Thanksgiving is as American as turkey and pumpkin pie, but three Southeast Asian children most dramatically demonstrated the "gratitude attitude" during an assembly Wednesday at Hillside Intermediate School.
For the three, America means more than the traditional festive board with football on the side."I am happy to be in America where my family is safe," said Mok Toeun.
Looking very American in a black and white striped miniskirt and sweater, the petite Cambodian described a time in her life when safety was an impossible dream and war a grim reality.
"When I was very young, a war came to my country," she said. "There was shooting all over and people were screaming. My family ran to the river. My smallest brother rode on another brother's back. My sister was held at my mother's waist, and I was on my mother's back because I was too small to run.
"As we ran, my dad stepped on a land mine. It blew up and he was killed. When we reached the river, we got onto a boat, but two of my brothers were not able to get on the boat and they died."
The surviving family members, Mok said, got on a bus and rode for several days. Some of the passengers died en route to a camp. "Most people did not have any food. My mother had some cooked rice in a scarf, which we ate. We stayed in camp for a few days, then walked to an airport where we got on a plane and came to America."
Although America is a safe haven, measured by her early years, there still are emotional ties to Southeast Asia, particularly for her mother, she said. "Every day my mother thinks about her mother and father in Cambodia." The family has sent money to try to make a connection with those still in Cambodia, "but someone just takes the money, and we never hear from them."
Nghia Ly was in Vietnam during the difficult years of war.
"In July 1985, my father bought me a ticket to go on a boat with my 10-year-old brother," he told fellow students at Hillside. "I asked my father why, but he would only say that I must go. I got on a little boat and after about two hours, we got to a big ship. They put all the people inside the ship. I sat on the wood by the engine and it was very hot. At night I was able to go outside for five minutes.
"The next day, I saw pirates coming to our ship. We took a big banana tree and put it on front of the ship so they would think it was a big gun, so they went away."
The exiles finally arrived in Malaysia, where they studied English for five months before flying to the United States, Nghia said
"I write to my parents every month. Maybe in five or 10 years, they will be able to come to America too."
Phuong Le recalled the fall of Vietnam and the harsh communist rule that followed. "They took all the property of the rich. They put all people who worked with the former regime in the re-education camp. We are lucky to go out of Vietnam."
Her family has been in the United States just two months, she said. "This is our new homeland. We will live here forever. Really we love this country."
Phuong's thanks extended to teachers, the principal and even to school board members.
"I promise that I will try my best to be a good student . . . I thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to present to you my ideas about Vietnam and my dear new homeland."
Wednesday's assembly also featured one student group that offers special tutoring services to other students and another group that spent a Sunday morning under the Fourth South viaduct downtown helping to feed the homeless.
All of the "thanks-giving" events contributed to a week of expressing gratitude and sharing with others less fortunate. Hillside students collected more than 2,700 food items that were presented to Grady Walker of Utahns Against Hunger. He told the students their contributions would go to food pantries throughout Salt Lake City to "help many, many families. Thanks for your generosity and concern." He called on the students to look ahead to the day they will be the adult generation and challenged them to find more permanent solutions to society's needs.
During the week, students and faculty also wrote "thank you" notes to each other, staff, faculty and others who make their school experience special.
Included was a special hooray dedicated to the cafeteria: "Rub-a-dub-dub. Thanks for the grub!"
"We want to teach our students to be grateful and to share," said Nancy McCormick, assistant principal.
Wednesday's assembly showed evidence that the lessons are coming through.