Chapter 1 Where We’ve Been
I turned forty this year. I’ve been thinking a lot about where I came from. It is a bit sad that it took forty years for me to wonder what it must have been like. There are blurry, black and white-tinged scenes I carry in the back of my memories about Vietnam, about the island where I was born, about the dirt roads my grandfather rode his motor bike on or how incredibly clear the water was where my dad swam as a boy. How have I not yet felt the shame of never wanting to hear the stories, of never asking more questions or never longing to visit the land my family fled from all of those years ago?
At forty, my life feels pretty full; my days splattered with challenges and victories, my heart filled of gratitude, my spirit flies with hope; but something indeed still feels amiss.
The idea of staying grounded can mean a few different things. Consider what it means to ground your child? It is a punishment that keeps him from his friends, his phone and other diversions. When a plane is grounded, it is kept from taking off and usually leads to hundreds of very grumpy moans and groans onboard.
Strong roots can keep a tree grounded, and so is true for humans. Even though, through the course of our lives, we are nurtured to take flight, aim high and soar freely, it isn’t such a bad idea to be cautious, and in turn, to be grounded. Some day we must land, let’s make sure we have something to land on.
I’ve been working on a project for my parents, well really, for my mother. Since I can remember, there’s been an 8X10 framed photo of my mom, my sister and me resting atop my mother’s bedroom dresser. It’s protected by a thin layer of dust, just enough to blur the faces at a quick glance. I always pause and smile when I happen by the photo. A chubby-cheeked 3-yr old propped up on my mother’s left knee, sporting a Chicago Cubs jacket with these tiny little hands that appear at the bottom of the sleeves. Her face is round, her eyes wide and bright. Even though the photo is black and white and yellowed by time, you can see the loveliness of my mother’s face, so full of hope and pride. Me? I’m wearing my most favorite outfit of the moment (I’m sure of it!) . . . a ruffled powdery pink dress that bounced at my knees with a matching vest with even more ruffles on the sleeves.
In a vague recollection, I knew this photo was important. I knew it had accompanied an article in a local newspaper of sorts from when we lived in Elgin, a quiet suburb of mid-1970’s Illinois. Somehow, I’d never asked my mother about the article. I had never even read it or seen it.
“What do you mean you’ve never seen it? Really? Well, Mom has a copy of it at her house-but it’s cut out, torn and barely still in one piece. I can’t believe you’ve never seen it!” says my younger sister incredulously through the phone. Her piercing words seem to have accompanied a perhaps overly-critical pointed index finger, ever so bitter, even from over 500 miles away.
Yeah, that’s me. I felt the hammer of judgment coming through the phone line and was suddenly overcome by embarrassment and shame. I’m not sure why I’ve never asked. I was kind of in a hurry to get out of the house at seventeen and from that point on, I’ve never really lived at home again with my parents. It’s not the best excuse, but it was the only explanation that I could think of to escape my shame of not knowing more, not asking more questions, not listening to more stories, not needing to know more.
The search was on. I called several libraries and newspapers hoping to find the original article.
Google sure is impressive!
There were many sites that claimed they could find my article, but it would cost this much to search our archives. I paid. I paid for the use of a few search engines . . . but nothing. My sister was able to send a part of the article that had the original date and publication name printed on the side of the photo. After a couple of days and a few conversations on the phone, I finally had a good lead.
The only copy in existence of this article was stored on microfiche at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Illinois. Wow, I didn’t even know microfiche was still a thing and before writing this note, I thought it was “microfish.”
Newspaper librarian extraordinaire, Jan, from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library delivered the wonderful news that she had indeed found what I had been searching for. My heart felt completely full as the sounds of “Hallelujah” rang triumphantly in my head.
Putting my Microsoft Publisher skills to good use, I was able to re-type the entire article, laid it out exactly as it had appeared all those years ago, matched the color of the photos that my sis sent and voila, a newspaper clipping was re-born.
Here it was, our story, in all its glory, framed and ready to gift to my parents for Christmas. My heart felt as if it would burst with anticipation to see my parents’ reaction, but something was still missing. I sat for a while re-reading the article and staring at my mother’s dark, yet hopeful eyes. I was not finished.
Not only had I missed out on this tiny piece of my mother’s past, but I had completely neglected her journey, our journey.
I may not be a doctor or lawyer. I may not make tons of money or live in the grandest of homes, but I’m pretty happy. My mom has always told me that the measure of her success has been the happiness of her children.
“Making sure that you and Van do not have to work as hard or endure the hardships that we did is what makes me happy. Knowing that your lives are better than ours is our success.”
Chapter 2 What Took So Long?
My friends and I participate in a weekly Pub Trivia game every Tuesday night at a local bar. It’s silly, but we really love this. Knocking back a few pints, chatting with friends, recalling useless facts and cluttering our brains with new useless facts had become a favorite pastime. In a search to better myself at Geography, I pulled up blank maps of Europe, Africa and wait—Southeast Asia! Tracing the lines along the border of Vietnam, following the gulf towards Thailand and the Malaysian peninsula . . . this part of the world suddenly felt like a stranger who conspicuously entered a nook in my brain, with an air of familiarity and an oddly quiet, yet deafening footstep and presence.
Once again, I am awed by the magnitude of Google’s greatness. Zooming in for a closer look at the island of Phu Quoc, my birthplace, I imagined what the air smelled like, what the rocks felt like under my feet along the paths that led to my village, the mountains near the coastline and in that instant, my black and white memories started to fill with color.
I often wondered how much of what I remembered were memories of “stories” told by my aunties and cousins and how much of those memories were actually my own. When we fled Vietnam, I was only three, can one really retain memories from that age?
I traced the coastline of Thailand and Malaysia, wondering where we had landed that fateful night; how many of us survived, how we managed to escape untraumatized and uninjured.
So, I picked up the phone for a way-overdue conversation with my mom.
I had heard the general story before, but I asked her to recount it again for me, in as much detail as she could recall. Here is my mother’s story of our harrowing journey across the ocean.
Chapter 3 The Journey Across the Ocean
We were three among sixty-eight villagers who boarded a fishing boat docked along the harbor near my grandfather’s house in Duong Dong (the largest town on the island of Phu Quoc). It was late October of 1977 and many southern Vietnamese people had been fleeing the Communist regime after the war “ended” since 1975. My father had already made his way to America by this time. It was common for one person to go ahead of the rest to make arrangements and secure papers for the arrival of remaining family members.
Mom carried Van in one arm and held onto my tiny 3-yr-old hand as we sneaked away from the village. Mom recalls the constant fear she felt embattled by the courage that would eventually carry her through it all. She was twenty-four, worried that she did not have the fortitude, especially with two small babies, but the choice to stay was more frightening than the idea of a dangerous journey to a strange, new land. Those who failed, ended up in prison or worse, tortured and in some cases, these poor souls were never heard from again. The communist guards in charge of patrolling the docks were drugged into a sleep, thus enabling our escape. It took close to three hours to get everyone on board quietly and out of the harbor undetected. Under the shield of night, we sailed out of the harbor into the open waters.
Each family group hid under large, black tarps like garbage bags. Mom was only able to bring along a few items, but it was truly a matter of escaping with only the clothes on our backs. We laid flat and stayed quiet as the boat drifted west into the Gulf of Thailand. The first two nights and days were rough, but a week’s journey is what was expected so it was a blessing when the Thailand shore came into view.
Relief was very short-lived. The waters off the eastern Thai coast were known for piracy, rape, kidnapping and murder. These pirates had been hunting Vietnamese refugees in the water for years since the end of the Vietnam War. One town in particular, Koh Kra, was the site of a massacre of thousands of Vietnamese refugees up until the spring of 1981.
Luckily, our boat sailed past this island without conflict and we made our way near the coast near Songkhla. This was the site of another refugee camp; however, the camps were overcrowded, and we were only permitted to tie the boat to the edge of the dock with the understanding that we could not de-board. For fifteen days we stayed onboard, rocking on the water, waiting for them to decide our fate. They eventually made us leave the dock. As we drifted away, it was discovered that our engine had been sabotaged. Mom really didn’t know why; sometimes people can be cruel without reason, she explains. Fortunately, another Thai fishing boat took pity on us and came to our aid. We were guided back to land and would be transferred to another boat.
A few of the villagers transported us by tuk tuk to the docks where they knew of other boats leaving for Malaysian refugee camps. The tuk tuk we were on was speeding so fast that the driver lost control and we ended up flipped on our side in a ditch. We got up and walked the rest of the way, nearly 6 miles away.
Arriving at the dock, Mom was approached by an elderly Thai couple harshly speaking to her in a tongue she did not understand. A fellow traveler witnessed the exchange and came running over to translate. The couple asked to take one of mom’s “burdens” off her hands. They commented on what a sweet, obedient child I appeared to be and begged to take me. “Let us take the older one to raise, you cannot survive with both of them,” they urged. Without thinking, Mom refused and grabbed a hold of my hand and began to walk away. The elderly pair continued to plead with her to at least take me home for a bath and some food. We had not eaten in days and my mother was desperate (and a bit delirious if you ask me).
The next morning, I was returned to the dock with a full belly, a pair of slippers on my feet and clean pajamas.
Incredibly, I had had recurring dreams since the age of 9 or 10 about an old man bathing a small child. I could never make any sense of it, and always felt a bit creepy thinking about it, regardless to say, I never shared these dreams with anyone. The characters in my dreams were strangers to me; the man never harmed the child, he never harmed me in these dreams.
Fate would deliver us another challenge. Pirates robbed us of the remainder of anything precious that our group may have held on to and shoved us on a boat with a hundred others who had escaped from Saigon. We were crammed onto a tugboat with a disabled motor and let loose to drift on the seas.
We drifted along the Thai and Malaysian coastline for another 25 days. Out of desperation, the men on our boat jumped aboard another fishing boat to steal rice and water to feed us. A couple of other kind fishermen gave us food and water. I was not getting enough to eat because everyone was desperate and hungry aboard. Mom could not wrestle for what little food there was with a baby in her arms. She nursed my sister the entire journey. The most amusing part of this story is hearing how much my sister thrived and even got chubby when everyone around her existed in hunger and despair.
The boat drifted its way close to the island of Pulau Besar. This was one of the smaller refugee camps in Malaysian waters. From there, we were transferred onto shore to the town of Terengganu for processing. It was a miracle that everyone in our group survived after a total of 42 days at sea. We lived in this camp for nearly 2 months before receiving word that we could finally come to America.
By late February, the papers had gone through and our sponsorship had been secured. We were sponsored by a missionary group from the Highland Avenue Church of the Brethren in Elgin, Illinois.
My mother, sister and I officially arrived into the arms of America on February 24, 1978.
Now my mother’s story has been told and my story has been recorded. Mai Lam is the bravest lady I know. She is my hero. My mother has endured a lifetime of struggle, yet managed to shelter us from that struggle. I will not be ashamed of my ignorance any longer. My parents were so successful at making our lives better that Van and I never had to know that struggle, at least not the way they’ve known it. They nurtured our wings, but I understand now that it is our responsibility to water our roots. Reaching for the stars keeps me busy, but these days I no longer neglect my roots.
I look at Jonah (my son) and wonder when he will feel the need to know. When he’s ready, he will ask.
Thank you, Mom.
There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots, the other, wings. ~Johann Wolfgang von Goethe