I was born in Saigon, Vietnam. I lived there until I was around 9 years old. I attended elementary school there, and went up to the third or fourth grade. One of my most vivid earliest memories is staying with a nanny near where my grandparents lived in Phu Xuan Nha Be, a village about an hour away from Saigon. My parents worked in Saigon and so I had to stay with a nanny. She cooked for me, and took care of me. My mom would visit me about once a week. I stayed with the nanny until I was about 3 years old. When I was old enough to start preschool, I moved back to Saigon.
I also remember Saigon. I lived about a twenty-minute walk away from the center of the city. I remember walking down the streets, and my school was there, too. I remember going to the movies with my friends, and then we would go eat. These old ladies would carry these baskets with all kinds of fruits, and oh my gosh, my favorite was the mangoes! They would cut the mangoes into slices and give you some salt and chili to dip them in. I loved those! I also loved the pineapples!
I remember when I started preschool – I was so scared! That first day of school, I cried so much! To this day, I am still scared of metal gates. Every time I see one, I have flashbacks! I remember my mom dropping me off in front of the gate. I didn’t want her to leave but she had to go, so I just stood there crying and crying. She actually left me there!
I went to a Vietnamese school. I grew up speaking Vietnamese, and I formally learned it in school as well. Vietnamese is actually my first language – my parents spoke to me in Vietnamese, and my nanny was Vietnamese. I did hear Hainanese [Chinese dialect] spoken at home and I can understand just a little bit, but I can’t speak it.
I don’t remember too much about my childhood in Vietnam, but I do remember the scary moments [from the war]. Every house had some sort of bomb shelter. I remember my mom had one under a bed in our house. It was just a hole in the ground. Every time we heard planes flying above us, my brother and I would jump down into the hole. We would stay down there until we stopped hearing plane sounds. Back then though, we felt it was really fun, like a game, like hide-and-seek. We were scared when we heard all the planes, but thankfully there were never any bombs in my area.
My mom said that it was because she wanted a better life for us. She was also worried because of the instability in Vietnam at the time, but also because she was afraid my dad and brother, when he was older, would have to go join the army and fight in the war.
I went with my dad, my brother, an uncle, and a cousin. But during the time of the escape, we were actually divided up so that it would be harder to catch us. I was with my uncle, and I think we were the first pair to go, while my dad and brother went after us.
I can’t remember all the details clearly, but I do remember the scary parts. We first went to Cambodia. Because we were trying to escape, to avoid getting caught we had to leave at night. I was so scared, especially since it was night time, and at night, all you want are your mom and dad. No one actually told me that we were escaping. My mom had told me that I was going with my uncle to play, go on an adventure, but I was confused because I was wondering why my parents weren’t with me. I remember crying and crying. My uncle kept trying to tell me to quiet down, that if someone heard me crying, we would get caught. I remember running through the forest, and we had to be very quiet, and hide a lot. Once we got to a specific part of the forest, someone came to meet us, and brought us to a big house. My dad and brother came in a little bit after us. I remember feeling so relieved when I saw my dad because I knew that I would be okay as long as I had even just one parent with me. I believe that there were about 50 or so people. Once the whole group had gathered, then we started to walk to the boat.
I don’t remember how far the boat was from the house, but I do remember walking along the water. This was the safest way to go, especially since there were so many people in our group. The boat was there, already waiting for us. We walked from the shore into the water toward the boat, and while the water was not that deep for adults, at one point the water came all the way up to my nose and I nearly drowned. Luckily someone pulled me up and threw me up onto the boat.
In total, including the captain, we had 57 people. We were very lucky because in the end, all 57 of us managed to survive.
The boat was very small and tiny. I thought we were going to go on a big boat, since we had so many people. The boat only carried us, some water, and a little bit of food. We were supposed to reach Thailand in one week, but around the third day, the captain got very sleepy and we went off course. When he woke up, he had no idea where we were. It was also scary because we were running out of water and food. We were just kind of just floating in the water, hoping to find another boat that could help us. I remember there was a person on the boat who got very dehydrated and became very dizzy. Luckily though, we saw a deserted island. I don’t know what the name of the island is or where it is, but it was interesting because the island was full of mango trees! Everyone was so happy to see the island that when we got near, we jumped out of the boat and ran to shore. But there were rocks and barnacles everywhere so everyone had cuts on the bottom of their feet and on their legs. For my dad, brother, and I, we got infections from these cuts and had to deal with swollen legs and blistering. The men went to go find water and then we took the remaining grains of rice we had and made porridge; this was the only way for all 57 of us to get a little rice. The good thing though was all the mango trees. Everyone ate so many mangoes, and I don’t know if it’s true for everyone, but I had really bad diarrhea, probably because of the lack of food and water we had in the past few days, and maybe because I ate too many mangoes! I think we stayed on that island for a few days. We even started fires to try to signal to other boats that we were there. Luckily a Navy boat saw us and helped us by giving us directions to Thailand.
I remember that when we got to Thailand, some people brought us some rice. Then they had people bring us to the Lam Sing camp, the first refugee camp I stayed at. Because we didn’t have any money, we had to stay near the entrance of the camp where there were a lot of dead bodies and ashes. Those who did have money could afford to get a house further inside the camp, but because we were poor, we had no choice but to live in this part of the camp. After about two weeks, we finally received money from Nin [“Aunt” in Hainanese] Ket in America and we were able to move to a better part of the camp. We stayed in this first camp for about six months or more.
Nin Ket was able to sponsor several of our family members, but because of the preference system, she was only able to sponsor her brothers and sisters first. Since my dad was an in-law, we had to wait. If my mom had been there, I would have been able to leave with my maternal aunts and uncles first. So me, my brother, and my dad stayed behind with another uncle and cousin [also in-laws], and we were later moved to another refugee camp for about a month. Life at this next camp was the worst refugee camp experience I had. Everybody stayed in one big building and we all slept on the floor without blankets or pillows - you had to use whatever you brought from other camps. I remember that they used a really big pot to cook lunch and dinner for us, but most of the time they just threw in whatever they could find, and I often felt like they were treating us like pigs. We had to be on time for food or else you would be hungry if they ran out of food, so there was a lot of pushing and yelling when people were in line. I remembered crying a lot there too because I missed my mom and aunts Nin Kin and Nin Hue.
After that, we were again moved to another camp, but this time on an island in Indonesia called Galang, where we stayed for about two years. In this camp, we stayed in a big building with about 50 bunk beds with about 100 other families. Each family had one bunk, so my dad, brother, and I lived on the top bunk of a bed, while another stayed on the bottom bunk. Also, there were no showers there! You had to go to the nearby lake to take a shower. We lined up and everyone used buckets to get water from the faucets that were installed outside. We would shower with our clothes on and then change clothes in a small bathroom. Also, we were provided with food here, but no money; you had to go out and find a job if you wanted money for nonessential items. For example, my dad liked to smoke, but he had to go work in order to have money to buy cigarettes. Because I was still a kid though, I went to school. I had English classes every day, and it’s where I learned things like crocheting and sewing. I know for sure that I stayed in Galang for a very long time because I already felt like it was my home. I remember playing with my friends, and that there was a lady who got pregnant, had her baby, and had her baby turn one around the time I left. That’s how I know I was there for awhile!
The last place I stayed before coming to America was Singapore, but only for two weeks. We were sent there because our sponsorship paperwork finally got approved. We were lucky because in Singapore, we had a relative there who took us out to play for a day or two. I remember Singapore being so clean and nice! What I remember most about Singapore though is my dad buying underwear for me. He took what was left of the money we had to buy the underwear. I remember this moment very clearly because before that, I didn’t have any underwear to wear.
I arrived in the States in March of 1981. I left Vietnam in the late 70s when I was around 9 or 10, but I do know that I arrived in the U.S. when I was 13. I came over on an airplane, and I remember being excited, but as kids, we had no idea what America was or what it would look like. We flew to San Francisco in California, and we were picked up by my aunts. I first lived in Alameda, and I have lived here since!
When we first moved here, I lived with my dad, my brother, my uncle, and my two cousins, so it was just two dads in charge of everything – no moms there! Even though I had my dad, it was really nice to have so many aunts and other relatives around. One of my aunts taught my brother and I Mandarin. I remember really wanting to learn Mandarin but because I couldn’t afford a tutor, my aunt taught us, especially since she really wanted us to learn. I remember her complimenting me on my pronunciation, saying that I was way better than my brother – I was so happy to hear this!
My mom and sister came in 1986, sponsored over by my dad. It was really nice to have a mom again. Before my mom came, my brother and I would work to help supplement our family’s income. For example, we delivered newspapers every morning at 5am. Also, during the summer I babysat my niece for my aunt, who lived a block away from me. Even though those years were full of hard work, I was happy, especially being able to always be with my brother. When my mom finally arrived to the United States however, she told us we didn’t need to work anymore, and that she wanted us to focus on our education. She took over earning money for our family, doing all sorts of jobs like tailoring and babysitting.
I remember my cousin coming with me to register for school at Washington Elementary. Because of my limited English, they put me in fourth grade and my brother in third grade. At the time, I was 13 and my brother was 12, so after a year, we both were transferred to Wood Middle School for sixth grade. I don’t know why, but suddenly we were in the same grade! Maybe because we were older than the other students, or because we looked around the same age based on our sizes. It’s funny because that is how my brother and I ended up graduating high school together!
A lot of times it was hard to adjust. I didn’t speak English, and most of the Asian kids there were ABC [American-born Chinese]. Kids would mess with me because they knew my English wasn’t very good, and they would make fun of me. Sometimes I couldn’t understand the teacher, but I could understand the general idea, and kids assigned to help me would try to tell me the wrong thing, especially if they didn’t want this job. Since I didn’t know how to respond or talk back, I had no choice but to follow what they told me to do. The teachers at the time knew we couldn’t really speak English though, so they didn’t pay too much attention to us; they just tried to keep us busy. As long as we were busy and did the work, it was fine and the teachers wouldn’t give us a hard time.
Throughout my time in school, I met a lot of Cantonese-speaking people, but very few refugees like me. It’s funny because I grew up speaking only Vietnamese but I picked up Cantonese from my friends and from watching a lot of Chinese shows. I remember there was this Chinese girl in elementary school who became my friend. She would translate for me using English and Cantonese, and slowly I started understanding a little bit of Cantonese. Also, most Chinese people here in the Bay Area speak Cantonese.
I do talk about it sometimes. When my friends or coworkers ask me how I came to America, I tell them about my journey. They are often surprised about how much I remember. I also talk to my kids about my experience. They were also surprised, and I remember my daughter asking if I was scared, why I had to go through that type of experience, questions like the ones being asked in this interview.
I didn’t hear about the history of Vietnamese Boat People when I was in school, and I haven’t heard my kids bring it up either. I think the first time they learned about it was when I told them. I try to share my experience with them a lot, like when I see reports on the current boat people crises on the news.
I want them to appreciate what they have, the life they have here in America. They are so blessed here, and I want them to know that it’s not like this for everyone. I want them to know that we had to risk our lives to come here, that we came so we could have a better life. I want them to be good people – I don’t need them to be super rich or anything, but just be good people. For example, I always tell my son to be kind to people, to help people. I know that there are immigrants in his school right now, and though they speak Mandarin, I tell him to help them when he can. I want him to think about how when I first came, it was so hard for me not knowing English or knowing the customs, but I was lucky to have a few classmates who were very kind to me. These are the messages I want my kids to learn from my experience.