Looking Back: The Refugee Experience Through the Eyes of a Child
Profilers: Eliza Poster, Justin Fajardo, Zhuofan Fang, Owen Schnider
Born in 1974
Q: Can you say your name and tell us where and when were you born?
So my name is, I’ll say it with a Vietnamese accent and all that, Vy Linh Pham Nguyen. Although my name is interesting in the sense that the Nguyen is my step-father’s name so my biological father’s name is Ngo and that was changed from Duong so basically with the different, the shifting of the different regime, in order to survive, my paternal side basically changed their names so Duong is very rare name and has some Chinese ties and then is changed to Ngo like you say Ngo Dinh Diem right? So then my stepfather, well my biological father is from the central region of Pleiku and my stepfather is from the North and so it’s changed with time there. So [my name is] Vy Linh Pham Nguyen and I was born on Halloween of 1974.
Q: Where in Vietnam were you born?
I was born in Bong Son, actually I take it back hang on, so my mom is from Bong Son so I was born in Pleiku Kon Tum, which is like the central highlands so just imagine this, Vietnam actually looks kind of like California right and then you just separate by three region: North, Central Region, and the South. And so my family’s from the Central Region.
A Childhood in Saigon
Q: Can you tell us about your early family life when you were living in Vietnam?
So what’s interesting is that I don’t remember, I have sporadic memories of things, I don’t remember much except for like a handful, like being chased by geese. So I was born in Pleiku and I lost my biological father when we evacuated from the mid region to the South, my biological father went back to retrieve his parents in Pleiku and he was a private in the Vietnamese Army and he ended up being missing in action, 20 days before the fall of Saigon in April of 1975 so my mom basically raised us three kids and she went back, they went down to Saigon and then we have family in Saigon and then we also have family in Bong Son which is near Pleiku so basically my maternal side they live in Bong Son and my paternal side they live in Pleiku and so basically my childhood is between those two areas in the central regions and with my paternal side, my mom lived with my grandpa and grandmother and they had everything from monkeys, pigs, chickens, geese that I remember being chased coming back home from school, just by the geese. That was with my paternal side. My maternal side, my mom worked a lot just trying to eke out a living. So she basically left my siblings, my 2 siblings and I to our own devices, and my grandmother would help out and this is when we were living in the Central Regions but later on when we moved permanently to Saigon, I have some family–that’s Ho Chi Minh City–post-war there. I remember attending school and being a really terrible student, this is the irony Owen you’ll love this right now that I’m an English teacher. I was wild and crazy and then they would rank you and stuff, I was always second to last in terms of my performance. But I just remembered us being very much alone most of the time because my mom had to, it was really hard to make a living and my mom was a very smart businesswoman. She was able to maneuver, I don’t know how she did it, but she worked at a cotton factory that made like Maxi Pads and stuff for women and I’m sure she was dealing… she had deals on the side and so like, I didn’t know all the details and stuff like that but she worked really hard. Our lives consisted of her waking up super early in the morning, I’m guessing maybe 5, and then putting our meals together. So it’s nothing like in the US where you have a babysitter, you have somebody “of age” taking care of you. Basically before we became refugees, so like at the age of five, six, seven I was basically cared for by my two older siblings who were two years older–my brother is three years older and my sister’s three years older–so you basically have an eight and a ten year-old taking care of you and my mom would just leave food out for us. So if you can envision our house in Saigon, and we were one of the fortunate ones because my mom’s side, we actually had money, so imagine like a home that is basically a rectangle with like a portion of it in the back for the kitchen and then in the midsection is the bedroom area and then the front part is like the garage where you have the motorcycles and stuff like that so then my mom basically would lock up the different parts of the house and just open up the garage there for us and leaving out blankets and food for us and then so we’d go to school and then come back and take care of ourselves like from 6 AM all the way maybe until 8 PM, until she came home. So her work there, if she were lucky, I remember one time she was really lucky and she landed some–the windfall–and she was so happy to come home with the money and take us out to a special meal and stuff like that and then she lost it and she came home crying. It was really devastating. Yeah so we were left to our own devices and we were kind of wild, like on the streets all the time. So schooling was basically, you go to school from maybe 7 or 8 AM and then by lunchtime you’re done and then you have the rest of the day and most of the time we were out in the streets and I remember just, we were just wild.
Q: Tell us what you did, as a kid, if you can remember.
I was something of a neighborhood bully. We would extort ice cream money, like there was like a local gang for the six year-olds and five year-olds and so I took after my brother, my brother’s super wild. Like everybody in the neighborhood would know him and he would beat the hell out of kids and then I would just kinda follow in his footsteps. Like the quote-unquote rich kids, the kids who had connections with the Communist party or whatever it is like we would extort ice cream money, harass them, we did all kinds of things with the neighbors and stuff like that. We were basically raised by the neighbors here who would bring things back and tell my mom whatever it is. But my mom couldn’t be present most of the time so yeah. And that theme of kind of being like rug rats, being raised by the street life and stuff like that continued when we became refugees in Indonesia. But just those are some of my memories, and last thing I was going to say this too, actually we were also raised by my aunt and uncle and they actually had like a much more intact family. For my mom it was really hard, if you don’t have a male attached to you in Vietnam, that’s the sexism in Vietnam, you’re just not seen as an entity and so my siblings and I were partially raised by my aunt and uncle and they had like three kids and I distinctly remember just the unfairness because we didn’t have anyone to fend for us so like if there was good food or whatever it is, then my aunt and uncle, their kids got everything and so like there was nobody to fend for us and later on I’ll share some pictures when I was a kid, I have just a handful of pictures so you can kind of see what that little bully at five or six looked like.
Q: What were the circumstances that led you to leave Vietnam? How old were you?
So I left when I was seven. This is 1982, and I’m going to look at some of my notes here for the specifics, but the circumstances were that basically if you, because my father was a private with the South Vietnamese Army, because of our political ties alone, you have to have connections in Vietnam. If you’re not with the Communist party, you can’t get the education or the job opportunities. But the weird thing with my family, my mom’s side of the family we have actually my oldest uncle is a really high ranking Communist official. So it’s a split, and I think that’s the case pretty much for a lot of Vietnamese families where like half of your family is Communist and the other half is not and so in fighting that happens in the families and so for my mom like even though she comes from family with money because they were all business people, very shrewd and very frugal. That’s something you need to know too, the stereotypes about the Northerners, the Central Region folks, and then the South. So the Bac–North–, Bac Giang is mid region, and then Nam is the South, they characterize the people. So my mom comes from a family, they’re just like super cheap and able to save up a lot of money and this is important in terms of the refugee experience because you need to have money in order to get people onto the boats and its a thousand dollars at this time per head, per person which is huge and we’re talking about they have to sell it in terms of gold and stuff like that and so like just the fact that we even have the house in Saigon tells you that we have money in contrast to lots of other people. So but anyways the risk there was basically gonna be my mom, being a single mother of three working at this cotton factory and having no opportunities to get ahead, so it was basically you slowly die out here as this non-entity if you remain in Vietnam or you basically have to give into the Communist party and join which by the way my paternal side, my aunt did. She’s like a multi-millionaire now over there, just to give you an idea of how far ahead you can get. And lots of people won’t join because of their desire for vengeance because of their loss of families and stuff.
Q:How did you escape?
So in the spring/early summer of 1982, my mom, so at that time it’s my mom, my stepfather, so my stepfather entered the picture, actually this is interesting, I’ll share a story which led my mom to risking her life. My mom was stabbed 22 times by a neighbor, so this will illustrate to you the craziness of life. It’s very much driven by materialism, just a way to eke out a living. So the circumstances, this is prior to us escaping, is that my mom had received a telegram from my uncle from the States, from California, and the neighbor had assumed that if you receive something from the states, like anybody who comes from the states is like deemed like you have money, you have connections, etcetera. So the neighbors thought we came into a good amount of money, which was not the case, like there was nothing to that telegram, but the neighbor basically hopped to climb onto the roof and basically entered our house, our rectangular house through the kitchen. There’s like an opening, but basically my mom suffered such trauma from the attack and she’s just a fighter though, she broke all this teeth, she fought, and the twenty stab ones, luckily the majority of them were all shallow stab wounds, but the guy waited for my mom when she got up to cook for us like for the day. Luckily for me at the time, I didn’t witness the trauma but my two older siblings did. I was with my grandmother in Bong Son, and so my mother was stabbed and she ended up being in the hospital for several months and she lost like half her body weight. Like she’s my size, I’m barely five [feet] and like 110 [pounds]. She lost, she was at 50 or 60 pounds, but she really lucked out, like one stab wound was just an inch from her heart. But anyways just to illustrate to you the craziness, and the guy was captured and he landed in prison but he’s been let out for the past ten years. And so it was my uncle who caught him, and my uncle lived near us and heard the screams. And my two siblings who witnessed all this like they hid behind a door. So the three sections, because they heard my mom screaming and stuff. So just to give you an idea of the motivations for people in terms of the atrocities they committed and then the traumas for people like my mom and my siblings, the things they witnessed. I think my oldest sister probably witnessed the most and there are things she just cannot process and it’s just been blocked out, like she’s witnessed my mom’s stabbing, she also witnessed my mom trying to commit suicide after the war when she didn’t have my dad there to help us, and that’s another thing. So you had like the direct trauma and the secondary trauma from just witnessing. I was, in a weird way, blessed in that I was saved from having to witness it directly like that, and so a lot of it I hear and then it gets played out of my family. But anyways that’s the scenario there for when we finally escaped: a thousand dollars per head, it included my mom, my step dad, my two siblings, and me. I was seven, my brother, nine, my sister, ten. And then an uncle. And so at that time, my dad had already attempted unsuccessfully two, three other times without my mom. So like the way this would work is that you just can’t send a whole family onto the boat because if you do, if you’re unsuccessful you’re basically screwed. You come back and they put you into prison, they just all know, so you have to have a way out but my stepfather is just not as shrewd as my mom. He was just unsuccessful over and over again, trying take my two older siblings first and then my mom at one point to hell with this, we’re just going to basically sell our house, we’re going to take a risk here and go with it and if we’re unsuccessful we’re just going to land ourselves in jail and do the best we can in terms of getting ourselves out. So that fateful night was really interesting, we all went down to Vung Tau, which is the south, Vung Tau was a fishing port at that time. And so, it was right across from the police station, which is so interesting, like it’s one of the most dangerous areas. And we hid in this factory right across from the police station and then we had to wait until the signal was given for us to get out on this 30-footer. We had a group of about 49 people for this, like, fishing boat, it’s a 30-footer, and I remember… I mean for me it was just like I had no clue, like, so my mom was very smart. She didn’t tell us anything. Right, so that if we were captured and they asked us we just had nothing to divulge. So, I remember my mom packing rice balls and stuff like that and just instructing us like whatever happens, we get captured by the police, I’m just gonna run, right. And then telling my dad to take the kids or whatever, or like we all, we had information about our address and stuff like that, but she said that she basically just needed to not be with us so that she could find a way to get us out because if we all got caught together we were going to be in trouble.
So, I think, like, I don’t know, in the wee hours of the morning, maybe 2 AM, or something like that, we were given the signal and then my uncle and my family and I, we all got onto the fishing boat. But like into the basement compartment, right, the cabin, and I just remember we were probably there with the 40 plus other people for maybe three, four hours, and there was just like vomit and pee—like it was just disgusting, right. But we had to hide from the communist eye in order to get out into international waters. And so, but what’s interesting about the boat trip though, for me as a kid I was like we’re on vacation. It was exciting. I had no clue. My poor mom and dad, they’re just worried about everything else and for us–I think there’s a lot of idealism too. The 49 people, because it’s scary, but it’s also an adventure and possibilities, right. And so, we were out in the high seas and we had a destination. We had Singapore as the destination. And we were out there for about five days and we ran into a big ship from Tokyo, right. Had we been smart, we would have, like, they asked us if we wanted to hop on, basically, right? Had we been smart we would have been taken over to, you know, Japan and I would be speaking Japanese now. But, everyone on the boat had a vision of Singapore—that they were going to go to Singapore and that was our destination. And so we declined the offer from the Japanese, and so they asked us what we wanted and we were so clueless, we didn’t ask for staples and stuff like that. We were asking for, like, baked goods, like cookies and… It was just, it didn’t dawn on us because the stories of the horrors of the high seas, we didn’t really hear about until much later on, right. About the pirates, the rape, the cannibalism. One of my friends from high school, his father had to let his kids suck on his blood because they were so dehydrated, and just like these horror stories. For my family, we really lucked out because the Pacific was super calm at that time and we didn’t, we didn’t run into any pirates, and the four or five days were out on the open sea, people were playing the harmonica, would stop the boat and jump in for a dive and stuff and there was this guy named Lam Gekkim, Gekkim means sink. He was so happy-go-lucky, he just didn’t think about the fact that he didn’t know how to swim. He jumped in and, you know, we had to save him. So it gives you an idea of how idealistic and crazy we were. Somehow we thought that everything was going to line up and fate was going to be on our side. So anyway, past the Tokyo ship, you know, ‘We don’t need you guys.’ And then, when we got to Singapore, they turned us away, so something that’s very interesting about the post-Vietnam war is that lots of countries were very kind, right, especially the US. I think the US felt really guilty about its role in the Vietnam War. And so many countries were willing to help out and so the struggles that refugees and migrants have now, we just didn’t have because there’s just open arms. After 1975, come we welcome you, etc. But then, with the years, though, the resentment increased, right, that too many immigrants, refugees were coming in and taking jobs, yada, yada. And so, that didn’t happen. The year that we left, it was still very welcoming. But for Singapore, Singapore’s actually just really, really strict, so they turned us away and then at that point we didn’t know what to do.
We were just out on the high sea for more days, and then we ran out of oil. Then it got really scary. It was actually, with my mom, my mom was the one, she’s something, a pretty feisty leader. She demanded that the captain of the ship here let us off whenever we saw land and she didn’t care what. She was now starting to worry about dying on the high seas. And so, at one point we spotted this, this island and we call it Coconut Island, I think it’s called Parakeet, or something like that, of the Riau islands of Indonesia. And so, my mom demanded that my, my uncle swim in because they were afraid of smashing against the rocks—lots of people died that way, right, they would spot land but then they couldn’t make it in because their ship would just smash against the rocks, and then everybody would drown. So my uncle came in to reconnoiter the area and to see that it’s safe, and then my family followed, and then everybody on the ship and as a result everybody’s saved. So we really lucked out that way.
We were there on that island for a week before we were then transported to Galang refugee camp, right, which is like the main refugee camp in Indonesia. Some 250,000 refugees passed through Galang, Indonesia. I think it closed in 1996. Or is it 1992? I think 1996 officially, but in 1992 I think there was, when there was threats of like sending people back who hadn’t been absorbed by the other countries. People committed suicide. They did not want to go back to Vietnam. Like they, yeah. And so we were, so Galang is made up of three parts. Like a communal part; we were there for eight months, and then there’s another like so the Galang mall, one, two, three, basically. The first part, we were there for eight months, we’re living in these barracks, right, these army barracks with all these other families. And you can just envision, like, you know, it’s another rectangle with two platforms on the two sides and the families basically had a section portioned off for themselves, and so we lived like that for eight months, and then later on we had our own private quarters. And it depends on your sponsorship. If you’re lucky, like we were, we were lucky we had family in the US. My stepfather’s brother was a pilot in the war, and in 1975 he was able to immigrate to the US, so he has a family over there and he sponsored us. And because we had sponsors, it was faster. Those who didn’t stayed there for years. Right, especially the single people. They just had no anchors.
And, so, eight months in Galang one. We moved to Galang two when our sponsorship papers progressed, and that’s when we actually had private quarters, like for our family with the gardens that other families from before had left behind. Life is actually very, like for me as a child, very bucolic, like I really enjoyed the sun, I enjoyed torturing the island animals, like capturing lizard and, you know, just doing fun things. Basically, life was an adventure, and I don’t know what life must have been like for my parents, but my mom was just very shrewd as a businesswoman, and I remember that I wasn’t lacking. A lot of people were lacking because of their diets, because I remember a lot of Spam. There was Spam and stuff that people would donate, but my, my mom was able to trade in what we, you know, produced in the garden, so we had veggies and then we got eggs. And so, she was able to trade. She was just very smart. And then she was always sneaking out to different places all the time. I remember this, in order to bring back things for us to enjoy. Life was just, it was very fun for me. Just hang out with my brother. Crazy things would happen though. We’d, like, capture sewer rats in cages, right, and then like pour gasoline and set them ablaze. Owen, I knew you’d like that one. I’d get into fights. It was that life where my parents were off doing their thing and we were just left to our own devices, right. You wouldn’t recognize me. I mean, like, my skin was so dark being out on the sun all the time. My brothers. Lots of crazy things. The rat burning, it’s actually for sanitation as well. ‘Cause you didn’t want them to get in your food supply and stuff lie that. And there’s also a lovely sense of community with the Catholics. So, a big part of my background that I love that’s very, that’s rooted in the spiritual grounding is my connection to Catholicism. So there were a number of different religious groups there—Catholic, but also Lutheran, so the Lutherans did lots of charity with all these refugee camps. They would actually provide things like silent movies for the communities. The Charlie Chaplin movies, I remember them distinctly. We were all part of the Catholic groups, and so we wore those bandanas that, they look like ties, and stuff like that, and you have the different colors designating your levels and stuff like that. And so, community was very much rooted in Catholicism and our various roles. And I think that was actually really nice for my family and the others who weren’t originally very religious, right.
And so, yeah, those are different aspects of island life, and, oh, also, you know, we had English classes. This is also very funny, Owen, it’s hilarious, and I’m an English teacher. My mom was my first English teacher. And some examples of the things she taught us, completely mispronounced everything, right. Like the word ‘market,’ right, it would be, she taught us to say ‘mah-KET,’ refrigerator was ‘refrig-orator,’ right, And so, you just imagine, that was our preparation for immigration to the US in terms of the English skills. So another five months in Galang two, and I mentioned Galang three which is a cemetery. So, very ominous in that sense and I think the Galang three is like, in between the one and two. So if you weren’t fortunate enough as to be sponsored to immigrate, yeah, you’d just die there at the camp.
Coming to the United States
Q: I was going to ask you, just to keep it going, how you ended up in the US and how you viewed the war at that age, and how that kind of perception evolved?
I can tell that as a child, I never thought about the war, because I think I had a different relationship to it. I have a picture of my father right now in my home, but I never had a connection with him, whereas my older siblings know more about him and they have actually witnessed the dead bodies when they were evacuating. I was just a baby, so for me the notion of ignorance is bliss. It really helped to save me. I have never really thought about the war until I am asked to talk about my refugee experience and always with the hindsight and some research etc. to fill in the blanks. After the 13 months in Galang, ironically, we actually took a ferry from Galang Indonesia, to Singapore. Then we flew to Tokyo. This is very funny. We flew to Tokyo and then to LAX and Minnesota. Lakeville, Minnesota was our first home. My uncle had a mobile home. It was crazy because my uncle had three kids of his own at that time, and then with us three kids and the baby. My younger brother was born in 1983 and that’s my half brother, so there are four of us now. Imagine there were seven kids and four adults living in this tiny mobile home in Lakeville, Minnesota, often plagued by tornadoes. But luckily, I arrived in mid July of 1983, and I was eight at the time, entering like third grade. Again it was bliss that I didn’t really recognize all the racism. I remembered us hearing things about the slanted eyes: how you can the different types of Asians by the slant of the eyes and how you name Chinese kids. Because Minnesota is pretty white, but I was just very clueless, and there’s just no awareness of that happening which protected me too. But the thing that did shift that I don’t know is this a defense mechanism is that I became extremely academic. I have told you that in Vietnam, I was like the second to last, just like animals in the classroom, quite wild. I grew really academic in a year’s time. By fourth grade, I was pretty fluent and put in the gate programs. So I found my connection or my anchor through academics. Three years later, my family and I moved to California.
A Childhood in California
Q: So you went to California when you were 11. Did you feel alienated from your peers at all because of your experiences as a refugee? Or had you pretty much assimilated at that point?
I am fairly fluent (with my English). I already assimilated in terms of the language. But I think in terms of (the social stage?), I did realize we are poor. I never connected with that and I am sure people are looking at us. I guess when I look back, I can see that they might have alienated me. But I also protected myself all the way until I was in eighth grade, like I was 13 or 14. I remember that I would wear jeans and a Mickey mouse sweatshirt all the time. I would basically dress down, and was very attached to certain clothing. At lunch time and break time, I will always go to the library. I didn’t really have any sort of social anchor, but then things changed. So in eighth grade, we had already moved to Fremont when I was in seventh grade. So from seventh grade to eighth grade, I just changed completely. I went from having straight hair, wearing jeans and Mickey mouse t-shirt that I was deeply attached to, and having no friends to perming my hair, going all crazy with the social scenes, and not thinking about academics as much. But it’s interesting that I almost never thought about the refugee experience, but our clothing and food are from the donations. Even when I was in Fremont and we had a home already, I was part of the lunch program. But then there were all these other people as well, so I didn’t feel left out in that way.
Looking back on the War
Q: When did you start thinking about war critically like you do now and when you were growing up, what was the rhetoric surrounding the war?
I never really thought much about the war until my early twenties. I have my first exposure when going back and visiting my grandmother after I had not seen her for 20 years, coming back and seeing the impact, the financial impact on my side of the family, how hard war was living and how different my life was because I immigrated to the US. In terms of just thinking about it, I think I’m really just thinking about it in terms of the impact on my family. The question I always have had is how come my mom is never out of survival mode. She is approaching 70 now and is still in survival mode. She got all the money in the world and if there are issues that erupt with my brother’s family. Those are instances that remind me of the impact of the war on us. My sister who just doesn’t talk much is in a pretty happy family relationship. She never talks about any of the traumas, and she witnessed the trauma the most, and none of us ever talked about it with each other. But if they get together with another family, and their mother’s are sitting there, they will start talking about the war, and then we listen in. Those moments are special and rare, with the get-togethers, but when they talk about it, they talk about it fondly, which is interesting. They talked in the sense of post-war, there’s such a strong anti-communist sentiment that it gave a lot of people like my mum and these seniors a sense of purpose. They would do things just to spite the communists.
Being Vietnamese Now
Q: So can you talk about your relationship to Vietnam now, and whether you have found a community of Vietnamese people, I know you’ve traveled back at least once.
Oh, you’ll love this Owen. Analyze this when you hear it. […] In 1997, just my second year teaching, I was doing a teaching program in Hong Kong, the handover, the British handover. So I met a woman…so Eliza, I’m gay, this will add a different angle. This is another reason why I’m the black sheep of the family (laughs). So I met my fiancé, now, in 1997. And here’s the trip…trippy part. My fiancé is so much like my mom; it’s frightening. You guys have heard this, right? You know you’re gonna be marrying one of your parents, right? But my fiancee is from the same region of Bong Son, my Grandmother’s village, so I actually met her when I was visiting my grandmother after I hadn’t seen her in 20 years. And so my relationship with Vietnam is interesting in that… Oh! This is interesting, I swore I would never date a Vietnamese person.
Q: Why was that?
I don’t know if there’s some… self-hatred, right? But I remember saying that to myself because I dated every ethnicity, nationality, but for Vietnamese. Which is really interesting. there was this Vietnamese guy that was interested in me in high school, but I swore to myself, and of course God always gives you what you don’t want, right? And so my first love and my last love, now my fiancé are both Vietnamese. So my relationship with Vietnam, in the last three years, since we’ve reconnected… So we reconnected within the last three years, even though we’ve known each other since 1997. I’ve been back to Vietnam… six, seven times now? So we just finished the K1 petition, the immigration petition. My fiancé and her child will be joining me here in June.
Interviewer: Congratulations, that’s amazing. I’m really happy for you!
Thank you, its been a crazy wait. We’ve been separated for 13 months, actually going on 14, 15 months now. Since September 2019, so we celebrated the New Year 2020 and then the pandemic hit, and we’ve been waiting for the K1 visa process to be complete. And so, Eliza, I now have this weird relationship with Vietnam that I never thought I would. I am now more fluent in Vietnamese, and understanding of Vietnamese culture than I’ve been for most of my life.