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    Posted May 14, 2010 by
    Atlanta, Georgia
    This iReport is part of an assignment:
    Your Vietnamese journey

    Voices Beyond the Sea



    In an effort to preserve my family’s history and to give my parents a voice, I reflect on their experiences as boat refugees as told to me through various family members in pieces and fragments.  I tell their story through rose-colored glasses, unable to comprehend the griping fear or harrowing grief that they experienced as war refugees.  I can only envision the pain through the sound of my mother’s voice cracking or the images from film or the description from other peoples narratives, all depicting the small boat being severely tossed around by the violent sea. 

    In 1975, after the fall of Saigon, my mother’s sister had the opportunity to leave Vietnam with her husband and her six children via aircraft.  The original plan was to also bring my mother with them.  However, when they arrived, the plan was foiled when they were informed only immediate family could evacuate.  Her niece, only a small child then, proceeded to wail and refused to leave, saying that she would stay with her “co.”  The terror of being left behind was magnified by the pain of saying good-bye to her sister and her nephews and nieces, not knowing if they would ever meet again.

    Four years later, in 1979, my mother wed my father, who spent time in re-education camp with my uncle, and they planned to escape by boat.  After formulating a plan, my parents, along with my grandfather and a few of my cousins, managed to leave on their boat without getting caught, even after getting stuck in a sandbar on the way.  However, like many other refugees, their boat was raided by Thai pirates, who stole all their valuables, raped the women, and destroyed all their food and supplies.   The pirates came by a second time to ensure that they did not miss anything.

    With all their resources eliminated, they were left in the vast sea, waiting for either death or a miracle. My mother recalls that they believed their chance of dying was 99.9%.  In what my mother believes was divine intervention, a Thai fisherman found their boat and, upon discovering that they had no food or water, took all of the refugees on his vessel and brought them to land.  They spent several months in refugee camp in Thailand, where my older sister was conceived, before they were re-connected with my mother’s sister in Iowa.


    When my aunt came to America, her family was flown in to LAX and eventually sponsored by a Catholic priest in Madrid, Iowa.  One of my favorite tales of their arrival was told to me by my cousin who arrived in America as a teenager.  When leaving LAX, each refugee was given a meal voucher, and the family went to dine at a restaurant.  While all of the children chose burgers and fries, the youngest brother in the family delightfully announced that he was having a chicken salad sandwich so that he could have “chicken, salad, and a sandwich!”  He was visibly disappointed when he saw his sandwich, and the other children laughed as they ate their burgers and fries.  My cousin recants many humorous stories as he and his family attempted to discover American life.  They once spent an hour staring at a pie crust in the oven, waiting for the crème filling to appear to mirror the image of the crème-filled pie on the package.

    But behind the humor, there was pain and trauma as they were unaware of the fate of the rest of their family.  For two years, they had no communication with my mom, and they were left in the dark as far as who had survived the war and who had perished during the war.  My cousin recalls that my aunt cried each day, mocking her wails, veiling them through his funny antics; however, the truth was, he said, that he wept the same tears each day as he grieved for Vietnam and yearned for his aunt’s presence.

    When my family arrived in America, it was the same Catholic priest, Fr. Cain, who sponsored my family.  My older sister was born in July of 1979, the first Vietnamese-American baby born to our family.  My parents subsequently had three more girls, each two years apart, while my dad began his first job just days after arriving to America.  He worked in a mental institution, earning $4/hr, after having been a pharmacist in Vietnam.  My mother, who was a social worker, stayed at home with her four babies, confined to one place without either a car or driver’s license.  It took her at least four tries to pass the driver’s test.

    Now, nearly 31 years after my parents’ escape from Vietnam, they have raised five successful daughters; and after years of working as a Chemical Engineer, my dad re-earned his Doctor of Pharmacy degree.  They do not talk about Vietnam often, but it is evident that the escape is still tender in their hearts and that Vietnam as they remember it 30 years ago is the country that they still love and cherish.  They believe that it was through grace and mercy that they survived—and a miracle that not one member of their families died as a result of the war.

    It is my hope that my parents and the thousands of Vietnamese boat refugees will not be forgotten but, instead, be honored for their bravery, their courage, and their will to survive. 

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