Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about where I come from. It is a bit sad that it took forty years for me to really, truly wonder what it must have been like . . . this aged, black and white scene 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. I hardly feel ashamed that I’ve never really wondered because I never felt the urgency. At forty, my life feels pretty full; my days full of life, my heart full of gratitude, my spirit full of hope . . . but something indeed is still missing.
The idea of staying grounded can mean a few different things . . . what happens when you 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, soar freely; it isn’t such a bad idea to be cautious. We have to land some day . . . 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. It’s ironic that my sister and I both arrived at this project separately, unbeknownst to each other until I mentioned it casually in a phone conversation a few weeks ago. Since I can remember, there’s been an 8X10 old, yellowed framed photo of my mom, my sister and me resting atop my mother’s bedroom dresser. I always smile when I happen by the photo. My sister is three years old and kneeling on my mom’s left knee . . . she’s 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 five-year-old outfit of the moment (I’m sure of it!) . . . a ruffled powdery pink dress that bounced at my knees with a matching vest with 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, Illinois. Somehow, I’d never asked about the article. I had never even seen it. Until now.
“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 little sister incredulously.
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 . . . I’m not worthy!”
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 sent me a part of the article that had the 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.”
The name of my angel: Jan. Newspaper librarian at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library
She would not accept any payment. She sent me a photocopy of the article she found and for the first time, I got to read it.
Thank you Jan!
Thank you Vannie!
And I found a site that mounts newspaper clippings
Thank you Kelly from That’s Great News!
I am so anxious to give this to mom for Christmas . . . I literally feel like my heart could burst in anticipation. Scented candle warmers, flowers, a nice sweater . . . these were fine as presents, but I’ve never felt this good about a gift! I’m even willing to let Vannie have equal gift-giving kudos for this one!
So I did it. I accomplished my task . . . but something was missing. I sat for a while re-reading this article and looking into my mother’s 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 home, 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.”
I repeat this to my son constantly.
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 . . . having beers, chatting with friends, recalling useless facts and cluttering our brains with new useless facts. In a search to better myself at Geography, I pulled up blank maps of Europe, Africa and wait—Southeast Asia! Do I actually know all of the countries around Vietnam?
Why yes, yes I do know these countries . . . once again, I am awed by the magnitude of Google’s greatness. Google maps let me zoom in on the island of Phu Quoc, my birthplace. The satellite image let me view the roads in my village, the mountains near the coastline and all of a sudden, 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 aunts 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 actually survived, how we managed to escape untraumatized and uninjured.
So I picked up the phone to chat 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 harrowing story of our 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 . . . 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 family member to go ahead of the rest to make arrangements and secure papers for our arrival.
My mom carried my baby sister in one arm and held onto my hand with her other arm. She was only twenty-four. I can only imagine how scared she must have been, but she says staying there, at that time, was more frightening than the idea of a dangerous journey to a strange, new land. Those who are found out ended up in prison or worse, tortured and killed. 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 hid under large, black tarps like garbage bags. She only took a few items with her, but it was clearly a matter of escaping with only the clothes on your back. We laid flat and stayed quiet as the boat drifted west into the Gulf of Thailand. We were at sea for two nights and two days. A week’s journey is what was expected so it was a blessing when the Thailand shore came into view. Relief
The waters off the eastern Thai coast were known for piracy, rape, torture and murder. The Thai fishermen 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, we sailed past this island and made our way near the coast near Songkhla. This was the site of another refugee camp; however, they were overcrowded and did not want to let us come onshore. They allowed us to dock and tie our boat to the pier but we were not allowed to leave the boat. For 15 days we stayed on the water waiting for them to decide our fate. They eventually made us leave. As we drifted away, the fishermen sabotaged our engine and sent us out to sea without a working motor. 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.
The Thai people took us, as many as they could fit each time, sometimes 10-15 people by tuk tuk car to the docks where they knew of other boats leaving for Malaysian refugee camps. Mom remembers that 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.
Everyone was robbed of what little they had left on them, but it was the small price to pay for the transfer. At least no one was harmed. Mom says that once we got to the dock, an elderly Chinese couple approached her and tried to converse with her. Because we spoke different languages, mom could not figure out what they wanted. The old couple took me by the hand and started to walk away with me. One of our fellow travelers witnessed this exchange and came running over to help. Thank goodness he spoke enough Thai to understand what their intentions were. They asked to take one of my mother’s burdens off her hands. They commented on what a sweet, obedient child I was and asked to take me to raise. My mother refused to give me to them. They then asked if they could at least take me home to give me a bath and feed me. We had not eaten in days and my mother was desperate (and a bit delirious if you ask me). Why would you think these people would bring me back!?!?!
But they did. With a full belly and a new (well, at least, clean) set of pajamas, I was ready for the nextpart of our journey!
Sidebar: You won’t believe me, but I have had recurring dreams since I can remember (probably 4/5th grade) about an old man bathing me. I could never make any sense of it, and always felt a bit creepy thinking about it . . . he never harmed me in these dreams, but I always felt uneasy because he was a complete stranger in my dreams . . . back to the story.
Fate would deliver us another challenge. Some of the ruthless Thai fisherman set out to doom our voyage again. They took 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 out to sea.
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 Terrengganu 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 sister, my mother and I arrived in America on February 24, 1978. My dad escaped on a boat similar to ours when Van was only 18 months. Feb 24th happens to be my sister’s birthday.
Now I feel complete. I had been neglecting my roots. So busy reaching for the stars to remember to plan for my landing.
Now my mother’s story has been told and my story has been written.
Mai Lam is the bravest lady I know. She is my hero. My mother has endured a lifetime of struggle, but 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.
These days, I look at Jonah (my son) and wonder when he will feel the need to know. When he’s ready, he will ask . . . I only hope that I can remember as clearly as my mother has.
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