Across the Pacific: From Ghettoes to a New Life
Profilers: Frank Zuo, Lauren Goggins, Promit Biswas, Travis Mitchell
So I guess we can just start with your early life in Vietnam. Do you remember much at all about the war?
So my dad, my grandfather, my paternal grandfather worked for the French. And so they assassinated him in one of his speech. So, uh, So then my dad lost his father when he was young, maybe seven or eight. And his mom we marry, and in the Vietnamese culture, if you marry your husband, come before you, even your own kids. So my dad’s so angry at his mom for remarried. So she, he told her one day, you love your husband more than me. So that’s when my grandma paternal grandmother said, Okay, I can’t raise him anymore. So she basically give him to her brother to raise. And then her brother, my dad’s uncle has a wife and they don’t have any children. So he, the uncle love my dad, like his own son. But then he in those days, they believe in like tough love, right? So if my dad rank, less than third place in class, he’s going to go work by his uncle. So his, his aunt, his uncle’s wife is very jealous of their relationship. So like, when the uncle went away on a business trip, she would wrote to her husband and lie and say, Oh, your nephew, run away, in, like ditch school, go play soccer. And so when, when the uncle come home, he would work my dad really hard. And so, and my dad was like, I didn’t do anything wrong, but no one believed him until the report could come out. And that time the report cards throw my dad was like, first place in class. And he said, Oh, so I guess he now realize there’s a jealousy going on between his wife and my dad, his nephew. So now he’s shuffled my dad to his aunt and his aunt have nine kids. Wow. So his aunt basically doesn’t need another mouth to feed. So he’s and basically treat him like a servant. Like, make him cook clean, take care of his cousin, if his cousin fell and got a bump on the head, he got whipped. So at the age of 16, my dad finally left his aunt. And he went and stay with this guy who feels sorry for my dad and like, give my dad a part time job. And he stayed with this guy for two years. And then when he’s 18, when he my dad turned 18, he joined the army and the army become like his family. And this is when he left, my paternal grandmother live in the north. So when he left and go stay with the uncle and and is in the south, so he fought for the South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. And how he met my mom is and then in 1975 that’s when the war is over but because my dad fought for the south he was and so that’s where we spend our life. You know my dad after the vietnam war 1975 the north you know the north is communist and the south is not so when the north took over everyone basically who in the government work for the south they took them away and put in a place that called re education camp it’s not really re education camp is actually another nice name for prison. So but my dad rank is low enough that they did not make to keep him they kept him for only one month and then they let him go and there’s a rumor later on that they only do that to entice people to turn themselves in the for the people who work for the south vietnam they did they didn’t release our sympathy so after that first wave of people turned themselves in everyone’s oh they don’t let us turn ourselves in yeah and actually those people after that they took them away and a lot of them were in prison for like 20 years or more they they they actually didn’t release them early like my dad so my dad was lucky because he turned himself in with the first wave of people but the family was forced to go into this ghetto.
Life In the Ghetto
This ghetto life is very hard like in the summer, so first one we go there right they give each family a lot of land and they say okay try to build your house on this land and then live on there but we were surprised because no one was using the land how come well after we live that we realize why so the first thing we have to do when we got there is there was grass or weed taller than a human person we have to cut the grass down to start building something right but even after you’ve cut the grass down the root is so rootbound it’s hard to you have to cut and dig all that up yeah and then the earth are full of little pebbles so we have to use a shift and we shift the dirt and we tie the pebble into a mound yeah in order to be able to do anything with the with the dirt that’s the first thing we did and then they have a group quote unquote they call volunteer that they draft these are all young men and they were supposed to help us build the house but because you know socialist country you you don’t get paid you get portion of food for payment so they don’t have to work hard, why would they they were drafted you know but it really is like they have no choice no option to say no yeah so they build this little flimsy house that one swoop of wind and it turned out upside down it’s like a hut zero so my dad at first he really want to make peace with the new government so he brings all his savings out and he actually hired. These young man to go out in the forest and cut down like big tree house and we take dirt mount and we pack it really tight and it become our foundation for the house higher up. And it was a good thing because during the summer is so dry, right but in the winter, we didn’t realize it was a valley is there’s a name called I don’t know how to translate in English. But there’s a name call, like new land development, something like that. But it’s actually in a valley where no one wants to live because in the winter, all the rain will turn into water and river and it will come down into the valley and flooded the valley. So it’s a good thing my dad built that foundation so our house is higher up on the ground. So our house in the whole ghetto is the only house did not get flooded. Because when the water flooded, it brings like leeches and ticks and stuff. Like infections and everything. Right. So but our houses my dad right off the dollhouse nice and sturdy and strong and weak. He used his saving to buy like good farm equipment that made out of tank like metal that they took from a tank. Wow. And it was it was really two people here for a life there. And it but it’s still really really hard even though we were people prepare. Like they what they did is after we go out house, they say if your children, they told my mom and dad if your children want their portion of food, then they that you guys, my mom and dad have to work in the field. Otherwise, your children won’t get the food. So my mom and dad is out of the few all day long. So I’m the oldest so I love to take care of my four youngest brother. Yeah, and you know, you have to envision rain and then go through the roof and it gets the stove wet right so my stove to cook my meal for the brothers and my parents to eat made out three brick and the water the rain leak from the roof down onto the three brick says when the wood is wet. The wood is what the stove is what how do you get the fire going to cook? You know? And I have to do that I have to try to find pieces of rubber to help kind of burn start a fire try to use Kindle but it’s there aren’t that much around they all wet anyway to get the fire going. Because once the fire going that it dry out the wood and the fire can keep blowing but to get it start is horrible. Yeah, yeah. And then food we really have enough to eat we have to use rice is is our main staple, right? We have to mix in with dry yam, too. We cut it and we dry it. We buy we buy from people too. And then we mix it in with the rice. And that’s that’s what we eat. And live there is so hard like, for example, there’s no water, right that the whole ghetto there’s a well, one well and so far away. So my dad is smart, he learned how to dig a well, so he would dig one backyard. And but it was so deep that when I throw the bucket down, I remember by this time [the year is] about 75 so I’m about nine years old. So I put the well in the bucket and then I wait for it to before that might have to dig so deep to get to the water tablet, right? And he put up by the time I mean I put up by the time I pull it up. It’s so heavy and my hand is so raw from the rope. I feel like it’s gonna drag me down to the well. Wow, my dad made this contraption, you know, on one side as a rock and on the other side there’s a rope with a bucket so I just gently lift the rock on the other side and lower the bucket. And then I can pull gently this side for the rock to pour down and lift the bucket up. Wow. One of my dad Yeah, yeah. So. So my house become the only house in the ghettos that has its own wealth.
Okay. But after we lived there for three years, my dad decided that there’s no future for the children because none of us were able to go to school, barely have enough to eat. And like I said, live their life is well, condition there is really hard to live.
That’s how we go from that town to Saigon. Once once I’m in Saigon is really fun for me. Because now I don’t have to cook. Because we stand motel right? We get to eat out. You know, we move from motel to motel we stay out four day here five day there, you know and then keep moving around. But I didn’t have to cook. I didn’t have to take care of my brothers. Yeah, you know. So my my father is the one who go flying all these passenger for my uncle. And then yeah, so I was in Saigon for I don’t know how long maybe a month or two. Okay, and then finally, we ready? My dad has find enough passengers for my uncle that we ready for our big escape. So we’re gonna a big escape gonna be from my hometown.
My hometown is a small hometown Yes, we all arrived on one big bus for stranger we’re going to be alerting already. So we have to go to my hometown by small group different on different bus different time and different days. You know and then I don’t my dad and my uncle have to find I heard later he actually bought a farm so that they can all stay in there to wait for the day to escape for us we went to our aunt and uncle house and we stay there for a while why they get ready for the trip. And then finally the time is almost there to get to get ready to escape my uncle as the owner of the boat he has to prepare other stuff like food water and fuel for the fishing boat.
Remember our hometown with a fishing hometown. So you have thousands of fishing boat, docking on the river. And they have rope everywhere they have row for the anchor row for the net add rope for those rope tied to the dock. So one extra rope. No one pay attention….
So finally, it’s time for the big escape. So near my hometown, we have a little small island. It’s just like a block wide. It’s not that big on this island there’s a temp temple. And a lot of fishing boat fishing man fishermen would go there every first and 15th of the lunar month calendar to pray for good fishing harvest. So the plan is he going to have small boat and they caught small fish. So people don’t, you know, couldn’t figure it out. The small fish gonna pick up people from various location in my hometown. And he all got to put us on that island. And then he’s going to take the big boat, which is the big fish come out and pick it all up at one swoop and then escaped from Vietnam. So that’s the plan. But he have to pick time where there’s no one on the island. Who go there and worship first and 15 of the lunar calendar. And he also have to watch for the storm and stuff and make sure there’s no storm. So for us, our family. My aunt and uncle lied to their friend and asked if we can stay at this friend and this friend’s house is on the farm. Next to the farm is a bunch of sand dunes. Okay, yeah, like hills of sand. And on the other side is the beach where they plan to pick us up. And my parents I remember the day before we supposed to escape telling me to go me and my brother to go onto the sand hill and practice going up the hill. Have you ever climb a sand dune? You go up two step. It slides back down one step. You go up three step is slide down to step. You know it’s a hill of sand. And the sand goes up to your knees. You know, it’s very hard to climb. So I was shocked my mom and dad told us to go plan that because it’s fun for us. Yeah. And and they always yell at us for getting dirty but for the first time they said oh go play in the hill, go play in the sand
So we saying that for a few hours. And then it’s time for a small fish to come pick us up. Like so. But my dad and a bunch of other people a few other people who meet there. They went outside the beach. So the plan is he gonna Use a flashlight to blink by a certain time. Fate pointed toward the ocean and blink, flash the flashlight, right? And then the people on the small fishing boat was supposed to flash back to us. Only we thought when we when they saw us respond, then they know there’s no authority, no police around, then they can come in and pick us up. Right? So but so that’s the plan certain time they’re going to come. They’re going to flash at us. We flashback then they come in and pick us up while we wait and wait. And there’s a problem. Because you have to envision this. There was a bunch of fishing boats out in the ocean, right? Like maybe 15 of them. They each have a lamp on the boat, to so that other boats see them and not bump into them. And they both have they’re all them have the fishing net out to catch the fish
So that’s what we came by the way…. So we all have to go down to the compartment and split it up and all hide under fish compartment. Now I don’t have seasick. I don’t have motion sickness. Right. But the person next to me had they might have motion sickness, or maybe the smell of fish is too much? They were thrown up next to me. And the smell of vomit.
Oh well, we can’t do anything. We can hiding we escaped me so we cannot complain. We cannot. And I can tell that the adult in my compartment have very nice like my mom. Yeah, they would pray some pray to Jesus some pray to Buddha. You know, everyone is praying. Everyone was really nervous and it didn’t help. As we escaped from Vietnam every so often someone walked by on top of the boat. My dad would yell up, “Have we reached international water yet?” They would yell out “not yet.” So we kept going for hours hours. And then finally my dad said “Have we reached yet?” they say “yep, we reach international water” and chill when we are happy. Because if the Already catch us. Yeah. Within the Vietnam water. Yeah, they can arrest us. Once we reach international water. They have no jurisdiction. That’s mean our escape is now for sure. But as to be caution, they still won’t let us go on top. So we stay on the bottom until morning. And finally, finally they say okay, this morning you I can’t come come out now. So we came up and my eyes got really big for the first time because I’ve never been on a boat out in the middle of the ocean nowhere you know where there’s no land. And when I come out all the way are surrounding us appear like two storey high from the boat. Yeah, I was so scared. I thought for sure the water gonna go in and sink the boat.
I remember I heard adult fighting…. Say, let’s go to Hong Kong. Someone said no. Let’s go south go to Malaysia. Yeah. And then of course, my uncle is owner of boat. He made the final decision. We went to Malaysia. So our trip is about three or four days. But when we reach Malaysia at the first refugee camp, we got to the Vietnamese refugee, we’re running on the boat where they when they saw us and we want to go in? Yeah. Well, we didn’t realize that. They don’t want us in…. So we finally keep going. Okay, next refugee camp. This time, they welcome, they open. So people running on the way waving at us with the Burmese refugees that only they escaped. And they weighed down to we get close to the beach as much as possible. And then they come out and help carry us and put us on the beach. And welcome us to the camp. Yeah. Then life at the camp began.
Life At The Refugee Camp
It’s not much but you know, the first thing I want to say is that the two two problem when we first arrived at camp. Yeah, we have to deal with all the refugee is they lice and tapeworm. So we have to they had to give us this gross medicine to take to get rid of tapeworm. And then they put they give us something get rid of lice. And then luckily for us, whoever acts you know get to accept to the US or Canada or any other country that taken the enemy’s refugee. So then they left clothes behind like they bring like they buy new clothes. They take good clothes with them so they left behind old coat and that’s what we’re get to wear. And then we have to build our own place on the camp… I have no shoes so walking on the sand on the hot summer day my feet was really hurt and there’s no grass no grass grown on the hot sand beach so we were there for you know six months. T then my dad finally got an interview from the us government… the uscc the United States catholic charity are the one who sponsor us to San Diego… we have to sign a paper that we have to pay for our airplane ticket and then we get to go to Kuala Lumpur which is the capital of malaysia and we stay there temporizing on a check my parents health you know like to take x-ray on his chest to some vaccines things like that and only then once everything of that done then we get to board the airplane and flew to LA that’s where and then our sponsor from San Diego a went to LA to get us they help us find houses and you know like temporary apartment to stay apply for grant and my mom and dad have to go to school to learn a trade go to school to learn ESL we get to enroll in school and our life in the US start.