Against all Odds: A Vietnamese Boat Refugee’s Journey to America
Profilers: Christina Vo, Jade Rowe, Logan Dieudonne IV, Christian Kim
Growing Up in Vietnam
Q: What is your name? Where are you from? When were you born?
My name is Chris Ho. I was born in Vietnam Huế. February 6th, 1972.
Q: How was growing up in Vietnam with your family?
My family in Vietnam at that time, well it was very hard to survive. My dad passed away too early. My mom had ten kids. My dad passed away in 1975 when I was only six years old. And my mom tried hard to have a small business on the streets to somehow buy some food to make the food. In my country, at that time she could sell under the house and by house to make money for [the] family to survive.
Q: What did every day look like for you? Did you go to school, work?
We went to school a little bit: first grade, second grade, third grade, and fourth grade. But I stopped by the fourth grade because my mom said it was very hard to make money then. So I had my, another old brother, two brothers to go to work, to make my family survive.
Q: You worked as a fisherman? What was that like?
That time, unfortunately, we had no big boat, not like [we] had a ship, but we had a small boat. It is very hard and difficult to work at that time.
Q: Do you have a favorite memory in Vietnam?
A really big favorite [memory] was [when] I saw my dad pass away. I [have] memorized that time till now. But the very special, the last night before he [left], he held me and talked to me in Vietnamese. By that time, I was six years old, but I understood all. “He said, “Dad will go away.” That means he goes, sooner or later, he’d pass away. [That was the message for me]. So I repeated, “Dad, if you pass away, who’s going to make money for the family?”
Q: Were you born during the war as a kid?
After that, there was still war because my country was divided for both sides, north and south. I lived in the center, so the North wanted war in the South. So until the last year, 1995, the North took over for the South. There is still war.
Q: Do you remember anything about the war during that time?
I don’t remember exactly it all, but I heard my brother tell me that during the war it was really bad because you know when in the war there are a lot of people dead. That time 1975 was the last year for the North to take over the South. During that time, I remember one more thing: my dad [was] still [alive]. So my dad passed away almost the end of 1975, but in 1975 my dad got a big boat to take all my family, brother sister, and family to go from Huế to Đà Nẵng by the boat because nobody knew what the new government was coming up because the North is a different government. We live in the South government, so the North takes over, not right now, but all my country belongs to Vietnam in the North. At that time, I remember the war. Later the government takes over [and] we’ll see how they treat the people of that village, and we think that everything is good, so we [return] to the same village.
Q: Do you know why the Vietnam war started?
At the time, I was still young, you know, right? So I know my old[er] brother because my country, I told you my country had to divide for north and south right, but before that, my country had a lot of other countries [that] want to take over, especially [in the times before], the French [took] over.” You know France, right? They want to take over, but not yet, and after that, the USA supports the South to fight back against the North. My brother told me that the war started because they have different governments, so the government wanted to run for the way, for the freedom of people, or something like that.
Q: What are your thoughts on the Vietnam War?
Well, my opinion? That was very bad. Nobody liked the war to start, but the government wanted a different way; the North government and the South government, they are totally different right, different in the running for the country. It [was] so bad [for] my country’s people, there [were] a lot of [people] dead, you know.
CHRISTINA: No, I heard that 3 million Vietnamese people died, and most of them were like the villagers, women, children, old people?
Ya, most of the time, a lot of children.
Being a Refugee
Q: What made you want to leave Vietnam? How old were you?
I left Vietnam because I had to leave Vietnam. Thinking about [it], I got no future because I have no chance to go back to school. If I go back to school, I have no parent[s], my family cannot support [me]. But [if] I don’t leave my country, I can have no future. Even if I get married and have kids, but my kids, I’m not surviv[ing] [enough] for my kid to go to school. That’s why, that’s the point of why I have to leave my country.
CHRISTINA: Did you go by yourself? Because I know that you had to leave your family.
The time that I had to leave by myself, but I let my mom know I have to go. They called it “the boat people”, you know it, right? My friend knows “oh tonight got the boat and that the place had to [leave to] go to, you know, leave the country”. So kind of like her, my friend, my neighbor just told me so I know that… so I can contact the boat leader.
All the groups organize for that boat, so when I jump in the boat, it’s very difficult because [at] that time, I knew how to handle by myself already, because I was 18, exactly 18 years old. But a lot of people, a lot, a lot of people come up to the boat. The boat [was] like you know, very bad, can not handle it, can not [load] it, kind of like overloading.
Luckily, I get in the boat, and I hide [under] one layer. So, I put the wood over my body, [and] some people go to step over me but they don’t know me under, under, they step over. I lay down the small one on the bottom, but over me, have the wood, you know what I mean? The wood cover on the top so kind of like my body won’t get hurt.
The leader in the boat, they don’t know [I’m] there, so they let me go until we left my country about more than half way, by the, they call it Hainan island. The boat can handle the people, so they [accepted] me at that time. Because we left the country already, go over the sea already, [I was] okay. So they [accepted] me on [the] same boat. They went from my country to Hainan island. Some people in my boat have gold, so they can trade gold [for] diesel to fuel, to refuel diesel to the boat. And we go close to the China way, by the China Sea. We [were] running [in] the day, but at night, we have to come over by the village or somehow. We stop the boat and go by the people in China, and we have to ask them [for] food. But [at] that time, [it was] very difficult. About [a] trip 27 days [total] to get to Hong Kong.
Q: Was the refugee camp in Hong Kong?
Yeah, yeah, yeah, the refugee camp… the refugee camp from Hong Kong, Con.
Q: How was living there?
When we were refugees, they have nations, all the nations support. So with that time, it [was] not bad, it was good. They give you [food] two times a day, kind of like all nations, all the countr[ies] support.
Q: Did you see anyone you knew at the camp?
Yeah, of course, I know a lot of people, but after that, all people, they left the Hong Kong camp or they [went] to a different country?
Q: How did you go to the US after the refugee camp? Were you sponsored?
After, I had to interview. I had to go through an interview. They got three-level, Con. One is the nation interview for you first. The second is all the USA people; they got the office. They call you to the interview “Why [did] you [leave your] country? Why don’t you live in your country?” So, I say, “My country got no future, so I want to- my dream is I want to go to the USA. My dream is to go to America”. They got the translat[ors], Vietnamese [to] English. So the people [are] good, but all the American people, they learn Vietnamese. So the interview [was] by Vietnamese too.
First [state] I came to [was] Michigan, Detroit… from a sponsor, from sponsor [at] that time.
Starting Over in America
Q: How was coming to America?
Oh coming to America, at that time was difficult too, because I live with my sponsor, so I had to go back to school. But at the time, I got no degree in Vietnam, in my village. When I lived in Hong Kong, I didn’t study anything because we lived in Hong Kong. Of course, they taught you how to study English, but not enough time to study [enough], not enough time, not enough teachers for that Hong Kong, so I [didn’t] learn much. So the time [that] I came to the United States, I had to start over again, my English, my everything, my math, everything. During this time, it was very difficult for me, but I’m lucky that my sponsor adopted me to go live at his house with 4 people. One room is for two people, so he sponsored all the money from the government, so we have to pay for rent for my sponsor. Because he sponsors, the money from the government is given to you, so kinda like social security money, some of the money for that time, so my sponsor gets it all. And also I remember every month about $75 every month was left over after the food and the rent. So I lived with him for about 1 year.
After that, my cousin in California, ‘Fight On’ I found out [was] in the United States already, so he wanted me to come down, [and] come over California.
Q: What did you think of America? Was it what you thought it was when you came here?
Yeah, the time when I [lived] in my country, we heard about my uncles, some of my big brothers said that America is the best in the world. America is beautiful to live yeah. So now we live here already, I think now I appreciate Americans, gave me the chance to live here.
Q: How was learning English for you? How was getting a job in America? How was finding a place to live?
[At] first, I went to a community college. My English [was not good] enough so I focus my English to raise my English enough. Unfortunately, I tried to transfer but I had no chance because nobody supported me at that time, I was only by myself. So I have to drop school and go to work, but I work a different job, work any job I can like work.
Basically, I studied language only, or English only, focus on English, enough English to speak and to look for a job.
Q: When you were in America, did you know where your family was in Vietnam? How did you talk to them?
Most of the time, I wrote a letter. Yeah, I get to Hong Kong, and most of the time wrote a letter because the Internet or cell phone at that time was not enough, they have only the phone, they called it a home phone, but very expensive to call. One time you call, you have to pay money. Most of the time, you contact my country in Vietnam by letter. Wrote a letter, send it to them, my country sends back to me a letter, that’s it, most of the time.
Q: How did your family feel when you were in America?
That time my mom was happy because my mom was worried in the beginning when I left the country, I went on a small boat and go over the seas. Sometimes a storm or the wind can make the boat flip over. That time my mom worried, but when she got into the United States… Ah first when I get to Hong Kong, she felt happy already, she kind of felt safe already. Second, I went to Hong Kong for finally my place, she felt good yeah, my parent feel good, because I have a place to live, and a place in America where all the people have dreams coming true, so my family felt good.
Q: How did you feel being away from family?
Oh yeah of course you miss my family right, because you came here by yourself alone, but you have to try your best to do something else and you wish you come back to visit your family. Unfortunately, I got very bad luck, I had no chance to visit my mom, at that time my mom passed away, but still, my salary was not enough to go back to Vietnam to visit my parent, my mom, special my mom, my family. So that time, I feel so sad yeah.
CHRISTINA: I know that you helped a lot of family back home Vietnam, like you would send them money right or they would ask a lot?
Now after that, I have some money, I connected to all the people to help all really poor in Vietnam. Kind of like I can give the money for, one is the person in a group so they directly to go Vietnam to buy some food, buy some rice, buy some stuff to give all the really poor people.
Q: Did you find a Vietnamese community?
In America, I don’t work out in America not yet.
CHRISTINA: Because I know that a lot of Vietnamese people immigrated here like in San Jose and Orange County…
Q: Did you see a lot of Vietnamese communities coming here? Did you make friends with them?
Yeah, we do. In San Jose, all the refugee community, yeah I do. Yeah, a lot of Vietnamese come to the United States a lot.
Q: Where do you think your community is?
Right now my community is very good, all Vietnamese people, and community people are so successful. See you look at Orange County, Santa Ana, Westminster, all my Vietnamese people do a lot of things, build up a big community. All the people [are] successful and work for the government, kind of like city council, mayor, right now I believe two, three mayor right now. Mayor, 2 mayors right now in Orange County. One of them was the mayor, but right now he is [in the] state assembly.
Q: How is your life right now in America?
My life right now is just so-so, not too bad.
Q: Have you been back to Vietnam after you left?
Yeah, I have been back two times, but [it’s been] too long, I have been back two times, two years in a row. 2001 yeah two times, until now I don’t have a chance to come back yet.
Q: Do you want to go back to Vietnam?
Yeah, when I have a chance, I want to go back to visit my family again.
Q: What would you tell yourself as a kid?
So [to] give a message if I was a kid, I wish I [had] to go to school, so educat[ion]. So if I were young, I would finish educat[ion], get more degree[s], so good for a future life. But I come back, because I were to [have come] to Hong Kong, [come] to United States, I have no chance to finish my degree right.
Q: What do you want future generations to know about being Vietnamese?
OHH. That’s a good thing. That’s very good. I want all the Vietnamese generation to know my culture. My culture so beautiful. Because my culture [is] so beautiful, very deep. Because my culture, they always repeat double it, triple, you know why, my culture is so good, because they want to keep all the families’ happiness. But family happiness, you have to educate, you have to respect your family, okay, like for example right now my generation have to respect my parents, my parents haver to respect all the generations. So like me, all family, sister, brother always respect together, always get along, always take together, [and] love. And they got too many levels, auntie, uncle, sister, cousin, brother always respect together. My country’s culture so beautiful.
Q: Do you have any dreams for the Vietnamese community? Or what is your dream?
My dream I want to all the people, the whole world to be grateful right, grateful. No war. No nothing violence happen. That’s my dream for the whole world. And for my son, for my daughter, if they have a chance, don’t forgot to forget my country because my country, my place I grew up, and even I have to remember my parent’s generation, my parent’s the past generation, always remember and respect. That’s my dream.
Q: When you tell your story, what is one thing you want other people to learn from?
Yeah I want the four of you to special always finish educat[ion], number one you always try, try more hard to finish educat[ion]. When you finish educat[ion], if you have a chance to go back to study Vietnamese language, so you can know both language and you can both go out there with the Vietnamese community and work with them and learn more experience, past generations Vietnamese people. So that you can have the chance to speak Vietnamese with them and know [about the] Vietnamese community, Vietnam culture, that’s my wish for my kids. And you can learn more Vietnamese culture, after you learn more, we’ll see that my country beautiful culture.
Q: What do you want to be remembered for?
I want [the] new generation to remember me to learn more Buddha, study Buddha’s talk, Bible if you have a chance to read. Use that Buddha’s talk and apply to life, apply to everything. When you go to study and learn from Buddha’s talk, you [can] use that to apply everything. That [is what] I want.
Q: Is there anything else you want to say?
I want to say to [the] new generation that I wish all [the] new generation try hard, don’t [be] missing school. If you are focus [on] religion, if you have a chance, all new [the] generation [should] go to temple and learn Buddha, and bow to Buddha, and use that. All [the] new generation focus on Buddha’s religion. But if you don’t [have] the good luck to the Buddha’s religion and [instead] you go to church, but it’s my [personal] messenger that you always focus on temple because I am Buddha religion. The big messenger [is] if new generations have a chance, come to India to visit Buddha’s history.