I always wonder what my parents lives would look like if they had stayed in Vietnam. They endured all the fighting and the entirety of the war (though there were wars to follow), so leaving the country after the communists won sounds like a whole lot of pain and heartache for a smaller payoff. Would it have been so bad to stay?
It serves as a reminder for us then, to realize that there was a lot of hope that families held onto during the war that began to wane when the communists took over. The idea of liberty and prosperity were only dreams at that point -- the government had so much control over your everyday life that the bright future you envisioned for your family would die in that country like the rest of the fighters.
I asked my mom, what would have happened if they stayed? Would they be punished for not supporting the communists during wartime?
"We wouldn’t be punished. My parents destroyed everything [that would prove we were on the South Vietnamese side]. My brother was in the [South Vietnamese] air force and he wasn’t punished because my parents destroyed all the pictures, all the important papers, anything so they wouldn’t find out he was in the air force, and any information that my parents were involved in business with Americans. We zipped [our mouths], we didn’t say anything."
But even with the watchful eye of the communists government over them, even worse was a new and constant presence.
"When the communists came right after the war was done (probably six months later or maybe a little bit longer than that), they sent soldiers to stay outside our property in an empty field. They camped out there and lived there for almost a year. In a tent. We didn’t have a choice, they surrounded our house.
"We could get in and out, but we had to be careful. I don’t think they were there to watch us, but because it was a empty field out there, it was big enough to have their whole soldiers living out there for awhile. It’s frustrating. It feels like you have no freedom. At that time, my two sisters were still young girls, probably 18 and 20. The soldiers kind of try to flirt with them. I was still a kid. So my mom and my dad don’t feel right about it. They didn’t feel secure about it. We could go outside in the yard, in the back yard, but we didn’t feel comfortable like we used to. Suddenly so many soldiers surrounded our property, we didn’t feel privacy at all."
And then, finding opportunity in the middle of a challenge, an idea for a business came to mind.
"My parents decided, well, there’s a whole bunch of them living out there, and they want coffee, so we opened a coffee shop. So at night they come and listen to music like a cafe, make coffee for them, dripping coffee, and little cocktails. They come in every night. The reason they come in was so they could flirt with my sisters.
"We made tables and turned on nice music, soft music. Just like a small cafe and they come in and drink coffee, stuff like that."
And this is where we stop thinking about how awful it is to be living surrounded by communists. Because now that my mom's family had such close interactions with the soldiers, we get to see the other side of the conflict.
"One of the soldiers (I forgot his name), he was really nice. He told us that he didn’t want to be a soldier, but he didn’t have a choice. He’s so sweet though, he was tall, nice looking guy. He treated us like his siblings, so he hang out with us a lot. He’s the cook, so he always come to ask my sister what to cook and how to cook for dinner because he didn’t know what to cook for his whole group. So my sister would go and help him cook. It was nice. We talked to him a lot.
"And every house they have a Ho Chi Minh picture--they want us to worship him. We were against that. So we put him on top of the commode. We were kids, we didn’t like [the picture]. So the soldier came in and he said, 'Don’t put him in the commode, you disrespect him.'
"And we said, 'but we want him on the commode.'
"He said 'Don’t do that!”
"He wouldn’t tell on us, but some soldiers are angry, they’ll punish you for that.
"He said, 'Don’t do that. If they see you, you’re in trouble.'
"They can be really mean…they’ll put you in jail for a few days or a few weeks if you disrespect him, because that’s their leader. But they make every house put up a picture of him and worship him.
"So we lived there for awhile and money run out and there’s no job for you to go to, and we couldn’t go to school. Well, we could go to school, but my mom didn’t want us to go to school. They don’t teach you like they do here [in the United States]. They’ll brainwash you about Ho Chi Minh. So we didn’t go to school for a few years. So we decided, let’s leave."