immigrant stories

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 Communists' Cafe

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."