Profilers: Darren Draper, Carsten Vissering, Fiona Kohlman, Carra Rooke
How did your parents escape? What was the process they went through?
My dad and the relatives that we had became pretty close with also some of the neighboring families in communities. We weren’t the only ones that were hiding out, there were other families that we knew about that were hiding out, and so my dad was able to organize. He knew kind of a big wig in the district, and that guy was able to find a boat that would fit I don’t know I think it was 20 or 30 families, probably about, 60, 70, maybe 100 people I think. Everybody that wanted to go on that guy’s boat, my dad had organized a group of people to buy the boat, and then also to bribe, to give the gangster money to bribe any of the guards that would be near and searching, so that we would be able to get through.
My dad was able to get, everybody had to pay a certain amount in gold. I forgot how many ounces, everybody had to collect money or gold pieces. Nobody actually had money, so they collected gold and gave it to this one gangster guy. Some families chose to just send their oldest son or their oldest daughters, while others had to stay behind. There were a couple families that just collected money just to send a few of their relatives over. And that was hard because so many people wanted to flee, and for him to have to say we could only fit so many people and then it was priorities. He helped with talking with families: who should you send if you can’t take your whole family? And who would be able to come to America, hopefully find work, and give it back.
He had to also look for who knew how to fix a boat in case there was an issue with the boat. We needed younger strong men because setting out into the ocean was going to be dangerous. At the time, we knew that there were pirates, and so it was a matter of having enough physical male presence on the boat so we wouldn’t get hijacked or robbed in the ocean. We had to put that list together in secret, and again give it to the gangster, the gangster bribed people, and we had a boat and we were able to sail out.
And there were actually two boats that were put together. One boat sailed out like a day or two before us, and then we went out. No one actually knew how to sail anything. Just anybody who had an idea of which way to go to get to Hong Kong or anywhere else that would provide safety. We knew we weren’t just going straight into the ocean, we had an idea that at least if we could get out of Viet Nam. Hong Kong was the target destination because of the British rule there, and not to communist China, it was just aim for Hong Kong. So that was how they organized that, the escape at least.
Originally, my mom was supposed to stay in the house with the kids while they got everything ready, but the neighbors had started saying that people were coming, so then my mom took us and hid us first before we ran out to the boat. My dad actually came back to the house looking for us, he said it was completely ransacked and so he had to go back and that was when he saw that we were safely to the boat already. We didn’t bring anything with us. We didn’t have documents; my mom had a couple pictures. It was everything that was just on our backs. We don’t have any other belongings from when we were out there.
What do you remember about escaping?
When I fled, or when the family fled, I was about 4 years old. I remember my mom just suddenly grabbing us in the middle of the night, and said “Hey we’re going to go.” None of us knew what we were doing. We just all woke up and we went stumbling out into the street. We had to be really quiet. Just running out in the middle of the night, through the neighborhoods, and down into, through some fields and into this hidden area where, (Da Nang is located on a beach), we went to this little alcove in the beach. There we saw a whole bunch of other families that were waiting. We all boarded a boat, and that’s what I remember. I remember being rushed through the fields. The grass I remember being really high, but as a little kids its probably just up to my knees, or up to regular people’s knees, but for me it was like running through a jungle. And then just getting on a boat, and then we just sailed off, and that was, I guess, the last time I could remember Viet Nam and we’d left.
I remember being on the boat and sleeping underneath the boat. I was sleeping on my grandmother’s chest, so I remember there were just a lot of bodies around us, and later on I was told it was just where the women and children were. The women were all underneath, because again you had to hide all the women from pirates or anything else. They always stayed underneath and then all the younger children would just have to stay there also. I remember just a lot of hanging out underneath in a dark room with a lot of other women and little children. The only time we were able to go upstairs onto the deck every now and then was just during the day.
Most of the memories after that’s just journeying: being out in the ocean, playing on top of a boat. I remember ocean liners, or at least large freighters, throwing food down to us. As a kid it was just a game trying to catch food or jumping in the water trying to get food. We didn’t know it was food at the time, just stuff we were planning on collecting, and later learning that we ran out of food on the boat and people, any passing boats would try to provide for us.
Those images I remember: our boat ran aground near Hong Kong, and we had to be rescued by the Hong Kong coast guards, so I have memories of that. A lot of people screaming, trying to get off the sinking boat onto the coast guard vessel. I remember they were throwing children over because it was faster than having them walk across the plank. They were literally throwing kids from one boat to another to save the kids as quickly as possible. I remember being thrown across.
After that I just remember growing up in the refugee camp. I thought we were only there for a week or so, just cause limited memory, just playing in a camp. But we were there for 3 months. For us, just kids everyday we just played and played.
How do your parents view the Americans at the time?
I have images of flying in an airplane to Seattle. As adults they were already working. My dad was working with the military base, he viewed them as good folks because he got to interact with them, he got to interact with at least the good folks. It was a job so they were providing for us so they didn’t feel it as an occupying force in anyway; It was just a job, white people, and Viet Nam, and so they didn’t have any animosity in any way towards them.
Were the American soldiers friendly to the native Vietnamese people?
They had good relationships, they didn’t see them, again, as countering enforces or occupying forces, so they were perfectly fine with their directions. They didn’t see a lot of the stories that we grew up learning about, in the war movies or anything. They never got that direct experience, but again it could’ve been because they were working more with higher levels up versus out in the field soldiers, so they didn’t get to see the atrocities.
Why did your father work to help the Americans?
At the time it was a lucrative job to be able to work with the American base. Otherwise, most folks were selling stuff or selling stuff just on the streets. It was a good paying job. He didn’t see it as supporting Americans, necessarily against the Northern Vietnamese. He saw it as, it was a good job that would pay to be able to feed his family.
What kind of Lifestyle did the Americans live in Vietnam?
For my dad and for my other relatives, everybody that they met was pretty much on base and if it wasn’t on base it was nearby in the cafes and stuff, so they didn’t get to see any of the, I guess the rowdy stuff that’s portrayed in more of the dive bars or, the whore houses that were shown in the movies.
They had very professional relationships with them, they came to work, they saw them just in those environments, so they didn’t really see them out mingling around the community or anything like that. You didn’t have American soldiers walking around keeping guard on street corners or anything like that. They stayed mainly on the bases or they went out to the field zone. My parents didn’t have the experience that was necessarily portrayed in movies.
How do you feel about the term “Oriental”?
I hate the term. I hate the stereotypes that go with it. But I understand how it came up and I guess American society’s need to categorize and frame things that they didn’t understand. The view that, most Asians are always going to be foreigners.
My parents initially bought into it because, for them, there were a lot of positive connotations and stereotypes that came with it. They loved that, they are viewed as smart, they are hardworking. They didn’t hear a lot of the whole negative stuff: the ching chong, and the foreigner stuff. They believed they were still foreigners, well, back when I was younger. They grew up as immigrants, feeling like they’re foreigners and they’re trying to become Americans, but now they take more offense at that, and they are quicker to correct folks about the stereotypes and the assumptions.
How do the experiences from your youth affect you and your parents today?
Growing up in High School, or just growing through elementary, I didn’t really know about the experience. I had memories of it, but I didn’t think of it as an immigrant experience, because I was so wrapped up in being a little American kid. But my parents were really cognizant of it. They were always reminding us about how hard it was to get over here. As a little kid you go, “what are you talking about? It wasn’t that hard. We were in Hong Kong for a week.” But, again, as a little kid, you just didn’t comprehend everything that they were saying.
Feeling accomplished and feeling safe, but at the same time we were always worried that things would just be taken away and so they really valued being in America, being Americans, and all the rights and all the freedoms. To a certain extent, they started getting a little big in the head about it because we did become kind of, we’re an American dream, where, you brought four kids over from Vietnam, three walls and a roof, and everybody’s going to college, everybody is safe, and everybody is successful. So they started thinking, “if we could do everybody else should”, it started skewering their views about what people need.
Do you think the effects of the Vietnam War still permeate today’s society?
I was just a student of American history. It was the first televised war, and so it has just changed American perceptions of war. Now people are able to see how gruesome it is, and people are able to see the horrors of war. I don’t think people are so quick to be so militaristic about war now that we can see what it is and what it takes. I also think that specifically with Viet Nam, just seeing what was really the interest of the Vietnam war. Why was it so adamant? Were we really pushing for freedom for the South or were we trying to stop the whole domino effect of communism? Is war a way to stop those things?