With the global refugee crisis continuing to surge worldwide, Celene and I have found it hard to find the words to address the suffering of these displaced people. We've found it even harder to come to terms with the xenophobia and vitriol that we've witnessed from some of our country's citizens and leaders. How do we, two women whose ancestors came to this country at least three generations ago, address this? Lucky for us, we were able to ask my future sister-in-law, Thu Nguyen, to share her family's story. Thu is a first generation American. Her parents fled Vietnam as refugees; they left the only home they'd known, facing peril and almost certain death in search of a better life. I'm blessed to have Thu as a sister (she's marrying my sweet brother!) and deeply honored to share her family's story on Larkspur. Storytelling is one of the most ancient and powerful ways to connect with one another on a human level--a process where souls meet, fear washes away, and empathy reigns.
Thu's dad (top center) and Mom (bottom center) at a refugee camp in Thailand after their escape from Vietnam
I was born and raised in San Jose, CA into a loving family headed by two incredibly strong parents. My mom and dad, like many other Vietnamese immigrants in the Bay Area, were refugees to the United States. Specifically, they were part of the estimated 2 million "boat people" who fled Vietnam after the war.
Growing up, I was acutely aware that my parents underwent great hardships to come to this country. Although they still hide some of the grimmest details of their journey from us children, my siblings and I would often hear about how my pregnant mother and father stole away in the dark of night, boarded a dinghy with 13 other refugees (including two babies), and headed into the waters towards Thailand. We were told about how my parents (who were raised to practice filial piety) had to hide from their own parents that they were risking their lives and leaving Vietnam for the unforeseeable future. How their tiny boat was terribly unseaworthy and how they had to constantly scoop buckets of water out of their ship just to stay afloat. How they didn’t have enough food or water and became horribly seasick. How if Mother Nature, hunger, thirst, or sickness didn’t kill them, then Thai pirates would. (This part I did not comprehend until I was older, but pirates would prey on Vietnamese refugees - looting their boats and then sinking them, raping women and girls before killing them.) How everyone on the boat thought they were as good as dead, and how my dad prayed harder than he ever had in his life. My parents would tell us the story of their escape from Vietnam as if they shouldn’t have made it, but by some miraculous chance, landed in Thailand in time to run into a group of UN workers. So many others in their same predicament were less fortunate.
My mother is very shy about her English speaking skills. I remember being maybe 4 years old or so and having to translate for her at the store while my older sisters were in school. She would blush slightly, but stand tall. She is the strongest person I know. My parents arrived in the U.S. in December of 1981 with a baby in their arms (my oldest sister was born in a refugee camp where there were scarce resources and no anesthesia). Knowing how my mom and dad came to this country and how hard they worked to provide us with opportunity has always given me the utmost respect for my parents. They made sure we valued our lives here in the States. If ever we left a grain of rice in our dinner bowl, “There are people in Vietnam who don’t even have a grain of rice to eat," we’d be reminded. If my sisters and I fought, we would hear about how we were all each other had in this country, and if we couldn’t get along who could we rely when my parents passed away? If I did well in school or brought home an award, my mom would praise me and tell me that I must have been such a good person in a past life to be fortunate enough to be born in the U.S. She would actually say it often about all of us, “mấy đứa có phước” (you children are blessed) to be born in America.
I had a certain amount of self-imposed guilt growing up. Knowing that your parents risked their lives to come to this country and that your father worked two laborious jobs (washing cars and picking fruit/vegetables) while attending adult education classes to learn English will make you realize how cushy your life is compared to others. I put a lot of pressure on myself to be a model student and someone I thought my parents could be proud of. As I grew older, I realized my parents just wanted me to be happy and secure. Their refugee story is still a hard one for them to tell and a hard one for me to listen to without crying. After one telling in which my parents shared how they'd had to crouch down low to hide in their ship from pirates and again, were somehow lucky enough to be overlooked, I asked if they had a chance to go back in time, would they leave Vietnam again? “Yes,” my dad said, “we are so grateful to be alive and to live in this country.”