Cultural Crossroads: From Vietnam to America
Profilers: Abida Diep, Brenna Chen, Larissa Bitners, Paul Matt
Hi, my name is Sonny. I’m here for the interview, and thank you so much for giving me this opportunity.
Before the War
What was your childhood like in Vietnam?
I was born in a good family, wealthy, and I had a really good life when I was young before the fall of Saigon in 1975.
How did growing up in a wealthy family shape you?
It shaped me, the way I think, because my father sent me to private school and all my friends were from wealthy families and high ranks in the South Vietnam government. The private school was small. It used to be a French school, and I grew up there. I saw a lot of poor people around. That’s why when I grew up, I compared myself, and said why is life different between wealthy and poor families.
The War Begins
When the Communists came, how was your life altered?
It’s really hard, but I was young. I think I can adapt quickly but it was really hard, especially for my mom–she [was] really worried and scared when the Communists came over. We reported to the police and the Communists, they wanted everyone [to be] really poor and were really scary, and they put a lot of people in concentration camps. They called them labor camps. My father and my mom may be in that camp. Every night we would have to sleep in the bunker because [of] the rockets from [the] Communist. They shoot [it] in the city. Once for a while, we went to school and we would find out our friend had passed away because of the rocket. Every time we went to school we had to fill out paperwork, they call it lý lịch, which means your background. We knew that if your parents worked for the South Vietnam government or in the military, or if you were not in the Communist party, it was impossible for you to go to college.
What did you have to do personally to support your family during this time?
Even when I was young, my mom had to become the con buón, which means she sells stuff in the market to make money, because my father would say, “If we sit here and eat, then the money will go away.” My mom went to the market because the Communists back then were anti-capitalism and everything had to be under control of the government. We became really poor, super poor. It’s not pleasant. You have a decent life and now you’re super poor. It’s not easy. Then I adapt and I stay home, go to school, and I cook for the family. I never cooked before! Then I get ready for my mom. And after they eat, I do the dishes. We moved to a smaller house. And back then there was no running water and I had to go to the well to get water and bring it back to the house. I think I adapted really well.
When and how was the escape made possible, and can you walk us through what happened leading up to that point?
We went to school, but we all knew at that time there was no future for us. Some of my friends got drafted to the military, some of them die, and some of them get injured. That’s why my father came home one day and he told me, “Hey, Son, we cannot live in our country anymore. We plan to escape Vietnam by boat.” Back then, to escape Vietnam, it had to be top secret. If someone knew and told the police, we would be in big trouble. My father knew a couple fisherman boats that were planning to escape. Then he paid them gold. During that time I knew I would escape Vietnam. I hoped I would have a better future. We all hoped.
Could you walk us through the night that you escaped? What happened and what were you feeling?
It’s really scary, really rough. They cannot go out and buy tons of gasoline or water or food to put in a small ship. Then they would know that we were going to escape. They had to get a small group of people and bring in the water and food and gasoline from multiple boats, bring it to one boat, and that boat gets out. I remember my father took me to a family I didn’t know before and I stayed there through the night. In the afternoon, they put me in a really, really small boat and put all the nets over me. They hid me in there. Then I’m in there and I saw the small boats move out to the water and they took me to the boat that I escaped in. Then during that process, at night–we had to do it at night because it had to be secret–we heard gunshots. “Boom, boom, boom, boom!” We’re in the boat, we say, “Oh no, we cannot go back anymore.” But we can’t wait for another ship to bring in food and gasoline. Then we took off from there. During that time, they pretended like they were fishing. They put a fishing net. I remember the captain on the boat chopped the rope, then we took off. And I got seasick, it was harder for me. The boat is rough. I threw up almost everything. The next day, I saw the beautiful blue sky. It’s awesome, but we’re still not near our destination yet. Our destination is Hong Kong.
What were you going through when you were on the boat?
I adapted, then I saw that it was an awesome thing because I saw blue sky. I imagined I could get into Hong Kong, because that was our destination, and have freedom. But I forgot we don’t have enough gasoline, we don’t have enough food, we don’t have enough water. There’s a storm coming in, too. The captain said we had to save the gasoline for when the storm came in. It was rough and I was staying inside near the engine. It’s super hot, I opened a slight window and the water came in at me and it was super cold. It’s really rough. You’re thirsty, you’re hungry, and you’re hopeless. We’re in the international waters and we saw lots of big ships. Lucky us! The Hong Kong fisherman’s boat saw us and they swung by. And only me in that boat knew a little bit of English. That’s how we could communicate with them. I asked them, “We’re so scared. Can you take us to Hong Kong?” And the Hong Kong fishermen were really nice. They said, “Sorry, but we cannot take you to Hong Kong because we’re supposed to go out and do fishing.” It was illegal to take us into Hong Kong.They might get in trouble. But they gave us good gasoline and compass and they told us where to go. We suddenly had high hopes again. We said, “Wow, we survived. We’re alive!” That boat was really, super nice. They called another boat, they swung by and gave us the rope. Then we hook it to our boat and they pull us to Hong Kong.
What was your experience like in the Hong Kong refugee camp?
It’s my first freedom country. Before we get into the land in Hong Kong, they have a platform they put outside Hong Kong in the water. At nighttime, from that platform, we looked into Hong Kong. I don’t know what heaven is, but I see it and this is my heaven. It’s beautiful because there are lots of tall buildings and lots of lighting. It’s like a whole mountain with diamonds. It’s so beautiful. Then, we’re there with all the boat people. Reality came in, you survive and you live with all the people, and there were all kinds of people. Good people there, bad people there, and there’s no freedom there. I stayed there for at least three months for paperwork before they got [me] a sponsor. We have a couple choices. You can go to the U.S. or Australia. My goal is to go to the U.S. because I know you can have a good education there, you can get good opportunities. I luckily got a sponsor, the paperwork went through and they interviewed me. Then they transferred us to the transition camp. During transition camp, you study English, you study American culture. During that time there was freedom. We could go anywhere in Hong Kong. We go to work. Oh man, I loved it. I go to work, we go out, we have money, we eat food, and we explore Hong Kong. Hong Kong is really modern, really high tech. I love Hong Kong.
Arriving in America
When you first arrived in the U.S., how did you feel and what are some of your first memories?
From Hong Kong I landed into Seattle. That’s March 31st. For some reason that year it’s super cold. I looked out. It’s so beautiful. There’s snow, everything is white. That’s my first time in my life seeing real snow. Then, I walk out of the airplane to the airport. Wow, it’s super cold! I [came] from Hong Kong, I don’t have a lot of clothes. I came to the US with no money, two jeans, two t-shirts, no jacket. The Catholic Church sponsored me, and they’re really nice. They have people in Seattle who gave me a jacket. From Seattle, I had to fly to Chicago. Then from Chicago, I flew to Louisville, Kentucky. I’ll never forget the moment I walked out of the airplane in Louisville, Kentucky. I saw a big man and he held a sign with my name on it! Then, I freak out. Now reality kicks in. This is my new life. I start my new life. I cannot imagine how life [will be] in America. My leg is shaking. I escaped out of Vietnam. I almost died. And I didn’t feel freaky until I saw that person holding my name. I walked to him and said, “Hi.” He said, “Are you Sonny?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Go with me.” Then I went with him. That’s how I started my life in America.
What was it like where you first lived, and how did you make your way to the Bay Area from Kentucky?
The sponsor sponsored me. I stayed in Louisville, Kentucky, for three months, and it was a culture shock, completely different. You speak little English. They put us in an apartment complex in a poor neighborhood. There are some Vietnamese people there. Most of the people there before me don’t stay there. They find their friends and relatives. I made my decision to go to California. I go to work and cut the grass and do things and I save money. I bought a one way ticket on the Greyhound bus from Louisville to California.
When you got to California, how was it like having a Vietnamese community again?
My friend was really nice. He picked me up at the Greyhound and took me home. He and I shared the room with another Vietnamese family. I felt [like] this was a place I really wanted to live because we had Vietnamese food and a small supermarket. I went to college and most of my friends were Vietnamese. It felt like home. I met a lot of people in college that I never knew before and they were super nice. Back then we didn’t have lots of Vietnamese [people]. It wasn’t big like now, that’s why, I think, back then we were more friendly. We understand what we went through and helped each other. Then I went to community college for the first two years. It’s not smooth, the college is poor even in the U.S. because I don’t have family and I’m here by myself. Then, can you believe it? Someday I’m really hungry. I don’t have money to buy food.
What gave you the motivation to pursue your degree?
I told myself, “Maybe [college] is short term pain, [it’s] not easy.” [But] me and my family always treasured high education. Luckily I love computers and electronics. I have passion for it, and I want to design something. I want to create something.
Reflecting on the Journey
Looking back at your time in the U.S., is there a moment when you finally felt like the U.S. was your home?
I go to college, I go to work, and I’m always thankful for the U.S. The moment I think that defines that I really, really love the US was when 9/11 occurred. I was in New Jersey for a meeting at AT&T Bell Lab. During the meeting, one of the security gentlemen came in and said, “Something’s wrong.” Then we said, “What’s wrong?” And he said, “One of the airplanes hit the twin tower.” We all rush out and look at the TV. We thought it was an accident. Then, I think 15 minutes later a second airplane hit the second twin tower. This time, we felt something was wrong. It wasn’t an accident anymore. I felt so sad. I felt shaky. I felt like some force hit our country, hit me, and they killed a lot of people. Before, America got into many wars that were outside the US. But this time, it hits in your head. During that moment, I realized that I really loved the US. I realized I had lived in America much longer than I had lived in Vietnam.
You have this moment and this place that you call home now, but the U.S. also abandoned the South during the war. How do you live with these contradictions?
When I was in Vietnam, we felt that the Americans betrayed the South Vietnam people. I see it was the American government during the Vietnam War that had really bad policies. They went to the war with no angle and then they betrayed us. We were upset. We felt really hurt. And, on top of that, the Communists were brutal, too. It’s like putting salt on a wound. It hurt more. Then I came here. I talked to many American friends through the war, and I realized that a lot of young soldiers got drafted when they got out of high school, thrown to Vietnam. They are victims too, victims of the U.S. government’s bad policy. Before, we felt like Americans [referred to] everybody in America, but actually it’s not, the majority of Americans are really nice. I met so many American families that were really nice. They sponsored me. The whole society gave me opportunities. And I understand them more. That’s why I think it healed me, because I can see another side of Americans. The real Americans, not the American government. That’s why I want to be a good citizen. I want to help the next generation get better. I want to share with them. If someday they become a leader, they can be a good leader. They have to think about the consequences of their policy. If they have bad policy, they hurt lots of people.