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A cocoon shattered – MC76, a different immigrant story

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Prior to 1975, Lycee Marie Curie was a private French colonial school for the elite few in Vietnam. The monthly tuition alone was equivalent to an engineer salary. This is the story of a group of high school friends who grew up together during the war, fled the country when Saigon collapsed and have now settled all over the world, in the USA, Europe, Canada, Australia, and Vietnam.

We call ourselves MC76. MC for Lycee Marie-Curie, the name of the renowned Polish French scientist that our high-school in Saigon was named after. 76 for 1976, the year we would have finished 12th grade. For many of us living in the US, the year 2023 marks our eligibility for Medicare benefits. Coming to this milestone has brought our younger version into focus and reminded us of our childhood. This is our story, the story of separation, heartbreak, and perseverance.

We were growing up in the privileged cocoons of upper-middle class families in Saigon, Vietnam.  Born only a few years after the end of a 100-year-old French colonization, we were among the last generation to receive a French education.  For better or for worse, our coming-of-age years were different, unique, and special.  Up until that time, aside from the Tết Offensive in 1968, we had been relatively sheltered from the 20-year-old war that was tearing our country apart. We were too immersed in our own world to notice the chaotic reality around us.

Then it all came to an abrupt end in April 1975. When South Vietnam collapsed under the Communist North’s invasion, so did our youth, our innocence, and our carefree adolescence.   Our lives were turned upside down overnight. Many of us left the country as part of the mass evacuation in the last days of April 1975. Many managed to escape in later years, risking their lives as Boat People (some had perished in the process).  Others stayed in Vietnam and tried their best to survive under the new regime.

We were scattered all over the world, following our individual journeys at the whim and mercy of destiny.  With and without our parents, we shed away our privileged past and put on new coats of struggle and hardship, trying our best to build a new life in the new country, wherever the hands of fate had chosen for us in our sudden and unexpected exodus. We followed different career paths, and embarked on marriage and parenthood. We became productive members of the workforce, our communities, and our new respective countries.  But in the old drawer of our memory, the images of Lycee Marie-Curie Saigon persisted and waited.

After the dust settled with our adult endeavors, when aspirations for the future had been fulfilled, and the present was becoming a monotonous string of livelihood sustenance, we started seeing those past images slipping in and out of our dreams. Many nights we found ourselves approaching our school from Lê Quí Đôn, Phan Thanh Giản or Công Lý streets, entering the site gate on Ngô Thời Nhiệm, getting lined up in the courtyard, greeting our friends with big smiles, holding our besties’ s hands, and chatting nonstop until our voices got shouted out by the bell ring.  Many mornings we woke up confused and lost, our minds still in our hometown, struggling to reconcile with our bodies that had been transplanted to a totally different world for decades.  We would trade anything to be able to go back in time and relive our good old times, “nos bon vieux temps”, if only just for one day…

But since we couldn’t travel back in time, we would try to get caught up with our time and find ways to relive our good old days.  In 1996, we discovered email. A few of us started communicating with each other via email. Then more friends were contacted and brought in. Within months, our forum membership grew from a handful to over fifty. We called ourselves MCzoo and MCgolden to match our happy chaotic daily conversations and the precious golden bond we shared.  Every day, we tried to steal a few moments from life’s obligations to catch up with each other.  We shared old class pictures and tried to connect the names with the faces.  We chatted, joked, teased, and flirted as if the forum was our classroom and time had never lapsed.  Some of us reconnected with old crushes. Some found new partners. Sometimes we fought like teenagers. Through various political debates and personal strife’s, we disagreed, argued, and got mad. Then we kissed and made up. After all, our young version from the Lycee Marie-Curie days didn’t know politics and had no ego.  We seamlessly communicated in 3 languages, Vietnamese, French, and English, more cognizant and appreciative than ever of the different cultural and educational backgrounds that made up the colorful tapestry of our life.

Over the years, our group kept growing. Virtual reconnection turned into real reunions. We traveled from all over the world to meet each other in person. To shake hands. To hug and kiss. To look at each other’s eyes and smile in search of familiar expressions that would help validate our old recollections.

Over 4 decades and a world away from Ngô Thời Nhiệm street, our friendship has transcended time and space and kept us together. As I fill out my Medicare application, I cannot help marveling at what MC76 has overcome and achieved. My heart is filled with pride and gratitude for the privilege of sharing my childhood with this special group of friends, for the trials and tribulations that made us the strong and (hopefully) wise adults of today, and for the chance of sharing the next chapter of our life together.

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