Today I will be boarding a plane to return to my birthplace of Vietnam. This will be the first time back since my family & I fled in the middle of the night as refugees 31 years ago. Anyone who has met me, would never assume I was one of the “boat people
” mentioned in so many history books. It’s a story I’m proud to tell because I look at where I’ve started, where I am and where I’m heading with the endless opportunities ahead of me. As cliché as this may sound, there isn’t a day that goes by that I am not grateful for the life I live. Even in the midst of a very bad day, I still know that those bad days are nowhere close to what could have been. And anyone who has met my mother and knows our story, will clearly understand the gratitude & joy that emanates from her soul on the simplest things in life.
Here’s my little boat story & the beginning of my American life:
It starts off in a little town on the outskirts of a province called Hue (pronounced “Hway”) in the central region of Vietnam (where the Nguyen Dynasty once ruled & whom my family are descendants of…must explain my high-maintenance tendancies). When Hue was taken over by the communist government, my grandfather became a marked man due to his high ranking position in the government siding with American military. My grandfather went into hiding because if found, not only would he have been executed, but his whole family as well…including my own mother. My great-grandfather fell into their hands and was put to death in the most dishonorable way according to Vietnamese culture. The communist government took away everything that belonged to my family, including their home and threw them out onto the streets to survive.
My mother was in her early twenties when my parents decided to plan an escape through the waterways where we lived. If we stayed, it would’ve been a life doomed to poverty & communist brutality. My parents were determined to risk it all, despite the horror stories of other Vietnamese boat people who ended up ship wrecked, drowned & pirated at sea as well as being forced to return home upon seeking asylum in another foreign country.
In the middle of the night with just the clothes on our back and supplies, my mother who was pregnant, along with my father, brother & I got onto a little motorized fishing boat, joined by a neighboring family to set out to sea. As they pulled away from the dock and headed towards the ocean, footmen patrolling the waterways began shooting after us. My mother recounts seeing bullets chipping the rim of the boat as she lay on the floor covering my brother & me.
Out at sea, we faced other dangers like typhoons that threatened to capsize the boat. I became sick with pneumonia and close to death. We eventually ran out of food, fresh water, gasoline and sat adrift in the middle of the South China Sea. Only by the hand of God did our boat float into the waters of Hong Kong territory, at the time occupied by the British Coast Guards, who eventually found us. My mother believes to this day that if we were found a day later, I probably would not have survived. The British Coast Guards immediately took me on board and nursed me back to health.
We were taken to a refugee camp where my sister was born. My parents applied for sponsorship to be relocated to wherever fate would put them. Of all the choices, my parents’ first request was relocation to the United States (the “land of DREAMS”), if not, then Canada or France. I laugh to myself thinking I could’ve been Canadian or French!
But today, I am an American living a life that my parents dreamt for me to live, and I owe it truly to God first. I truly believed he watched us afloat in the middle of the sea, looking down at us, he decided we should survive. Didn’t mean to turn this into a preaching post, but I truly believe he is as much a part of my story as my parents’ fearlessness to follow their hearts. We are blessed to say our story is a good one, not one riddled with tragedy or horror as you will see if you google the term “boat people” long enough.
The picture above was taken after arriving in America and settling into our new home in Indiana. That’s me with Mr Potato head’s lips & pipe in my mouth. I guess we didn’t really know how to play with Mr.Potato Head just yet.
Above is a picture of my mom, who was super pregnant with my sister and walking with my brother in a Hong Kong refugee camp. She looked as if she couldn’t be happier.
This is my brother and me about to leave Hong Kong for our new home country….good ol’ America! My father was always taking pictures of us & everything around us. I got my picture-crazed-visual storytelling from him.
My father & me at the airport, first time on American soil. And that was the beginning of the American me…only to realize now what a very bad haircut I had.
So today I take off on a plane, into the East, into my past and my beginnings. I am going back to that small village where I was born, where my home once stood and the waterbank where we left. I am bringing my mother with me because this trip started with her…with us…together, and only with her will she be able to help me piece together all the pieces that were a part of me. An amazing man who I get to call my husband will also come with me on this personal journey. I can’t believe I’ll get to share and experience this part of my life with him. Together, we’ll both fully understand a part of my past and to bring full circle what is my present.
I can only imagine how surreal and emotional it will be to stand on the bank of that waterway where we left 31 years ago.
I am hoping to take you on this journey with me through my blog…if technology & time cooperates, I hope to upload some images during my travels. If not, stay tune as there will be tons of material to talk about when I return!