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? Just as this reality is setting in and they're about to let their boat sink.

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. Bit 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.

How Communists Take Money

Once the war was over, the fighting stopped, but Vietnamese people still lost their freedom. Communism was intended to help everyone—leveling out the playing field and ensuring equality. But instead, it stripped lives of individuality and self-determination.

"I knew immediately it was over. I heard it on the tv station or radio station saying it was over. And then, later that day or that night, you see the other side marching in with their military forces. Then we knew.

"I was standing on the balcony, looking down, watching the communists come in, and we loved chewing bubble gum at the time. And I remembered I had the yellow wrapper of Wrigley gum. So I put that piece in my mouth and said, well this is the last piece of gum I can eat. And I was watching the other side coming in from the balcony. And it was funny, I was thinking there were more like monsters, but they looked just like humans."

Our dad hated the communists, even though he had never interacted with one. To them, it didn't matter that they were still regular people—they were the people who had ruined their lives.

Everyone lived in a state of constant oversight, where speakers spouted news and pro-communist agendas, and people's time was closely monitored.

"They want to keep you busy so you have no time to rebel. They’ll tell you to go to meetings [after work]. Just so you keep occupied, so you don’t have time to do anything else. By the time you come home, you’re pretty much beat, you want to go to sleep. You don’t have time to do other things. They brainwash you overnight—that’s what they’re doing.

"So everybody goes, and everybody knows that they go because they have to go. But nobody can really trust one another anymore, so they create a lot of distrust between one person to the next. You don’t really know who is who anymore at that point. Who will rat on you, who will report on you for their benefit. They create that distrust between people."

Every move was monitored. Police could knock on your door at any hour in the night to count how many people were in your home, just to make sure everyone was where they were supposed to be. Most travel required permits, and your bags were always subject to inspection.

My grandparents restarted their business, after hiding away a small amount of money. But even then, the opportunity for growth and success was taken from them. Businesses were subjected to inventory and currency changes, eventually driving our dad's family to decide to escape the country.

"[It occured to me parents that we needed to leave] sometime in 76, after we had been inventoried the first time. And then they changed currency a couple more times. So in other words, let’s say you have 10,000 dollars. Let’s say now the currency changes, you have to take the 10,000 dollars to give to them. They give you two thousand bucks new money. So they took away your eight thousand dollars. And then you make a little more money as you grow a little more. They say, well, they change new currency again. So you cannot get ahead.

"So at that point, my father decided to sacrifice—he had lost everything anyway—so he knows there was no future for his kids there anymore. He thought he’d leave the country—leave there and go to the free country, America, where his kids had a future. So he sacrificed that. They sacrificed that for us."

The Escape

My mom didn’t go to school for years. Her parents didn’t let the kids walk outside, where there might still be bombs, and schools that were still functioning only brainwashed the students about Ho Chi Minh.

“We lived there for awhile and money ran out, and there’s no job for you to go to, and we couldn’t go to school. So we decided, let’s go. Either we make it or we don’t. Either we make it or we die.” The first time they tried to escape, my grandfather got caught.

“My mom was at home, praying and praying. Praying to Buddha with the little prayer beads. She was rolling the beads, praying, praying, praying, and then suddenly, the beads broke apart. She knew something wasn’t right. Three hours later, my brothers came home and told my mom that my dad was arrested. “We ate really poorly, we were struggling to save money to get my dad out. And when he got out, probably less than a year later, they started planning to escape again. This time they were smart about it.”

My grandpa and uncles bought a boat and starting working for the government, pretending to be transportation for soldiers who needed to get from the shore to the ferries that took you further out of town. Government officials were suspicious and watchful of every little step you made. If you owned a boat, you were questioned to make sure you weren’t illegally transporting people, which is exactly what the plan was. My grandfather and uncles worked this boat for a little less than a year, dressing like poor laborers, and getting to know the soldiers. Once they had established trust, found their way in and out of the waterways, and figured out where to sneak out in the middle of the night, they set a date to leave.

“At that time I was young. I heard my mom and dad talk about it, but honestly, I was scared, but I didn’t think hard. I was just a kid. I was scared, but I didn’t cry. I was careless.

“Before it happened, my mom fed us really good. She said, we’re going to eat good. Either we make it or we die.

“I ate and didn’t know much about it. Just go along with it. So we did, we went that night."