refugee crisis

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.

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."

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."