Tai Le was 6 years old when he almost died.
It was 1968, and he and his family could hear the sounds of war outside their home in Saigon, Vietnam. Soldiers. Gunfights. Helicopters flying over their house.
“So my mom told us to put all the pillows and blankets on the bed, and we hiding underneath there,” Le recalled. “I still remember. I'll never, ever forget that. And so my mom said she heard the helicopters around the house, she said, ‘We have to get out.’ ”
His father wasn’t home. His mother managed to get herself and her four children out of the house.
“About 10 minutes later,” Le said, “the house explodes.”
He can’t explain how his mother knew of the imminent danger.
“Maybe God sent a message to her. I don't even know.”
The Vietnam War changed the lives for countless people, including the Le family. Le was born in Saigon in 1962 and lived there until 1975, when the communists took over the city.
“It really led to no freedom, we can't do whatever we want,” Le said.
His family and many others had to move about six hours away, to the countryside.
“And our family lived out there for 14 years, and we do farming, we raise vegetables, rice, corn, beans, we do whatever we can to survive for living.”
He moved back to Saigon in 1989 and got a job, and then a friend helped him apply to move to the United States.
“I got an interview and I passed so I come to the United States. Before I come here, they drop me off at a Filipino camp to learn all the culture, everything in America, and then I come here in 1991. June 26, 1991.”
Le had no idea that he’d end up in Rochester, but the first impression was a good one.
“I'm coming in the summer, at the end of June, right? So it's really nice weather, and so we happy.”
A few months later, though, would bring a chilly surprise.
“I ask my sponsor, ‘Is the ice falling down from the sky there?’ So I just taste it. I swear to God, I tasted it the first time.”
He also was coping with heartache. When he left Vietnam, he also left his wife and children behind.
“I’m crying every day because I miss my family,” Le says.
It would take nearly six years until they were able to join him in America. Their new country is one they appreciate, said Le, who now owns the South Wedge Diner.
"We have a lot of opportunities to do what we want to do, whatever we can learn, we do everything we can. … And I went to school here, I had the opportunity to go to school here, back to the college, and I graduated from college and I get a great job, and so I make some money, I buy a house, I buy a car. Even if I live in my county at this point right now, I can't do that."
“And for myself and other Vietnamese people who came to the United States, we are very grateful and appreciate all the American sponsors. … And we have a great life here, and we are living a life that has freedom and we got everything we need.”
With that, though, Le said there’s a need to preserve their culture. He’s the president of the Vietnamese Community of Rochester, which organizes gatherings for the Vietnamese people living in the region.
“We try to maintain all the holidays for the culture of the Vietnamese, and we get a group together and we share and things like that.”
It’s particularly important, he says, to teach the younger generations.
“For the second or the third generation that live in this country, they try to do it that way, they do it the American way. But that's why we try to get together with our community to teach them, to talk to them about the culture, how we are.
“You can't forget where you come from.”