Journey to Fresno: From North Vietnam to China, Hong Kong, Philippines, and the United States
Profilers: Zachary Awad, Kaushal Bargodia, Ashley Tran
Memories of Escape and Life in Vietnam
My name is Pauline. When I become a U.S. citizen, I changed my name to Pauline Dunn, otherwise, my name is supposed to be Linh. I grew up in North Vietnam in Quảng Ninh province and in a small town called Cửa Ông. It’s in the harbor. I was probably 10 or 11 years old. Yes, I was in elementary school.
What did your parents do for work?
My dad, he was a carpenter and a construction worker. And my mom worked for a coal company. And that coal company basically washed the coal to be ready to get shipped out of the country.
Living by the ports, did you see a lot of different people from diverse backgrounds?
Yes, I did, because there were a lot of big ships. It’s come in, like, people from Poland, from Africa. Also, people from China, and, you know, North Vietnam, [was] associated with Russia at that time. So, we’ve seen a lot of Russian also.
How many siblings did you have?
We are together, my parents had seven children. And I am the third one. I have two older brothers, two younger sisters and two younger brothers.
Tell me about your experiences with the war.
Okay. When uh, when the war going on like we don’t see we didn’t see any American soldiers and all, bomb aeroplane we call B-52. And then when the siren goes on, and we know that the bomb would come in pretty soon so we either hide under the bunker. At the beginning of the year 1973, I was still little and we would have to go hide in not the jungle but it was a lot of trees so more like the forest. The forest, it’s more like a forest. And we’re hiding over there and then it probably good four or five months in the forest. And then we, our parents build like a shed over there or like a little house. And then we live over there for three or four months probably during 1972, 1973. And then our main house, it’s out nearby the port so we couldn’t live there because we’re afraid that the B 52 going to bomb the port and then we’re going to be in trouble, we’ll probably die from it. But we have some relatives, they did get the piece of the bomb and that cut the legs and the body, they got injured from the bomb from those small pieces of the bomb
Did you personally experience bombing?
Yes, when the siren goes on we know that we have been notified that okay, and you just go run away or hide in the bunker or run into the forest. And when we look up in the sky when the bomber is nearby and then we saw something shiny and then we saw the bomb just like going down but we did not know what area the bomb was landing. But we can hear and one day maybe the last day of the B-52 that really bombed really hard where our little town is and that day my little sister, we were playing at the front yard and then my little sister slept in my grandfather’s house. And then when we heard the B-52 aeroplane come in. And then she was crying really loud. So I ran and then tried to grab her and then ran into the bunker. So when I got her into the bunker, it was probably maybe 10 minutes later that the bomber was already gone. So then we went out and then we saw the buildings like three buildings, four stories high and we look at it and because we live up the hill so we can see down and we can look at it and the whole building, some of it was dark like black and in some area is like got bombed and it is flat. When we get out of the bunker we knew that we were safe and we were happy. I mean, we didn’t you know, we didn’t cry or anything because at that time we were just happy that we know that the bomber already left.
When did you leave Vietnam?
1978 partly around May, the first or second week of May we left Vietnam and then we went to China. We went by boat and we have somebody take us to the border of China so then we just work in China, the Chinese government they take us, they fed us and they provide us with a job and then because the living standard is so low at a time so we have to escape again to Hong Kong.
How was life on the boat?
It’s pretty scary but at that time, we thought it was fun because we had to leave Vietnam. I don’t think I got scared but sometimes I did get scared because I didn’t know how I’m going to survive or not because with the waves and we were right in the ocean, the Pacific Ocean and I got, we got kind of scared too. We have to leave everything behind. Yes, we just have maybe each family member have two or three sets of clothing, I have to carry my youngest brother on my back, and my mum put the other jewelry there. The gold basically is 24-karat gold. So she put it into the sling, and then she hides it inside. So I carry that and then because I’m such a small child, nobody I don’t think anybody would pay attention to me that I have a lot of gold in my body.
What was it like in China?
I was there for a year. And at age 15 I have work already, and I didn’t go to school. I work on the farm. I have to go to work almost every day. And probably about four hours! no three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon. But it’s totally different. I picked the tea, the green tea. My younger sibling went to school. Yes, at that time they were twelve, ten and eight. The youngest one is my youngest brother and he was like probably about two years old.
How did you escape from China to Hong Kong?
My parents bought a boat and we went from China to Hong Kong by boat and we live in a refugee camp. And then from the refugee camp in Hong Kong, the United Nation took care of us and fed us and they let us choose what country we want to go to. Like, we can pick America, Canada, Australia or England, you know anywhere around the world that they accept other refugees. My dad, priority was to come to America.
What did you do in the Philippines?
We went to the Philippines for probably four or five months for learning English after Hong Kong.
And then you went from the Philippines to America and where did you settle?
Yes, we landed in San Francisco and we settled in Fresno. And I’m in Fresno since then.
Life as a Refugee: Resilience in Post-War America
Why did you choose Fresno over San Francisco?
When the United Nation let us choose the country where we want to go. So we register with the U.S. ambassador in Hong Kong. So the U.S. ambassador is picking for us where they want to put us at. We have no choice at the time because when we came to America, they have people working for the ICM. So basically the organization makes sure that we started a family here in Fresno with a welfare department. So they pick us up, they put us in an apartment and they will show us how to get into the market and where to go. If we don’t have that organization to help us and we don’t know what are we going to do. So the organization in Fresno registers for school, for the school for different ages. And then if you qualify for going to elementary school or high school or adult school, that organization is called ICM for refugees.
Was it like a church?
You know what though, I at first thought as a church, maybe it’s a church group of people because we did attend church too. Also when we first came, they introduced us to a Chinese, church group. And then we have more help from the church group in Fresno.
How old were you when you got to the US?
I was 17 and a half. So the lady that was helping us, I requested for me to go to high school. So when I graduated from high school, I was 21 years old mostly.
What do you do now?
I operate a Chinese restaurant.
Did you find it difficult to fit in when you arrived in the U.S.?
Very, because we find out that in America, we met a lot of people we met Hispanic, and we see a lot of different nationalities. And it is very hard to fit in. But as soon as I know that English is the primary language in America, so I have to learn English first. So when I went to high school, I spent like three or four months in the Philippines and learn very basic English so I can get by on a daily basis if I come to America. So I had to study very hard when I was in high school, I probably had like two hours of sleep every night, in order for me to learn a lot of vocabulary and now the pronouns and all the grammar and everything else is so hard. Even Po Po (Grandmother in Chinese (Pauline’s mom)) has to bring the food to my room to make sure that I eat otherwise when I get out of school. And then I work part-time at a Chinese restaurant. So when I got home from there, I study, I would take a cold shower to make sure that I’m awake and then go back to study for English, I have to go take like three classes which it called English as a second language. So I had three classes of those. And as I said, study and only two hours sleep and other vocabularies, I spell it out, and write it out on the whole page, just for one word.
What motivated you?
What motivated me? Because I come to America, and I should know English, I should go to work. I wanted to live as a normal life so that when I go out to communicate with people, I make sure that people understand me. I wanted to go to work to make my own money to support my family. I want it to fit in with American society. I have to know the culture. I have to know the language. I have to know everything in order for me to fit in with everybody.
Is there a big Chinese community here?
And that time no, not a whole lot, we did not know a lot of people, maybe ten families at the most, or if will go to the church sometimes they donated their own furniture or their old clothes. At that time we do need it. We did not have anything, we just take whatever they give us.
Did your oldest brother fight in the Northern Vietnamese Army?
He was there. But he, he went to the war, but he is I think he’s delivery like the mailman as he is kind of tiny. He’s small. He’s small. So they did not want to put him on the front line. So they put him in the like messenger.
Have you gone back to Vietnam since you left?
I have gone back to Vietnam, in 2016 and 2018. It is totally different. I can’t even recognize my house anymore. Because right now there are a lot of houses on the street. So I don’t know, I can’t recognize it because it’s so much different. It’s totally different.
When you look back at the war, what are your immediate thoughts?
When I look back, I did not remember how I got through, but we get through. And then I just remembered the day that my brother came back from the war that he came home.
And then I saw him out on the street. And he asked me, “Look at me. Oh, are you my little sister?” It is really emotional. I mean, even at the time I was young. I was like 13 or 14 years old when my brother come home. And I was so happy. And then my brother, you know, he helped me. And then I said, Okay, is it okay, but you go home, I got to tell Mom and Dad. So I ran into my mom and dad’s workplace and I said big brother come home already. So they were all happy. But can you imagine that the family that lost a member, most of it people are hurt is the people that lost the family member at the war, it’s very painful when you know people die. I don’t see, I have never seen people die in my hometown because of the war, but I know that some people die. Okay, but I did not see the body because we are hiding in the forest already. You know, and I still little at a time. So of course, my parents are going to hide somewhere. So we did not have a chance to see any people die in our hometown when I was born. And when I was younger. I’m lucky the whole family come here to America. And I’m thankful to the American government. They take us, accept us as a refugee and then we are here nowadays. So I’m very thankful.
Following Up with Pauline
Why did your family decide to flee to China?
Because China and Vietnam, I believe they went to the war. They went to war. So the all the Chinese left Vietnam, all the Chinese that lives in Vietnam. They left, left Vietnam. They went back to China, because China is taking all the Chinese back, like whoever is Chinese, then they take them back to China. It’s just like an asylum. And we left because the Vietnam government starting to kick the Chinese people out. And then China, the China taking the other Chinese back..
The Chinese government you said they were welcoming, they let you into China?
They fed you and gave you jobs?
Yes. But it was $29 A month $29 A month $29 A month and then but we we don’t we never we didn’t get used to work in the farm. So and then we kind of kind of kind of slacking up because we didn’t know what to do and then we got deduct five hours of the payroll.
Did the Chinese government force you to get a job?
No, they give us a job in a village. Like like we picked it the tea you know the green tea or the red leaf tea and then we pick it and then put in the basket and then take it back and then they make to dry Tea to you know to make them to the Tea to Chinese green tea. Like we grow vegetable or we want to pick with grow some corn and then all we it just like a farmer whatever it needs to be done per season, only grandma, grandpa is working the factory out in downtown where we live with machinery
Do you know what kind of factory it was?
It was something a fixing the car like the tractor the tractor they fixing the tractor
So that’s a lot different from his job when he was in Vietnam. Right? He used to be a carpenter?
Yes. And then grandma used to work in a coal refinery
So were you living in the refugee camp in China?
No, we don’t have a refugee camp in China. They they they give us the like,
Like like apartment like apartment you know like it’s like a lot of people live in the village but they they group it up like like apartments. Yeah.
Okay so you pay $29 a month and got $5 deducted?
Yeah, okay. Yeah. So we make $24 a month or so and then yeah, and then Grandpa said said that oh, we don’t want the children live in a life like that. So we so we escaped from we bought the boat again grandpa but and and their friends a group up together and bought the boat and then we went to Hong Kong by boat.
So the living standard wasn’t very high when you were in China, right?
No, no, not in the 70s it’s considered like a third world country you know? Very low.
Is that the reason why you left China again?
No one has to leave so we bought at grandma, grandpa and grandma bought a boat and then we all went to went to Hong Kong by boat is not legal. We escaped.
So China wouldn’t let you go?
No, but if they see us out in the out in the sea on the river, they would stop us. So when we escape in by sea and then inside and in China we got scare we afraid that they’re going to stop us that they didn’t.
Where in Hong Kong did you stay?
We’re staying in that Kowloon refugee camp
How was it like living there?
Um, it’s, it is not bad consider. I guess it’s bad but it’s it’s not bad when when when we got into the camp and then and then they fed us I think it’s the United Nation fed us it was food and then they built the camp for us to stay in is overwhelming with too many people they built like a like a hall so, so they have to bat like a like shelving like the this first and then the second the shelving first to have bunk bed Yeah bunk bed Yeah, is pretty bad but it’s considered we at the refugee camp and then we can ask for much you know. Yes. And they give you they give us breakfast lunch and dinner. And yeah, and then after everything settle and then they found us a job
Did you work in Hong Kong?
Yes, I work in, I work in an electronic electronic company. Like make like like like the board you know, like like a board like our the computer like the little chip that we put in on the board like a radio like a radio board or ice machine board they have whole bunch of every little elements are the elements that were put in. So we walk in that in that kind of factory in like an electronic company that put other stuff together put like what is that called the board? Hmm yeah, the electronic board. by it’s not that bad. they picked they picked it at a time.
So how did you get to the Philippines?
When we when we when grandpa sign up to come to America because of, a lot of people that come to America as a refugee. So they make us to go over there to wait to see what city they’re going to put us in. So they transfer us to Philippines so we can learn some English over there.
Where in the Philippines did you stay? Do you remember?
It’s a Bataan is a Bataan. It’s it’s it’s like an island batan is a BATAN. Yeah. It’s a it’s an island was a refugee camp near Manila near Manila.
Was that also a refugee camp?
Yes. And how was it like they’re over there. We’ll even in the camper, they have the individual has the individual apartment, like a townhouse type of thing. And then we have like a house with our own house. And then and then like one house per family. But they but they have not a room but it’s like is this is pretty neat. If consider a house, the apartment apartment, but then there’s a lot of people there so we cannot come complain much because it’s better than the camp in Hong Kong. Yeah. Yeah, yeah. It’s more private and have our own space. Yes.
Grandpa chose to come to the US. Right. You’re you’re allowed to choose right?
You are allowed to choose wherever you wanted to go. Yes.
Why did he choose the US?
He would figure the US is better than a lot of country with the living standard.
But the US bombed your home in Vietnam. You still wanted to go there?
Yes. Because, is bombing its grandpa think it just because of the country the the politics thing and then is have nothing to do with the civilian so he decided to come to America because he thinks that America has a better better living standard.
So you said, you’re thankful for the US government taking you guys in, right? They bomb your hometown so how do you feel about that living in the US now?
To be honest at that time, we it’s bombing that we have to run away from, you know, from the from the the, the aeroplane and when they bomb but we still little so when we when we left Vietnam, we left China we came to Hong Kong we come to America and then I think everything is left behind I never have any kind of hard feeling because it to me it’s a politic things this is between the country and country. And it doesn’t have anything to do with a civilian so it doesn’t have anything to do with us. So when I came in, and I went to school here, went to college here and then I went to you know, I have to build a business and the family here so I to me, I don’t feel, I don’t feel like I hate the American that bomb Vietnam. And then I just, you know, just forget everything left everything behind and we start new life here. So I don’t have any any regrets that come to America.
Where did you go?
I went to City College for a couple of years and I went to Fresno State for nursing program and then and then but when I got married then I dropped out I went to work.