Tuesday, September 15, 2015

When the Worst Possible Thing...Isn't

What I Gained When I Lost show
Last Tuesday the Living Room reran one of our earlier episodes, called What I Gained When I Lost. As I listened a second time, it reminded me of an experience I had back in high school:

It was the audition for Concerto Night, a competition amongst my musical peers for a chance to perform in the spotlight with a live orchestra (the high school orchestra, but still, a pretty big deal). I had been studying and practicing this particular concerto, the Beethoven I, for over a year and a half. I had all 28 pages thoroughly memorized, backwards and forwards, they were polished, and perfected. I even had two amazing master classes with concert pianist Grant Johannessen. I was ready. Except for a tiny little problem I have called Performance Anxiety.

It turned out that my cousin’s wedding reception, in which I was a bridesmaid, was the same night as the concerto competition. I slipped out of the reception line a few minutes early, and my mother and I raced our car through the slushy city streets, arriving at the A cappella room just in time for one of the last remaining audition slots. I sat there, wringing and shaking my hands to warm them up after being out in the brisk February air.

They called my name. I stood up in my burgundy velvet bridesmaid dress, took a deep breath, and walked to the piano. All eyes were on me. The room was deathly quiet. I sat down, adjusted the bench, uttered a silent prayer for help, and nodded to my mom, who was playing the orchestra score on the second piano, to let her know I was ready. I’ve never been more ready for anything in my life.

I listened for the opening chords, then attacked my entrance with confidence and aplomb. The runs were rapid and crystal-clear. My fingers were flying fast over the arpeggios. I was off! Then  about halfway through the concerto, in a section that I knew so well I could play it in my sleep, I hit a wrong note.

It completely threw me off. I couldn’t find the next note, or the one after that. That passage I could play in my sleep suddenly became my worst nightmare. Flustered, I went back to a section where I could start over. When I got to the exact same spot I panicked again and couldn’t find the note.  I began again a third time, and eventually muddled my way through to the end. The finish was big and dramatic. But I knew I’d completely blown the audition.

I was devastated. Everything I worked on so diligently for over a year and a half suddenly seemed all for nothing. My dreams of playing with the school orchestra were shattered. I didn’t have to wait for the judges’ decision; I knew. I couldn’t even look anyone in the eye as I trudged back to my car in the snow. My mom was powerless to console me. God had let me down. My prayers hadn’t reached him…or they got His answering machine!

I stepped completely away from the piano and didn’t touch it again for 18 months. I couldn’t stand to be part of an art where you could perfect something, and still have it go abysmally wrong on the final performance. I thought about my writing, where you perfect a story or an essay, submit it to a contest, and win a scholarship. I thought about my artwork, and how you perfect a painting, put it in a frame and hang it up on a wall. It stays that way. Everyone who walks by can see it, just as you intended it to be.

I decided right then and there that I was going to major in art. For my creative sanity. I would create pieces and frame them and hang them. Period. No risk of the final product gone awry.

Looking back on that moment—where it seemed like the worst thing that could possibly happen had just found me and dragged me down to the abyss—from my current mid-life vantage point, God didn’t abandon me at all. He used that moment to nudge me with a course-correction. He was being kind. And even a little bit generous. To let me discover my career path early, rather than after several other failed attempts. In retrospect, the demise of my piano-playing future signaled the birth of who I was really meant to be.

What I gained when I lost? Was my better self.

The Living Room is airing a brand new show today: Seeing Your Spouse. Listen when it airs at noon on fromthelivingroom.com, or tune in at your convenience on iTunes: bit.ly/TLRShowiTunes

Monday, September 14, 2015

Epilogue: Phi-Phi's Refugee Saga

I first heard Phi-Phi Chang Anderton's amazing refugee story 17 years ago, sitting on the one chair in their mostly-unfurnished living room, while Phi-Phi sat across the room on a hammock. We sometimes laugh about it now. A lot has changed since then. Their house is absolutely lovely, beautifully furnished, and they have filled it with three beautiful children. Our relationship has grown from fresh acquaintance to deeply rooted friendship. I don't live in California any more, so we visit mostly via texts and emails...and in person every December. 

There's one thing that hasn't changed, though, across time and miles, and that's how Phi-Phi's story has impacted me and lived with me over the years. I sat spell-bound as she shared with me her attempted boat escape, her captivity, the jungle, being separated from her mother, finally coming to the U.S. and all the rest.

The back-story of how I came to write about it now is pretty interesting. I was sitting in sacrament meeting (our Sunday worship service), the weekend before Pioneer Day (July 24 in Utah), singing pioneer hymns, and wondering how we could make that cherished tradition more timely, more global, more 21st century. Suddenly my thoughts were drawn to my dear friend Phi-Phi, and how she, too is a pioneer, and a remarkable one. In that instant the Lord told me to write HER pioneer story.

I started writing what I remembered, but realized I needed way more detail, the facts had become a little fuzzy since I’d heard it from her mouth 17 years ago. So I shot her a quick email, asked if we could talk on the phone sometime. She texted me back a day or two later and said she was in town that week. Miracle! I had no idea.

We enjoyed a wonderful 3 1/2-hour lunch at La Jolla Groves where I took copious notes, recorded our conversation, and was blown away yet again by the enormity of her journey, her suffering, and her ability to rise above it all. I was also stunned by the miracles...the way the hand of God had put the right people in place at all the right times so Phi-Phi could be who and where she is today.

I initially thought maybe I should post the story for Pioneer Day, but the scope was too great, I couldn’t finish it in time. So I’ve been sort of sitting on it…until September 3, when that sweet little Syrian refugee was washed ashore in Turkey. Suddenly REFUGEES rose to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness, and the Lord said NOW. I wanted to do something, anything, to help, and I felt prompted to share her story, along with some links where people could donate to alleviate the current refugee crisis.

Photos covering Phi-Phi's living room on September 5, 2015
Fortunately, I had the first several episodes already written and ready to post. I texted Phi-Phi and told her what I was planning to do, and she was very much on board. She spent several nights and an entire weekend rummaging through boxes of old photographs looking for just the right pictures to accompany each episode of the story. We texted, emailed and/or spoke on the phone daily, often many times a day, fine-tuning the details of each segment of the story. It has been a true collaboration.

I'm so humbled to have been permitted to share her amazing story, and hopefully to have been a small vehicle for outreach during a global crisis. I've been so moved by the outpouring of love and compassion from so many readers. The response has been staggering. Thank you, each of you, for reading, for loving, for caring, and for embracing a portion of humanity by investing in this story and caring for those in similar straits.

I thought it was fascinating and significant that the same week I started posting this story,  modern-day apostle Jeffrey R Holland visited Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam—the same three countries where Phi-Phi's harrowing journey begins—to deliver a message of healing and hope.

In a previous visit to Asia, Elder Holland said that members there are spiritual pioneers, and commended them for their strong character, saying they work daily “to take a stand, to be loyal devoted Latter-day Saints. They are courageous; they live the gospel and square their shoulders to be what they ought to be.”  Phi-Phi embodies every quality he ascribes to these modern-day pioneers. My friend the refugee truly is a Pioneer Girl.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

One Refugee's Happy Ending

L-R: Garyn, Ronan, and Gillian Anderton: Father's Day photo for Bryan, 2015
This is the final episode of a story that starts here.
Phi-Phi graduated from Occidental College in 1995 with a degree in Women’s Studies and a specialization in International Politics. They moved to San Diego while Bryan attended law school. She has worked for the University of California, San Diego in La Jolla, and at Occidental College in Eagle Rock—first as an Admission Counselor, and later promoted to Assistant Dean of Admission.

After Bryan passed the bar exam and worked in the legal field for a while, he realized that he was more fulfilled creatively working in the entertainment industry. Bryan is a master craftsman with meticulous skills and a vivid imagination. Among his numerous credits are (Production Designer): Yo Gabba Gabba, and (Set Designer/Set Builder): Pirates of the Caribbean, SpiderMan, Thor, Interstellar (this one blew me away—we saw some of the photos before the film came out and it made us extra excited to see the movie), and most recently, Straight Outta Compton.

I met Phi-Phi at their newly-purchased home in Pasadena, in November of 1998. I was asked to be Phi-Phi’s visiting teacher when they first moved into the area—what began as an assignment quickly became a treasured friendship. I was pregnant with our youngest son at the time, and just a few months later they found out Phi-Phi was expecting too. Phi-Phi and I were both working mothers, and a year or so after their oldest daughter was born, Phi-Phi and I shared a wonderful nanny, Corrina Vasquez. Our children practically grew up together in Corrina’s care! 

The Anderton Family at Bryan's brother's funeral in 2015
Though I have long since moved away from California, we have been great friends for the entire time we’ve known each other. (Phi-Phi is amazingly good at keeping in touch!) Bryan and Phi-Phi now have three beautiful children—Garyn, Gillian, and Ronan, a tiny, picture-book perfect house with a giant vegetable garden in back; and more joy than she could probably imagine throughout most of this story.

In all of our conversations and interviews in preparation for sharing this story, Phi-Phi continues to express her gratitude for all of her experiences, the painful and heartbreaking ones as well as the miraculous and joyful and inspiring ones. She insists that all of them—the whole package—are what make her who she is today.

Who she is, in my experience, is a warm, bright, beautiful and generous person with a rich inner strength and a wealth of compassion. Phi-Phi is one of those rare people who is perpetually positive, who smiles on others like rays of the sun and warms you from the inside-out. She radiates love and embodies hope. She has made her home a bastion of peace, which reflects this biblical passage: “All thy children shall be taught of the Lord, and great shall be the peace of thy children.” (Isaiah 54:13)

It has been an extraordinary blessing to enjoy her friendship over the past 17 years. And it has been a very humbling opportunity to share her story here. Thank you for reading through to the end.  (Click here to read a brief epilogue about how this story came to be.)

Call to action:

Although Phi-Phi is definitely one in a million, there are still tens of millions of refugees in similar plights who need to be clothed, fed, rescued, sheltered, and loved. Just this week President Obama’s administration announced that while in this fiscal year the U.S. has accepted about 1500 refugees, next year he has increased that number to at least 10,000! This is wonderful news.

If any readers would like to join me in donating to the urgent cause of aiding today’s refugees, here are a few links to sponsoring sites with A- to A+ ratings by Charity Watch:

American Refugee Committee
Catholic Relief Services
Church World Service
Doctors Without Borders USA
International Medical Corps
International Rescue Committee
Lutheran World Relief
Mennonite Central Committee
Mercy Corps
Save the Children
United States Fund for UNICEF
World Vision

Friday, September 11, 2015

Pioneer Girl Falls in Love

Bryan and Phi-Phi during their courtship, and 20 years later.
This is Part 9 of a story that starts here.

Toward the end of her freshman year at Oxy, Phi-Phi was asked to speak in sacrament meeting at the Glendale Singles Ward—the Mormon congregation she was attending while at school. Her talk was a condensed version of this very story—about her refugee background and the miracles that brought her to America, to the church, to a new home and family.

A tough, rugged blue-eyed blonde named Bryan Anderton had moved to the Los Angeles area in January 1991 to intern with renowned photographer Jay P. Morgan. He had been attending the same ward for a couple of months, but Phi-Phi had never seen or noticed Bryan.

After church the Sunday she spoke, however, Bryan waited for her outside the building, about 25 feet away from where his motorcycle was parked. He introduced himself and told her how much he enjoyed her talk. Phi-Phi instantly loved his blue eyes. She was also attracted to his quiet confidence. “He was handsome, but so down-to-earth.” They chatted for a minute or two, then Bryan asked if she’d like to take a ride on his motorcycle sometime. Suave pick-up line. And very sweet, she thought. Phi-Phi protested, “But you only have one helmet.” Bryan quickly responded, “We can change that.” Two weeks later they went to the Honda motorcycle shop in Glendale for their second date and purchased two matching helmets…and they’ve been together ever since!

Bryan was quite a bit older than Phi-Phi, but her experiences had given her an unusual level of maturity, and truly, she was an “old soul” to begin with! Even though she was only 20 when they were engaged, Phi-Phi was overjoyed that love had found her when she was not looking for it or expecting it. She realized that she was as ready as Bryan to plunge into a loving, committed relationship.

That September, Bryan took Phi-Phi to her first-ever rock concert to see his all-time favorite band, Lynyrd Skynyrd. He proposed to her right there at the Irvine Meadows Amphitheater before the concert began, and she happily accepted!

Phi-Phi was also reunited with her birth mother that same September—13 years after they parted ways in Cambodia. She was able to take some time off from her studies at Oxy and went to Europe for two months to become reacquainted with her mother. She was there on her own for the first five weeks, and then Bryan joined her for the final three weeks.

Bryan and Phi-Phi were married in the Manti, Utah Temple (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) on April 2, 1992.

Here's a link to Part 10, the big finale!

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Pioneer Girl Goes to College

Phi-Phi with "mom," Margie, at high school graduation.
This is Part 8 of a story that starts here.

Phi-Phi’s senior year was tumultuous, to say the least. In her words, “It was exciting, joyful, stressful, heartbreaking, and intense. There were so many conflicting emotions.” —and so many miracles. Her heart was broken multiple times and shattered into many pieces. Yet that same broken heart was somehow still beating in her chest, keeping her alive, moving her forward. Phi-Phi was very eager to start college in the fall, start meeting new people, and begin a new chapter of her life.

She lived with the Stahelis for the next five months, calling them Mom and Dad, while she graduated from high school and continued there through the summer.

Phi-Phi was a conscientious, hardworking and disciplined student and earned outstanding grades and wonderful letters of recommendations from her counselor and teachers, and was consequently accepted by every college to which she applied.

Even with every door open for her, Phi-Phi chose Occidental College—a small liberal arts college in the Eagle Rock section of Los Angeles, just a 25-minute drive from San Gabriel. Phi-Phi selected Occidental for its academic excellence, its diversity, and its proximity. It turned out to be an excellent fit. She is very grateful for her Oxy experience.

The first year of college was academically rigorous, and a challenge for Phi-Phi. Having always been an excellent student, she was surprised to find herself suddenly getting B’s. But she forged ahead, in typical Phi-Phi fashion. The Stahelis continued to provide a wonderful home for Phi-Phi during school breaks and weekends, making the short drive to Oxy to pick her up many times during her freshman year.

In October of 1990, when Phi-Phi found out she had passed both the verbal and written parts of her U.S. citizenship exam with flying colors, it was a very emotional experience. Everything she’d been through since the age of six came flooding back to her…the aborted boat escape, the prison, the long walk through Cambodia, the separation from her mother, the bicycle trip through the jungle, the refugee camps in Thailand, the danger, the starvation and dehydration, the oppressive heat, the move across the continent, the death of her father. It was so much more than just the exams and the paperwork. This was her life.

The realization that she couldn’t call her dad (who had been with her through the entire journey), nor could she call her former boyfriend (who had been the love of her life until their breakup a few months earlier) was devastating and overwhelming. Instead, Phi-Phi reached out to the Stahelis, and Margie picked her up and brought her home.

Read part 9 here.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Pioneer Girl Phones Home

Phi-Phi and her mother at the beach, prior to 1974,
This is Part 7 of a story that starts here.

 Phi-Phi got word in February of 1990—just weeks before her father’s stroke—that her mother was finally able to leave Vietnam and had flown to Germany. She was sponsored by her father (Phi-Phi’s maternal grandfather), who had been sponsored (along with his second wife and their children) by other relatives back in the ’70’s, and had been paving the way for her for more than a decade.

Not having seen her mother in 12 years, Phi-Phi wasn’t quite sure how to respond to this news. She loved her mother, and she was grateful for her safe arrival in Germany, reunited with her father. But her mother had been absent for nearly all of Phi-Phi’s growing-up years, and Phi-Phi had no way to get herself to Germany. Phi-Phi also no longer spoke much Cantonese (her parents’ native tongue), so the language barrier heightened an already-existing emotional barrier. Their relationship was still suffering from the ravages of war.

When her father went into the hospital, Phi-Phi reached out instead to her former Young Women’s leader, Sister Corinne Blair, who served back in their congregation in Virginia. It didn’t matter that she was 3,000 miles away. They had been in touch and written letters back and forth over the past two years, and even chatted a few times.

Sister Blair, in the absence of Phi-Phi’s mother, had been a strong maternal influence in Phi-Phi’s life, and they spoke from time to time when Phi-Phi needed to talk about high school and boyfriend woes, longing for a mother’s input. Despite the mounting long-distance charges which Phi-Phi covered herself—not even a factor in today’s cellphone era—she reached out to Sister Blair via telephone. She needed some immediate assistance. She explained that her dad was in the hospital, in a coma, and she had nowhere to turn.

Miraculously, Corinne Blair had a relative who was living in California, not far from where Phi-Phi was living. She had already reached out to this relative and expressed her concern for Phi-Phi. This relative for some reason knew who the bishop in the area was: Ray Lowry. She called Bishop Lowry and told him about Phi-Phi.

Phi-Phi had gone to school with Bishop Lowry’s sons, Jake and Joe Lowry. She even sat next to Joe in her A. P. Economics/Government class. But since Phi-Phi hadn’t been attending church, she had no idea their dad was the bishop.

Three days before Phi-Phi’s father entered the hospital, on March 25, 1990, an inspired Bishop Lowry stood up and announced in a priesthood meeting that there was a senior girl at San Gabriel High School in need of some care and a place to live.

Douglass Staheli heard the announcement and instantly thought they should offer to take her into their home. But when he approached his wife, Margie, about the idea, she gave him a flat “no.” All of their children were grown, and they had a few grandchildren. Margie was in her early fifties, working full-time, serving in a leadership capacity at church, and feeling completely overwhelmed. Doug patiently invited her to pray about it.

At first Margie prayed half-heartedly, with her mind closed off to any answers because she only wanted to say no. She experienced a great deal of internal turmoil over whether or not they should take in this child who was a refugee and a complete stranger. But as the days wore on, Margie’s will began to soften.

Meanwhile, Bishop Lowry got on his knees and prayed to Heavenly Father to help him find a couple or a family that Phi-Phi could live with. Her father was now in the hospital, an hour away in Orange County, in a coma. The situation was urgent, the need was dire.

Bishop Lowry arranged for Phi-Phi to meet Doug and Margie Staheli the evening of Thursday, March 29. That afternoon Margie poured out her whole heart and soul in prayer, explaining that she couldn’t do this, she was exhausted, but if God wanted them to take in this child, please give her some sort of sign so she’d know it was His will. As soon as she got up off her knees, the doorbell rang. It was Phi-Phi.

Margie opened the door and the minute she saw Phi-Phi her heart was flooded with joy. This was her answer. She knew in that instant that Phi-Phi had always been destined for their home, that this was a daughter she never gave birth to, but was always meant to have. She wrapped her arms around Phi-Phi and hugged her—the warmest and tightest hug Phi-Phi had ever received.

Reflecting on this experience, Margie says to be careful which challenges we shy away from—sometimes the greatest blessings are unexpected, inconvenient, and come in the least-shiny packages. Phi-Phi has been a total joy to their family ever since that first meeting, 25 years ago.

Phi-Phi moved in with the Stahelis that Sunday— April 1, 1990. Her father passed away five days later, on April 6—just ten weeks before her high school graduation. The Stahelis became her de-facto parents and their house became her new home.

Read part 8 here.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Pioneer Girl Goes to California

This is Part 6 of a story that starts here.

After six years in Virginia, Phi-Phi’s father secured work in California. Phi-Phi had completed parts of ninth and tenth grade at Washington-Lee High school (alma mater of Shirley MacLaine, Warren Beatty, and Sandra Bullock), but she left mid-year. Together she and her father drove across the country in an old car, during the first couple of days of 1988, so that Phi-Phi arrived in time to begin her second semester of her sophomore year at San Gabriel High School in California.

They had been attending two smallish congregations of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—both an Asian branch, where her dad had served in various capacities, and an English-speaking congregation. Phi-Phi had friends from both of these congregations, but it was a lot of church, often 6-hour Sundays.

Shortly after their move to California it became difficult for Phi-Phi and her father to remain active in the Mormon church. They were living in San Gabriel. Her dad was very busy and ended up having to work on Sundays (he had a number of different jobs) and Phi-Phi always felt like she was imposing when she had to ask someone for a ride. She didn’t have the young women leaders she’d become so close to in Virginia, and their family didn’t have visiting teachers (women who stop by monthly to check on them and see if they have any needs and leave a spiritual message) because she didn’t have a mother in the home. So even with the church’s extensive infrastructure, the Changs eventually just slipped through the cracks.

Phi-Phi attended off and on during her junior year, and attempted to do seminary, but wasn’t consistent—not for lack of faith, but because it became so complicated and inconvenient. There weren’t cell phones or texting or many of the easy ways we stay in touch with people now. She didn’t have a car or a telephone answering machine.

During her senior year she completely fell away and didn’t attend church at all. Phi-Phi credits her good friends for the fact that despite not being active in her faith, she didn’t fall into drinking or smoking or other bad habits. Many of her friends were also immigrants to this country. They were hard-working, conscientious and dedicated students. Phi-Phi was undoubtedly a good influence on them as well.

During high school Phi-Phi always held a part-time job and earned her own money for clothes, make-up and other expenses. It was a constant balancing act between work, studies, and extracurriculars. Phi-Phi kept herself very busy with multiple activities. She loved school and loved being involved. She was elected as one of six Homecoming Princesses.

She was also voted Vice-President of the Mexican-American Student Organization, the first time ever for a non-Latina to serve on the executive board. She was affiliated with several other clubs as well. For her extensive involvement in the community, she was awarded a scholarship by the Latino Peace Officers Association. These were important personal accomplishments, acknowledging her ability to cross racial lines. It is very much in her nature to be inclusive of everyone.

At this point Phi-Phi’s father was living most of the time in Orange County, where he managed a motel, and Phi-Phi was essentially living on her own, seeing her father just a couple of times a week. It was 1990. Her senior year was wrapping up, she was preparing for A.P. exams, and involved with a boyfriend, whom she cared for deeply—her first love.

Phi-Phi's father in his 20's.
Suddenly, on a random Wednesday in late March, while Phi-Phi was experiencing a normal, stressful day at school, Phi-Phi’s father suffered a stroke. He was rushed to Hoag Hospital in Orange County, where he underwent brain surgery that evening. The surgery was successful, in that they were able to remove the clot, but he was unable to wake up afterward. He was in a coma for several days, and eventually passed away, on April 6, 1990.

Phi-Phi was completely alone. She had just lost the only parent she had known since the age of seven. They were not particularly close to their neighbors or church community in San Gabriel, things were becoming complicated with her boyfriend, and Phi-Phi didn’t know who she could turn to for help or advice. These were dark and terrible days, extremely difficult, and she strongly felt the powers of the adversary attempting to drag her down. But something inside her refused to let go.  She had always known the truth, and she said, “the truth is always inside you.”

She searched her heart and picked up the phone to call someone she knew still loved her and cared about her.

Read Part 7.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Pioneer Girl on a Plane, Heading East

Phi-Phi and her father during their first winter
in the U.S.—late 1981 or early 1982.
 This is Part 5 in a story that starts here .

At last they boarded a plane headed for America. One flight attendant thought Phi-Phi was so cute, she bumped them up to First Class. Phi-Phi and her father soared above the clouds, headed to the western hemisphere. It was July of 1981 when they landed in San Francisco, welcomed to our borders. Again, someone overcome by the sight of little Phi-Phi bought her ice cream in the San Francisco airport.

Phi-Phi and her father were transferred to Washington, D.C. They first stayed in a house in Virginia—which they shared with multiple families. There they received their first gifts from the United States: A brick of government cheese and a loaf of Wonder Bread. (To this day, even though she knows it’s terrible for you, Phi-Phi loves the taste of Wonder Bread.)

A couple of days after her arrival in Virginia, Phi-Phi remembers watching the royal wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana, which was all over the television at the time, and being stunned by so much luxury and opulence, having just come from a refugee camp.

Two days later Phi-Phi’s dad got a job in Crystal City and they got a little apartment of their own in Arlington, Virginia. Phi-Phi entered fourth grade, first as an ESL student, then mainstreamed after the first semester. She had fabulous, caring teachers and Phi-Phi worked very hard to take full advantage of the educational opportunities she was offered. Even at her young age she was very grateful and made up her mind to apply herself so she could give back someday.

In the fourth grade (1981) she met a lovely friend, Christy Denslow Tyner. Christy’s dad had served in the Vietnam war and met her mother there, so Christy was half caucasian, half Vietnamese. Christy was Phi-Phi’s first friend in the U. S., and they’ve been good friends ever since. Thirty years later, they are still in touch, seeing each other at least once or twice a year.

Phi-Phi's father in December 1983, not long after
they joined the Mormon church.
But perhaps the most surprising acquaintance they made was with two Mormon missionaries who knocked on their door one day, when Phi-Phi was in the sixth grade. Both she and her father were impressed by their teachings and chose to be baptized, becoming members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in March of 1983.

During 8th grade they moved to a basement apartment in McLean, a more privileged area, and Phi-Phi rode the bus with children whose parents were CEOs, diplomats, politicians, professional athletes, etc. There she had her first crush—and boyfriend—who was the son of a powerful U.S. politician. "He was a sweet and super nice young man," she says. Phi-Phi found still more good friends at school and at church, and wonderful Young Women leaders who would love and mentor her.

Phi-Phi says of her life at this point: "I only want others to know how blessed I am by Heavenly Father. How He gave me life through my mother in Vietnam, how He gave me life when I had the opportunity to come to the United States and how He gave me life again when the missionaries taught me the gospel."

And yet misfortune was lurking right around the corner.... 

Read Part 6 here.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Pioneer Girl and the Missionaries

This is Part 4 in a story that starts here .

Phi-Phi at Phanat Nikom, possibly at the time
their names were called for departure to the U.S.
They were in this second camp for 18 months, from early 1980 to the summer of 1981. Phanat Nikom, Chonbury looked and felt more like an actual camp—there were little wooden shelters, and cots to sleep on. There was even a restaurant and a store, where people who had been sent money could purchase extras, like coffee, candy and cigarettes.

Phi-Phi and her dad rarely availed themselves of this luxury, not wanting to impose on their friends and relatives, but it was at this camp that Phi-Phi received her first doll—a chubby caucasian baby doll about six inches tall, purchased at the camp store for her by some friends they met in camp who had a little extra money from relatives already living in the U.S.

Humanitarian relief missionaries from several Christian churches volunteered at the camp. Some donated food and other provisions. Others taught English classes and American culture classes, where they learned things like how to fill out forms and register for school, how to use a telephone, how the currency system worked, how to shop at the store—simple things we take for granted that were all very foreign and unknown to most refugees.

Because Phi-Phi’s father spoke several languages, including English, the missionaries used him as a translator for their English and culture classes.

One missionary from the English-teaching program, Sister Cindy Bateman, befriended Phi-Phi and they remained in touch for over 30 years, writing each other as pen pals long after Phi-Phi and her father had left the camp. There was no proselyting and Phi-Phi had no idea which denomination had sent this missionary to help her family.

When their names were called, Phi-Phi and her father were sent to a third camp—this one just a holding station where they stayed for 3-4 nights awaiting their travel documents, which would be provided by the World Relief Organization. On the last day they were given plane tickets, boarding passes, and finally shuttled to the airport....

Read Part 5 here.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Pioneer Girl on a Bike

This is Part 3 in a story that starts here: Read part one first.
Read part two next: 

Phi-Phi and her father hired a second coyote. Still in flip-flops, she rode on the back of a bicycle with her father another 150 miles down a trade route that stretched from Cambodia to Thailand.

Riding/walking both day and night through a dense jungle, pedaling their way through brush and vines, it took them an entire week to get to Thailand. She never left her father’s side. Phi-Phi remembers drinking from cattle troughs, and using her hands to scoop water from mud puddles on the ground (her father gave her pills so it wouldn’t make her sick). They just did whatever was necessary to stay alive.

This was the most dangerous part of the entire escape, because the deadly, xenophobic Khmer Rouge, in power since 1975, was an extremist rule known for routinely executing escapees, foreigners and intellectuals. (Phi-Phi's father fit all three categories).

Finally at the border of Cambodia and Thailand, they were greeted by volunteers from the Red Cross, who were there expecting 2-3 hundred refugees a day. Instead they received 2-3 thousand per day. As you can imagine, resources were extremely limited.

This photo is not one of Phi-Phi's, but was taken at a camp from the same time period in Thailand. The conditions appear to be identical to Phi-Phi's description. It is from this website: http://freevolunteerthailand.org/ct-menu-item-3/ct-menu-item-17/11-article-10.html

Phi-Phi and her father were assigned to Camp 009 in Thailand. “Camp” consisted of tarps spread on the dirt, no actual shelter—not even a tent. There was hardly any food or water. They received some watery soup from a truck every day.

Phi-Phi remembers being constantly hungry, thirsty and hot during their stay at Camp 009. They were supposed to be there only briefly—2 or 3 days—but because of the limited resources they were there for nine months.

About halfway through their stay the camp was attacked by warfare. There were shootings and bombings and all the refugees had to run for cover. Phi-Phi’s dad grabbed her by the hand and kept saying, “Just run faster!” They (and thousands of others) ran into the relative shelter of a trench until it was safe to go back to camp.

While they were there her father added their names to two departure lists: one headed for Sweden, the other to the United States. He was hoping for Sweden because he thought their life might be easier there, where he had been to school in the past.

Finally their names were called for the list headed to the U.S. (It turned out only 6 refugees were admitted to Sweden.)  Phi-Phi and her father were transferred to a second camp...where they actually had shelter this time.

Read Part 4 here.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Pioneer Girl in a Bowl Cut and Flip-Flops

This is part two of a story that starts here: Read part one.

Phi-Phi and her father
Phi-Phi’s dad had a distant relative who was Chinese, but spoke both Chinese and Vietnamese, and knew all the passages through Cambodia to safety in Thailand.  He was working as a coyote—a guide to aid escaping refugees from Vietnam to safety. They paid this coyote in gold bricks—a fortune then, and now. Her father and other family members paid for the safe passage of three groups before them—nieces and nephews departed first because teens and young adults were in the most danger under the communist rule.

Phi-Phi and her parents were in the fourth group to cross the border with the coyote. Her parents gave her an extra-short haircut so she’d look like a boy. They thought less danger could befall her that way. They dressed her in a reddish Cambodian-style boys’ shirt, white pants and flip-flops. Together, they walked for several days, covering hundreds of miles. When they arrived in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, they walked right into another communist invasion. There were bomb strikes, gunfire, and widespread chaos. They did not speak Cambodian, which only heightened the confusion and anxiety of arriving in a full-on war zone. 

At this key point in the journey, their coyote abandoned them, ignoring his promise of safe passage to Thailand, and they were left alone in this war-torn country with very little money, having given nearly everything they had to the guide to finance their escape. Homeless, friendless, and practically penniless, they spent two months in an abandoned building in Phnom Penh while they regrouped, and the grown-ups concocted Plan C. 

In the end, it came down to finances. After pooling their resources, they still did not have enough money to get everyone in their party to Thailand, so they decided that the women would return to Vietnam. The reason was nobler than it sounds—the men would be immediately executed or imprisoned for life if they went back; the women would be treated more mercifully. So the mothers sacrificed themselves and their freedom for the safety and progress of their husbands and children.

Phi-Phi and her mother, prior to 1974.

When Phi-Phi’s mother stood at the side of the Mekong River and told her, “I love you. Be good for your father,” then stepped onto a little fishing boat, Phi-Phi had no idea this was a long-term farewell, and a courageous goodbye. She didn’t see her mother again for 13 years. 

Read Part 3 here.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Refugees are Pioneers

In the aftermath of the tragic discovery of a 3 year-old Syrian refugee washed ashore in Turkey yesterday, I reached out to my friend Phi-Phi, who was a child refugee herself nearly 40 years ago. She responded, "That is immensely heartbreaking. But it seems that all stories related to refugees, wherever we are, have one level of heartbreak or another." 

would like to offer you Phi-Phi's own story, of escaping Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon. What I love most about this story (besides her personal resilience) are the many miracles, and the overarching message of hope. We need this story today. I am so grateful our nation and others around the globe opened their doors and their hearts, offering assistance to these refugees, so my friend is alive to tell her story today. 

Should you feel moved to lend a hand toward rescuing other refugees, there are links at the bottom of the post. Refugees are pioneers. I hope you'll join me in their rescue.

Phi-Phi Chang Anderton, circa 1976

Pioneer Girl in a Fishing Boat 

One of my favorite pioneers was born not in the 1800’s, but in 1971. Her name is Phi-Phi Chang Anderton, and she was born in Saigon. Her father was raised in a family that was quite well off—he was educated in Europe, spoke seven languages, owned several homes...and had a big Chevy Impala that was the talk of the town. 

When the Fall of Saigon took place on April 30, 1975, Phi-Phi was just four years old.  Although communist North Vietnam had succeeded in unifying the north and south under a single government, the regime was unsuccessful in rebuilding the nation and the economy after the war. 

In 1976 they established the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Their leader, Lê Duẩn, retailiated against the South for their resistance and sought to purge those who had fought against the North. He imprisoned over a million, instigating a mass exodus and humanitarian disaster. A 1983 human rights survey called Vietnam under Lê Duẩn “the single most repressive government in the world.”

In 1977, when Phi-Phi was six years old, she and her parents and grandmother, stifled and endangered under this socialist regime, packed themselves like sardines into a small fishing boat, among hundreds of other escapees, in an effort to flee. These lovely, educated people had become “boat people.”

It was the middle of the night. The sky was the color of ink, with thick vapors of fog rising off the water. The overcrowded boat slipped down the narrow waterway, tall ferns and skinny trees lining the shores on either side, the distant mountains not even visible.Suddenly, less than an hour after leaving shore, the boat was accosted by communist soldiers, who stood over the escapees, shouting and pointing machine guns at them. They were captured. 

Everyone on the boat was hauled off to a government facility, where the men were separated from the women and children—the men were sent to prison, and the women and children were held in a room the size of a small gymnasium—given military calorie bars instead of food, and buckets in the corners for bathrooms. They lived there under those pitiable conditions for a week, then were released.

Her father didn’t fare as well. He was kept in prison for six months, when finally some money changed hands to expedite his release. During those months when her father was incarcerated, Phi-Phi’s maternal grandmother had passed away, experiencing freedom only in the next life. It took the family another year to gather resources and put the plans in place for a second escape. This time they would not travel by boat. Enter Plan B.

This is part one in a series. Read what happened to Phi-Phi and her family next here.

If any readers would like to join me in donating to the urgent cause of aiding today’s refugees, here are a few links to sponsoring sites with A- to A+ ratings by Charity Watch:

American Refugee Committee
Catholic Relief Services
Church World Service
Doctors Without Borders USA
International Medical Corps
International Rescue Committee
Lutheran World Relief
Mennonite Central Committee
Mercy Corps
Save the Children
United States Fund for UNICEF
World Vision