As they deplaned in Charlotte, they were filled with trepidation and apprehension as to what they would find. They need not have worried. With one brief exception, what happened next and continuing for months afterwards, was Exhibit A of the U.S. at its finest and of an immigrant family determined to succeed.At Charlotte International Airport, the Luus were greeted by an array of signs (in Vietnamese) identifying those awaiting their arrival, plus a Vietnamese interpreter. “They greeted us warmly and made us feel welcome,” said Kieu, “They seemed genuinely glad to see us.” Outside the terminal, the Luu family piled into a van and was taken to McDonalds for hamburgers. It was also the first time any of them had seen snow. The next stop was 801 Ransom St., Gastonia, North Carolina, a cozy Cape Cod type bungalow on a woodsy street. It was to be their home for the next four years. In 1980, America’s churches took the lead in preparing for the increased influx of Vietnamese refugees, fleeing from the harsh communist regime in Vietnam. That being the case, the Luus landed in the mother lode. Gastonia, located 22 miles southwest of Charlotte, with a population of just under 72,000, has about 100 churches, give or take, listed with Gastonia mailing addresses. The Luus were assigned to a group of seven of these churches – all of them itching to help. The churches arranged for a rental of the Ransom Street house, and paid the deposit plus the first three months’ rent. Then, they fully furnished the house including pots and pans and loaded up the freezer and refrigerator with food. After the Luus moved in, the group brought over bags of donated clothes. “We kept the clothes that would fit,” said Kieu, “What was left, we gave [to charity].” The churches also brought food over, or would transport Kieu’s mother to a store when necessary. “I thought that I had died and gone to heaven,” recalls Kieu, “Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine we would be treated like this.” Even the house (about 1,500 square feet) of three bedrooms and two full baths, seemed like a palace to the Luus. They managed to cram in the entire family – the parents in one bedroom, the five girls in the second, and the three boys in the third. But there is, after all, another side to the American psyche. Shortly after they moved in, a group of people broke every window in the house, by throwing bricks and rocks. Fortunately, the family was not at home when this occurred. “We all were shocked and didn’t understand what was going on at the time, until the interpreter explained it to us,” Kieu recalls, “Our parents told us that we were different from them and they didn’t like outsiders. We were the only Asians in town.” The next-door neighbors had been welcoming and there had been no reason to expect anything like this. After three months, as anticipated, help from the church group was withdrawn. They urged the Luus to apply for government assistance, but Kieu’s father refused to do so. “He was a proud man,” said Kieu, “and had always felt it was the parents’ sole responsibility to provide for the family. ‘Hard work won’t kill you. Laziness will,’ they told us.” Kieu’s dad got a job in a nearby textile mill to which he could walk. The girls would take his dinner down to him. After that, “we were on our own,” Kieu said.
Almost immediately, Kieu and her school age siblings were enrolled in the Gastonia public school system. Kieu was placed in the 6th grade and was amazed at what she saw there. “I had never seen anything but Asians before coming here,” she said, “The school was filled with kids of all different races. It took some getting used to.” Kieu could only sit in class, without having any idea what was going on, but was able to participate in some math exercises on the blackboard. Other than that, only the pictures in the textbooks meant anything to her. An American tutor came to the house once a week to teach her some English and help with her assignments, but it took six months to gain even a rudimentary understanding of this strange new language. She believes her classmates treated her with kindness, “But I couldn’t understand what they were saying,” she added.
In September 1980, Kieu was promoted to the seventh grade at Ashley Junior High School, where she really started to blossom. Until June, Kieu never had a chance to practice her English, as only Chinese was permitted to be spoken at home. TV was similarly not allowed. When her parents finally gave in, Kieu started a crash course in English, aided mainly by TV programs. “You’d be amazed at what you can learn from TV,” Kieu said, “I began to pick up on what they were saying by recognizing the situations they were in.” She also began practicing her (cursive) writing in preparation for the coming school year. By November, she had produced two papers for her English class that would have done a National Honor Society member proud. The syntax, grammar, spelling and writing were all but flawless. The compositions, one about life in the U.S., the other about Vietnam, were perceptive and eminently readable. It was stunning to see what she had done after less than a year in the U.S.
Through high school, Kieu had no social life and was sometimes teased about her “slant eyes.” She had to help care for her siblings after school as well as work to bring in some income. She was not allowed to talk on the phone with boys, nor participate in school activities. Only at the end of the day, with chores complete and the young ones in bed did she have time to attend to her studies.
Kieu graduated from high school in 1986 with an unweighted GPA of 4.0, and got a scholarship at a nearby college. Her education was interrupted by a marriage to her high school sweetheart and the birth of her two daughters. After a transfer to San Francisco in 1994, the marriage ended in divorce, with Kieu awarded custody of her daughters, both of whom have college degrees.
2007 was a big year for Kieu. She received a BA in Business from Phoenix University, all while working a graveyard shift and raising her kids. And, she married Steve Banks, her newest best friend, and later business partner. In 2010, she and Steve moved from San Francisco to Naples, Florida to care for Steve’s ailing father. Steve got a job as executive chef and Kieu worked at a friend’s beach concession in Bonita Springs.
In 2011, upon the death of Steve’s father, they decided to go into business for themselves and started burning through their savings, buying and renting paddleboards and kayaks. They would store the vessels in their Naples yard and tow them to rental sites. “It was Steve’s childhood dream to own his own business,” said Kieu, “We called it Dreamlander, because Steve had landed on his dream.”
With Kieu’s business degree, and Steve’s work ethic, the business prospered. Moving to Goodland in 2015, Kieu managed the operations and handled the business end. Steve made sure the watercraft were ready and in top condition. By 2017, Dreamlander Tours was operating three boats, eight jet skis and two sightseeing vans for tours, dolphin cruises and fishing. Five licensed captains were under contract. The reviews on Trip Advisor were lavish in their praise for the operation. Bookings were through the roof. The business was taking most of their waking hours. “We were making people happy,” said Kieu, “and were proud of what we had created, [but it left time for little else].” They have recently sold the business to one of their longtime captains, Dakotah Gutierrez, who was born and raised in Marco Island. Kieu and Steve are now taking some well-deserved time to spend with their parents and grandchild.
Looking back, Kieu says that they were proud to “use the business as a tool to make a positive impact on many peoples’ lives.” They mentored ten local young adults and helped them to start their own business and are still sponsoring kids all over the world through Compassion International. “It’s these things that were most important for us and our inspiration for what we accomplished,” Kieu says, “No matter what the future holds for us, it will be these same inspirations that lead us there.”
Emma Lazarus had it about right when she penned the immortal lines inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. “Give me your tired, your poor. Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” She could have added, “You will seldom regret it.”