My Family Was Broken and Separated
Profilers: Phoonie Phung Ngo, Marc Botezatu, Bernice Flores, Nemanja Bisenic
Life in America
When and how did you come to America, and how was your life when you arrived?
Talking about the new life in America, I immigrated to America in January 1985 under the help of a charity organization. And I immigrated to Portland, Oregon. When I first came, the organization helped me go to school and learn English. After that, I turned 18 and in this liberal country, children over 18 must be independent. The organization then said that I was old enough to take care of myself. I lived in Oregon for about a year then decided to move to California since I had some friends and acquaintances in California who were on the same boat with me. They lived in Orange County. I contacted and asked them to help me with my move to California. Since then, I’ve lived in Orange County, California.
I went to work everyday, got married, and then had a family. I now have two daughters; the eldest daughter is currently in college and close to graduating. My youngest one is here with me now. After work, I come home and play with my kids. Sometimes during our family meetings, I tell them stories about my life in the past, about Vietnam, and about the war. I try to teach them and remind them to always live a happy life not a harmful one, to be helpful and to love everyone in order to built a new future for the next generation.
How was life for you and your family in Vietnam?
When I was still in Vietnam, life was very tough. My father was a soldier, but, like other Vietnamese men, they sometimes have a second wife, or even a third wife. My father had another women and no longer lived with my family. My mother had to take care of all of us by herself. I was still little at that time. We lived by working for another person in the village. When jobs were not available we ran to different place. We went wherever jobs where available. When we couldn’t make a living in one city, my mother would bring my sisters and myself to another city. So life was tough and very unstable. While growing up, my brother witnessed the family situation and realized how life was. So he decided to volunteer and go to war. After he went to war, my mother was the only one left to watch over and take care of the whole family.
Life during the war is tough in general. Finding a job was tough, let alone a job that provides enough to feed 4-5 hungry mouths. Therefore my sisters one by one dropped out of school and started working to make money and afford life. I remained with those responsibilities until I grew up a little older and then we all moved to a bigger city, Saigon. In Saigon there were more jobs available such as laboring, being a servant or helping out with housework. I was still young so my family wanted me to go to school. The war lasted too long so everybody in the country suffered in some ways.
The war finally ended on April 30, 1975. My brother fortunately survived the war and came back home. My family could no longer find work in the city so we decided to go back and live in my fathers hometown Cai Lay. My paternal relatives gave us a small piece of land so we can produce crops and fruits to make money. Our family was too large and the land was to small. It was not enough to feed the whole family. My sisters once again had to leave home and find work at different places in the city. After that my brother got sick and eventually passed away. My family was broken and separated. That was life during the war. When I grew up I followed my sisters to the city and labored for money. After living through these hardships I decided to leave Vietnam.
Can you give us specific details of why you left Vietnam and your views of war?
When I turned 16-17 years old, I decided to the leave the country. I lived and grew up in Vietnam until the war ended in Saigon in 1975. After the war we came back to our hometown. It seemed that the amount of time and work we spent could never get us enough food to feed the family. We had too many people and the land we got was not enough. A few years later, my sisters one after another left to the big cities to find jobs. Life was very tough so I later followed them to Saigon in order to find a job and hopefully improve my family’s financial situation.
Until 1983, when I was about 16 years old, Vietnam was still at war with Cambodia and China. The government started to draft young men, who were turning 17 years old, to register for the military, go to war, fight and protect the country. I really hate war. I don’t want to be killed nor do I want to kill people. I had many doubts at this time. Some people in my hometown went to war. A few months later, we were informed that they were killed during action. Few of them came back. Some lost their arms. Some lost their legs. I was very scared, very confused. A few years earlier I had heard about people escaping out of the country. They crossed the border and left Vietnam to find a place where there was peace and a soothing life. I hesitated, unsure of what was the best thing to do. If I stayed, I would die in the war. If I decided to go and leave the country, I might also die. Many people had already lost their lives on the ocean in exchange for freedom. Finally, I decided to leave Vietnam, to find a peaceful country, the freedom and a place where I could build a better future for my children and myself.
What are some of your most vivid memories?
Talking about the most beautiful memories I had in Vietnam, was when I was young and innocent, I was unaware and carefree and I spent time with my friends. I didn’t have to think. I didn’t have to worry. Later on, after I grew up and had more understanding, I realized how hard life really was especially when everyone in my family was separated, trying to find their own way. Everyone around me was also struggling to survive. When the war almost ended, I saw many dead bodies floating on the river. I wasn’t sure whether they were soldiers. I think they might have been civilians who were killed and dumped in the river. To me, life at that time was horrible. It was like living in fear and not knowing when you will die, either of starvation or many other things. Those were the worst memories I had during the years in Vietnam.
After the war I was told that Saigon was not a safe place because in 1968 there were some conflicts inside Saigon that caused riots in and out of the city and other places in the south. Death was everywhere. That is what I was told. And before 1975, they still fought but I heard that around 1972-1973, America withdrew from Vietnam and handed the control of South Vietnam over to Southern Vietnamese. They no longer supplied food and weapons to Southern Vietnamese. It lasted until 1975. During Nguyen Van Thieu’s presidency, a few days before that, many places in the South had already failed and fallen to the Northern army. Only Saigon was left. But the Northern army was very close to come to Saigon as well. I’m not sure exactly what happened but that’s what I heard. President Thieu had ordered the Southern troops to make a retreat, and then gave his power to Prime Minister Huong. I cant recall his full name. Prime Minister Huong became the temporary president of South Vietnam. Huong was too old. About a day or two later, he gave his title of temporary president to General Duong Van Minh. One day before that, Northern soldiers had already come close to Saigon. After having a discussion with the other party, Duong Van Minh called all Southern Vietnamese soldiers to put down their guns, stop the war, and surrender. Therefore all the attacks did not happen in the Southern cities including Saigon. Thus less people died.
What do you remember regarding the fall of Saigon?
After hearing that Saigon was falling and surrendering to the Northern Army, people were tumultuous. Southern Vietnamese soldiers threw away their guns and clothes. They threw away their military uniforms. They wore nothing but shorts. My brother, too, threw away everything and ran home. Fearing for their lives, the soldiers were afraid to wear their uniforms or carry a gun. All southern Vietnamese soldiers threw their belongings and guns everywhere on the streets. It was hectic on the streets. Armored tanks continuously marched to cities in the South. At that moment I was very happy. Everyone was also happy because the war finally ended. We all hoped and looked towards a peaceful life, a new life, a life in which we no longer had to live in fear.
After the War
How was life after the war?
Right when the war ended everyone was very happy knowing that they would no longer have to live in fear, worry or die. They thought that peace would bring them a new and better life. However, one or two years after that, I heard that the North and the South had another fight, like an anti-capitalism fight. Wealthy and rich people were afraid to do business or even hire servants. Therefore, poor people, who didn’t have any money or educational background, could no longer find jobs. Thus life became even harder because no one could do anything. The economy was very tightly controlled. The people started to realize what kind of situation the country was in. Then the war with the Chinese came. If I remember correctly it was around 1979 or 1980, Vietnam fought Cambodia. Then Chinese rushed in and attacked Northern Vietnam. People feared that the country would soon face another war, so they planned to leave Vietnam. At that time, the government allowed Chinese, who had money, to pay fees or buy boats and leave the country legally. But that required a lot of money to buy a ticket. Many people died during the trip. And many times their boats would sink to the ocean floor. People then thought of another way to make an escape. They would build their own boats. Fishermen modified their own fishing boats to cross the country’s border in order to find freedom. That’s why the journey is called Vuot Biem (crossing the border). People choose a boat accordingly to their own budget. There were some cheaper trips for those who did not have a lot of money.
Why do you think war starts?
In my opinion, war derives from conflicts, jealousy and hatred. From that, I see a lesson for myself: I’m living in a country, where I can find peace and freedom; I should live my life well, always love and help others. I strive to avoid conflicts. If the conflicts are small, it would be better to overlook and let them pass. Lets live our life in friendliness and happiness. Always be helpful to everyone regardless of their origin. That could help us avoid conflict, jealousy and hatred.
Do you think Hollywood’s depictions of war within movies are true?
Everyone has different points of view and sees things from different aspects. But the truth is the war had already happened. What we think or say will not make any change to the truth. Like those Hollywood movies about the Vietnam War, they were made based on the truth, to tell stories and show what really happened in Vietnam during the war. I think the majority of the movies are true and made out of truth.
What are some of your suggestions for the younger generation about war?
I only want to make a comment and a suggestion to my children as well as the young generation. They should stay away from wars because war would bring death, struggles, and unclear futures to humans. Relatives might have to live separately. So I often remind my children to live a good life, live in a nation of peace and freedom, have a bright future, be friendly and be happy. When conflicts arise it would be best to ignore them. When they do all these things, they will eliminate hatred, dissension, and unnecessary fights and finally war. Talking about sharing, I only have a few words, which might also be advice to the young generation, professors and other educated people. I think that war occurs due to human jealousy, hatred and disputations. I suggest that everyone should live a happy life, be helpful and loving to each other, don’t discriminate and keep unnecessary disputations away. We will then have a peaceful life. Who knows what the youth can do for their country? Maybe one day, there will be no more war on this planet, I hope.