An American Dream
At 23, Sonia Nga Johnston arrived on U.S. soil with little more than the clothes on her back. Today she's a bank president.
Growing up in South Vietnam, Sonia Nga Johnston wanted to learn English so she could communicate with the American soldiers she saw on the streets of Can Tho. It was her passion, she says.
One day, Johnston (whose name then was To Nga) noticed a soldier carrying a bag on his shoulder. “My Mamasan do laundry,” said the 14-year-old, attempting to make conversation by finding something in common. The soldier followed her home, assuming she meant that her mother did laundry for soldiers.
“My mother said, ‘I don’t know how to do American clothes!’ ” Johnston recalls. But she took his laundry anyway. The soldier kept coming by, and others, too.
“That’s how we started,” says Johnston, now regional president for John Marshall Bank in Arlington County. She still laughs at the misunderstanding. “We started doing a laundry business and I started learning English [from the customers]. When you learn a foreign language, you cannot be shy. You have to be willing and able to make mistakes.”
From then on, she was always armed with a Vietnamese-English dictionary. Little did she know English would become her ticket out of a country ripped apart by war.
During her teenage years, Johnston’s language skills earned her a job at the U.S. consulate in Can Tho, where she served as a translator and accountant, and assistant manager for the commissary.
When the outlook turned dire for the South Vietnamese—“there were bombs, people running, people dying in the streets,” she says—the consulate offered her a chance to leave the country. She had to decide quickly whether to take it.
“Go,” said her parents.
So it was that on April 30, 1975, Johnston found herself standing on the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon, waiting for a helicopter. She was 23.
“I was scared,” she says. “You have no idea where you are going. I never left home before.”
She carried a small handbag with a change of clothes, a nightgown, photographs and a personal directory of the family she was leaving behind. The pilot said he could take her or the handbag; not both.
She boarded the helicopter, and then a 747—her first time on a plane. Engine problems forced the plane to land near Con Son Island, home to a prison camp for North Vietnamese political prisoners known as the “tiger cages.” The plane’s passengers sat in the darkness, waiting for other transportation.
At last, a helicopter arrived, carrying Johnston to a U.S. Marine ship with an opening for planes to land—“a huge mouth, like a fish.” It was 11:45 p.m. when she boarded the Marine vessel and heard the radio announcing the fall of Saigon. “The communists had taken over our White House; our palace,” she says. “We lost our country and I would never be able to go home. It was the saddest day of my life.”
From the Marine ship, Johnston was transferred to a bigger American ship packed with thousands of refugees who would come to be known as “boat people.” Many were getting sick—from starvation, the heat, the rolling ocean waves and the food on board. Again, Johnston saw death. Again, she used her English.
She told the crew the food was part of the problem—that they were serving things Vietnamese people were not used to eating. The ship captain asked for ideas and Johnston had them. She asked if the ship’s galley stocked rice, chicken and vegetables. “I ran around and asked for women volunteers who could help me,” she says.
They gathered in the kitchen, cooked for 24 hours, and handed out cups of rice and chicken soup to passengers—not enough to ease their hunger, but enough to sustain them.
After a 10-day voyage, the ship arrived at Wake Island in the Pacific, more than 3,800 miles from Vietnam. Johnston again volunteered to translate, this time on behalf of American officials in the refugee settlement office. She asked a steady stream of asylum-seekers: “Where do you go? Who do you know in America?” (Her own answer to that question: Her former supervisor from the consul’s office, Glenn Rounsevell, who lived in Falls Church.)
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