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.