family for maybe a few weeks. So I packed up my stamp collection and some books, and that was it.
HARLAN: What is something that you really wanted to bring but you couldn't?
CAO: I wanted to bring my dog, Topaz. He was a German Shepherd. But they killed the dog.
CAO: I don't know why they killed the dog.
HARLAN: Was it hard for you to adapt to your surroundings when you arrived?
CAO: Well, 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, and I was only 13. So that was when I began to seriously learn English, and I started going to the library, reading books, taping shows on a cassette tape and then putting it under the pillow and playing it overnight so that I would just absorb the language. You know, life is like a lotus flower. The lotus flower lives in mud and is open and blooms.
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 I'm most proud of, that I did not collapse, and I'm able to pass that on to you.
(SOUNDBITE OF YANN TIERSEN'S "LA LONGUE ROUTE")
GREENE: That was Lan Cao with her daughter, Harlan Van Cao. Lan is a law professor living in Huntington Beach, Calif. That story will be archived at the Library of Congress and featured on the StoryCorps podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.