By Polly Keary, Editor
She wanted her son to know.
So at various points throughout her day, Julie Loan Ky Alexander, familiar to a generation of Monroe residents as the soft-spoken woman with the Vietnamese accent behind the counter at the Monroe Post Office, started writing her memories down.
Over several years she related the memories of school years during which she passed bodies of townspeople in the street, of the grim post-war years and the struggle not to starve, the lucky break that gave her a college education, and another that brought her to the United States from where she supported nearly an entire community, to the 2009 voyage that finally fulfilled her father’s last wish.
Originally, she only intended her memoir as a way to explain to her son and perhaps a few other relatives why she had come to America. But her husband, an enterprising inventor and businessman, saw a greater potential in her work, and encouraged her to find a publisher.
It didn’t take long. The second publisher to view it snapped it up, and in February her book, “A Rose on the Steel Ground,” was released.
Thursday, Alexander and her husband, Rick, talked about the book, the story behind it, and the long trek to the successful and comfortable lives they have today.
After the war
During the Vietnam War, above the ground, the rural district of Cu Chi outside Saigon was American-held.
But underground existed a virtual hidden city, and that belonged to the Viet Cong. A maze of tunnels stretching from Saigon to Cambodia, it contained living quarters, field hospitals, storage rooms, and hundreds of kilometers of secret passages from which fighters would erupt at night to terrorize their opponents.
The effort to infiltrate and eradicate the narrow, dark and heavily booby-trapped tunnels yielded some of the most traumatized veterans in the American military, and nothing ever succeeded.
So the military decided to rain firepower on the region instead, leading the region to become what the authors of the most definitive book on the area, “The Tunnels of Cu Chi,” called “the most bombed, shelled, gassed, defoliated and generally devastated area in the history of warfare.”
It was there that Alexander grew up. Nights often found her family huddled underneath the house in a tunnel, listening to battles rage above. Most days, on her way to school, Alexander saw the bodies of the combatants killed the night before stacked in a pile in the street.
But as traumatic as the war years were, the worst came when the war ended and the communist government took over, and it is during that period that Alexander’s book opens.
“The whole world turned upside-down,” she said.
At first, many celebrated the communist victory. But soon, reality revealed itself to be much different than expectations. The new government stripped citizens of wealth, literally bulldozing Alexander’s family store.
Soon the family was starving. Her parents and their eight children foraged for food every day. A restaurant they opened was destroyed. By the time she was a senior in high school, the only source of income for the entire family, which was growing due to marriages and children, was that earned by a brother-in-law who made deliveries in an old truck.
Alexander became determined to save her family. Her academic ability opened a rare opportunity; of more than 100,000 students screened by the government, she was one of 300 selected for a college scholarship, and she earned a master’s degree in accounting.
But just as her studies came to an end, her father died, extracting from her a promise before did; that one day she would visit his family in China and tell them that he had loved them.
Coming to America
After graduating in 1987, Alexander was assigned a job by the government, as all students were. She went to work for a large and successful company. The money she earned supported the family, but then the economy worsened in the 1990s, and the company teetered toward collapse.
Alexander decided to try her fortunes in America.
“I heard people say that money grows on trees in America,” she said.
She took an unusual route to emigration; she married one of the many people born to a Vietnamese mother and an American soldier, called Amerasians in Vietnam, where they were savagely mistreated and often sold as slaves.
She and her new husband applied for permission to emigrate. When the government found out, Alexander was viewed as a traitor to her country, and fired from her job.
When she and her husband finally were granted an interview with Immigration, she was desperately ill. Exhaustion and the stress of the responsibility she felt to spare her large family from their dire poverty had taken a toll.
She remembers the interview as profoundly terrifying.
“I felt like crawling across the floor because I was so weak with so many emotions,” she wrote in her book. “My hands were shaking and my eyes blurred. I thought was about to collapse from my fever and headache…I absolutely had to go to America. Otherwise, I would suffer, living in exhaustion hell in Cu Chi for the result of my life.”
When their application was approved, she fell to her knees in the hall, crying in joy.
They boarded a flight to San Francisco with no idea where their final destination would be, and arrived in March of 1993.
A new country
That destination turned out to be Fargo, North Dakota, where a family had offered to sponsor Alexander and her husband. The day they arrived, the city was waist-deep in show, the first snow she had ever seen.
The reception she got in Fargo was as chilly as the weather.
She quickly learned that her master’s degree in accounting was worthless in the United States. And, in spite of the fact that her English was better than most other immigrants, it wasn’t deemed good enough to qualify her to work anywhere at all, even in fast food.
Her marriage fell apart, as well.
In despair, she considered returning to Vietnam. But a distant relative in another part of the country convinced her to try a new location.
“I saved all the money I could and bought a bus ticket,” she said.
In June of 1993, she arrived in Seattle. And that was a whole new world.
“I had found my dreamland,” she wrote.
Suddenly all the skills she’d accumulated in a life of hard work became useful. Drawing on her skills in the restaurant business from her childhood, as well as her ability to do advanced accounting, she went to work for the owner of Seattle’s China Harbor restaurant, who also owned six other area restaurants.
There were 26 people in her extended family, and she supported them all. Living in low income housing, she sent every spare cent to her family, $900 one month, $1,000 the next.
That represented the difference between living and dying for her large family, and once they were eating regularly again, even neighbors began to benefit because, when they had enough, the family would share.
While working fulltime, Alexander enrolled at Shoreline Community College, studying nursing and improving her English. It was there she acquired the name Julie, which most people know her as today.
“My first friend in college was named Julie,” she remembered with a smile. “I asked my teacher to give me a name that would be easier to say for Americans, and she asked what name I liked. And I said I liked ‘Julie.’”
A new family
Working and attending school, Alexander was living on four hours of sleep a day, and her health began to suffer again.
But then she spotted an ad in the Northwest Asian Weekly, written in Chinese. An American man was looking for an Asian friend to help him access Asian manufacturing plants for an invention.
She responded, and met a tall, dark-haired man named Rick Alexander.
Worried by rumors she’d heard about the behavior of some American men, Alexander demanded he prove he wasn’t married.
“I had to go to the courthouse to prove I was single,” Rick remembered, chuckling.
Two month later, they were married.
“All my friends thought I was crazy,” Rick said. “We fought all the time. It was different cultures. It’s really hard to understand each other sometimes. You hear things in different ways.”
But he was captured by her determination and her sense of humor.
Within a year they had a child.
A year later, things in their lives took a radical turn for the better. His contracting business grew, and he found a manufacturer in Vietnam, then successfully marketed his invention, a safe holder for curling irons to prevent children from burns, now available at Bed, Bath and Beyond and on walmart.com.
She took the exam for employment at the U.S. Post Office, and passed.
Her husband renovated a house in Everett for them.
And Alexander finally got a job that ensured her family would have all they needed, working as a clerk at the Post Office in Monroe.
Fulfilling a last wish
Alexander’s long struggle has all paid off now.
Her son, now 16, is a good student and speaks three languages.
Rick willingly took up responsibility for helping her family get through the hard times, eventually buying land in Vietnam and building two homes there to house them all.
Alexander still assists her family in Vietnam. But the economy there has improved, and many have found jobs. They no longer live in fear of starvation.
She loves her job in Monroe, where she is a familiar face to an entire generation of residents after 16 years.
“Everywhere I go, the kids come up and say, ‘Hello, Julie,’” she said. “It’s a little overwhelming. Everyone knows me! I love the people in this town. Every single one of them.”
And in 2009, she fulfilled her father’s last request, traveling to China to meet his family there.
It was after that trip that Alexander began writing her book. Encouraged by her husband, she sent it to exactly two publishers, and the second one, a small publisher of Christian books, inspired by the quiet faith Julie references periodically throughout the book, offered her a contract.
The book was released last month, and soon she will appear at local book signings.
Today, when she and Rick visit her homeland, they are greeted as near-royalty.
“She should be the queen of Vietnam,” Rick said emphatically. “She is the only reason they all survived. Now, when we show up, the whole town comes out, and everyone is just rejoicing. And we have a dinner and roast a couple of pigs.”
People often approach her, saying they want to go to America to become rich like her.
It makes her angry sometimes, she said, when they act as if her success was merely the result of a plane ticket to a new country, instead of the decades-long ordeal it was.
“I tell them, it’s not easy,” she said. “They don’t know how hard I struggled.”
A Rose on the Steel Ground, by Julie Loan Ky Alexander, can be found at Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com, and Alexander has copies as well.
She can be found at the Post Office m