Lan Phan had never slept on a bed, taken a shower or used a washing machine before she moved to the United States from Vietnam.
The 58-year-old immigrant has been living with her son, Rob Nguyen, and his family in Belleville for two months. It's still hard for her to grasp their comfortable lifestyle and modern conveniences.
"Every time we go out, she'll say, 'America beautiful. America beautiful,'" said her daughter-in-law, Star Nguyen, 35. "She's so fascinated by the littlest things. We'll go to Walmart, and she just looks around in amazement. She touches everything."
Lan is getting to know her seven grandchildren, biological and adopted. She can't speak English but hopes to take classes.
Rob speaks a little Vietnamese. While he's at work, Star and the kids use translation sites on the Internet to communicate.
"It's like playing charades most of the time," said Rob, 38, an AmerenUE lineman in St. Louis.
The Nguyens have been taking Lan to Saigon Restaurant in Lake Christine Center so she can talk to its Vietnamese owners.
She misses her two daughters in Vietnam but is thrilled to spend time with her son. They had no contact for 34 years.
Lan also is thankful to leave poverty in Vietnam, where she slept on plywood padded with a blanket, used a bucket of water to take sponge baths and wash clothes, and ate one meal a day. She weighs 89 pounds.
"Everything is beautiful and nice here (in the United States)," Lan said, speaking through Rob. "Vietnam is dirty."
Separated by war
Rob was 2 when he escaped Vietnam with his grandmother and other relatives during the fall of Saigon, which ended the Vietnam War. They settled in California.
Lan was supposed to follow a week later but missed a rendezvous with Rob's father, a South Vietnamese soldier, and got left behind.
"She thought she would never see me again," Rob said, translating. "She cried all the time, and she went to the Catholic church and prayed."
Lan did whatever she could to survive, mainly cooking and cleaning for room and board. Two common-law marriages resulted in the births of her daughters.
Rob reconnected with Lan three years ago and traveled to see her in Vietnam. He was shocked at her poor living conditions.
Rob and Star went through mountains of immigration-related red tape and spent thousands of dollars to bring his mother to Belleville.
"It's been so much fun (seeing her adapt)," said Star, who substitutes at Abraham Lincoln School in Belleville and worked on Dave Barnes' Illinois Senate campaign. "Everything is exciting and new."
Lan's arrival has changed daily life for Rob, Star and the kids, Robby, 16, Jasmine, 15, Jeramiah, 14, Constance, 10, Shyanne, 9, Savanna, 8, and Isaiah, 7.
Lan cleans all day every day, scrubbing floors on her hands and knees, even though Star tells her it's unnecessary.
Lan also has learned to use the washer and dryer and can't seem to get enough of laundry.
"She's nice, but she cleans too much," Shyanne said. "Every time we come home from school, she's cleaning. She's used to it because in Vietnam, you have to clean a lot. There are lots of bugs that can get in cracks."
Lan helps the family cook meals and makes rice for herself daily. She prefers fresh foods such as fish, Chinese cabbage and other vegetables but has taken a liking to M&Ms and ranch dressing.
The Nguyens squeezed boys in one bedroom and girls in another so Grandma could have her own space. The kids don't seem to mind.
"We're kind of used to crowds in this family," Robby said.
But adjusting to American culture hasn't been complication-free for Lan. It took weeks to convince her to take showers instead of crouching in the bathtub and rinsing with cups of water.
Lan always is cold, coming from a country where the temperature rarely drops below 70 degrees.
She doesn't understand why Americans stay in their houses instead of going outside and socializing with neighbors. She gets nervous riding in fast-moving vehicles.
"She'll say, 'I never see anybody ride bicycles around here,'" Rob said. "Everybody has cars."