I wrote this piece in 2013 but haven’t found the right time to share it until now.
For months, the refugee crisis in Europe has been worsening; the EU’s response has been divided and inadequate in the face of massive suffering. Then November happened and the situation has been further complicated by terror attacks in Lebanon, France, and Mali. Desperation, fear and violence have created a vicious circle where suspicion and division threaten our shared humanity. This narrative must change. I want to add my voice to the counter narrative, to share a story from long ago, a story of determination and grace. May this story encourage us to embrace our shared stories and find a way forward together.
I lived through it but I don’t remember any of it. And yet I know the story well. It featured in my college essays and I’ve learned to tell it with dramatic flourish. But mostly, during quiet moments throughout my life, I think back on this story of my mother and the strong will she once possessed. I didn’t know it then, but our passage from Vietnam would use up nearly a lifetime of her tenacity and fight to survive–not much would remain.
It was March 1980 and I was 4 years old. After nearly five years under communist control, Saigon was a bleak place with food shortages, nightly curfews and great uncertainty. Poverty was everywhere, no one had an easy life, not even the victors. Vietnam was still reeling from so many decades of war with lingering wounds and suspicions, grudges unforgotten. Affiliated with the former South Vietnamese government, my family was persecuted, jailed, struggled to survive. My father, aunts, uncles were sent away to re-education camps, to toil and suffer unseen for years. Upon release they were broken souls, resigned. Unable to bear any more, my mother decided it was time. In blinding darkness under a moonless night, we paddled along in a sampan and boarded a tiny boat with 100 other people. There was only darkness and silence, nothing to distract the mind nor the heart from the journey ahead. We had the clothes on our backs and a jar of preserved ginseng. My mother was nearly nine months pregnant; neither of us could swim.
What happened next is a story well-known to the world. Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese boat people fled in the late 70s and early 80s. They resettled all over the world and have told their stories of hunger, piracy and death. We faced similar obstacles, quickly running out of fuel, potable water and food, fighting seasickness along with a deep dread for the endless horizon. Into this world came a new soul, born upon the waves with a cry and a yelp, unaware of the danger. We sought solace in a school of dolphins, believing that they guided our drifting boat forward. Dolphins are a sign of good luck to the Vietnamese.
On the seventh day we rejoiced at the sight of a huge cargo ship heading in our direction. The crew lowered down water, fuel and supplies, and then tried to leave. The only English speaker aboard, my mother pleaded with the captain to rescue us. He must have felt a pang of guilt at the sight of my mother and her swollen belly for he relented and offered to take the women and children. Disheartened but resolute, she declined, calmly declaring then “that we should all die together.” Exhausted, dehydrated, she fainted. The captain then must have felt an even deeper pang for he changed his mind entirely. His men carried my mother and the small children onto the ship and the others followed. Perhaps the dolphins had led us to him but my mother made sure he would not leave us. Luck and determination.
Did we watch our small ship disappear into the horizon? Were we apprehensive about what was coming next? Did we even know where we were being taken? Perhaps we were too tired to care, too tired to ask questions or entertain sentimental thoughts. We were alive. Onward.
We were deposited in Singapore, where a dingy camp had been set up to receive refugees. The camp was run by a group of nuns. After a few days at the camp, my mother went into labor and was taken to the hospital. I have in my mind a faint image of a small girl running after an ambulance; I think she was crying. Alone at the camp, I was cared for by someone–a nun, a compatriot from our boat, a stranger? I don’t know. I don’t have any memories of the 2 weeks that I spent alone but not alone. (I have often wondered what the camp looked like, smelled like, what I did each day? Almost immediately, I am simultaneously relieved that I cannot remember. Some things can’t hurt you if you can’t remember them, right?) Meanwhile, my mother endured a difficult birth that left her bedridden for two weeks. My newborn brother was cared for by the nuns at the camp, where he was given the name Joseph and slept in a drawer in the main office. We were each of us alone, in our own way.
Anxious and overcome by homesickness, my mother summoned all that was left within her. She recalled that her father had a business associate in Singapore–she had met him once, when she was a child, more than 30 years ago. She looked him up in the phone book and called. Their reunion was tearful, emotional. She never told me what he said, what words he used, only that he had not known about her father’s death and was distraught about the family’s suffering. She never told me what she had said, what words she had used, only that she cried and pleaded for help. I can only imagine, it pained her too much to recollect. He did not fail her, immediately swooping down to the refugee camp to bring us to live with him in a villa high up in the hills. His staff arranged our immigration forms and travel papers. Three months later, we boarded a plane for America, each with a large suitcase of clothing and gifts, including a beautiful china doll that I clutched all the way to Seattle. I don’t know his name and I don’t remember anything about him (not even a photograph remains) but I am thankful for his help. He treated us with grace and generosity.
We are not the same, my mother and I, but I have not judged her fairly. It has taken me many years to realize this and to understand how much of herself she had to lose to guide us through danger and to a new life. Because of her, I have a story to tell.