Notes: My dad is Vietnamese while my mom is Vietnamese and Chinese. My mom uses Cantonese phrasing sometimes in conversation which is loosely transcribed in (not so great) english pin yin. I do not speak Vietnamese but I do understand Cantonese.
A Better Life: Transcribed Interview
This is the unedited 1 for 1 transcription I wrote for my thesis. Some writings might be strange. Time stamps were for my reference to grab sound bytes from the original 1 hour interviews.
- Kevin: My oldest sibling
Eric: My second oldest sibling
Gia: My aunt/my mom’s sister
): My maternal grandfather/my mom’s dad
Chou Wa Yi : A family friend.
Clara: I’m thinking a lot about what family means. I definitely have a better appreciation for family because I am so far… and so sheltered. There’s a reason for all of this. I went to school and I began to learn about how other people are raised and I’ve been thinking a lot about Asian culture. If I had to sum up what I’ve learned in college, it would be going back to my culture.
Dad: Maybe my story would explain why I project myself or think a certain way…
Dad: So the foundation of everything is that my family is very big. There are a lot of children. And my parents were very poor. They had nothing when they went into the city. They basically started with nothing… and they rented a house and they had to work really hard to pay for the rent and raise a lot of kids. They got married at 20 and had kids like every 2 years.
So 12 kids… that means mom was almost pregnant for all 20 years. And during that time she had to sell whatever she could sell. She sold vegetables, meat, canned foods… whatever she could gather from picking up from one place and selling it to another. Basically she was a very small merchant. This was in the old house.
She would go to an open market and set up a shop and sell whatever she was displaying. Mostly vegetables. She would find a source that was cheaper, and sell retail for profit. She would do this everyday. And they had to do that at the same time, and cook. She had a very tough life, had to do everything herself with hardly any support.
So when you are born into that family, you have to be independent. You gotta do everything for yourself. You have the responsibility to clean the dishes, clean the house, wash the floor, sweep the floor, keep things clean, wipe off windows, etc. Because there are 12 of us, the bathroom need to be clean, toilet need to be clean. Only one toilet and one shower in the same place. So therefore, if you have 14 people using the same facilities and you don’t maintain it, it’s not going to be pretty.
That taught everyone to take responsibility. Therefore, I’ve always been responsible and independent and make sure that I can take care of myself.
So when I see you guys living as kids, you have so many more resources that me and mom didn’t have. We had to get our own food…
(2:00) When I was 9 years old. When the war broke out, the Viet Cong communists came to Saigon, Viet Nam, and crossed the river, because they were across a river, and bombarded us with bombs, guns, and mortar, right across the street. So we had to get into a bunker. And things were shaking like crazy. The good thing is that in front of our house, we had a storage facility. It was a whole block of storage. I remember getting into the bunker because they were putting everything across. The river was only 150 ft across so they could bombard us. And I could feel all of that.
Clara: What did your family think of the communists? Did they take them seriously?
Dad: Well that was 1968, the Thet Offence. That was the first time, and it was very scary very serious. And the army pushed the Viet Cong Back. Then 1975, is different. The fall was different. Everyone knew it was very serious very bad. They blew everything up …
My family took it all very seriously. My father was a police officer for 25 years. My two oldest brothers were in the air force. So right away they were taken away to the concentration camps first for years. We didn’t see them for years…
But after that very tough period, in 1976 or 1977, they wanted us to go to the country side to become a farmer. Communists believed that everyone had to contribute and be a producer. So my family took 4 of us… 4 boys… I was about 12 years old and put us in the country side. We never knew how to farm because we were city boys. But now we have to go down and become farmers. My mom didn’t come with us, so we went down, and did whatever we needed to do. At first my grandma was there, but then she got sick, and had to go back to the city and pass away.
So the story of the containers and hiding from all the ghosts was after she died.
(17:25 pointing at how close the grave to the house was)
Clara: So they provided a house for you…?
Dad: We built the house. (17:38) My uncle in the country side was a very good carpenter. He helped build a house in a month. Me, my brothers, helped him build the house. We build the walkway into the house/driveway into the house. And I would bike back and fourth. We started living there for 9 years. When grandma passed away, we had to cook. So I had to figure out how to catch the food, and cook the food.
Clara: So what brothers were these?
Dad: Me (Number 7), Jiu Win Number 8, Number 5, Number 9. He’s in Ben Tre. 19:20 So because I was the next oldest one, I had to cook. The most memorable childhood memory was when I had to go catch crabs and fish and catch whatever I could catch. After catching, I had to cook it. So after school, I went to go catch food/things to eat. So whatever we could fish, we could catch, we would cook.
Clara: So you went to school still? So you were in the city, and they put your two oldest brothers into concentration camp, then they pushed you out of the house, and said that you had to farm. So how far was the city to the countryside?
Dad: ~50 miles
Clara: And the city is Saigon, and the countryside is called?
Dad: Ko Gaum. Ngo Gam? That’s the countryside where Gong worked in?
Dad: We went to school, we have to farm, and I have to catch my own food. School doesn’t cost us money. It’s middle school, jr. high, and then highschool. When I got back, I was going to Junior High. So that’s 6, 7, 8 grade… and then 9th grade we have to go to highschool which was in Ko Gaum City area. Which was 8 miles away biking… So we raised chickens, we have pigs… Everyone has a few lots of land. We have 2 lots, but the bad part was that the field was very bad. It was very acidic and it was very hard for us, city people, to know farming. And we get lousy piece of land.
The first year, all the rice was “flat”, meaning that no real rice was inside. There was very little rice inside. So the first year we got nothing. So my parents had to figure out how to borrow, and get money to buy rice so we could eat.
The second year we figured it out a little better… so we got some rice and a big storage. 23:30 We stored unprocessed rice. There’s a hard cover called “lore” and it’s for the rice. The storage is made out of hay material that is tightly knit together like a canvas. That thing is solid, but it doesn’t hold well with mice eating through it. There were a lot of mice, eating through holes, to get the unprocessed rice. They’re 50 to 100 in there in and out, and we tried to get them. It was a battle. Our storage was going down while we’re trying to get food.
We had to go to a machine about 4 miles away to process the rice. We had to bike… and we had to pay to get it processed. So we get the rice, the shell, and the powder—which is good for chickens or pig feed. So you take all of the parts, and you bring it back to cook and feed. The shells are actually very good to burn when dry. But the shells you can get for free.
So there was a period where I learned how to fish was quite memorable because there are many ways to learn how to fish… and how to go crabbing. It’s similar to what we do—but over there there was no chicken to throw in. So the bait for the crab was water snake. So to catch the crab to go crabbing, you gotta find water snakes first; find them, chop them into little sections, tie it to a rope, and throw them in the water. You can just catch them with your hand… I was bit many time but they aren’t poisonous. It was about 2 feet. You need about 1 or 2 to catch a lot of crab once you cut it into many many sections.
The water snake is also good to eat:
You chop it up finely, put lemon grass, chili pepper, salt and pepper, nuk mum, and create a ground beef with it… ground water snake.
So that is the stuff that I had to do… and in the dry season, there’s no water. So to catch the crab, you had to dig them up. I had a hoe and had to dig them up. You have to find the burrows, and read if there is a crab in there or not; and you have to read that it’s a crab burrow and not something else. You can read the surface to see if it’s a hard shell crab or a soft shell:
When a crab comes out of the burrow, it does not leave any little marks. (Lighter and fading footprints) The soft crabs, slide in and out. After it gets soft, it stays in there until it gets hard again- it’s like a developing crab. You put your hand in there, you dig deep enough to get close enough, and when you touch the shell you go Ah! Because you normally get to the hard shell first, then the soft shell. There’s a small pocket of water at the bottom, so it pushes its shell back and stays in the water and waits for its shell to get hard again. It’s defensive. And so when you go in there and hit the shell, you can tell if it’s a dead shell.
Clara: How old are you?
Dad: 13, 14, 15… that is the time where I learned how to catch. My skin tone now is nothing, back then I was blacker than black because of the sun. I was very muddy, and dark.
Clara: So are a lot of people from your school doing this?
Dad: Fishing more often… not crabbing like me. Everyone kind of do it… but when I go to highschool, all the friends I was with didn’t do that at all. All their families had businesses, and they didn’t have go to the farm (32:30) They hired people to work on their farms… they’re much richer than us. My friends have 2 boats (merchant boats) that moved materials from one place to another to get paid. (Like sugarcane, rice, vegetable, whatever.) It’s basically a transport boat. And so they had more money than me. I have to bike about 9 miles each way to go to school. And when I go back, a 4pm, I still had to catch something to cook.
My brothers-- Jiu Win began to catch fish. He wasn’t that good, and never caught as much as me. But they all went to school, they aren’t as good fisherman than me. Number 9 is still not as good as me. And I cooked and later Jiu Win cooked and we learned cooking together. We didn’t have a rice cooker, so we had to figure out how much water, when to stir, etc.
(34:46) So again, we were independent. So I’m trying to relate to you… So that’s why I’m trying to push to you a level of high expectation. Sometime it can be a high expectation, but I’m trying to get you… I don’t spoil you too much and hand feed you guys too much because you guys have to be more independent. Being independent will make you more capable and you won’t worry about your livelihood and not make it. Being independent will make you make it. Sometimes I say thing and you guys don’t see it… and want more interaction. Which is fine, but because of my upbringing, I’m trying to put teach you guys to push yourselves. The environment here is very different, you have all these resources and you only need to worry about school.
In the old day there were no pump. So we had to scoop water by hand. So two of us… there was a device; we dig one side and water come in, we throw a bucket down, we manage to bring the bucker up with rope, and then we carry it over and water your farm. Or else it dries and it dies. So we have to do that once every 5-7 days. We have to weed the farm… take out all the weeds. Stir it up and fertilize the farm. And hopefully you get some rice, and you harvest the rice. But first, before you harvest you have to plant the rice. On a certain day when the first rain came, you prepare the field with rice that has incubated… like bean sprouts. (When the rice begins to shoot and has a root). And then you bring it into the field and spread it evenly, let it grow, very densely. When it’s getting tall, you have to transport it to another place where you’re going to plant it again. You shake off the mud, collect it all, transport, and replant it. 38:30 It’s called Ghey, when you separate a bundle of 4 or 5 and put it into the ground. And the field is huge; it took sometimes 2 days for 7 people to do. It was all flat field but you have to prepare the field. We couldn’t afford an ox; cows don’t like water like oxs do. So we had to hire someone to prepare the field, turn the field, rake the clunks out, soften it up, and put the rice down. Then you have to watch out how much water is in there, what temperature it is…
Clara: So was it 4 years by yourself pretty much? In the house?
Dad: The house... I was there for 5 years and then I escape. So I’ve been independent since I was 12. Do things by myself and go to school… our parents give us some money to buy essential things that we can’t get… like gasoline… but all the rice and food we made ourselves… we had vegetable and a ton of okras, jams, the leaves for the jam is edible to cook, and ra mun 41:00 … un choi in Chinese…. Squash, bitter melon, potatoes, tomato, chili pepper. The house was a living room and a bed that all 4 of us slept on.
It was one living room, one wall, and the back portion was where you cooked, a bathroom, and on the side is where you raised the pig. 2 room, that’s it. Basically 1 room with a divider.
Clara: How did you do homework?
Dad: Homework I didn’t… I was like Kevin I just looked at things and got it… I spent no more than an 1 a day to do homework. 43:29 If I don’t get it in school, I’m screwed hahaha because I don’t have time at homework to learn anymore. 1 hour tops a day to do whatever I need to do. In Vietnam, if you don’t get it in school, and you have to catch up at home… that’s trouble. Most time spent in school, you could spend doing something else. So if you don’t get it, it’s bad. We had school from 7:30 to 2:30… we had 5-6 classes a day. We have break, activities, musical, etc.
Clara: Was there a clear divide in school of poor and rich? Between kids who make fun of one another?
Dad: After communist there was no divide. Everyone is the same doing the same stuff. It doesn’t matter how rich… you couldn’t be that rich anymore. They took most of your property, they exchanged the money. It doesn’t matter how many millions you have… this was huge, huge… you would not believe how much it disrupted the country. If you were a million, and you have 10 mil before, in the new money, you have 10,000 money, per head. If your family is 3, the max you get is 30,000. You can have 100 mil before and now you have 30,000. Take the dollar, and change to something else, and you get a max limit. That’s how they level every body. My parents… by the time I was grown up, they cumulated a decent amount. Like a million. They worked really hard to get a million before communists came, they were a very well respected merchant. As a cop he got okay salary; after work he worked hard as a merchant more so. So both parents were very good merchant and very high respected.
By the time that Number 1 and 2 were 12 and 14 years old, they had to take care of me. Before communist. When they were 7 and 9… they have to help raise the pigs to sell. But pigs eat a lot, and crap a lot. So to feed them, my two brothers would go around the neighborhood, and college garbage. Push carts and collect all the leftover food to bring back and feed the pig. And they had to clean the crap that the pig left. And they have to wash them. So when they were 12 or 13 I was less than 1 year old and they had to take care of me.
The memory they have of me, they had to take care of me. But my dad was the strictest parent in the neighborhood. Very strict in teaching. Everytime you leave the house you have to let them know, come back, you have to present youself. When my dad was working, my brother would take care of e. But as kids, they would play. So I was in some sort of stroller they put me in on the side of the road. But in the old days the sewage system was not covered. So the sweage ran beside the street, a foot wide, and not all of it was covered. I somehow fell into the sewage and my head and everything was in the sewer. They didn’t notice for a while… I was in there for 10 or 15 seconds and eating sewage and breathing sewage. They joke around that because of it, I because the best at survival. I was told that I was in the sewage and that’s why my brain works better, hahahahahaha. But my father found out. Boy they were in trouble. My father had 6… not bamboo but really solid sticks, 6 of them different sized. So depending on the problem, a different stick and a number of slashes you’ll get. And you’re not allowed to cry while you’re getting slashed. So my brothers got 20 slashes me for not watching me… and if they cried, the counting restarted. When I grew up, I got the same thing. When I was 5 years old, I began to get slashes. Mom also hit us, but the level of how hard she hit compared to my father was nothing. (52:24) So if mom punished us, we hold our laugh inside because instead of crying, we were laughing. When me and my brother got hit by our mother, we hold it in. And when we went in the back, we pretend to wash our faces from crying, but we were laughing so much. She used the same stick, but her strength was nowhere near our father. So that’s how my dad disciplined us, he’d been doing it to the last 20 years. Last 50 years he never hit us again…
Remember he is very highly respected, and the police, so if you fight with anyone in the neighborhood, you’re the first to get hit. It doesn’t matter who was wrong. You do not pick a fight. A fight where he doesn’t know, it’s okay. A fight in which the other parent knows about it and tells him, then you’re not okay. We lived in a seriously dangerous area. That place… if you called a taxi and wanted to go there after 7pm then they won’t bring you there. The crime was really high. There were a lot of gangs there… very violent and very aggressive. These are people who were hardcore labor workers. And they fight seriously. And we happened to live there. They were all very lawless… My parents didn’t have any money so this was our first are to live in.
My parents did not allow you to curse inside the house or outside. We never curse behind him or definitely not in front of him. If anyone heard us cursing then they would tell me dad. Be respectful, and if you get in a fight you’re in trouble first. But from that, that neighbor respected my family highly. There’s a family down the road who wanted to pick a fight with my family… with my parents too. And we found out and we brought our family and they chickened out. When it comes to a family matter, where we’re really going to stand together, we brought everyone. If you really wanted to fight let’s do it. 12 people. And all of us were much bigger than everyone around us. So when people around called him, bac ba gao (Tall man). Number 1 and Number 2 also knew taikwan do in the military. When it came to fighting, we could fight. And fighting isn’t just hands, it’s knives and machetes. But we didn’t bring machetes, we brought sticks. And Number 6 hung out with the gangsters so much. The Black Society. You go into the black society, meaning you went into the world of the gangster. Sou Hu dam ^ He spent so much time with them, he knew the head of the gangster. Even after the communist, still people didn’t want to touch our family. Because my brother knew the head of the gangster.
We were raised to be very respectful and proper. Despite all the gangsters. But in the background, we respect all types of people and we can hang out with all types of people. My oldest brother hangs out with gangsters but he’s not a gangster. There are still gangsters but not as prominent as they used to be. They’re still doing hardcore shady stuff.
This brother never went about 6th grade, his brain couldn’t go further. He’s two years older than be, but the time I was in first grade, I was in the same class as him bc he had to stay in 1st grade 3 times. So we went to school together, and he protected me. When I was in elementary school when I was in 3rd grade. There was a bully that kept bothering me. But my brother found out and he’s a little shorter than the bully. So my brother looked up at to him and punched him in the face and said if you bother my brother again, I will kill you.
So my father didn’t find out. He taught us to be good to our neighbors, but it doesn’t mean we have to be wimpy to those around us. He knows that we’re strong. I mean I could have taken care of myself but my brother is so much better at fighting. Even when he was young he fights all the time, so he didn’t go to school… and he fought all the time. I helped him in school, but if anyone picked on me he fought them. That guy never even looked at me ever again.
But when we were in the countryside, he stayed in the city to help my parents. My parents tried to figure out who was best to stay and best to go back. As long as people were farming and were being productive. He works very hard. All his life he worked very hard. Even in the city, he had to carry rice bags on his back. Walked the planks… The rice bag was about 50 kilo, so about ~100 pounds. And sometimes he carried two. (200 pounds) From the boat that carried the rice, onto the pier to drop off at storage. So he did that for many years. He was about 17-22. During this work, I had escaped already. (He told me this later) The reason he worked there was so he could steal the rice home to eat. He would sew a bunch of pockets in his pants on both side. So he stuffed rice inside his pocket, and sometime he stuffed too much so he would walk like this gets up to awkwardly Stick man walk. They paid like nothing, but he had to stay there to steal rice and bring it home. I went first, and 5 or 7 years later Jiu Win left.
So when I worked in the farm, and when I went to highschool, we were a group of 5 friends who hung out together. By the 10th grade, we knew we wanted to escape. So we hung out and planned during that time. And during this time, plenty of people were planning and escaping. So he had 2 boats. (This is the rich friend with the boats.) So I wanted to learn how to use the boat, so I worked on the boat for a few months. I’m one of the people who carry sugarcane, help with transport, and became a worker who was used to staying on the boat.
So me and my 4 friends grouped together and we all hung out doing everything on the boat to get familiar to plan the escape. Then we escaped. It only took me one time to escape and get out.
Clara: You didn’t tell your brothers? Or your family…?
Dad: During that time, my father knew I was going to escape. He found out, but I didn’t know that he wanted my two brothers to escape with me. They had to meet me at a smaller boat to come meet me. So he paid the brother of my friend some gold to let my two older brothers to join. I didn’t know… and there were no phones. I couldn’t go home, because it was 50 miles away. And I only had a bike. My parents knew my friends, even though my friends were from the countryside city. They knew connections, and they all knew my friends. But my two brothers didn’t get there… I never knew when I left… but they missed the boat. So the little boat never got there in time to meet up. They got on the little boat, but missed me. So I left never knowing; there were no phones or anything. I didn’t find out until about 15 years later.
Clara: At least you weren’t guilty, because you didn’t know.
Dad: I didn’t have any say anyways! It was my friend’s boat. I couldn’t control anything.
We left at nighttime. It has to be dark, or else we would be caught.
So it was me and my friends on this boat. It’s a 36 ft wooden boat. It’s a really elliptical shaped boat with a deeper haul to go down. There were 96 people under the boat. And remember, it’s a rounded boat so it’s not like this (basement) rectangular room. It was about 16 ft wide. (5.5 meters) Good thing that I was friends with my friends, so I could sit upstairs. If you sat down there, you were guaranteed to get sick. But when I was on top, I still had to work. I had to scoop out water because water was coming in like crazy. We had to keep scooping because the water pump was not fast enough to pump out water.
Well… we had two boats. A smaller boat and a bigger boat.
We went out of the inlets, and I was so sure that we were going to sink. There was so much water. And I was so scared. My body reacted without me being able to stop. My teeth was chattering like crazy, and I was unable to stop. The inlets were the scariest, and then you go out into the ocean. The inlet are where the waves are the roughest and the choppiest. There are continuous waves bombarding your ship.
Clara: What was your map or layout plan? And where did you leave from?
Dad: Our goal was to get out of the country into the ocean, and figure it out from there… The captain, who was supposed to be from the navy… he got sick fast. He was one of the first to get sick—as soon as we left he got sick. He was supposed to be the captain who could read a compass and have a map but no, he was useless.
So, me, and my friend, were steering the boat.
We left on a beach in south side of Viet Nam. The beach was called Bun Tan. It is the West side of the river. So when you go on the west side, you’re near Thailand. And if you hugged the coastline, you were in big trouble. You were sure to be robbed by Pirates. Thailand pirates are horrendous. A lot of boats got pirated and a lot of women were captured and raped, and killed. Taken, all of that. So we were somehow smart enough to go straight out, for two and a half days, and we were just wandering out there. So we were just floating out there… all water. And then we saw a freight liner for the Soviet Union. We saw a boat and were waving thinking “OH THIS IS GOOD!” And the closer we got we realized, oh no, this is bad. These are the soviets. They signaled us; with their hands, and spoke a little English. And somehow someone knew a little bit of English on our boat. So they asked us “Do you want to go back to Vietnam; Saigon?”
We, of course, were like “NOOOOO”
Somehow they were nice enough to throw us some bread and move on. So they gave us bread and left. Communism came from the USSR and China. It’s a major communist union. They knew… and still let us go.
This was the Pacific Ocean.
You have no idea what a 36 feet boat in the ocean feels like. It’s like a speck of sand in the dessert and you have no idea. If wind blows, you’re gone. It’s amazing how big the ocean is until you’re in the middle. You don’t see any land, you don’t see far at all—you look out and everything is just ocean. You look down--dark blue water—you sink, and nobody would ever know.
Because I was so scared the first two days… and I thought, “How does it help if I am scared? If I die I die, and if I die now it’s done. I can’t do anything right now. There’s nothing that I can do right now. There’s nothing that can help with if I die or if I survive.” So I switched in that moment. I just turned on that switch. I was no longer afraid. I was fearless. Because I realized the situation. I was not afraid of dying anymore. It was a really real moment.
We were out of water and food by the 3rd day.
It’s the scariest thing… and when we were out there, our motor died. The engine on the big boat died, so we attached and steered it with the little boat.
In the ocean, there were flying fish. They have wings like a dragonfly… we get into an intersection and all of a sudden there were fish flying around our boat. And some of them didn’t make it across and they were flying into our boat. We were so excited!!!! WOOOAH Holy Cow and we have food. We got like 7 or 8 of the fish… that’s it… but for 96 people. But we still get some food.
Nobody died…. We were only out there for 6.5 days. We were very lucky that it was less than 7 days.
1:24 One night we saw what looked like a star at the horizon. But the star didn’t move … We questioned, “why doesn’t it move?” We were so curious that it didn’t move. So we said, why don’t we just head there? Because the little boat still worked, and we were pulling the big boat with the little boat. The waves were insane. They were about 30 foot wave, but they weren’t choppy. We were just rolling. I was, at that point, no longer scared. (DAY 2: Because I was so scared the vfirst two days… and I thought, how does it help if I am scared? If I die I die, and if I die now it’s done. I can’t do anything right now. There’s nothing that I can do right now. There’s nothing that can help with if I die or if I survive. So I switched in that moment. I just turned on that switch. I was no longer afraid. I was fearless. Because I realized the situation. I was not afraid of dying anymore. It was a really real moment. )
So, the waves were so big, and we were no longer afraid of death, so we were surfing the waves. Two guys were at the front riding the boat, two guys at the back of the bigger boat steering the boat. When the waves got big, we got up, and surfed down. We used the big boat to surf down and it was SO fun.
Clara: What were the 96 people feeling? Where were they during this fun?
Dad: They were all out. They were all throwing up, laying down, crawling. They went up if they wanted to, but they were so sick, that you did not want to go down. The smell was terrible. People were peeing, pooping, throwing up, all over each other. You never shower, poop, pee, in the same spot for 3 days. It was so disgusting. The good thing that we never had pirates rob us, or else most people would die. When the pirates took the women, they normally destroy the boat. They throw a grenade and then they would leave. The boat would get blown up, and then you’re done. They shot the man, and sometimes they wanted to save bullets bc they aren’t cheap, so they would stab you or use a machete. The women were done. They were either raped, chose them on the spot, and that’s it. Some of the women who were kidnapped never want to talk about it. They were done for life. That experience, it was never wanted to be discussed. Even when I came to America, they would never want to speak about it. Really, really terrible …
But our boat… when you’re in that mode. The women- the human aspect of life changes completely. Your brain no longer looks at women differently. When they’re clothes are torn and you see their private parts… but at that point your brain is completely not thinking about sexual thoughts. It’s a different mode. Your brain has no longer has interest in any of that. All the women were laying and whatever they do it was whatever.
Clara: What was it like in the bottom part? Was it all dark?
Dad: The good thing if you go down you get away from the sun. But… I don’t want to go in there. It’s about 1 foot. You go down and you squat and sit on your butt all day long. You’re laying on top of each other but you are guaranteed to get sick because of the smell and germs. If you take off the planks to let some air down there but it didn’t help. People began to crawl on top to get better air. I wore my shorts down to my knees and a tshirt. By the third day my shorts were bunched up solidified like underwear from the salt. They were all hard from the salt water and the sun. My hair—you did not want to touch. It was crazy.
The thirst, is incredible… It was so terrible. We drank our own pee but it didn’t help. It burned your throat. And we were at a point where we put our hands in the water and taste the salt water… holy… it was so much worse. It made you much more thirstier and it burnt your throat… it’s practically killing you. So, pee doesn’t help, nothing there. So we were dying by the 5th day.
We found the light and it turned out to be an oilrig. It was in the middle of the ocean… it was a city. You would not believe how big it was. It was 1000 times bigger than our boat you would not believe it. Holy cow in the middle of the ocean. It was so weird and so bright. It amazed us. It was like an alien spaceship. It was HUGE. It was crazy. The closer we got to it, holy cow. It was SO big. It’s like a platform with a couple of rigs. Lights everywhere. A lot of people were on it. That was an oil rig from Panama, and they did not let us come close. Because we could his one of their posts and damage it and bring it down. So they pushed away and made us stay away. WE tried to communicate that people were dying here. So they gave us water going into the 6th day.
Clara: So you found them at night and you hung around?
Dad: Yes. Now they figured out what to do with us. They realized how bad of shape we were in. Their solution… they communicated with land… a refugee camp. The condition was that they were not allowed to pick us up unless we were in distress. If our boat was sinking. They had to take our tugboat… they brought the children and women into their tug boat. The men stay in the boat. They took the tugboat and rammed it into the boat and sunk to boat. While the boat was sinking, they can pick us up. It was international law. At least they brought the children and women first so that we were reassured.
I was sitting in the little boat with a few other people (carried about 16 people), three of my friends in the big boat with the rest of the people. It hit both boats and let them sink. We got off.
The first time we were on the tug boat, we could drink… and eat…
But the best experience was my first shower. With fresh water.
The first time the fresh water touch your hair and your lips… holy cow it was the best experience. Huh… you’d never experience that. It was fresh water touching you face. It was incredible. It basically brought you back from the dead. That’s how it felt. Wow. I can’t even put words to it.
Then you got drinks, and food and they brought you to a refugee camp at day 7 and 8.
We had crazy sea legs. I could not take my steps. I had to put my arm around two people. It was so weird. Your brain no longer controls your feet to walk properly. You can no longer walk. Remember, I was in a boat that went up 30 feet at a time. I did not throw up. I held back. I was so close to throwing up. But I knew that if I threw up I’d be in trouble. Sitting on top… the best way to calm your balance is to look far out. The further out I looked… and the fresh air.
When I went down to scoop water out, is when I felt like I was going to be sick again and again. You go into the engine room; a little cabin. Half of a ping pong table. You’d climb in there and scoop water out where the engine is.
Clara: What were the reaction of all 96 people?
Dad: Ohhh they were so happy. This was heaven. The first shower… and after that… it was heaven. Drinking fresh water again… holy cow. It was incredible.
Clara: Did a lot of people lose weight? Or get sun burnt?
Dad: Oh yeah, losing weight was not a problem unless you died. And sunburn was nothing. Peeling was nothing. Not a concern in comparison. Dying or not is the end goal.
Clara: Who was the youngest on the boat?
Dad: They was a kid on the boat who was 2 years old… there were 21 kids… I remember. But after a day, he no longer had tears to cry.
Clara: How long did it take you to bring you back to land?
Dad: From the rig to the land… I think it took a day. Panama’s rig was close to this refugee island. We didn’t know the island until they took us there. They were not that far from this island. Refugee Camp Island. We had no idea it existed. It took a day and night to get to the island. 26 hours…
We stayed at the island (MALAYSIA) for 6 months. There were all refugees. Malaysian, law enforcement, social workers; all the countries were there. All the diplomats were there to interview people, take care of people, supply food. To document people in and out to run that camp. We got all of the countries coming to do whatever—to sponsor you. To interview you. They document your history and figure out if they want to sponsor you to their country. Australia… US… Germany… Canada… All the western countries. Switzeland…
This island was in Malaysia. The oilrig happened to be Panama people.
I was under 18. I was 17.5 years old or something. So they accepted me into the US as a minor. 4 of my friends were 18 or older… and they didn’t get accepted into the US. All my friends were in Australia. So now we separated. And after that we lost connection. After that for 10 years we wrote back and fourth. But we lost connection in the end. I think my friend went back to visit my parents once in a while. They visit my family probably 5 or 7 years ago…
During the interview you talk to an interpreter. We sat around a desk and they asked questions about yourself. What is your name? How did you get out? How old are you? What is your family like? Not too many questions… because they already got that from paperwork. They ask where you want to go.
Clara: Did you want to go to the US? How did you know about the US?
Dad: Oh yeah, that was the preferred country. Because Americans visited Viet Nam and we knew them. Most people wanted to go to America and we knew what America was about.
It was only me by myself… I was kind of sad… I left before them into America. Our last interaction was very sad. We were very close friends. I left and then I had to go to main land Malaysia, to Singapore, from Singapore take a boat to Indonesia. I stayed in Indonesia for 4 months. Indonesia is a place where we stayed to learn some English. Learn some about the US and their language. I played a lot of volleyball. I learned fishing and I learned how to make bread. I joined a guy to learn how to make bread and sell bread. We made the dough, we woke up at 1:30 am to bake the bread. He built this hut somewhere during his stay… he had been there for over a year already. He was expected to leave in the 2.5 year mark. So he started making a living out of it. So I learned how to make bread with him. When you bake bread, it’s very hot. Especially in a hot country. But the bread was very nice and fresh. Bread that wasn’t perfect you brought back. I know how to roll the down, slice it, make it.
After 6 months, it was time for me to leave Indonesia back to Singapore to wait for my flight. IT was my first airplane flight. We went from Singapore directly to JFK. First long airplane flight… I got picked up by Uncle Qua and two guys who were sponsored by my now foster mom. We were picked up, and we sat in the back of a pick up truck. In a box. With a dog. Hahahaha…
The first thing we ate was Burger King. We had a whopper for the first time. It was pretty good.
They basically tried to prep us for our future homes. They screened us to see if we’re healthy. Even after health screening they didn’t realize that I had malaria. So, when I came to the US I had symptoms. When a mosquito bites you… it stays in your body. If it stays in your body it’ll keep spreading in 24 hours… 12 hours… 6 hours… 3 hours… it keeps spreading. They didn’t realize until I come to the US and the fevers came up. I was in Stony Brook hospital for 10 days.
We stayed in Bellport, East Patchogue. Went to highschool in Bellport for 2 years, and then was accepted into Stony Brook. I worked at McDonalds.
Clara: How was it assimilating into America?
Dad: People were understanding. I went to school with a lot of black people. Half the school was black. It was 1980.
I always knew that I had to be an engineer. The word engineer in Viet Nam was known. A lot of people wanted to be an engineer. People in Viet Nam were good at math and science. So coming out of Viet Nam… my whole goal for life was to be an engineer. When I was 14 years old, until I got out, I wanted to be an engineer.
Clara: Did you have PTSD To this experience?
Dad: Oh yeah… the nightmares happened for a long time. At least 2 years. I would wake up and think I was still on the boat. I’d be sweating like crazy thinking I was on that boat. The nightmares happened at least in the beginning happened 3 or 4 times a week.
I had an English tutor. Me and Qua would talk Vietnamese… And after a long time we would talk English. It took 10 years before I really switched off translation in my head into English without it being stiff. I started thinking in English. Then I started to forget Vietnamese…
Clara: So how did you take you being separated from your family?
Dad: I wrote letters. I still have them. They’re all Vietnamese. I wrote to my family… my brothers would sometimes write back… My sisters… Once in a while… The 6th brother (Gangsta) would hardly write back. (Because he was unable to lol)
Clara: How did they feel about leaving? Begrudged?
Dad: No no no, they were proud. Even when I was here, I would send back a bunch of money. I would work at McDonalds and work, and save whatever I saved and send it to them. Back then it would be like … $200…
Working was fine. I got cooking down very fast. Everything was almost always automated with a timer. You put in fries you hit the timer. You lay out the frozen burgers you hit the timer. You put the bun in the toaster you hit the timer. The timer goes off all the time and switch over. I was very good at making food fast.
Clara: Do you think your independence really helped you out?
Dad: Oh of course. I learned how to crab, learned how to fish, learned how to cook, learned how to catch… Even this net that mom got recently I know how to throw it into the water… Mom doesn’t know how to use it but I do hahahaha.
Mom: Before the communism… Before communism we just went to school. And I have my common life. My mom went to work, and she work at the American Embassy. She sent me and my sister to English school. She felt that English was very important because she worked at the Embassy.
Clara: Was it like Chinese school?
Mom: Majority it was English school. It was a private school that you had to pick one class in Cantonese and one class in Mandarin. The rest was English. It was basics… ABC’s…
Clara: Where are you living?
Mom: I am in the city. I am in Je Lung. Like in… Dad was majority (living) in Saigon… that’s where a lot of Vietnamese stayed and in Je Lung a majority of Chinese stayed there. And yes… Gong was already there and was working… working for a relative and my Mom was working for the American Embassy. She got a decent salary I’m assuming. Because back there, adults don’t tell their children about the “adult stuff”… I knew that my mom worked for the American Embassy and that’s it. So we didn’t have any worries before the communism. We were just hanging and playing with our childhood. Me and Gia. Until the communism came… I just finished 3rd grade over there… 3rd or 4th… 1975… is when the communism came… I didn’t graduate 6th grade yet. I had only finished the 4th grade, and I stopped school.
Communism came on April 30th, so back in March, since my mom worked at the American Embassy; she had the priority to leave Viet Nam. But my father, Gong, didn’t want to leave. Because he didn’t know English, he preferred to stay in Viet Nam.
My grandmother and I was so bonded, I’d ride my bike everywhere with her… until two days before communism came, my mom said to get ready to go to the embassy. At the time I had no idea what was going on.
So we went into the Embassy… I had no idea what I was in for. My mom showed her ID to get into the Embassy. It was so crowded outside and it was very chaotic. Only the employees could get in. Once we got in, my sister Gia knew more English than me. So Gia said “Go to the right!” and my mom said “No it’s on the left!” When we went to the left, we were exhausted. We didn’t bring any food… and we found this room. My mom just knew that once we got into the Embassy, everything will be safe. There was a lot of food in that room. We stayed in that room for a while, and we fell asleep. Once we woke up we came back out and went back on line. Once we got to the front, this man said that we were on the wrong line. Go on the other line. So we had to turn around and stand on the other line… and there were so many gates. WE were trying to get to the center of the American embassy compound where a helicopter landing pad was. So we were trying to stand on line for that compound. As we stood for hours… hours passed by as we went to one gate to another to another. We stayed there for so long… until it was night time… All four of us together, Gia, Gong and my mom. We all wore the same hat so that we didn’t get lost. It was a chou… straw hat. They were identical.
As we stood on line going from one gate to another, the day got dark. It took forever. We heard firing… fighting… There was firing everywhere and we saw missiles zooming in the sky zooming around. I still remember that we were near a swimming pool, and underneath at the bottom of the pool there were guns everywhere… Dropped in the pool.
As we wait and waited we fell asleep again.
(So overall) We went there in the morning, and we stood on line. And we waited until it got dark.
(So many people… because) The helicopter would pick up some and leave. At the end we were trying to… we saw one of my aunt’s friends. We were right behind them. When we stood on line, they said to come on into their gate segment, as it was the last gate to get in the helicopter. Suddenly, we were cut off. So the friend of my aunt’s got in but we didn’t.
As the gate opened, and we moved in, we saw the helicopter coming down… wind everywhere… but suddenly that guy said to move to the back… and suddenly the front of the line was the back and now everyone was told to turn around. There were two helicopters, one on the roof and one on the ground. And we were told to turn around for the lower helicopter.
I fell asleep and suddenly I woke up… There was a wall with barbed wire… and suddenly people were jumping in. I yelled to my mom “Mom, mom, mom! Wake up! People are coming in” It was all chaos. We found out, that the land helicopter had already left. But the helicopter on the roof was still there. So we decided to run up, the elevator didn’t work. Or the escalators. So I just remember climbing and climbing stairs. And I didn’t know what was going on. It was so packed. Like sardines. My mom was begging them to let us on. And they tried to squeeze. Only one spot left.
So my mom… decided not to go. She decided that if our family was leaving, it would be all of us together. Not only one. If it was one, forget it. We were still young. And my mom knew because she was fluent in the building. As we ran back down, a telephone rang and she picked it up. Somehow people said that near the embassy there was a house with another helicopter going there. So my mom wanted to go there instead of going to the harbor where there were ships. It was chaos there too... (at the harbor) people were jumping into ships. We had originally planned to go to the ships but instead, because of this phone call, we decided to go to the other location nearby.
When we went downstairs, they were shooting tear gas… I couldn’t breathe or see… it stings your eyes… it stings everything. The embassy is huge, the front lawn was huge. I kept walking and walking and I was still not outside yet. And I was such a little kid so I was complaining and I remember telling them that I was too tired. But they kept telling me to keep going and going.
My mom saw an American and she decided to follow him. The American kept looking up yelling “Help! Help! Please, Help! I am an American!” to the helicopter. And we figured out that he was an American that was left behind on the ground. He was yelling. My mom kept following him as he ran. Suddenly he disappeared somewhere in a secret passage within the embassy…
We went outside and there were no taxis… it was so so chaotic. The communists were getting closer and closer…
We had a relative who lived in Saigon (The American Embassy was in Saigon) Gong has a relative. We went there and we heard bombs and I saw more missiles in the sky. “Weeee” “weeee” noises. So we tried to go underground into a bunker. We hid in there for a bit, and then borrowed a car. Gong drove hoping to find that house that was mentioned on the phone. It was close by. When we went there, we saw in the grass of the backyard of that house with a big white flag with a cross. It was a signal for a helicopter to come down. We waited, and waited, and waited… and I fell asleep. It was so crazy. I was so tired. Suddenly, people broke into the house… they broke in to rob things. They took stuff. And everyone had to leave. At the time, my mom had to leave.
Clara: So you left the embassy, you ran outside and you got a car?
Mom: We ran outside and asked… There were mopeds outside. So we sat on the back and drove to the house. Then at the house we borrowed the car from the relative. Then we drove the car to the location. And there was a landing pad. My mom came down; three more steps; and then they called. It was an office phone call that she randomly picked up. She was desperate.
Anyways, as we went to the other location; I believe it was at night. When we were at the American embassy it was already nighttime when we were at the swimming pool waiting on the line to get in. So I was very tired anyways… which is why I kept falling asleep.
At the end there was no helicopter. Gong drove us back. The whole street was chaos. My mom wanted to commit suicide at the time. She said “Why don’t we drive into a river…” because in her luggage she has pictures with president Nixon because she worked at the embassy. If they got caught, she would get killed anyways. Because she worked for the American embassy. And asked Gong to drive out… I didn’t know what was happening.
And then we went home. At the time, my grandma was there. Before I went to the American Embassy, I had 7 ducklings. And raised them big. And when I got home, all the ducklings disappeared—she cooked them. I didn’t realize… but we had no food. I raised them until they were big. Go to swim, and they would follow me. I went home and it was so quiet. I didn’t realize because I was so tired from 1.5 day of running.
After that my mom didn’t have a job, Gong didn’t have a job. I found out this later: But because Gong worked for this relative… and the relative owned a big cigarette company. When his relative left, he asked Gong to sign over the company. And basically, he was just there to replace his relative. He used Gong as a replacement dummy. He used Gong as the face of his rich company. So when he came, the communists came to confiscate our house thinking that we were rich.
One day the people/communists of the North came to our house. 1 girl and a few guys came into our house. They closed the doors, caught Gong, and they brought him somewhere without letting my mom know where they were going. “He is bad, because he is the owner of the country. Anyone who is rich is bad. You are guilty” They were very sneaky…
We had a metal gate to our house and a wood door. They tried to leave the metal door a little bit open and they waited. One of Gong’s friend came in without knowing that the communists were in our house. Once he came in, they grabbed him, and they asked him questions. What is the relationship between you and this family? That guy was so panicked. My mom said “No, no, no!”… at the time I was selling baking goods with my friends. And I sold food. I sat in front of my house and sold things. So this is why I had a wooden cage with glass because I was selling food. So I put my thing on the table. So my mom said “No no no he just came to buy fruit!” And she jumped up to go to my cage to get fruit. But they didn’t believe it and they sat him down. They held him untila few hours later. He was sweating and shaking…
Clara: At your house?!
Mom: At the time I did not know Vietnamese at all… I only learned Vietnamese when I came to this country. I understood simple terms “1 dollar this, 1 dollar that…” Gong spoke Chinese… there was kind of a dispute between Chinese and Vietnamese. So at the time I questioned, why did this guy come to our house? I thought they would stay for 1 day, but they stayed for 3 months… to 6 months…. Guarding us and didn’t let us out.
At that time they caught Gong, and then everyday they interrogated my mom. And with Gong, they interrogated him too. So they would compare their stories and see if they match. Gong told me later that one of his relatives “Gai”; got caught, because they were equals. And they told the communist that they gave money to Gong… it was all so complicated.
But before communism, Gong and I loved to buy towels. So many dozens of towels. Like 3 dozen or so… I don’t know why. But the Northerners were so greedy. My grandma used to smoke; they had long cotton cigarette. The communists said “You are holding a lot… Too much” and they would confiscate it. So we saw our collection of towels and we thought that they would think we were still rich because of them. So me and Gia went upstairs to a window that faced our neighbors. And we just chucked… kept chucking these towels into our neighbor’s yard. So our neighbor’s yard was full of towels… hahahaha… We did this because communism is brainwash and they can put anything into your minds.
I also had a watch, and that girl was so greedy and I was so scared. They all had guns. So even though I would want to go to the bathroom, they would follow me with their guns. And then they would escort me back. At night, we all stayed in one room. I could not sleep, at all… so that was my first time my mom gave me half of a sleeping pill so I could sleep.
I was around 15 or 16 at the time… And Gia is around 3 years older
(1980 we got to the US)
My mom also had US dollars, she was so scared they would find it. When she was up to something or scared it would show on her face. So wrapped a cloth around her stomach and hid all this money. One day, the communist woman asked to check my mom. And suddenly my mom ran, and they all chased her. She was coming upstairs, and I watched her come up. (I was already upstairs) They kicked her down. I was afraid that I would get punished. The room upstairs… there is a door you could peek through. I wanted to kick the woman down, but my mom already tried to chuck this money and hide it in a closet. It was too late, the woman grabbed the belt and exclaimed “US! Dollars!!!” They make you feel guilty and manipulate your brain… so my mom had given me $1000 before this happened. She told me to hide it. So I put it in my underwear like a pad. And they caught my mom… so I was so scared. So I thought, “What should I do?” while they dragged my mom downstairs to ask her questions.
At the time, my godmother was with us because she was also caught by the communists when they came to visit us. She was also innocent but put on house arrest. So I asked her, what should I do? She said… just chuck it in my room. There was a big first aid kit box. I looked at it and it was glass… it was so obvious so I couldn’t. There was also a make up table that you could open up this box and there was a mirror inside. She said to chuck it in there… it was also too easy and once you opened it up it would be taken. She said how about the AC? So I said no! …
In the end… I burned it… back in 1977… I acted like I was going to the bathroom… and I used a match… it made such a loud noise. All 100 dollar bills. Now a days, $1000 is a lot of money… but back then even MORESO. As I burned, it made such loud crackling noises. I was so afraid…
My mom didn’t know. At the end, later, my mom asked where the money was. And I told her I burned it… she was so calm… to this day I feel so bad… $1000 is so hard to earn… My mom was not bad and I feel so, so bad.
My mom also got crazy. “Din-ahn” Like so many things happened… So she started singing. She wasn’t herself. She would walk around and start losing it. Yknow I’m a teenager… so I didn’t know what to do… she would dance and sing like nothing. We were all in one room and she would walk in the hallways and keep singing and dancing. Because Gong wasn’t here… and she was asked so many questions. One day, they suddenly let my mom go out. With Vietnamese money? I don’t know. When she went out she was so lucky that my uncle had passed by. So she chucked the money to him and ran back so quick. The communists thought she gave it to our neighbors. Our neighbors were Vietnamese and knew Vietnamese fluently. So they went next door and our neighbors yelled and yelled and yelled at them. The communists didn’t dare to mess with them…
The communist stayed for at least 3 months. They just sat in our house all day. I was always shaken up. Eventually, one day, my mom had gold necklaces and chains. My mom had tried to hide it, back then the toilet flushed form the top. So my mom chucked the gold up there and it pushed the flushing lever so water kept coming down. They went up and got the whole bag…
One day they left our house… they tied up all the gold and whatever riches we had (idk what happened to the gold) and said “One day, we will come, and pick this up.” They tied the bag so tight, so they would know if the knot was undone.
Clara: How was everyone else in your neighborhood?
Mom: Certain people were sent to a village and sent to fields and would step on mines and explode and die… They just tried to brainwash the men and send them to the village. Again this was all based on wealth… since they still thought Gong was wealthy they took him. Everyone has their own crazy story from Vietnam.
Chou Wa Yi was also our neighbor at the time… and she suggested that we sold bicycle parts. Her mom told us to sell too. So Gia and I started a little business. She loved to read and things like that. For me, at the time, I didn’t have school. I basically just did business with my father. Gong was getting smart.
Clara: Oh wait Gong was back?
Mom: Yeah when the people left, they returned Gong… I forgot how it happened. So we sold bicycle parts and ice! We had a refrigerator with a freezer, and across from us was a little alley and the people who lived there didn’t have a refrigerator. We sold ice to them because they were poor! We made trays and trays of ice. And the money we got could pay for the electricity for the refrigerator! Hahaha…
So we didn’t have food… and because my mom worked at the American embassy, she had a lot of dresses. So she used the dresses to sew into little baby clothes. I would watch her cut her dresses and re-sew it. She would go into the market and sell them, and come back with a stick of butter. We would all grab it and try to eat. We were so hungry. We were so poor now.
Every time she went, she tried to save money and walked. To ride a bike from where we were to Saigon, it would take about 30-45 minutes. But she walked it. I admire her so much for that. She walked a lot for us.
So at Gong’s house we lived with my grandma and Gong’s brother. I didn’t get along with Gong’s brother… we would fight a lot… We always fought and sometimes he would use knives to chase us… he was a little bit coo coo. His girlfriend fell off a motorcycle and died so he got crazy…
So it was Gia, Grandma, Gong, Gong’s brother, my godmother, and me. And when Gong was taken away it was the 6 of us.
Back to selling bike parts, Gong would follow people to the manufacture factory to get seats for the bike. Eventually Gong went to buy leather of different patterns, and go to the manufacture, to make unique bike seats. There was nothing like our patterns. It was our style. They were any leather pattern… they were yellow with flowers… and we would take big pieces of leather to create 10 seat covered. I would bike around to get the goods, I would stack up these seats onto my bike and bike it back. Eventually people would come from the county side to buy a lot to sell to the village and sell it at a whole sale price. It was what Chou Wa Yi’s mother taught us to do to make business.
I then opened another store with just me. It was a few streets down to my Uncle’s. I had my own bicycle so I would sell parts there too. People would be so sneaky. They would put $20 on the counter, distract you, and take the money back then ask for change. I would check my moneybag and say, “Hey, I know how much I started with, you did not give any money.” Many con artists. Eventually the business wasn’t doing well…
Clara: So dad mentioned that each house was given a certain amount of money and they changed the currency? So were you delegated money as well?
Mom: Oh yes yes they had already changed the money by now. So we are all using the new currency. And they would give you a certain amount. I did get a certain amount. But it wasn’t enough, we were still poor. None of us as jobs…
Clara: So while you were selling bike parts was it still a very bad environment? Were people getting raided and robbed still? Was it peaceful-ish?
Mom: I’m not sure what you mean… the whole street was selling bicycle parts… I mean I don’t remember I just focused at this age. I didn’t know our finance, I didn’t know anything. I know when my mom came home with that stick of butter…
Clara: Ohh I see you were young. Were you stressed or anything?
Mom: I didn’t know enough… I’m sure my parents were very, very stressed…
At the time I played ping pong with Gong. I learned ping pong from him. Me and Gong were very acquainted and together... Gia was studying. I learned guitar too.
Clara: Where were you getting these things?
Mom: I don’t know… if I said hey! I want to play guitar! They would bring back a guitar. And if I wanted to play ping pong, Gong would come and play with all our friends. So at the time I didn’t know how much I had and how much we were saving. But I never wanted a lot. When I played guitar I started to teach people for money. And Gia would teach people English for money. I sold whatever and gave it to Gong; I never kept any money.
We had a small piece of meat for 7 people to dip in soy sauce and nothing else. And when they would distribute rice, these bags of rice were mixed with rocks. So my grandmother would sit and pick out the rocks from the bag. She would always ask me to help. I would want to go out all the time and go “eh”. And now I think about it and feel bad. My grandma, only one person, would pick rocks for 6 people. And my god mom… my mother told my god mom, since at the time she was our nanny, that “we didn’t have enough money to hire you anymore. You should go out and look for another job.”
50:00 So she worked for other people and worked for her daughter… Anyways her adopted daughter sold pork at the time. And when she had some left at the end, she was take it and sneak it to give to us… And that’s why I appreciate them so much. When your employer doesn’t have enough money to give to you… That’s the truest type of person. I have never forgotten about her. And when her house has termites eating her house, I gave money back to her. I gave her a helping hand back… I never forgot. 54:00 She didn’t have much money either. She would go to the factory to buy cookie crumbs because they were cheaper and the scraps… and she would bring it back for us to eat. We were so starving… and I never forgot her.
Our house… we used fire that wasn’t gasoline. We had to put in oil… kinda like “fau sui” (fire water) that the government distributed. I would ride by bicycle and I would ask grandma to come with me… she was 60 years old back then… but she would get on and say “Ready!! Let’s go! “ And I would put the metal gasoline can at the front of the bike and we’d go together… I was like a tomboy… And when we went to get rice and it’s funny that it would be the brown rice that is expensive today… but was the bad grainy rice in the past.
Anyways Chou Wa Yi escaped and disappeared. I wondered where she went… haha you don’t tell people when you go, you just go. You know? If you got caught… it would have been so bad. So one day she’s gone… it seemed like she let me know the last night I went to eat with her. I walked back with her and I was so sad, so, so sad. So I asked my mom constantly, “When can we go? When can we go? When is it our turn?” I saw all my friends leave… And hui chut gaw (Go leave abroad) But you didn’t know how hard it was… how hard and how much you suffer when you leave. At the sea… and traveling to a new country, you know?
We all didn’t have a lot of money. We each got 30 pieces of gold. Now a day it’s a thousand something for a piece of gold… But people would steal it… So we could not afford leaving… And she didn’t want us to leave as females because pirates would rape women on the boats. So we asked Hong Kong relatives to sponsor us but they didn’t want to. They’re the ones who tricked Gong…. I try to forgive them.
59:32 So one day my mom acted like she was sick. There was a Red Cross hospital building. She knew so many languages… She knew Chinese, Vietnamese, French, Japanese, English… so many languages… So she went in acting like she was sick and she saw/heard a French doctor. She started speaking in French… There were communists that stood around. One day she asked him to send a letter to the American Embassy in French. And she was so lucky that he went through with it. The letter wrote that they were left behind, and she was waiting and waiting. I kept asking when was our turn and she told me to keep waiting, just wait.
At the time I didn’t know that she was sick… When I came here my uncle’s wife told me that at that time she was already so sick. But the whole point was that she wanted us to bring us abroad.
We were the first batch of the American Embassy Sponsors—and there were three batches. At Saigon, there was a list. And one day, our name was on the list and she was so happy. There was also… My mom was the one who helped everyone. She was the last. So she tried to help my uncle and give gold to him… but she was cheated.
One day we went to the airport and we were so excited: America! We kept saying America! So excited. Wow! Chut Gauk Chut Gauk! (Leave the country leave the country!) But I was also so sad… We had to leave my grandma behind…
Clara: She didn’t come?
Mom: She couldn’t… because our family was sponsored… under my mom’s name. Just her and her family. Not her mother. It was very, very hard to say goodbye… she gave me a jade… I was so sad… One day I gave it to my mom… and I think my mom sold it because we didn’t have money… and I think she replaced it with a different one. This jade is not as green… I still have that jade… it’s a fish. But the silver chain Kevin has, is from my mom.
It was so sad to depart with my grandma… I was so excited to leave but it was … so sad. That was the last time…
When we left Vietnam… they dropped us off at a refugee camp in Taiwan… and I was so confused. They distributed us and gave us rice boxes and I was like “What is this???” We were in a square box. They gave us a candle… and the candle was white! So in Cantonese white candles are for (1:00:00) death so people said, “It is a mistake! Are you dead?!” Why using white candles? So we stayed in this camp for a week… which was already torture... while dad stayed for a year…
December 1980 is when we came to the US… in the winter. I had sandals from Vietnam, my toes were so numb. And Chut Yi Pau brought us to go sight seeing and go to Macy’s to get clothes. My mom’s sisters were here before communism. They were to Taiwan to go study… so they did not experience any of this. Lok Yi Pau was the one who sponsored us. We cannot have welfare or anything because she was the one who sponsored us. We have to be financially good. So we could not get any benefits.
So once I got to America I was so sad. It is so cold. We didn’t have anything. Chut Yi Pau gave us some jackets… from hot country to cold country, you know… it’s so different. Two jackets were not enough and I was still shaking so hard. We went on the subways, and I would throw up… every stop… I didn’t expect this.
1:06:00 I didn’t know English, I wore a watch and people would come up to me and ask what time is it? So I took off the watch after a while because I couldn’t speak English or understand them.
1:08:00 I was so depressed and it was so cold… we lived in Manhattan for a while. So as you stay, not even a year… My mom’s stomach was in so much pain and her stomach was so swollen. I didn’t even realize. When she came here she said she wanted a job and her sisters said don’t because once you get one you have no time to enjoy it in America. I didn’t know she was sick and now I talked to my Uncle’s Wife… When we were in the refugee camp, we had to get a physical check up to make sure we were not sick. And she was so, so worried that she would be caught. One day, in Vietnam, I saw her sweat, and so much pain… she already had cancer at the time. She didn’t let anyone know. At the refugee camp people would press and knead her stomach … and she didn’t have pain… thank god. If she was pained, we would not be able to come to America.
Unfortunately during Chinese Year, her body acted up. She was so swollen. I pushed on her stomach and she was so pained. We have a superstition that on Chinese New Year you don’t go to the doctor… and for the first and second day she tried not to… she tried to save so much money… in the winter she told me to walk and not take the subways… I’d walk and walk and be so cold. I told her I couldn’t walk anymore. A quarter. For a token. We didn’t even have that. So she tried to help Sei Yi Pau to cook… and after a while when you stay at a person’s home for a while they get frustrated. And during that time I promised myself that no matter what, in the future, I have to help I will get my own house. I saw my mom with all her problems and I wanted to help her in the future. So eventually she got Gong to walk her to the doctor… it was so many blocks and she was in so much pain. We went to the doctor and were at the doctor’s office and the receptionist told us that they were closed. We begged them please please. Eventually they took my mom… and said she was the last patient. Once they checked her out they immediately had to send her to the hospital… and the next day she had to operate right away. Or else she would have died that day. But as they operated, it was too late already… 1:10:00…the tumor had already broken and all the cancer had spread. She had an operation for 8 hours that day…
1:10:54 But in her mind, she didn’t even want to sign every single piece of paper. She didn’t want to burden me… since we didn’t have any money. She said, “You know what? My goal was to bring you guys over here. And… now I had fulfilled my goal.” I give her a lot of credit… until now. Mom and I are crying
As she was getting better she got chemotherapy and everything. But the sisters got together and had a meeting. They said that we should move… I try to forgive… at the time I asked why? We were poor… anyways… We found another apartment in the Bronx which is now Gong’s apartment.
Anyways… at the time I couldn’t find school because I was 17 at the time… They said you should go to 11th grade or 12th grade. At the time I couldn’t even speak English and I was so shy. I said that I could not. Gong and I went to church to study English as a second language. Eventually we met friends that were gong’s age. They asked, why is your daughter here? You’re wasting time? At the church I saw people from our country and I saw donation bins full of cloths and pants… really? All of this is free? From the church. If you look at my childhood pictures I look like clown haha. Eventually they introduced me to Theodore Roosevelt in the Bronx. I went there and met all the friends I know today… so many people from Vietnam. Before I went to Theodore Roosevelt I was so depressed. In all the movies were all houses… why are there so many buildings? Why was this so bad?
I ended up getting in as 9th grade… the administration helped us get a younger grade because I couldn’t do 12th grade level. Uncle Ngeigh helped me translate and he worked in the office. Jing Yi and Phong were all there. And I thought wow… this is not that bad after all…
At the time my mom got sick, in the interim she still had chemotherapy. So she went back and fourth to do chemo… after chemo I would help her walk up the stairs and hold a chair… and let her sit for a while at the 2nd floor and then walk her back up. (We were on the 5th floor)… And she would throw up and at the time I didn’t know cancer would kill her. 1:14:00 I didn’t want to know… but yeah…
As she looked down… the 4th floor had a red carpet… “Oh the carpet is so beautiful… We don’t even have money to buy it…” There was a window and she looked out to someone else’s apartment…
As she was sick we applied for welfare. I always tell people that I appreciate that America does have welfare; don’t take it for granted. If they didn’t have welfare I wouldn’t have survived today with my mom. Don’t take advantage of the welfare…
So at the time I somehow knew someone who recommended me to a job. I worked at Dim Sum. I started at 7oclock, I was like skinny like a stick at the time. But I had to hold one big tray with Ha Gao; if you sold sweet sesame roll and no one bought it, you had to keep holding it. There were no carts back there. I would walk up and down the two floors. Sometimes if there were friends who came in to eat I would try not to be seen working. So from 7:00am to 4:30pm… I got a total of $25…
So one day I still remember this pair of jeans and I learned it was $25 and I took my money back I didn’t want to spend it. After a few days I got black and bruises and I’d lay down and think “At least I got some money…”
Clara: so what was welfare? How does it work?
Mom: They pay you money, and give you food stamps. You have to save … that’s why I bargain a lot now.
As we grow up, every month was just enough to pay the rent. Gong didn’t work, and Gia worked but wasn’t really part of the family somehow… idk she was independent and over 21 so she didn’t get food stamps I think… And of course my mom was very sick.
1981 she got sick, 1982 she passed away… she was only 51 and a half… She told me that she didn’t want to die… in the hospital and she begged me to please bring her home; She didn’t want her cancer to eat her up. I still remember mother’s day and wishing her to feel better… Every time after school I went there to take care of her… Eventually one day from school someone called me and said she had 7 days… and in exactly 7 days she passed away. I was so sad…… We didn’t even have money to buy a cemetery spot… There was a society that helped people out, they chipped in money to help us buy this New Jersey Spot.
1:22:00 Before she passed away she brought me to school… her English was so fluent, and I would hide on her back. She would bring me to the room, and when I turned around she would be gone. She already escaped. She wanted me to be independent…
My dream was always to have my own house in the future… so I studied… from 3rd grade or 4th grade come here went to 9th grade. I skipped such a big gap in education. That is why I emphasize how important education is. The basics. I didn’t have any of the basics. I studied a lot and borrowed a lot of Gia’s books. She got a GED and didn’t go to highschool. She came here and worked in the post office. And for me, I didn’t know English but I studied and memorized. I loved all the numbers, Trigonometry… but Physics I did not know. Velocity was Distance timed Time, and I asked why? And the units were m/s. And I emphasized the teaching of units because I didn’t have the basics. I didn’t have common sense.
I studied so many of the regents books and so many of the books repeated. So they thought I was so good and I got to skip 10th grade. I ended up as the number 2 in class. Hue Yi was number 1… and I used her as my challenge. One time I beat her by 2 points, and she tried to talk to the teacher to give her the points. “This is not supposed to be…!” Something like that. And she convinced her to get a 100. She graduated one year behind me anyway. I got so many awards and I was so good at school