On our journey to America, two cousins also came along with my family. They both were teenagers when we left Vietnam. Last week article was about my cousin Anh Huy. This article will be about my cousin, Chú Thưởng.
My cousins played a huge part in our journey. They are like older brothers to me. I look up to them for guidance and encouragements. I am so glad to have an opportunity to get to know them and lived with them during our journey to America. It was priceless.
Similar to Anh Huy, Thưởng Nguyễn knew a month ahead of time before our journey to America. I called him Chú Thưởng. Chú Thưởng’s father was my grandfather younger brother.
In similar situation as Bác Hoàng’s family, Chú Thưởng’s family had enough money for 1 ticket to freedom. At first, the plan was to allow the oldest sibling to go. The oldest child was Chú Thư. However, he was in France at the time. Cô Thu, Chú Thưởng’s sister, was the second oldest and in her 20s. She was approved to go. On the other hand, Chú Thư advised against it. He heard of news about pirates who raped young women. Cô Thu was a perfect victim for being raped.
Chú Thái was another older brother who was 18 years old. Being older created more issues. Getting a fake Chinese ID for adults cost ten to twenty gold pieces. It was cheaper to buy children’s ID. Chú Thưởng’s family decided that a boy should go. Chú Thưởng was chosen.
Going to America or the attempt of going to America gave Chú Thưởng hope. It was a new adventure that Chú Thưởng was prepared to embark. At the same time, he was sad to leave his family behind. The last few nights, Chú Thưởng slept on the same bed with his parents. Cuddling up against his mom, he was comforted. Chú Thưởng did not know when he will be able to see them again. He was torn with mixed feelings and emotions of fear, sad, and excitement. Nonetheless, he must be brave. It was up to him to seek freedom and rescue his family from turmoil.
Chú Thưởng was old enough to be aware of the possible danger looming with escaped attempts. He heard of many failed and missing Vietnamese through word of mouth such as relatives or survivors of failed attempts . The possibilities of being captured by the Việt Cộng or pirates were very high. Nevertheless, the thought of possible freedom out weighted the risk of threats and dangers. Anything was better than how his family was being treated at that time.
The Việt Cộng soldiers occasionally showed up unannounced and physically inspected Chú Thưởng’s family food supplies or any rooms that may seemed suspicious. The soldiers confiscated any extra and/or hidden food supplies. There was no moment of peace or privacy. There was a time when the Việt Cộng stormed right through Chú Thưởng’s home in the middle of dinner to find nothing. The frivolous inspections were wasteful efforts. It only created anxiety and frustration within Chú Thưởng’s family.
A year before, Chú Thưởng’s father suffered a stroke and was paralyzed. Chú Thư, his oldest brother was living in Paris, France on a college scholarship. Chú Thái was the second oldest boy but he was hardly home. On certain days, Chú Thai hid at the nearby cemetery to avoid being drafted to war. By default, Chú Thưởng became the man of the family. Being a 14-year-old boy, he felt helpless. There was nothing Chú Thưởng could do to stop the Việt Cộng from entering their home on a whim of suspicions. The citizens had very little rights. They were constantly monitored by the Việt Cộng.
In addition to my siblings, two cousins came along on the journey to America. Both cousins were teenagers at the time. They definitely remembered much more details than me. It was fun to interview them both and listened to their perspectives. This article will be about my cousin, Huy Bùi.
Curious to know about our plan to America? You can CLICK HERE to read more of our plan and the costs.
My cousin, Huy Bùi, left Vietnam at the age of 16. I called him Anh Huy. Anh Huy’s mom, Bác Hoàng, was my mom’s older sister. Bác Hoàng had enough money for only one person to leave with my family. Anh Huy was selected to go to America because he was the oldest. Another primary reason was his age. He was becoming of age for war. By 17, Anh Huy will have to submit his paper work and would be drafted to fight in Cambodia. Anh Huy despised the Việt Cộng’s philosophy and did not want to fight for their cause. America was his ticket to freedom. Anh Huy did not want to live where communism existed.
Anh Huy was aware that he was going to leave with my family a month ahead of time. He was excited and prepared to go. However, the exact date of leaving was not disclosed until the night before. In the last few weeks, life was as usual but the knowing of leaving Vietnam created an anxiety of excitement for Anh Huy. The secret of leaving was kept hidden within the family and behind the safety of their closed door.
Mai Hương, My Oldest Sister
Mai Hương meant beautiful fragrance of a yellow flowering plant called ochna or mickey-mouse plant. This is a special flower that symbolized the Lunar New Year and the beginning of spring. The flowers bloom during the Lunar New Year between the end of January to mid February.
Initially Hương was a name of one of my mom’s cousins. My grandfather requested that my parents to rename their firstborn child to another name. In Vietnamese tradition, it was considered as an insult to the adult if you name your child after someone you know let alone someone in your family. My dad did not know about the cousin until after he named his firstborn daughter Hương. In order to show respect to the aunt, he modified Hương to Hường. Hường meant a rose.
My mom mentioned that my dad kept the name “Mai Hương” in official documents and asked everyone in our family to call my sister “Hường”. That seemed to please my grandfather.
You probably say wohhh, the name looks the same, spells the same, and probably sounds the same. There is an extra accent mark in the new name that made a subtle different sound to the name. One accent can alter the full meaning of the word as well as its pronunciation. It is hard to differentiate unless you understand Vietnamese and listen for the subtle up and down tone of the word. Vietnamese is a melodic and mono syllabic language. It is almost like you are singing a song when you speak Vietnamese because of the tones of ups and downs. My husband, Chris, would occasional teases, “Vietnamese sounds like animal noise.”
I guess the extra accent doesn’t matter now since we are living in America. However, the older generation of aunts and uncles still calls my sister the name “Hường”.
This Chapter is about my older sister, Kiều Hạnh, and her perspective. She remembers a little more than my younger siblings. Yes, my parents were pretty busy having children one year apart. My father wanted a boy so they kept trying until they had one.
Kiều Hạnh is the 2nd to the oldest of 7 children. She is older than me by 11 months and 19 days to be exact. Her name meant good nature and easy to get along with.
We call her Hạnh.
At home, Hạnh was our boss when Mai Hương, our oldest sister, was not around. I followed her everywhere we went. She was my partner in crime like Hiếu was with Huệ and Mạnh with Chí.
To prepare for the trip to America, our mom bought Chinese names and IDs. The new Chinese names became our new names and identities for our trip. My mom shared with Hạnh her Chinese name in case anyone asked. Hạnh did not know about our parents’ plans. She was told that we were going to Grandmother’s house. Our maternal grandparents migrated to America in 1975. We assumed that we were going to our paternal grandmother who was still in Vietnam. Little did we know that our true destination was our maternal grandparent’s home in America.
“All of you have a new Chinese name.” our mom said. “We are pretending to be Chinese. I want you be very quiet and do not speak. If you talk, they will know that we are not Chinese. We will be captured by the policeman. They will take us away and we can’t leave for Grandmother’s house.”
Obediently, we replied “Yes, mom.”
We arrived at a beach called Vũng Tàu. Vũng Tàu is a coastal city 95.9km or 60 miles southeast of Hồ Chí Minh City. Everyone was loaded up into a fishing boat.
Hạnh and the older siblings were sitting in a separate cubby hole. Inside the hole, people were crammed in like sardines. The Chinese lady sitting next to Hạnh was pinching her and pushing her for space. The smell was horrible. The air was filled with a mixture of throw ups and old stale fish that was once there. Once on the ship, we were told that we were going to America. However, Hạnh was not worried or scared. As long as she was with our parents, she knew she was safe.
Drifting in and out of consciousness, lemon juice was squeezed into Hạnh’s mouth while she was half asleep. She remembered thinking “Hmm, phở would be so good right now.”
Land at last
After four or five days drifted at sea, we finally docked at an island. Our mom made the best meal that we had ever had. Our dad cut a large container out length wise and our mom poured in the rice porridge into the container. Each of us was given a spoon and we went to town. The porridge disappeared in matter of seconds. It was a simple porridge consisted of a little of rice and lots of water. We savored the last drop and the last piece of rice from the container.
The island we stayed was beautiful and clean. The first few weeks, we slept on the big palm leaves on top of the card boards. That was heaven. Hạnh remembered having fun exploring the islands. She was glad that we were able to spend time with our parents. It was like a long vacation. In Vietnam, we hardly see our parents. They were always at work.
Regrettably, Hạnh couldn’t remember all the memento details of what she did on the island. “After my fourth kid, my long term memory of our trip to America faded. I am afraid, the kids occupied my brain power most of the time these days.” Exclaimed Hạnh teasingly.
Again, like all the other siblings shared, her saddest time on the island was when we had to leave for America without our dad. She was in tears and was afraid that she may never see him again.
Flight to America
Hạnh remembered on the airplane flight to America, she discovered a funny toilet. The bathrooms in Vietnam were like outhouses. We normally squatted in the outhouse to go to the bathroom. Hạnh did not know what to do with the toilet on the plane. The seat was so high. She climbed on top of the toilet seat and squatted. She went to the bathroom and used water to wash herself. Next step, how do you dump the waste?
There was a lever against the wall. She lightly pushed the lever wondering what it was. A loud suction noise came out. It startled her. Immediately, she let go of the lever. Hạnh was too afraid to continue to push the lever. She was afraid that the toilet hole will create a vacuum effect and it will suck her into it and out the plane. She left the lever alone and the toilet filled with her waste. Hạnh left the bathroom looking guilty and hoped that she wouldn’t get in trouble with whoever worked there.
At the airport traveling from gate to gate during the transfers, we ran up and down on the escalators. We had so much fun discovering the escalators. Hạnh, the other siblings, and I were mesmerized by the strange webbed feet women walking in some kind of shoes that made them really tall. These American women were different. Their feet were definitely funny.
Strange American Culture
When we arrived at our maternal grandparents’ home, Hạnh was asked to take a bath. It was freezing cold outside. She shivered at the thought of having to take cold showers. “It’ll take forever to heat up the boiling water.” Hạnh thought to herself.
In Vietnam during my time of growing up, we did not have instant hot and cold water. The weather was hot all year round so taking cold shower was refreshing. If we want hot water, we would have to boil it ahead of time.
Hạnh was led into the bathroom. Mai Hương, our oldest sister, showed Hạnh how to turn on the hot water. “Wow, the water is hot.” Hạnh cried out in amazement.
“We don’t have to boil the water after all.” Hạnh thought to herself. “America is great!”
Mai Hương introduced to us our very first pizza. We all loved it. It had an interesting taste. Cheese was something new to our diet. We knew of cheese but never had much of it before in one sitting such as in Pizza.
Our aunt made us some chocolate chip cookies. Initially, we did not like the chocolate because it tasted bitter. Chocolate was an expensive item to have in Vietnam when we were younger. It was an imported candy. We were not exposed to chocolate until we came to America. It took several tasting attempts before we were acquired to the flavor of chocolate. Until this day, chocolate is still not my favorite. However, it does grow on me. I love M&M. I do prefer chocolate chip ice cream over other ice cream.
At least ½ hour every day at school, we learned extra English. A guy
named Eric was assigned to Hạnh as a guide to show around the school.
He was such a nice person. She liked him. Some days, Hạnh remembered
smelling his peanut butter breath when he talked to her right after
Hạnh wondered, “How is Eric doing now? What is he up to? Perhaps one day, we can look him up and say hello.”
Mr. & Mrs. Ray was a couple who belonged to the church that sponsored our grandparents. They were very nice to us. They took us to church and bible schools every Sunday. They wanted to take our parents as well. Being Buddhists, our parents declined the invitations. Our parents agreed to allow the children to attend church as long as we were not baptized until we turn 18. Our dad wanted for us to be exposed to different religions. At the same time, he gave us the option to choose when we become of age.
A few months before our family left Pekin, Illinois to move to Texas, the Rays would take us to breakfast every Sunday after church. We enjoyed the breakfast with them very much. We appreciated their kindness and looked forward to every Sunday to be with them.
Final Thoughts of Kiều Hạnh
Hạnh is always there for me or any of my brothers and sisters no matter where we are. She was truly my best friend when I was growing up. I followed her everywhere she went. Like I said earlier, Huệ had Hiếu, Chí had Mạnh, and Hạnh had me as her shadow.
Hạnh graduated with a degree in accounting. She is married to Hiếu Ngo. They have four bouncing and precocious children, two boys and two girls.
Hạnh is a proud and happy stayed at home mom. She is taking on a challenging task of homeschooling. It requires lots of patience and perseverance. It has many challenges and also many great rewards.
Hạnh’s wish and dream is to transcend her legacy and the love of Jesus Christ onto her children. I am proud to say that she is doing a wonderful job being a mom and a teacher. She is building a great foundation for her children.
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This chapter is about my two younger sisters’ perspectives. Similar to my brothers, both sisters were young. They remembered very little. They both shared with me as much as they could recall from their experiences.
Minh Hiếu and Bạch Huệ
Minh Hiếu was 6½ and Bạch Huệ was 8½ when we left Vietnam. Both of their birthdays were late in the year. Minh Hiếu meant smart and loyal. Hiếu is the youngest girl in the family and second to the last child. She was my dad’s little girl while my youngest brother, Mạnh was my mom little boy.
Bạch Huệ meant white lily. Huệ was the middle child. Quite contrary to white, Huệ had dark skin when she was younger. Our cousins often teased Huệ. They called her black Huệ instead of Bạch Huệ.
Huệ and Hiếu often hung out together when they were little. They were the best buddies.
The Boat Trip Experience
On the day of the trip to America, Huệ thought we were going to a wedding but not sure where. She saw our parents packing. Huệ was wondering why it was such a long way to the wedding but she didn’t ask. No one asked. The next thing she recalled was being on a boat. Hạnh, Huệ, and Hà were sitting together while the younger siblings sat with our mom. The bigger people sitting next to us were mean. They squished us.
On the boat, Huệ was not sea sick. However, she was hungry and thirsty. Our mom squeezed some lemon or lime into her mouth for water. It was sour but it was refreshing. She got a few bites of bread or something similar. She remembered sitting in a layer of water with floating chunks swaying back and forth in rhythm with the boat.
The boat trip seemed like forever. Huệ lost the concept of time. She did not feel scared. She knew that as long as she was with our parents she was in good hands. On the last day aboard the boat, our dad pulled Hạnh, Hà and Huệ to the upper deck to get some fresh air. Our dad pointed out the flying fish. While her sisters were sleeping, Huệ was the only who had a glimpse of the flying fish. “Wow, neat fishy.” Huệ thought. She never knew that fish could fly.
Pulau Bi Dong Island Experience
She got to swim and splashed in the water. The water was warm and clear. She could see the colorful fishy. The sisters imagined themselves as mermaids and often swam along the shallow part of the beach.
Huệ sometimes followed Hạnh and Hà on their island exploring adventures while Hiếu hung around the hut with our mom. Hạnh and Hà shared with Huệ their hideaway location where the big Malaysian man fished. Crossing the rocky trench was a challenge. Her heart wanted to leap right out of her chest but Huệ had to keep calm. She had to prove to her sisters that she could do it too and that she was as adventurous as they were.
Heading to America
The big day finally arrived and we were going to America. Her excitement was deflated when she heard that our dad was not coming along. He had to stay behind because of some health issue.
During the flight to America, Huệ noticed several ladies with webbed feet. Her older sisters and Huệ were mesmerized by the webbing between their feet. Were they born with it? Are they fish? How come it looked fake? We later found out that the webbed feet ladies were wearing a type of socks called stockings and/or pantyhose.
On the flight from Seattle to Chicago, Huệ caught eyes with an older American gentleman. The gentleman looked back at her. They gazed in each other’s direction for a brief moment. She was watching his every movement and was fascinated by his looks. He was big and tall. He had hairy arms. That is not something common that we see every day for a Vietnamese.
When the flight ended, the gentleman handed Huệ a green piece of paper that looked like money. “Wow!! That’s a lot of money.” Huệ thought. She had no idea what it was worth. She later found out that the stranger gave her $1.
As the family stepped down from the airplane, Huệ saw snow and all the strange people surrounded her. She experienced culture shock. She experienced the cold, the snow, the new place, and the new people all in one day. For an almost nine year old girl, the experience was overwhelming. The overpowering unfamiliarity masked over her new experiences.
Her curiosity of the snow or even the weather temperature was non-existence. The mid range temperature in Fahrenheit was 7 degrees or -14 degrees Celsius. Huệ just stood and observed in her short sleeve blouse oblivious to the cold winter air.
After several weeks passed when the unfamiliar surrounding became familiar, Huệ experienced snow for the first time. She loved it. The first two things she learned were how to make snow angels and never eat yellow snow. They played snow ball fights. They slid on the frozen patches of ice. Snow was fun.
The new people became familiar faces of her grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. The familiarizes, fond memories, and flash backs of her relatives resumed.
Final Thoughts of the Younger Sisters
Huệ flourished into a beautiful and smart young lady. Her dark skin lightened up as she grew older. Her cousins no longer teased her being black as she blossomed into her name the beautiful “white lily”.
I am so proud of Huệ. She set out to be a Registered Nurse (RN) and stumbled across many obstacles along her path. Huệ persevered and became an excellent RN.
Huệ is now happily married to Liȇm Chȃu and has three adorable girls of her own. She is a successful RN working for a large privately own company. She is creative with her Vietnamese cooking as well as being a wonderful mom to her children.
Even though, Hiếu was the quietest and more reserved among the five girls, she grew up to be the protector of the family. No one can pick on Hiếu or her family. She is a little tiger and a powerful woman underneath. I am glad to be on Hiếu side.
Hiếu is married to her high school sweet heart, Minh Lu. They have three beautiful children, one boy and two girls. Hiếu is a stay-at-home mom. She has been doing a great job raising her children and continue to be a courageous woman whom I know and love.
I am so proud of my little sisters. Well they are not so little any more. They have grown, matured, and blossomed into amazing women. It is an honor to be part of their lives.
Sources of Images:
In this chapter, I shall be sharing my brothers’ perspectives during our travel to America. Both brothers were very young so they did not remember many things. I interviewed both. They both shared what they remembered to the best of their abilities.
Mạnh Cường and Chí Cương
Mạnh Cường was 5½ and Chí Cương was 7½ when we left Vietnam. Mạnh Cường was the youngest child in my family. The name Mạnh Cường meant strong and vigorous. Chí Cương meant strong will and not lose heart in front of difficulties.
Chí Cương was the firstborn boy of our family. Excitedly, my dad was going to name the firstborn boy Mạnh Cường. It was Friday, November 13th and ten minutes before noon, my mom barely arrived at the hospital. Chí Cương stormed right out not waiting for the doctor or the nurse. My dad named the new born boy “Chí Cương” instead of Mạnh Cường. He had a hunch that Chí Cương was going to be a strong will boy.
In Vietnam, I remembered whenever I visited my family there were always Mạnh Cường and Chí Cương. Both brothers were always together. They were buddies growing up. Mạnh Cường followed Chí Cương every where. They often got in trouble for their little mischievous adventures together.
After we moved to Texas, Mạnh Cường used the name Mạnh to differentiate between Chí Cương and himself among their friends. The names were pronounced slightly and subtly different in Vietnamese because of the accents. However, to others, both names sounded the same. Chí Cương also used Chí as his name. I shall refer the names Chí and Mạnh for the rest of the articles.
Remember during the 80’s there was a plush toy called “the monchichi”? There was a television show along with the catchy song in a commercial. My brothers were teased at school as “The Monchichis”. The tease didn’t bother them. They actually went along with it and announced themselves as “The Manh Chi Chi.”
Planning a trip to Vietnam was exciting and scary at the same time. I did not know if I have enough money to travel back. I just got a job in Los Angeles in January and had not saved up much yet. I shared with Chris, my husband, of my wish to visit my godmother after I graduate. The Vietnam trade embargo was just lifted in January 1994 and opened to tourists. We decided to randomly pick a date and started planning.
Committed Intentions Became Miracles
My biggest fear was to ask my boss for a month off to visit Vietnam. I had only worked for several months. On top of that I also wanted to be transferred to a job with more responsibilities. I was ready to move forward to look for another job just in case I get fired.
The day of my appointment came. My hands were sweaty and I was pacing back and forth outside of his office waiting for my turn to speak to him. To my surprise, he agreed to my month off and a new position with a raise when I return. He said my timing couldn’t be any better. Wow! It was a miracle.
Then I booked for my flight to Vietnam for October 1994. I had no idea where I was going to stay and what I was going to do in Vietnam. My only intention was to visit my godmother. I don’t even know where she lived. I shared my flight information with my family and it turned out that one of my cousins was getting married in Vietnam and she wanted to invite me to her wedding. She also invited for me to stay with her family while I visited Vietnam. Everything fell into place perfectly.
Why am I sharing with you this? It is because it is a great example of setting intentions or goals and be committed to those goals without having to know how to make it happen. When I am committed to my cause or inspirations, miracles happen and things fall into place perfectly. It is the law of attraction. It works for everybody.
Việt Kiều Pricing
Finally I was going back to Vietnam in mid October 1994. It had been 16 years since I left. Lots of my memories of being there had been stowed away deep down. I had never been to the Saigon airport before so it was quite an experience. I was nervous and scare at the same time because I did not know how well I would be received from the people and the government.
There was a crowd of people waiting outside the airport. Only people with flight tickets were admitted into the airport. I was welcomed by my cousins but I was not quite welcomed by the government. The embargo was just lifted so there was some old resentment dangled in the air for the Vietnamese who left. The Vietnamese who left were called “Việt Kiều” and I was one of them. Chris stood out like a sore thumb with his blonde hair and blue eyes.
When we first arrived, we had to check in with the police department near where we stayed. We had to declare our visits and the length of our stay. There were special pricing (double to triple of the normal price) for foreigners like Chris and I since I am now considered to be a foreigner. We had to stay at the government regulated hotels and ride in cars operated by the government agency.
My cousins hired a driver and a large van for our transportation. The driver was stopped occasionally by the police to check their insurance paper work for carrying foreigners in the van. Of course, Chris’ blonde hair stood out each time for the police to spot. We decided to put a hat on Chris head. It helped.
After three years of the cold weather in Illinois, my parents were ready for a warmer climate. It didn’t take much persuasion from my aunt who lived in Seguin, Texas. She said the weather was much warmer and there were more jobs with better pay. Living in the icy snow winter of Pekin with barely $3 per hour as a dish washer and a cook, Texas seemed promising. In the summer of 1981, my parents decided to make a road trip and visit Texas.
In this article I would like to share a little of my dad, my mom and my own characteristics of who we were shaped by our journey in life. Looking back at my life, a phrase rings true in my head “Life is a journey not a destination” by Ralph Waldo Emerson.
My Dad, a Simple Man
My dad was a very systematic, methodological, and a simple man. He was quiet, reserved, conservative, and did not like change. Moving to Texas was not his idea of an adventure. If it was up to him, he would put up with the freezing weather and minimal pay. With a big nudge from my mom, not only were we planning to move to Texas, he also had to learn directions and drive from Illinois to Texas. After only less than a year of driving ever at the age of 47, my dad had to learn to drive on the gigantic freeway. He was very nervous.
It was 1081 miles from Pekin, Illinois to Seguin, Texas. We did not have GPS, mobile phones, or internet available in 1981. The only thing available was the atlas map. In his first year of driving, my dad only drove in the small city of Pekin. We had not yet experienced driving the freeway. My mom challenged my dad with no options. It was do-or-die – figuratively of course. Thankfully, my dad took the challenge.
My dad weighed all of us and the luggage to balance out the station wagon. My older sister, Hạnh and I were assigned to a very important job. We were the navigators. We guided my dad through the freeways. The best part for me was I got to be in the front seat with my dad and saw everything. It was an exciting and adventurous opportunity. My two younger sisters and my mom sat in the middle row while my two younger brothers got the back row all to themselves.
My dad drove on the right-hand lane for slower cars at first. Several times, he unintentionally followed the exit off the ramp thinking that it was still the freeway. The exit ramps were sometimes as big as the freeway. We quickly learned that if there was an exit then there was also an entrance. Later my dad built confidence and began to pass slower cars. Of course, my mom was the voice of reason in the back seat. She occasionally caught him speeding and quickly reminded him to slow down.
There was a big traffic incident that scared the pants off my dad and I. We were driving at least 60 miles per hour and came into a big halting stop on the freeway. We were going so fast and had to stop so quickly that we did not know if we could stop in time. My dad pushed hard on the brakes and I also instinctively pushed hard with my feet against the carpeted floor of the car. We luckily managed to barely kissed the front car with our bumper. My dad and I looked at each with relief. That was the most heart throbbing moment of our drive. I am not sure if anyone else in the car noticed. Finally, we all got to Seguin, Texas in one piece.
My dad loved to tell us tales and we all believed him when we were little. I remembered that he would say “I like it better when you guys were little, you believe everything I said. Now you are grown up, you no longer believe in my tales.” My father had a strange humor. Whoever I brought home to meet my parents, my father would ask “why do you like her, she is Vietnamese. She is different.” I know my friends felt uncomfortable with those questions. They would only reply. “I like her because she is nice.”
When we first arrived in Texas both of my parents worked at Holly Farms now known as Tyson. They both hung chicken in an assembly line. Their minimum wage was $7 an hour. In ten years they would make $9/hr. The wages doubled the amount in Pekin, Illinois. However, the job in the assembly line was tough. Every night, I found my dad massaging his swollen arms with Ben Gay®. My parents were Ben Gay®’s best customers.
My dad often shared with me about how strong and young his co-workers were. The co-workers would last several months hanging chicken. They either quit or were let go. Age 47, my dad stuck with his job and surpassed any youth and muscular young men. In the back of my dad’s mind “I have a family of 6 children at home dependent on me. I can’t let them down.” As he got older, they transitioned his position from hanging chickens into cleaning up buckets. His highest pay was $10.00/hour. He worked at Tyson for 19 years until he retired on his birthday in 2001 at the age of 65.
My dad smoked most of his adult life. With the whole family nagging on him to quit smoking forever, he refused to listen. Just one day, a comment was made by my brother that challenged my dad. He decided to quit smoking cold turkey after 40 years of smoking and never looked back.
My dad had a stroke and passed away a year later in 2007 at the age of 71.
My Mom, a Risk Taker
My mom was a risk taker and an adventurous strong woman. She was not shy by any mean. Other people tried to take advantage of her and she gave them what for with her broken English. My mom was the instigator for our journey to America and our move to Texas. My dad had the final say.
When we moved to Texas, my mom worked with my dad at Tyson for 5 years. She packaged the left chicken wings in an assembly line. It was not as hard as my dad position but it required quickness, focus, and patience. Because they have to keep the chicken fresh, the room temperature was constantly in the 40s. Both my mom and dad had to wear layers and gloves to keep warm.
My mom was not happy with her job. My aunt, Dì Ðuốc, introduced her to a fabric manufacturing company. Dì means aunt in Vietnamese. My mom applied for a position and got a job with a starting salary of $9 an hour and an opportunity to make up to $12 per hour. However, there was one obstacle. The company was 30 miles away and she did not know how to drive.
Everyone including myself feared for her safety. At this time, there was only one car in the family. She cannot rely on anyone to drive her. She wanted to learn to drive. My mom was adamant in taking the job for a better pay and perhaps less strenuous labor. Every weekend, my mom practiced driving around the block with my dad. At night, she studied the driving manual for the written test. She took the driving test twice and passed it the second time. She passed the written test on her first try. My mom got her drivers license in 1985.
My mom accepted the job at the fabric manufacturing plant and worked in an assembly line connecting threads. Every opportunity for overtime my mom was there. My mom started out working the third shift from 12am to 8am for 7 years. She then moved to the second shift from 4pm to 12am while my dad worked from 3pm to 11pm. She retired at 63 years old.
My parents’ goals were to make enough money to feed the family and pay the expenses. There was not enough for all 6 children to go to college. I told myself that I was going to do well in school and receive scholarships so that my parents did not have to worry about my education. They can be proud. My parents sacrificed their lifetime so that their children have an opportunity for a better education and a better life.
My Accomplished Goals – Seemed like Miracles
I had four major goals when I was in high school:
- Attend and graduate from a college of my choice. I wanted to make my parents proud.
- Visit my godmother in Vietnam after I graduated from college.
- Find a great paying job after I graduated.
- Find someone to share the rest of my life with.
The goals did not have to be in the exact same order. Almost every night, I gazed upon the star and made my 4 wishes.
Having 6 children to raise and with minimum wage earnings, I knew that my parents will not be able to afford college tuition for all their children. In my junior year of high school, I applied to almost every scholarship and grants I could find. I received scholarships from Walmart, LULAC, the Lions Club, and government grants. I was very appreciative for their kind contributions. Their contributions carried me through my 4 ½ years of college education.
The first 2 years were at Southwest University in San Marcos, Texas so I could be close to home. I transferred to Texas A&M on my third year with a goal of becoming an architect. Even though, I loved learning about architecture and its history, being an architect was not practical at the time. I had to pay my way through school so there was no time to work on extensive projects. On my second semester at Texas A&M, I changed major to computer science.
While scholarship and grants paid for my tuition and fees, I worked two part-time jobs to pay for rent and living expenses. Instead of living in a dorm, I bought a travel trailer. I rent a plot of land in a trailer park and lived there for two years. My monthly expenses were minimal.
I held several jobs. At one time, I worked as a newspaper delivery person for two semesters. It was good money but required early morning delivery from 3am to 5am. It was hard on my truck as well. I had a small accident where I ran into a brick mail box. The mailbox was totally demolished. All I did was reaching down for the paper and then looked up. It was too late. I smashed into the mailbox. It was my embarrassing moment. Even the police man laughed at the incident. Luckily, he didn’t give me a ticket.
After the newspaper job, I worked as a waitress for an Asian restaurant for one semester. It was a fun experience and I get Chinese food for free. My main job was being an assistance at the Visualization Lab in the architecture department. It was part of the pell grant for the University. I worked at this job for at least 2 years.
For my last 1½ years at Texas A&M, I co-opped or also known as internship every other semester to gain experience in the computer industry. I moved my trailer back home and lived in an apartment with a roommate.
I met Chris Roda at the Visualization Lab. Chris was the turning point of my life. When I first met Chris, I thought he was very handsome perhaps too handsome for me. Chris had a pair of beautiful baby blue eyes. His dark and short blonde hair complimented his eyes and skin tone. His sharp facial trait with a slight squared chin featured his masculinity. Chris was very bouncy and upbeat.
“He probably won’t even notice me.” I whispered to the viz lab receptionist, Linda.
I was wrong. He noticed me and more. Our first date was watching “Beauty and the Beast” right before Christmas of 1991. In January 1992, I moved to Dallas to start my internship. It was 5 hours drive from College Station, Texas A&M. Chris and I kept in touch for several more months. We finally dated after a few more months of me humming and hawing “does he like me or does he not like me?” Most of our relationships were long distance. When I moved back to Texas A&M from my internship, Chris graduated from Texas A&M with his master degree in computer science. He took a job in Houston so he could wait for me to graduate. Chris’ goal was to move to Los Angeles, California to pursue computer graphic career in the film industry.
Chris applied and got a position as a technical director at Boss Films Studio in Los Angeles. I helped Chris moved to Los Angeles. On our drive to Los Angeles, we detoured to Las Vegas and serendipity decided to elope on September 12, 1993. I promised to join Chris after I graduate. In addition, we were planning our wedding for our families on March 12, 1994. In the fall of 1993, I received a bachelor science degree in computer science at Texas A&M.
Two goals were accomplished. I graduated from college and got married within the same year. I moved out to Los Angeles to join Chris and I landed my first job in Los Angeles at VIFX as a freelancer in the film department at the beginning of 1994. I worked my way up to be a technical director just like Chris within a year.
I shared with Chris my wish of going to Vietnam and visit my godmother. We both came up with the date in October 1994. We visited Vietnam for a month. I accomplished all my wishes by the end of 1994. Wow! It was like a miracle. Everything lined up just perfectly as it was meant to be.
I was a quiet child while in school. I did not make a lot of friends or join in school activities. I always felt that I was a boring person and that I don’t have much to contribute so most of the time I would listen and not talk. I was oblivious to the latest trends, music, or fashions. My siblings were my friends. After school, I went straight home. For the longest time, we had only one car in our house so we stayed at home a lot.
At home, I was an active young lady. I often walked several miles to the library and borrowed many books. I loved to read. I love to explore the creek half mile from my house. I often ran errands with my dad on the weekends. I kept myself busy most of the time.
When I was growing up in Texas, I had mixed feelings about my own nationality. I was teased and watched other Asian children were teased by other kids. I didn’t want to be an Asian. I didn’t want to be different. I was ashamed of who I was. Why do my eyes slanted? Why is my skin yellow? Why is my hair so black? Why can’t I be like everyone else. I found myself more in isolation from friends and seek friendship in my family and siblings.
Life is short. At a young age, I decided to not allow myself to be bothered by criticisms or name-calling. I remembered when I first went to a middle school in Seguin, Texas. As the bell rang and we were entering the school, a girl made fun of an Asian boy. I took it personally and stood up to her. That was the first time I was so angry that I shook. I was angry at how the kids were making fun of others who were not like them. I asked myself why am I different? What can I do? I ignored them. I focused on my family. My sisters were my friends. However, my sisters had their own lives as well. They don’t have the same interests as me. Am I forcing myself on them??? Not sure. It was quite a journey growing up.
Self acceptance is the key to my success. I love who I am today. I love to be different and unique. I am very lucky to be born and raised in Vietnam and I am proud to be a Vietnamese American.
My Personal Reflection
Ordinary people become super ordinary under circumstances. My family is not any different from any other families in this whole wide world. With a passion and a goal we conquered our fears. My grandparents and my parents both have the passion for being free. To achieve that freedom, their goal was to come to America. Through the hardship journey, they succeed beyond their wildest dreams.
My dad liked any other father who loved his family very much stood strong for his family and what he believed in. He believed in family and that we all stick together. I can never forget his words before we left Vietnam. “We are a family. If we live through this journey we will live together but if we die we shall die together as a family.”
We came to a country where the language and culture were foreign to all of us. We lived with our grandparents for three years in Pekin, Illinois. The weather was too cold and jobs were scarce so once again we migrated to Seguin, Texas in search for a better living. Once again circumstance pushes our family to explore the unknown. We are no different from anyone else. We settled in Texas and there we stayed until my siblings and I went to colleges.
We led our lives like many Americans and occasionally need a reminder of what life is all about when we tell other people about our journey. That was one of many reasons why I wanted to share with you my journey to America. I invite you to reflect upon your life – what can you do to make a difference in your life?
I am only one sample of many other immigrants that came to this free country through many means and ways. Think about yours, now that you are here, what can you do to make this place even a better tomorrow than before. What can you do to create a new adventure for yourself and leave behind the legacy for your children? These are questions you don’t have to answer now. They are questions to ponder upon. My hope is to inspire you to create your own adventure and make America or where ever you are even a better place to live for your children, grandchildren, etc…
My parents raised 6 children with a combined income of $30,000 before taxes. They were amazing. They left a legacy of their way of beings and their actions behind for us to follow. We live an American dream. I hope to pass it on to others through my journals.
In my next articles, I will share about my trip back to Vietnam and complete my circle of appreciation. I also collected interviews with my siblings regarding their perspectives of our Journey to America. It was quite interesting to learned their view points.
I love to hear your thoughts and your journey. Please leave your comments below.
I was here in America because of circumstance. If Vietnam was a peaceful place, the thought of leaving would never come up in a million year. My family was not any different from any other family. When sink or swim was put to the test, we rose to the occasion. That was the initiation of our character development. Our family had one passion and it was the passion for freedom. Freedom created tenacity in each one of us. The freedom allowed us the opportunity to be who we wanted to be.
We had choices. We can stay, take no risk, and be dependent on others for our successes or we can leave, take risks, and be dependent on ourselves that we can build a better life somewhere else. War was a circumstance that no one ever wished to endure. At the same time, it was an incident that pushed us into a direction that would best fit our family. Because of freedom and the instinct of survival, my family was determined to succeed whether our decision was considered to be a good choice or a bad choice.
Because of my experiences, I learned a lot about myself. When I was most comfortable, I lived primarily to exist. When I was most challenged, I existed to live and I lived life to the fullest. My journey to America was a great example of me living life to the fullest. I enjoyed every moment of it.
We landed at Peoria Illinois Airport mid December 1978. My family was not prepared for the winter weather. My brothers were in shorts and the rest of my family were in short sleeves and long pants. I remembered wearing a thin yellow sweater. Coming from a tropical climate and exposed to a below 30 degree F weather with snow deep to my knees was a weird experience. We were greeted by our grandparents, aunts and uncles who came to the US in 1975. They were prepared with winter coats for our arrival. On our drive to our grandparents home, everyone was in silence. We were mesmerized by the whiteness of our surrounding sparkling against the twinkling light of the night starry sky. Because of the dramatic weather changed, I was sick for several days.
In Vietnam as a kid, I was very easily infected with lice by friends from schools. Yes, unfortunately, I learned later that I was the one child who passed the inherited lice to my siblings and all my family members on the island. First and foremost when we arrived in America, all the children had to be de-lice. Our old clothes were either thrown away or maybe burned.
I remembered being de-lice a few times before in Vietnam by Me Duc so I was ready.
I recalled a liquid that was poured over my head which smelled like gasoline. My scalp felt cool. There was a wiggling sensation as if a parade of ants running chaotically on my head and in between my hair strands. Here in America, the liquid smelled differently. It was almost like a smell of hair permanent. My mom covered my head with a shower cap. The same cool feeling reminded me of my Vietnamese de-lice experiences.
I was exposed to the chicken pox. That was not fun. I had no earthly idea what it was. All I wanted to do was to scratch myself all over my body to relieve the itchy feeling. My mom soaked me in the tub with some kind of ointment.
Our first Christmas in Pekin, Illinois was fun and interesting. We never celebrated Christmas before. The Christmas tree and lights concept was also foreign. Santa Claus, who was that? My parents led a Buddhist life style so we never celebrated Christmas until we came to America. There were multicolored boxes with bows under the tree and they were for us. I was not even aware that there was a surprise gift inside the box. I was so thankful in receiving such beautiful boxes.
Remember a movie called “Splash”? The mermaid was played by Darryl Hannah. In one of the scenes, the mermaid received a gift from her love. It was a gift in a wrapped box. She examined the box and hugged it. Well that was exactly how I felt. I thought the box was the gift. If you haven’t seen the movie Splash, it was released March 9, 1984. The stars were Tom Hanks and Darryl Hannah. It was worth seeing. I enjoyed it.
We were given many gifts such as clothes and shoes which were definitely appreciated. From that point on, it darned on me that I will not be returning to Vietnam any time soon.
After one long month without my dad, my dad united with us in January 1979. We were relieved that he came home.
The Seguin Elementary School was great. All the teachers were very helpful. All six of the children met with a language teacher ½ hour each day after lunch in school to learn additional English. I remembered having to be in front of an assembly for everyone to meet a new Vietnamese family in town. We were even on the Pekin Gazette Newspaper. In 1979, there were only four to five Asian Vietnamese families living in Seguin. Most of those families were my aunt, uncles, and cousins.
Our first day of school was also interesting. Whatever English Hanh (my older sister) and I learned on the island 5 months ago was long gone. We had to pick up English quickly. We also missed half a year of school. My parents feared that we would have a hard time learning a new language. They pulled all six of us two years back. After summer of 1978, I was going into fifth grade. My parents registered me as a third grader. I was small enough to fit in as a third grader. Our first words were “May I go to the bathroom?” and “thank you”.
We were all shy and shell shocked. Like many other children in a new and strange environment, my brothers had small bathroom incidents during class. I remembered on the first day of school, by lunchtime, I met up with my siblings in the cafeteria and started to walk home. The teachers had to stop us and turned us around. In Vietnam, we had only half day of school so we thought class was over by lunchtime. Physical Education, art, music, and extra curriculum were new to us. The Vietnamese school curriculum was different. They focused on reading, writing, history, and science. There was no extra curriculum provided.
By summer 1979, we moved to our very own house. It was a small house with two bedrooms and 1 bath. It was owned by Mr. Wilson. The house was small but it was ours. All 8 of us, 5 girls and 3 boys, shared one bathroom. Wow, we all managed. Yes, there were squabbles here and there but we learned to wait for our turns. The early risers get the first dip of the bathroom. While the sleepy heads waited for their turns. “If you snooze you lose.” That was our family motto. The family room was transformed into my parents’ bedroom. My two brothers shared the small bedroom. The four girls shared the largest bedroom. The girl’s door was a 1970 bead curtain. We had a huge detached 2 car garage that looked like a barn and a great apple tree in the back yard. The apples were small and tart. We had many shares of the munchy apples and loved every bit of it.
My parents bought a used blue Chevrolet, our very first car. The car and the house made a great picture to send home to Vietnam. My dad wrote letters and sent pictures to his family in Vietnam. His mom saw a picture of our so called new car and our little house. She thought we must be in heaven. In 1979, Vietnam was going through a rough time. The citizens were in a poor state. My paternal grandmother asked my dad to send home money to help them with their lives. My parents barely made ends meet at the time. They saved furiously few hundred dollars over a few months. They sent home some money but it was not enough. Vietnam was in a sad state. My parents unfortunately could not help my paternal grandmother as much as she asked for. At that time, they did not understand the cost of living in America and they did not understand that having a house and a car was a necessity. To Vietnamese, having a house and a car was a luxury. Vietnam did not have a system such as a mortgage or even a lay-away plan. Every thing was bought or sold by cash in the Vietnamese culture. If we could afford a house and a car then we could afford to send more money home, right?
In Vietnam, my mom was the right-hand person for her boss. She brought home the bacon. My mom worked her way up from being a secretary in to the factory manager in accounting within a year. They were the international manufacturer for fabric and thread. We had a lived in nanny to take care of all the children while my parents were working. My dad was the tax assessor. He brought home normal wages, on the average of $10/month.
In America, my dad’s first job was a dishwasher and my mom was a cook. My parents swallowed their pride and did what they could at the time to feed, clothe, and shelter their children. They were both well-educated and came from an educated family in Vietnam. Coming to America, they both barely made minimum wage of under $2.5/hour and being ridiculed for being Asians. Both salaries didn’t bring in enough to feed a family of 8. We applied for food stamps. I saw my father paid with food stamps before but I didn’t understand or related to our financial situation. The food stamps helped our family tremendously.
To me we were living a great life. Since there were so many girls and we were one size up from each other so it was totally expected to get passed me down clothes. We shared many things such as toys and clothes. A few days before Christmas in our new home, we found a large fruit basket outside our door. We thought it was for someone else at first. There was no card or names attached. However, there was no one around so we accepted the gift heartily. It may come from the church who welcomed us to the neighborhood. It was a wonderful feeling of receiving such wonderful gift that someone out there was thinking of us. We were touched and felt very welcomed and accepted into the community.
As I am writing this, my vision became blurry and my eyes filled with tears. Sniff, sniff, sniff. Why are there tears rolling down my cheeks uncontrollably? Sniff, sniff, sniff. I was touched by the kindness of the giver who was so kind and gave us in our time of need. The basket came in the nick of time. I can’t fathom how blessed we were.
As a child, I did not really know and understood our family financial situation. All I know was if I asked for something extra like candy from the store, my dad would say we don’t have enough money for that. I did not have a concept or value for money. Looking back now, that was the time when we needed help most and the fruit basket really made a profound impact in my memory. Just like when Chu Thuong (my cousin) received a spoonful of the fruits cocktails from a stranger. I never found out exactly where that fruit basket came from. I wished I had pursued it further. Thank you, who ever you were.
A generous couple, Mr. & Mrs. Viola, took us to church every Sunday for Bible school to teach us Christianity. Although we went to church, my parents made a request that we were not to be baptized until we turn 18 when we can freely choose which religion we would like to follow.
It took me almost a year or so before I slowly caught on with the English listening skill translating English into Vietnamese. My aunt, Di Ca, baby sat us every night on the week days while our parents were working night shift at the Holiday Inns. I remembered any time we watched a movie I would ask her to translate. The actors were speaking too fast for me to catch up. “What did they say? What did they say?” I asked impatiently wanting to know everything about what the characters said. Di Ca was very patient with me. She translated every single time I asked. My siblings were not so patient. They hushed me every time I asked. “Shut up and just watch.” They yelled.
Watching was not enough for me. I wanted to know more. I wanted to know what they said. I was very curious and excited to learn. Every time Di Ca read a new book, I would ask for her to tell it to me. She liked scary stories written by Stephen Kings. I loved it, too. It was my high light of the evening.
Di Ca married a gentleman named Richard Wilson. We knew Richard Wilson before Di Ca married him. We called him Mr. Wilson. Mr. Wilson helped my grandparents quite a bit when they first came to America in 1975. The house we lived in was owned by Mr. Wilson. Mr. Wilson helped my grandparents bought their house. He helped them fixed lots of things around house. He was a handy dandy fix it person. Any mechanical issues we encountered, we called Mr. Wilson for help. Mr. Wilson was always at our house. Finally, one fine day, he asked my grandfather for Di Ca’s hand in marriage.
He was the first American engaged into our family. It took a while for my grandfather to warm up to the idea. Di Ca was my grandfather youngest and precious daughter. Mr. Wilson was very kind to our family and was loving to all the grandchildren, nephews, nieces, and cousins. My grandfather finally gave his blessing to Mr. Wilson. On July 1979, we promoted Mr. Wilson to Uncle Wilson.
On the week days, Di Ca would be spending the evening with us and helped us with our homework. On the weekend, both Uncle and Di Ca spent even more time with us. Uncle was into gadgets and technology. He brought over the Atari game, Commodore 64. It was a great new gadget back then. We took turn to play space invader and asteroids. I had long talks pondering about life and our existence with Uncle and who ever wanted to talk outside with us under the stars almost every weekend. Di Ca and Uncle Wilson never seemed to be bored with my conversations with them. They touched our lives in so many ways. Thank you, Di Ca and Uncle.
During the summer, they bought a van and took us on a camping trip to Great America in Chicago. We went to Six Flags in St. Louis. We had lots of wonderful memories spending with Uncle Wilson and Di Ca. I treasured every moment to be with them on all of our fun trips and adventures. They made a huge impression and contribution to my life.
We grew up watching the Brady Bunch, I dream of Jeanie, Bewitched, and Saturday morning cartoons. My dad loved to watch wresting. I was scared of watching horror movies but loved it at the same time. I would always be watching a horror movie with a hand covering one eye. Thinking perhaps with one eye covered, it was half scary. I believed the kids’ psychology on the Brady Bunch was true. We tried it on my brother and it didn’t work. All the kids ganged up and ignored my brother when he was bad hoping that he would learn his lesson. However, the lesson backed fired on us. My brother didn’t speak to everyone for a whole year. I learned that I should not believe everything I see on TV.
Yes, my siblings fought constantly over every little thing. However, we had many fun times together. We had only one TV. We often fight to watch for our favorite TV shows. It would be the boys vs. the girls. I would be the trouble maker at the same time and be a peace maker to mend what I broke.
After three years in Seguin, my mom decided that we should move to Texas. The Navy in-law uncle, Chu Te, and our aunt, Di Duoc, who lived in Texas told us there were better job opportunities and warmer climate in Texas. We visited Texas in the summer of July 1982. By now, the blue Chevrolet died on us. My dad upgraded to a yellow station wagon with a bench and back door to the back. We thought that the station wagon was the coolest car. We all fit comfortably.
Driving on the freeway was quite an experience for our family. My dad had been driving on the local roads for three years by now and had never driven on the freeway. He mapped out the whole trip from start to finish. It was a big deal for my dad. I imagined it was a scary but yet adventurous feeling for my dad. I thought it was exciting and wanted to stay awake the whole way. My dad assigned Hanh and I to be the navigators. Several times we took the exit by mistake. My dad often complained, “I can’t believe how big the exit was. It was as big as the Freeway.” We quickly learned that if there was an exit to the freeway, there was an entrance back to the freeway.
It took us several days with many little bathroom and gas stops every two hours from Pekin, Illinois to Seguin, Texas. Both my parents scoped out Seguin with my aunt and uncle. The weather was agreeable. My aunt and uncle generously offered us a place in their home for our transition to Texas before we find our own home.
After coming home to Pekin, my mom was determined to move to Texas. Both parents agreed. After 4 weeks later, we packed all of our belongings and moved down to Seguin, Texas. My dad measured everything including all the kids. He checked out the mileage, the weight, and the car. Anything that was too heavy such as the furniture was left behind.
It was hard to say good bye to our grandparents, aunts, uncles, and the new friends we made. Once again our family left to seek for better opportunities.
Interested to read more about my journey? Stay tune for my next week blog. You can also review my older blogs at https://phoqueencooking.com/category/Vietnam. Any questions or thoughts, please leave them below as comments.
From 1975 to about 1996, more than 500,000 boat people reportedly stayed at different refugee camps while a guess estimate of between 200,000 and 400,000 (10 to 70%) of Vietnamese boat people perished in high seas. Many boat people faced storms, diseases, starvation, and pirates. Often refugee boats were attacked by pirates on an average of three times each.
During the pirate attacks, women were raped, abducted, and people were dead or missing. The numbers of Vietnamese boat people who died at sea could only be guessed.
Regardless of the perilous journey at sea, an over alarming number of boat people grew to tens of thousands per month from 1978 to early 1979. Neighboring countries with international assistance set up refugee camps along their shore to help house the refugees’ until they were approved for resettlement in other countries.
Pulau Bi Dong was among the largest refugee camps during the Vietnamese migrations.
Pulau Bi Dong
Pulau Bi Dong is one of the many beautiful islands located in Terengganu, east coast states of peninsular Malaysia. Legend has it that the island was a home of an elderly childless couple who live in isolation away from others. After their demise, the island is uninhabited until 1978 when it was converted into a refugee camp for the Vietnamese Boat People, after the temporary camp at Pulau Besar in Merang could no longer accommodate the increasing number of refugees’ arrival since the first landing in May 1975.
Pulau Bi Dong became designated to be the principal refugee camp in Malaysia in August 1978. It was one square kilometer or 0.386 square miles in area and located off the coast of Terengganu, Malaysia in the South China Sea. Bi Dong island was officially opened as a refugee camp on August 8, 1978 with 121 Vietnamese refugees’. Only the most southern side of the island was used for the refugees’ while 90% of the island was considered to be forbidden area.
In 1978, our boat was among the first 5 refugee boats to arrive at Pulau Bi Dong. The capacity of the refugee camp was estimated to be 4500. By June 1979, there were up to 40,000 refugees (ten times the capacity) lived in the designated area, which was rounded by the white line. From 1975 until 1991, almost 250,000 boats came through Pulau Bi Dong. It was the largest refugee camps during the Vietnamese migrations.
When we first arrived, the island was uninhabited. For the first few weeks, I remembered living under a huge tent while the men built us a home. There were no hospital, offices, any shelters, or outhouses built. We all lived off on 1 well water. Later more wells were built and outhouses were also built.
In the beginning, the refugees like my family lived under trees, tents, or any shelter we could build. Bushes or anywhere on the island were our public toilets. We dug wells throughout the island to get fresh water. Coconuts, coconut milk, and fish along with rice given by the government were our main staple.
We were fortunate to receive the support of the UNHCR. We received rice, condense milk for the children once or twice a month. The bulk of my family was children so we did not consume all the rice. My mom traded the extra rice for the extra food such as vegetables for the family. My cousins went fishing for our extra protein consumption.
My memories of Crazy Incidences
I remembered three crazy incidents when we were living on the island. One incident was the fallen coconut tree. During one of many tropical storms, one coconut tree was being knocked over by a strong gust of wind. There was a small house or tent built
right underneath the fallen path of the tree. As the tree was quickly leaning over, the residence of the house thought he could save the house by putting his arms up to stop the tree from falling on top of his house. To his dismay, the tree was too big and heavy. His house could not be saved. In the process, he broke both of his arms. It was not a happy ending.
Another incident was a suicide attempt by a famous singer who also was a refugee at Pulau Bi Dong. She was unhappy and wanted to end her life by jumping into a water well. Needless to say, she did not get her wish. The water well was shallow so she did not fall very far. Nothing was broken and many people were angry with her. We could not drink water from this well for months because it became diluted with all the dirt and mineral mixed in by her fall. It took a while for the water to be resettled and became clear again.
The third incident was the fallen coconut. My cousin was sitting under a coconut tree one day chopping wood for dinner. He heard a loud thud along with a splash of juice spurted all over his feet. A large coconut fell off a tree and landed right next to my cousin. He was very fortunate that it did not land right on his head. With a high velocity, gravitational pull, and approximately 3 pound weight, the coconut could definitely do some damage to a person’s head.
Conditions of Pulau Bi dong
Conditions on Pulau Bi Dong were difficult over time. It was known to some as “Hell Isle”. New refugees’ were packed into the camp daily. My family and I were fortunate to leave the island by late November 1978. Even as a child at the age of ten, I could tell that the living sanitary condition was slowly degrading.
As the years progressed with more refugees arrival, the Malaysian Government, Malaysian Red Crescent Society (MRCS), UNHCR, and other relief agencies stepped in and created longhouses, hospitals, schools, clinics, temples, churches, shops, offices, modern public toilets, and many others. This help relieved and created somewhat better condition to house all the refugees.
Pulau Bi Dong opened August 8, 1978 and officially closed with a farewell ceremony on October 30, 1991. When the camp was closed, the remaining refugees were forcefully repatriated back to Vietnam.
Current State of Pulau Bi Dong
After 14 years after the closure of the camp. The ex-workers of the island and a group of ex-Vietnamese refugees from Australia and USA had a chance to revisited Pulau Bi Dong together in March 2005. The group created a memorial statue at Pulau Bi Dong & Galang in commemorated the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese people who perished on the way to freedom (1975 – 1996). The memorial was demolished by June 2005. Here is a link to more information about the memorial: http://boatpeople75.tripod.com/VC_destroyed_Boat_People_Memorial.html.
I found a video of Pulau Bi Dong today on youtube.com while putting this blog together so I thought I share it with you.
Pulau Bi Dong became a deserted island. No one lives there anymore. There were proposals to turn Pulau Bi Dong into a vacation spot and/or museum. However, because of political reasons, very little to no maintenance has been done.
Even though, Pulau Bi Dong may be a living hell for many but I had many fond memories of my time being there. My family and I were Robinson Crusoe. My siblings and I were the mermaids and mermen of the sea. We were the explorers of the new world. We were fortunate to be the first wave of people to live on the inhabited island. We built our own home and experienced the pristine nature. There were no electricity, no plumbing, or no amenities existed. Everything was new and unexplored.
Many thanks to my parents who were courageous and fearless. They were in their early to mid forties. We made the best out of what we had. My dad made up stories that excited us instead of feeling scared and hopeless. We were hopeful and felt relieved with minimal burden from the outside world. Being there together as a family was one of the best time of our life. The best thing was we had each other.
That experience helped shaped who I am today. My parents taught me not by words but by their examples, their actions, and their state of being.
If you have any questions or comments, please leave a few words below. I love to hear your perspectives.