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."

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."

We Were Robbed

Before we started this project, both us are were fairly ignorant about the Chinese population in Vietnam. Our grandparents were wealthy business owners who prospered in their communities. This was the norm for many of the Chinese in Vietnam. While we knew that both of our parents struggled with the war, we learned quickly that the circumstances for each were very different.

"This is a little deeper than maybe we want to get into, but I think China and Russia, the Soviet Union at the time, were big Hanoi supporters, so they Viet Cong were receiving military aid and support from both Russia and China. So my father thought that being Chinese, the war won’t affect him so much, because China and Vietnam were allies at the time.

"We were aware of the falling of the South Vietnamese government, but my father didn’t want to go because all of his belongings were there, that he had built over 30-something years. His property and everything. HIs whole life was there. And because of China, thinking he was Chinese, thought he would be alright. But he was wrong."

The Chinese population suffered greatly after the Fall of Saigon. Due to conflicts with China and also conflicts relating to Cambodia during the Sino-Vietnamese War, the Chinese population in Vietnam were targeted. The Vietnamese army came looking for Chinese families like our dad's.

"What saved my dad was, before the communists took over, when the South Vietnamese ran before the communists came, the old Vietnamese army were looting its people. So they shot our door open and hundreds and hundreds of people poured into our house and took everything out. The soldiers pretty much pointed their guns at us and pretty much just wanted the money. Which, my father gave them the money. And the local people poured into our house and stole everything, all of our belongings."

Our grandfather and my father's family watched helplessly as their home was looted, their life's work and possessions being taken away from them. They left their home behind, and suddenly, it was though they were invisible. People they have lived next to and worked with, had a community with for years, suddenly turned a blind eye on them. One family out of the many opened their doors to help our dad's family during this time.

After a period of time had passed from the Vietnamese army looting their home, they were able to return. And as it turns out, this devastating experience ended up being a blessing in disguise, which benefited them until they left Vietnam. This is in part because communists "inventoried" the possessions of the wealthy. Their home being looted meant there was nothing to inventory, and nothing of value for the communists to benefit from.

"We would probably lose our house, we’d have no place to stay. But because of the looting, when the communists came in and tried to do inventory, there was nothing left to do inventory about. It was just an empty shell. So there’s nothing there to take inventory of. So everything is okay. We still had a house to stay in."

Cigarettes, Beer, and Chinese New Year

We celebrated Chinese New Year every year when we were growing up. Each time the lunar holiday came around, we would help our dad clean the house, prepare food to offer our ancestors, and follow suit in the traditions, prayers, and routines. We knew it was important, but we never understood the weight of what it actually meant to him. As American kids, we would get electrified about Christmas time, but we didn't have the same enthusiasm for something that was so important to our family. 

"New Year was always my favorite. It was the biggest holiday. All the preparation, the can see it on people’s faces, the New Year is coming. My cousins would come to visit. We were all very close, we got a lot of envelopes and a lot of money.  We always played games. So many things to do, firecrackers, fireworks, we got to go out of town to the countryside, eat at fancy restaurants, see a different side of town. It was the only time my parents closed their store for vacation. My brother would take me to the mountains. I was so little I couldn’t go the mountains [usually], and I loved the mountains."

Chinese New Year brings out a spirit in people just like Christmas does. Everyone looks forward to spending time with family that aren't seen often. Hometowns, markets, and streets seem brighter. Special recipes are broken out and prepared over the course of weeks before the kitchen is set to rest.

"The Chinese they have many spirits that need to rest. We celebrate with them, pay respects to Earth, to heaven, and to the spirits of your ancestors. It’s a day where you appreciate and give thank thanks for the above and below and everything you have around you—even to the kitchen that you cook in. You give the kitchen a rest. You have a little ceremony, or a service for the kitchen saying, 'Hey, I’ll give you a break because you’ve been serving us for 365 days. Now it’s time to give you a break. So I won’t cook anymore for so many days.'"

And, if you're like our dad, the rebellious youngster in you comes out. 

"[On Chinese New Year] I could get into trouble without getting in trouble. I could do anything I wanted! I could smoke in front of my parents, drink beer, nobody said a thing to me, it was my free pass to do anything I wanted to do. We were six, seven years old, and we could drink beer and smoke cigarettes.

"I remember we said we weren’t strong enough, so we would stick cigarette ash into our beer to make us stronger. Back then, soda wasn't a regular thing. Back then it was a holiday tradition, it was the only time you could drink soda. So my parents would get all the soft drinks you can drink, and I would mix all of them together. Root beer, Coke, 7Up—you know anything—Sunkist, and mix them all together and make my own drink."

When my sister and I think about our parents and their childhood, it's so heavily clouded by the enormity of their struggles. We forget, and have now been reminded that they were just that—kids. It's incredibly touching to us to hear about a happier time, when things were a little more carefree and my dad could be just a kid, before the war was right on their doorstep. 

"I had a good childhood, I think. Up until I was about 14...and recently my life has been much easier, but 14 years old was hard. My life had changed a lot. I didn’t have a good life anymore. I was in prison, and then had to go out and make a living, help the family with responsibilities. No more friends, things like that. Making money and responsibilities."

Coming to the United States completely changed how our dad celebrated Chinese New Year. The struggle of adapting to a new home and starting over took some of the joy out of celebrations. That hometown, family feel was lost, and all that remained when the spirit was lost was the tradition that was passed down to us. 

"We celebrated every year, but not the way we celebrated when we were little. I guess my last Chinese New Year, when we were really into it, was 1976 or 1977. Of course before 1975 was much better, but since we left our hometown, we were in survival mode. We came to Virginia and there were no Asians there. When it came to that day, we had family meals and we got the family together, but there was no holiday atmosphere anymore. 

"It’s just like Christmas in someplace where there are no Christians. No one recognizes it, so you do your own thing."