Prison: A Family Thing


What was the worst thing that happened to you as a thirteen year old? Most of us were just testing our independence and trying to escape the hand holding of our parents.

What if your biggest problem as a thirteen year old was being separated from your family and put in jail? And what if you had no idea how long you would be in there and if the rest of your family was being treated well?

Let’s take a second to recap what’s happened with my dad and his family so far. They struggled to maintain their freedom and their business during the Vietnam War. Knowing that they would never be able to grow and be free under a communist regime, they decided to escape the country. They managed to get on a boat and head toward Malaysia, but almost immediately hit a storm and couldn’t keep their boat afloat. After three days of bailing water, they all resigned to dying at sea. But at the last moment, a Bulgarian ship came by and rescued them. The rescue was short-lived, because instead of delivering them to Singapore, they put my dad and his family right back into the hands of Vietnamese communists, where they were put in jail immediately.

“I remember I stayed in that prison with a lot of political prisoners, where they’re all shaved. Those guys were so pale because they’ve been kept for so long, and I got to share a room with so many people. I forgot how many people now.”

The prison was so crowded that there was barely any room to sleep, and beds aren’t even a part of this story. At night, all the prisoners were given shackles to put around their ankles, and from outside the cell, the jailers ran a long metal pin through all the shackles. Prisoners slept with their feet tied above them, shackled to their cell door so they can’t move at all through the night. In the morning, they were unshackled and allowed to go to the bathroom, but the rest of their time was spent inside their cell.

“They have two meals. At 5 o’clock in the morning, I have one little bowl of rice, and a little bit of vegetables with whatever is in the river. Whatever pond they scoop up -- a little green moss or whatever. They cook it like that, they didn’t clean. You eat like that at 5 o’clock in the morning and then at 5 o’clock in the evening, they give you another little bowl. So you survive. You are very hungry all the time. So you have two meals -- two bowls of rice in the morning and the evening. That’s it.”

The rest of my dad’s family was in the same prison, but they were all separated. My uncle, just sixteen at the time, and my grandfather were put in what sounds like solitary confinement.

“They throw him and my father in a little room, there’s no light at all -- I don’t know what they call it. They put him and my father in there, one next to the other. They stayed in there for awhile. I think Uncle Thang stayed in there for two weeks. I don’t know how long my dad stayed in there, I don’t remember.

“They run out of space and that’s where you go to, I guess. They just, they want to separate all of us out, they don’t want us to stay together. So whatever space is open, they’ll put you in there instead of based on the crime that you commit.

“I was very scared. Every now and then, I saw my dad. They let him out to take a shower. There’s a well outside my window. There’s a chain over the well and you pull it up and take a shower. And I saw my dad take a shower a couple times, so I knew he was alright, you know? That was it, that was the only time I saw him.”

My dad was in jail for two or three weeks and then released with his mom, one of his sisters, one of his brothers, and his three-month old nephew. His brother who was put in solitary confinement was released after 8-12 months. His father stayed in prison for many years. My dad would be living in the US with a wife and baby on the way before his saw his dad as a free man again.

“We were released and then taken back to our hometown. And our hometown, we were the first to escape the country. My father was one of the richest men in town, so they wanted to use him as an example, so they sentenced him very tough, to set an example. And that’s why my father stayed in there for so long.”

My dad and his family lived in Saigon for a year after being in jail. During that time, he went back to visit his dad in jail, but soon they would face another significant separation because my dad and his family...well, they were going to try to escape the country again.

Gold In Your Underwear

You know those giant blue Ikea bags? I love those things. I’ve carried a buttload of snacks in them for beach trips, packed up dozens of candles for my sister’s wedding, packed my stuff in it when we moved apartments. I mean, half my home could fit in that giant blue bag.

But what if my home was that blue bag? When my mom and her family got to the Pulau Bidong refugee camp in Malaysia, the first thing they bought (yes—they had to buy it, it was not given to them) was a blue plastic tarp.

“When we escaped the country, everyone had gold on their body. We don’t carry money because money in Vietnam is not going to do anything in Malaysia. So everybody prepared and carried gold with them -- hide under your clothes, hide under your underwear. In case you get robbed in the middle of the ocean, you still have that on your body.”

So how do you build a house? Instead of two by fours, cement, and brick and mortar, or even a tin roof, what if you just have a blue tarp?

“First we built a tent first.. So we lived in a tent for a few months until we found a spot, an area we want, and we went up to the mountain and chopped the wood down and make a frame and built a house.”

In 1974 in Pulau Bidong, infrastructure was lacking. On top of building their own shelter, my mom’s family also cut down small branches and bound them together to make beds. Nothing was ready, prepared. Nothing was given to refugees. Everything had to be bought.

Everything there was sold by the Malaysians.

“Malaysian people they come in the boat and keep coming in to our island and they bring all the food to sell to us, so whoever has money can buy it and sell it back to the refugee people. In the daytime it becomes like a little market. ...refugees people they buy chicken and stuff and noodles and they make soup and noodles and sell it to us. I remember when my mom gave us a little money to buy us a bowl of noodles to eat. It was really nothing. It was just soup and noodles, it’s not like hủ tiếu and stuff like that. But when you live there you don’t have enough food and nutrition so  everything tastes so good. You get so excited to eat a bowl of soup.”

Pulau Bidong closed in the early 1990s, and about 250,000 refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia had lived there. By the end, it had schools, houses, cemeteries, adequate food and water. But in the 1970s, you had to have a lot more ingenuity.

Rescued at Sea

The last time we talked about my dad’s story, we were just getting to the part where his family decided to leave the country. The communists were making it impossible to thrive in Vietnam, so they agreed to escape the country. Whereas my mom’s boat ride (her family’s second attempt) to escape ended in relative success, my dad’s first attempt was almost immediately a nightmare. They ran into a storm their first night in the water, and it took everything they had to stay afloat.

"It’s just all survival. It’s just go in there and bail water as we were throwing up at the same time. We throw up because it was so -- the waves were about three or four floors, three or four stories up there and our tiny boat was below there, and it was beating on us. And the water was coming so fast, so all you do there is bail water. That’s all you do. Take turns bailing water. And by the third or fourth day we were so tired we just let it go."

Apparently this is a common theme, no matter how young or old you are. If you’re escaping the country you know it’s either do or die. They got so tired after three days of bailing water, that when my dad says they were ready to let it go, he means they were all resigned to dying then and there.

"We were okay to let go then. I think the mind is very very powerful. I think once the mind has determined what to do, it’s set and because we are prepared. We were all prepared already. There’s no return. We won’t return. So it’s a one shot deal, for us. We all agreed to that. From the young to the old. I am glad we had a second chance, otherwise I wouldn’t have you, we wouldn’t be talking today, you know?"

Can you imagine being 13 and ready to die?

But just as they were about to let their boat sink, they spotted a Bulgarian ship. And they asked the ship to bring them to Singapore, where my dad had extended family. And the ship agreed. But it wasn't the trip they expected.

"They didn’t take us to Singapore, they took us back to Vietnam. And as we sit on the boat, on the big ship, and all of the sudden we see Communist soldiers coming up and that’s when we ran into the room we all stayed in. We bunkered in there for another day before we give up and came out. And that’s when they took us all back into the country and jailed all of us."

Mom's Boat Ride

After slowly and silently sneaking onto her father's fishing boat to escape Vietnam, my mom, her family, and about 60 other passengers took off toward Malaysia.

If their two-year-long wait wasn't enough to prove they were desperate to leave, the conditions on this boat (that they voluntarily put themselves through) prove it.

My mom and her family crammed onto this small fishing boat for two weeks, packed like sardines, wearing multiple layers of clothing because that’s the only thing they could bring with them.

“Underneath the boat, that’s where we hide. I was lucky I wasn’t down in the bottom because my mom got to sit in the cabin. I was only ten or eleven at that time."

For a lot of people, these boat rides are literally their death. In addition to the conditions of the sea, which killed so many people, there are a couple of other extremely dangerous factors.

The first: mechanical failure

“They have a big engine and my mom and dad and brothers had a small engine in case the big one broke. So the big one broke. Using the small one took longer. They picked a direction on the compass and just headed that way.”

The second: dehydration

With so many people packed on a tiny boat in such high temperatures, another life-threatening factor was dehydration.

“You know shot glasses? You have three of those of water a day. And crackers. We weren’t allowed to do anything. I feel bad for people on the bottom, like sardines. You can’t even walk straight, you have to crawl. And it’s hot, no air, no windows. You have layers of clothes, too. People’s backpacks and hot. It’s steamy hot and sweaty.”

And as if all of that wasn’t dangerous enough...there are also communist police

Communist police boats patrolled the water surrounding Vietnam, and if they saw an unrecognizable boat, they would stop it and inspect it.

My mom’s boat was stopped and inspected.

“So all the men prepared. They said if the communists, if the police want to check the bottom of the boat, they have to take action and kill the guys. If we don’t kill them, then they’ll go back and tell all the soldiers and police and we’ll all get caught and end up in jail. So we said, if we have to kill those two, then we have to.”

Luckily, my grandfather played off the entire situation. He said that the people in the cabin of the boat were passengers, and that he was taking them back and forth to the larger ferries. The police didn’t realize there were 60 more people hiding beneath the boat, and they didn’t bother to check. They left.

So two weeks later, after following a compass in the direction they of Malaysia, they saw land.

And that’s the start of an entirely different life.

Our Thoughts on the Immigration Ban

Tiffany and I recently visited our dad in California, where he’s been living for the past four years. So we’re doing something a little different this month...

Our time visiting our dad was marked by anticipation and anxiety for the inauguration of our 45th president. As a family whose story is practically defined by immigration, the weight of the discrimination that’s taking place weighs heavily on us. It defies everything we’ve learned about our story, and the people we’ve met along the way.

My parents are two of many immigrants who left everything behind and fled their country. For them, it was a war-torn and then-communist Vietnam. At age 13, my dad swallowed his fear, and as his boat out of the country sank, accepted his imminent death. They were rescued by a ship that took them back to Vietnam, where he faced imprisonment with bravery and determination. And then, once he and his family were released, they planned their escape all over again.

For his family’s survival at the refugee camp, he had to swim miles into the ocean to buy food from black market ships to feed his brothers and sisters.

Once my parents arrived in the US, they attended high school and finished their homework every night, all while learning to speak English. They owned their own business together, and my dad paid his way through college while he raised a family.

Who has the right to reduce people to the color of their skin, the accents they speak with, or the religion that they practice? If you want to define immigrants, define them by their hard work, their courage and determination for a better future, and their unrelenting hope.

We don’t need to take away the rights of others to maintain our own. If my parents have taught me anything, it’s that in order to overcome fear and hatred, we need to lean on each other because our differences make us stronger.