When she fled Vietnam with her family in 1975, Therese Ngo Pasquier knew just one English phrase: “You No. 1.”
She and her sisters used to shout it out to American soldiers rolling by in military vehicles, in the hopes they would throw the girls candy.
The 50-year-old Pasquier, who now lives in Puyallup and is a regional director for Paladina Health, recounted her experience of coming to America at age 10 as one of the Vietnamese “boat people.”
Hers was one of six stories from prominent Tacoma-area women who gathered Saturday at Theatre on the Square in downtown Tacoma as part of the second annual storytelling festival sponsored by the Women’s Intergenerational Living Legacy Organization or WILLO.
There were tales of hardship, danger and heartbreak — as well as moments of humor — when the women shared their life stories at the event designed to empower and inspire women across generations.
Pasquier talked about her childhood trip from her village to the capital city of Saigon that routinely took four hours. But she said that after the few open roads clogged with refugees desperate to leave the country, the journey lasted two weeks.
Pasquier’s voice choked with emotion as she told how current news stories of refugees fleeing Syria remind her of her childhood ordeal.
“Nobody knows what it feels like until you go through it,” Pasquier said.
She also told of her first experiences seeing snow — and an American grocery store.
“There was an abundance of food,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it.”
Initially her family lived in Illinois, where she learned English by watching TV shows like “Gilligan’s Island” and “The Brady Bunch.”
Pasquier said her parents emphasized the importance of education, and she always brought home A’s on her report cards. Education is also something she has tried to stress with her own two sons.
“I push them,” she said. “My kids know they’re A-sians, not B-sians.”
Also speaking Saturday was Pamela Transue, president emeritus of Tacoma Community College. The 65-year-old talked about growing up poor in small-town Idaho, dealing with the shock of her mother’s death when she was 7 and her father’s subsequent emotional detachment.
“My father had no idea what parenting meant, or how to go about it — so he didn’t,” Transue said.
After her two older sisters left home, Transue said, “I kind of raised myself.” She remembers eating a lot of frozen fish sticks and french fries — the only foods she knew how to cook. She also remembers feeling like a misfit.
“I was the tallest kid and the smartest kid in my class,” she said. By the time she was in junior high school, she would go to bed each night praying that she would wake up “short, dumb and cute.”
Transue dropped out of high school and wound up auditioning to join Up with People, a choral group founded in the 1960s to spread a positive vibe around the world. She spent a year and a half traveling and singing with the troupe, before deciding she couldn’t live up to the group’s ideals.
After what she described as a “serious breakdown,” Transue moved in with a sister who was living in Bellevue. She wound up working at the post office as a special delivery messenger. That’s where a co-worker noticed her intellect and encouraged her to go to college.
Transue was at first told she couldn’t attend the University of Washington because she was a high school dropout. But she was eventually admitted on a provisional basis by “someone willing to bend the rules.”
When she received her first-semester grades — straight A’s — she thought the report card was a mistake.
“But I found out how much I loved learning,” Transue said. “I graduated at the top of my class.”
Transue said books were always her saving grace, and that she learned to love reading as a very little girl when her mother took her to the public library. She never guessed it would some day lead her to a life in academia.
“No one would have predicted that I would do what I do while I was growing up,” she said.
Other WILLO storytellers on Saturday were Dyann Lyon, a former real-estate agent as well as an artist and health coach; Lua Pritchard, director of the Asia Pacific Cultural Center; Tacoma Public Schools Superintendent Carla Santorno; and retired state Rep. Pat Lantz of Gig Harbor.
The Saturday conversations are part of WILLO’s efforts to showcase the stories of women who have helped shape the Tacoma community. Their stories were recorded on video that should be available in several weeks on WILLO’s website, willotacoma.org. The organization is working to create a multimedia archive of notable stories of local women and girls. WILLO also works with students in Tacoma Public Schools on recording and writing the women’s stories.