32 Years: The American
Thousands of people, maybe
hundreds of thousands, or perhaps millions of people all are my
countrymen, scattered all over the world. Never meeting physically, but
feeling as if we have known one another for a lifetime. From the stories
that I have read in VIETBAO’s “Writing on America Essay Award”, I can
feel the pain, the anguish, and the injustices that have had to be
endured all of these years; it was so strange. I was able to feel all of
their emotions. I found myself laughing and crying as their stories, in
part, mirrored my own story.
And now, my dear friends, it is my
turn to tell my story.
Writing about America is easy
because I’ve been living here for many years now. Writing about an
American is also easy; I don’t have to look very far. However, I want to
talk about this American that I have walked alongside with for the past
32 years, my husband, David.
Life is like a souvenir picture album. A few decades gathered in a few pages, looking back… Turn a page…
May 28, 1968, Cư Xá Phú Lâm A Lục
Tĩnh Street, 6th District, Chợ Lớn. The communists attach
Saigon for the second time. They set up their headquarters in our
neighborhood. My father was a homicide photographer for the General
Office National Police Headquarters at Võ Tánh Street in Saigon,
The Communists captured my father
and shot him twice, once through the pharynx and once in the stomach.
My younger sister, Ngoc Anh, and I were witness to this incident. We ran to our father. I lifted his head; there was hot blood gushing out of his wounds. My sister lifted his feet while blood dripped to the ground. We struggled to pick him up and then dropped him. We tried picking him up again, weeping so hard that we could barely see where we were going. Somehow, we were able to get his body home. My sister, just 15 years old, her face wet with tears, her braided hair and her white clothes drenched with my father’s blood. This vision is burned into my memory forever. The distance of approximately 100 meters is also etched into my memory. The pain that I felt, the pain that I saw on my sister’s face, the hatred that burned in my heart for those who had done this to our family, is a pain I can never forget. I can clearly see this event in my life as if it had happened yesterday and I am sure that it will always be a part of me.
One day in spring, my brother-in-law
brought home a friend. His name was David and he had just gotten out of
the Navy. He was 20-years old with bright eyes, black-blue hair. He was
slim, nimble, open and very polite. Most of my friends had joined the
military. A few of my girlfriends had gotten married and their husbands
had been killed. They were still young and attractive with babies to
take care of, and WHAT to look forward to? When they were getting
married, I was working. The pay was just over one thousand “đồng”
(Vietnamese pies) per month. This was not even enough to buy an “ao dai”
(traditional Vietnamese long dress) for work. How could I help my mother
take care of my sisters and my brother?
When the communists killed my
father, my eldest sister married and had children. My younger siblings
were only 15, 13, 10, 7, and 5-years old, and my youngest sister was not
ever 3-years old yet. For all of these years, my mother was a housewife.
The good, providing husband and gentle father was now dead. I am the
oldest, a female, what can I do? I vowed to myself that somehow I would
leave Vietnam, this place that has caused so much pain and sorrow for my
family and me. I would find a way to get my family out of this hellhole
too. Then, this man walked into my family’s life, David. All right my
friends, good-bye; I turn to another direction.
I agreed to marry David.
It was still in my father’s mourning time. The wedding and the mourning time were so close. I chose the day my father was killed to be my wedding day, May 28, 1969. I wanted my heart and my soul to mix together so that I will not forget my pain and sorrow. This was not a time for celebrating. Everything was done at home. It was a simple wedding in front of my ancestors’ altar. No diamonds, god, or silver, only my prayer to my father, “ Father, please help me find a way to take my mother, sisters, and my brother away from this place of pain, suffering, and fear. I will be a good and faithful wife to David till the day that I die, this to you I swear.” We lived with my family in a small room upstairs. David worked for a company managing and booking entertainment for the American military bases all over Vietnam.
On March 1, 1970, the year of the dog, at Đức Chính hospital (Cao Thắng Street), my first son was born. His name is Lawrence Long. I felt so sorry for my first son because I was only able to carry him for 7 months. He only weighed 1 kilo and 700 grams. They kept him in an incubator for only 24 hours. When the nurse returned him to me, she said, “ He does not know how to suck the bottle.” Oh my God! What could I do?
My mother told me, “ You squeeze the milk out yourself and then use an eye dropper to feed your son, drop by drop. You see his mouth is smaller than your nipple. How can he eat?” My mother had a lot of experience and her idea worked very well. My son was able to pass through the first few rough and dangerous months.
At that time, David made about 3 or 4 hundred dollars a month. I remember one day that he had come home from work very late and very drunk. He was weeping and told me that one of his friends had been killed by a communist’s booby trap. He told me that he was tired of seeing people killed and maimed and that this place was too dangerous to raise our child in. His contract was over in November and he wanted to take his family and return to the states.
We tried to make documents to take my
brother with us, but we were not successful. At the time, we were still
under the misconception that being honest and sincere was the correct
We now know that money would have
been more successful. So I had to grit my teeth, wipe my tears, carry my
son and follow my husband. I made a promise to myself again as we
boarded the airplane to America; “I will return or somehow bring my
family to America to fulfill my obligation to them and myself!” I must
believe that there is a sun somewhere behind this very large and dark
I arrived in America for the first time on November 22, 1970; I was five months pregnant. When we stepped off the plane in Portland, Oregon, my husband’s family was there to greet us. His mother, one of his sisters, Elaine, and his aunts, uncles, and cousins were there. I felt as if I had stepped into another world with bright lights and huge buildings. It’s very hard to explain I guess you could say that it was just so very overwhelming. As I was sitting in this giant car, we drove through a very large city and I saw very large house with very large yards that were full of fruit trees and fruit all over the ground. I saw all of this and I could only wish that my family were here to enjoy it with me. Why are Americans so lucky? Why are my countrymen so unlucky and poor in the middle of this terrible war? I could lift a bunch of grape to taste the bitter sweetness of not being able to share them with my family; tears welled up in my eyes and my heart ached.
David’s aunt treated us with my
first Thanksgiving dinner. The turkey meat was so juicy and succulent;
more food than five families in my country could eat!
My husband’s family took turns holding
Lawrence, and I spent most of my time in the yard picking apples,
tangerines, and pears. Picking and regretting. The fruit was lying on
the ground and going to waste. My husband’s family saw that I was so
small and I could tell that they truly loved me.
After a few days with David’s
mother, we then drove to Portland and Coquille to see more of his aunts,
uncles, and cousins. On the way there, we stopped just outside of Coos
Bay and visited his father’s grave. He showed me the space next to his
father’s that his mother had purchased for herself when her time came.
David’s aunt and uncle had a small trailer house next to their house, which we had stayed in for two weeks. Every night that I got in to bed, the sheets felt cold and clammy. They almost felt wet. There were no mosquito nets, so we were exposed. I covered myself right away with the electric blanket. Even the artificial warmth could not keep away the cold. It felt as if the cold actually cut into my flesh! Once, in the middle of the night, I was so homesick that I wept all night. David had gotten up and drove me to the beach. What beach was it? I do not recall. I was so homesick that I felt dumb. But he was patient and did not say anything. He just took me to the beach. Maybe he wanted me to look to the Far East, I don’t know.
One day, the soft part of my son’s
head had swelled up. We took him to the hospital. When the doctor said
that he had to remove some fluid from his spine for a test, I fainted
and was also admitted into the hospital. Till this day, I still do not
know what caused the swelling. I think that maybe my son could not
handle the cold and his body’s natural response was to protect the
brain, but that’s just what I think. Anyway, we now had a debt of over a
few hundred dollars! David’s brother-in-law called and said that if we
came to Tucson, Arizona, he would get him a job. David warned me that
Arizona was in the southwest and was very hot. I said that we should
leave for this hot place as soon as possible. We gathered all of our
clothes into suitcases. I also brought a box of Vietnamese books, a few
“non la” (traditional hat made of leaves), and we rented the smallest
Uhaul that we could find. We put our few belongings into the van with
room leftover that would fit at least three more families. Off we went.
It was winter and very cold. My
husband forgot to tell me that this Arizona place was only hot during
the daytime, and that the nights were freezing cold. We left the heater
on the whole time and it made me feel sick and feverish the whole way.
My stomach felt heavy, so I sat up
the whole way too. I put Lawrence on the floor and when we arrived, my
son was red with rash.
We lived with David’s niece, Maria,
for a while. During this time, David worked at a gas station, filling
cars with gasoline and cleaning windows. This was before his
brother-in-law got him a job at a place called Anaconda Copper Mind, a
large open pit mine. Every working day, he dressed in a gray and black
uniform. He wore a metal hat and always carried a metal lunch box. His
face was still bright and fresh. Every morning, when he would insert the
car key into the ignition, he would pray, “Start, start. Please start.”
When he arrived home at the end of the day covered with a mixture of sweat and dirt, I saw that my white husband had turned into a black husband!
This job was worked in shifts, so during some weeks, he worked days when the heat in the equipment would go well over 100 degrees. And he worked nights where there would be frost on the ground. The equipment was large and was used to remove dirt from the pit so that they could get to the copper. I’m not sure what the name of the machine that David drove was, but he told me that it had many gears and two large engines; one in the front and one in the back. He tried to explain it to me, but with my poor English, it was very hard for me to understand what he was describing.
With this job, David made 93 dollars a week and we paid 90 dollars a month for rent. My mother-in-law had taught me that rent should be no more than a ¼ of your paycheck. This way, you will still have money to live off of.
During the time that David worked for the mining company, I was pregnant. I craved fish cooked in fish sauce with black pepper. I could not find any fish sauce and sometimes, it would bring me to tears.
One day, my sister-in-law, Pat,
took me for a check-up. She waited outside with Lawrence as I followed
the nurse into the room by myself. The nurse had pointed at the restroom
and had said something to me. I guessed that she was asking me if I had
to use the restroom. Well, since I didn’t, I shook my head “no.” She
started talking again and pointed at the restroom again. I was so
nervous that the little bit of English that I knew was soon forgotten.
At last, knowing that she had lost the battle, we moved into the exam
room. When we got home, Pat told David what had happened, and he
translated for me. I finally understood that they had wanted a urine
sample from me so that they could test it. Oh well, next time. It was
coming close to the time for me to deliver my second child. David’s
sister told him to bring me to her house and her daughter Linda would
cook and keep an eye on us.
In March, my second son was born.
It was the year of the pig and my new son’s name was Tommy Phuong. He
was only one month premature, but the hospital kept him for thirty days.
He was 5 lbs. 6 ounces when he was born. The hospital kept him until he
reached 6 lbs. Then, they let me take him home. There is so much
difference between a rich and poor country. In Saigon, a mother and her
newborn son stay in the hospital for one week, pay, and go home. In
America, a mother only stay for two days and her baby must stay for,
almost, one month.
Now, we owe over $4000, which is
more than six years of payments. But, my second son was a special gift
given to me on the same day as his older brother’s birthday. Lawrence
was born at 11:30 a.m. in Saigon and now, his little brother Tommy, was
born on March 1st at 9:45 a.m. in Tucson. Now, for their
birthdays every year, there is only need for one cake, half for each
My poor baby has a weak stomach.
Every time I feed him, he throws up milk. I think it’s because I’m sad
and was unable to eat all of the food that I was craving. At this time,
David was not making very much money. My mother-in-law came for two
weeks and helped us with our two children. She helped me wash all of the
cloth diapers and showed me that powdered milk was cheaper than regular
milk. She also taught me how to make bread, strawberry and orange jam.
She is a very good cook. When David’s father died (David was only 9
years old), she opened a little restaurant to make a living.
She told me, “You need to learn a skill; any skill. In case your husband dies, you will have a way to care for yourself and your children. Don’t be like me. I only know how to cook. The work is back-breaking.” I can see how right she was. Her back was curved from bending over the stove. When Tommy was just a little over 4 months old, I noticed that my husband was working so hard, and I couldn’t stand it. I talked to him about moving to Nevada. “ Reno is a gambling town. The jobs may be better. And, we would be near your mother and sisters. That makes it even better,” I told him.
On the way there, I saw young hills,
old hills, and rolling hills that rose up out of the ground with
thousands of cactuses and bushes covering their sides. I saw a rainbow
of flowers that were snow white, bright red, fresh yellows, and deep
purples. It was breathtaking.
I cried out, “Stop, stop, stop! Stop so I can dig up one of those bushes to take with me!” David informed me that those were state trees and there would be a $500 fine if we were to dig one up. I replied, “Oh my God! There is a jungle of cactus all around us, why can’t I have just one? Okay, how about I just pick one flower?” With a straight face, David said, “Not even one flower.” I complained,
“Not even one flower? It’s in the
middle of the jungle. Who will know?” David replied, “I will know and
you will know. Lot of people think that government workers don’t see
anything, but when you have to pay the fine, then you complain, “ Oh! I
am so unlucky!’ The American husband knows his Vietnamese wife. He uses
his psychology games on me and I lose right away. When I heard about the
$500 dollar fine, I started calculating; $500 dollars can buy a lot of
stuff. If I bought old things, I could have a cabinet, a bed, dishes,
and kitchen wear. Why give up all of that for one flower? I stopped
asking David to stop. Why does this country have such strict laws? But
when the government touches your pocket, you then learn to respect and
obey the laws. Also, if everyone were like me and wanted to dig up a
tree and pick a flower every time they see one, even a jungle wouldn’t
last. What would be left for future generations to appreciate?
Arriving In Nevada
When we arrived in Nevada, we
stayed with my mother-in-law. She was a live-in housekeeper for an older
gentleman, Mr. Hardy. Mr. Hardy was a very wealthy and kind man. He was
mining engineer. The house that he lived in was very large and was built
in the late 1800’s when the gold and silver rush took place in Nevada.
Hanging over the dining room table was a small replica of the crystal
chandelier that hangs in the White House. It was a gift from our former
president, Mr. Roosevelt.
Mr. Hardy worked for the
government during the Second World War. He mined uranium that was used
for developing the atomic bombs used in the war. The chandelier was
given to him in appreciation of that service.
Looking For Work
Every day that my husband came home from job-hunting, I could see the sadness, pain, and anger in his face. During this time, the anti-war sentiments were at its height. The Americans that were here, wanted their loved ones to come home, and here was this “Vet” and his Vietnamese wife that were already home. The looks and the words spoken under their breath were hard to bear. I always tried to comfort my husband by saying, “Try to understand how they feel. They have lost fathers, brothers, husbands, and other loved ones to this war. Believe me, I know this feeling. You will find work soon.” And yes he did. He found a job working security at The Nevada Club Casino.
A few months later, I found a
babysitter and I got a job as a change girl at The Nugget Casino. If I
had the knowledge then, that I have now, I would have never left my
children and my home. The money we made is now gone and the time that we
lost with our children is gone too. It’s sad to think that this time is
gone forever! We were working so hard that our feet never touched the
ground. David drank a lot, which made me very sad. At this time, he
treated me as if I was like…the air. You don’t have to hold the air to
be able to keep it. The air will always be there. In just one year, we
moved many times. A few times I wanted to take my sons and run away.
Then, I remembered my oath to my father at my ancestors’ altar on our
wedding day, and I remembered what my mother had always said:
Then I remembered what my father always
said when he was alive:
All right, I will digest some insults
so that my children can have both parents together. My professor (Mr. Lê
Hoài Nở, screen writer, National Art & Play, Nguyễn Du Street, Saigon)
used to teach:
Here is what I have gathered from
1973 Return To Vietnam
One February evening in 1973 my husband came home very excited and asked me, “Want to go back to Vietnam?” I replied, “Of course I want to. Why do you ask?” Then David informed me,
“There are peace talks in Paris right now. Maybe the fighting will end in Vietnam and it will be a save place to live again. Don’t you watch the news?” I haughtily replied, “I watch Sesame Street! I’m still trying to learn English, man! When is this news?” David said,
My husband said that he did not
feel as if he could fit in here anymore and that we should return to
Vietnam as soon as possible. So, we borrowed enough money from my
mother-in-law to buy three and a half tickets. We had to leave before
Tommy turned 2-years old because then we would have had to buy four
tickets. Seven days later we were on an airplane back home to my family.
I couldn’t believe that this was happening to me. When we arrived back
in Vietnam, I read all of the newspapers. I could tell that there was
still great turmoil in my country. It was a time when writers and
newsmen (xuống đường) protested in the streets. I did not understand
what it meant. Also, at this time, I read books like “Giai Khăn Sô Cho
Huế” by Nhã Ca and “Mùa Hè đỏ Lữa” by Phan Nhật Nam. My sister, Ngọc
Anh, told me that this was a time called the “ Acting Agreement between
4 parties: America, South Vietnam, North Vietnam, and the Guerrilla (mat
tran giai phong). America slowly decreased their involvement with
American soldiers and advisors. They were also exchanging war prisoners.
However, we were so happy to be home that we did not care about the war
that was still hanging over our heads. We lived close to my family and
appreciated each and every day. David had gotten a job as an advisor for
the Vietnamese Navy under an American Civil Contract. This job was at
Cam Ranh Bay. Leaving our children with my mother and sisters to care
for them in Phú Lâm, David and I left for Cam Ranh to find a house for
us. I forgot one very important thing, though; my family, they were
strange to my children. My mother returned home one day from the Cầu
O^ng Lãnh market, where she worked with her sisters selling clothes, to
find my son, Tommy, very ill. Maybe he missed his parents but could not
speak yet to say. My mother took him to the doctor. Oh! I am a very bad
At first, we lived in a small house behind a gas station near Cay So 9. The owner was a retired Army soldier, Captain Duong. A few months later, the Vietnamese Navy provided us with a house at the Receiver site, just across the street from a small beach on the South China Sea. This was the most beautiful place that I had ever seen. Some time later, a place on the main base at Market Time was provided for us. My family would come to visit all at the same time, and took turns other times. We spent all of our free time on the beautiful beaches at Cam Ranh. My family and my children were so happy; it was a wonderful time. Also, where we lived, there was Bình Ba Island and Đá Bạc market. While living here, I learned about the giant sea turtle. They are big like tables; the locals called them the Vích. Cam Ranh is one of only three beaches that these turtles come to lay their eggs.
One night, we went with a few
soldiers to watch the turtles. They would struggle as they came on to
the beach and they moved very slowly until they were above the water
line to dig a hole to lay their eggs. They laid hundreds of eggs that
were moist, soft, and almost round. Then, with great effort, they would
cover their eggs with their two rear flippers and struggle back into the
sea. The soldiers would dig up the eggs and, sometimes, they would kill
the turtle, also. Watching this, David sadly said, “Why take all of the
eggs? Why not leave some to grow and return to lay more eggs for the
future? If no new turtles leave this beach, then no turtles will return
to this beach.” How sad, I thought.
They also have the Red Chameleon at Cam Ranh. Later, in the United States, I learned that someone had used the Red Chameleon to cure some sort of disease.
I cannot remember what disease it was
though. My sisters and my brother would follow the soldiers and try the
turtle meat. They said that it tasted like beef. They also tried the Red
Chameleon and said that it tasted like chicken. Oh, their stomachs must
be very strong. I was too afraid to try it. There are also tigers here
in Cam Ranh. The Khánh Hòa Tiger; Bình Thuận’s ghost, of course! There
is a freshwater lake in the mountains where the tigers came to water.
This is the lake that Americans call Tiger Lake.
August 9th, President
Nixon resigned because of Watergate.
We spent time at the beach every
day. Everything tasted so good and David now made just over $400 dollars
a month. It was okay now. When parents are happy, children are happy
1974 Return to the USA
David came home from work one
evening, very upset. He told me that a Chinese destroyer had sunk a
Vietnamese “DER” and only one man had lived. This happened in a dispute
over Hoang Sa Island. It seems that they had used a guided missile to
sing the Vietnamese ship. With Nixon gone, this was going to get very
bad and we had to leave as soon as possible. “They will be playing
‘White Christmas’ any day now,” said David. “You must take the children
and return to Saigon to get the paperwork prepared for us to leave as
soon as possible,” he urged. Oh my God. “Do we have to leave so soon?” I
asked. “Yes, you must return to Saigon with the children and begin the
paperwork so that we can leave!” exclaimed David.
I tried my luck for a second time
to get my younger brother to go with us. The Department of Interior said
that here was no way that they would let a boy go. They needed boys to
fight the war. But, I could take any children from a previous marriage.
Suddenly, I had two daughters. (American government, please forgive me)
December, 1974 Arriving Back In
We went directly to Charleston,
South Carolina, and stayed with my sister and her husband. David got a
job with a construction company running very heavy equipment like he did
in Arizona, but not as big. This company built homes. We thought
everything would be good for us, but who was to know? After all the work
that was done for this company to build these houses, David was laid off
from his job. I still remember clearly the disappointment in his face
when he arrived home that night. His eyes were bright from tears not to
be shed. Then, a few days later, my sister told me that her husband, who
was still in the Navy, was being transferred very soon and that they
were preparing to leave for his new duty station. SOLUTION- I called my
mother-in-law, borrowed $500 dollars and was off to Reno, Nevada. My
friends, try to imagine two adults, four children and everything we
owned stuffed into a small car for a trip of about 3000 miles. The car
was so weighed down that soon after departing, the car broke down.
Something under the car broke from the weight. We lost about $150
dollars to fix it. We made frequent stops at truck stops to get gas and
hot food for the children. While I fed the children, David would rest
and get gas. I would bring his something to eat.
More Trouble on The Road
During one day and one night, we
had passed through a very bad snowstorm. Everything was white for as far
as we could see. It was so cold that the heater would not even warm the
car and the children had to wrap up in layers of blankets to keep warm.
During that night, David asked me if I could tell if we were moving. He
said that it looked like we weren’t moving. I was thinking that it might
be the pills that he was taking to stay awake. He stopped and looked
around, but there was nothing but a blanket of snow. There were no trees
or anything, so it made it look like we were standing still. Off we went
again. Early the next morning the car started making noises. We stopped
and found that snow had built up under the car so the tires were rubbing
against it. David had to take a knife and cut it away. About 72 hours
later, we arrive in Reno early in the afternoon. David parked the car on
the street and walked back to town to look for work. We were sitting
for so long that we were anxious to get out of the car. I asked my
sisters to watch my boys so that I could go look for work. I searched
all over for work and finally got lucky. I found a job working as a
maid at the Caravan Motel. It was past 3 p.m. and David was waiting
back at the car pacing backwards and forward, worried and angry. He
told me that he found a job. “It was supposed to start at 2 p.m. Where
were you? Now it’s too late.” I told him that it’s all right and that
I found a job starting tomorrow morning.
Finally, the Atlas Motel, a place
to stay. We had one room with two beds. There was a very small kitchen
area with a refrigerator and a bathroom. The next afternoon, when I
arrived back at the motel, I could tell that my husband was very angry.
“Today I applied for unemployment. They treat you like you are a beggar.
I am not going back!” said David. I told him that we had no choice and
that we must do whatever it takes to take care of the children. We lived
like this for a while, I can’t remember for how long though.
My friends, this was the worst
time of our lives, the lowest and hardest. I think this is the time that
many people just give up and quit. I made $63 dollars a week. Rent at
the Atlas Motel was 60 dollars. How much is left? Every day I would
clean rooms. Guests sometimes left some change for tips and once in a
while, one would leave $1 dollar. This made me very happy. I had to sell
my jewelry. First to go was my 24-karat gold necklace that was over 1
ounce. I never got to wear it. Second to go was a set of 24-karat gold
rings that my mother gave me before we left Vietnam. Third to go was a
set of wedding rings made of white gold and diamonds that my
mother-in-law gave me. Each week we bought two boxes of Peanut Butter
Captain Crunch (my eldest son still remembers the taste of this cereal
until this day) and $1 dollar worth of day old bread (10 loaves). The
bread never lasted long enough to get moldy. We bought two jars of
strawberry jam, two jars of peanut butter, 2 boxes of chocolate powder
mix to make chocolate milk, and a bag of rice. I only used the rice to
make rice soup with a lot of cabbage and, sometimes, one or two
chickens. This was the food for six people for seven days. However, my
two sisters were enrolled in school and got to eat lunch every day. They
would save cookies and fruit from their lunches to bring home to their
nephews. One night, David’s aunt asked us to have dinner with her and
her husband. I was so hungry then that I can remember this meal as if it
were yesterday. My husband, an American, born and raised in America has
been through some very hard and rough times just like the people of
Vietnam after 1975. Once again, I find myself making an oath to my
ancestors. I will care for my children and sisters. I will not let them
go hungry and they will have a future. I started to look at thing
differently and I tried to see the humor or the lighter side of every
situation. This seemed to help me and life started getting better for
Finally a REAL JOB
A company called Western Curtain
hired me. They manufactured curtains, bedspreads, drapes, and other
similar items. I did not know how to sew, but I figured that they would
hire me because of my Asian face. On the first day of training, I had
asked my boss if he had a job for my husband. The president of the
company, Mr. Harvey Kirsch, after serious thought said, “ We have a
policy that prohibits us from hiring husbands and wives. But, this time
I am going to break this policy. We have filled all of the permanent
jobs, but if he doesn’t mind unloading trucks and cleaning up, then he
has a job.” I am still very thankful to this kind person. Every day I
had to fight with the sewing machine. What a machine! It runs so fast.
You just place a piece of fabric and it runs off by itself! It took me
some time and effort to learn how to handle this machine. Every day I
saw my husband pushing a broom, tears would well up in my eyes.
For over a month, we left home
while it was still dark and returned home after it had become dark. When
the machines were in place, the moving and cleaning job would be done.
David asked Mr. Kirsch one day, “What job pays the best in this
company?” Mr. Kirsch said, “Besides manager, the sewing machine
mechanics get paid the best.” David said, “Give me a chance at this job
for two months and if you are not happy, then I will quit voluntarily.”
Mr. Harvey Kirsch, truly our angel, not only helped my husband and I out
of our darkest time, but also was instrumental in getting my family out
1975 My Family in the midst of Danger
David was promoted to assistant
From the first of March on, the
letters from Ngoc Anh were very disturbing. The war was increasing in
its intensity. South Vietnam was in great turmoil, like broiling,
burning oil. April came and every day I watched the news. I watched the
red color creep down the map of my country; slowly, like a beast that
was eating everything in site. Every day my sisters and I cried and were
unable to sleep. My husband paced on edge, unable to do anything to
help. My sons were upset even though they did know what was going on;
they could feel the pain and fear in the house. At last the answer came.
I realized that it was over. The red on the map was at Xuan Loc, then at
Long Khánh. It was over; the South was lost. It would not be long before
South Vietnam was in the hands of the communists. What about my family
left behind? What was going to become of them?
Sitting at the sewing machine, I
sewed while tears ran down my face. I was truly afraid that I would
never see my family again. My young friend, Siu Woo, took a piece of
fabric and made a small bag out of it. She went around to all of our
co-workers to collect money. It was to help me get my family out of
Vietnam. She had collected over $100 dollars.
It seems to me that when there is real trouble, the poor are the first to help. I guess it is the fact that they have probably felt the same as I was feeling right now. With the $100 dollars, $500 dollars borrowed from my mother-in-law, and the $1000 advanced from my boss, I sent my sister and her husband to go and try to get my family out of Vietnam. I t seemed like it was destined for my family to be lost to me.
With all of this help from my
sister and her husband, they were stopped in Thailand and unable to
proceed to Vietnam. All I could do was weep with the realization that my
family would be lost to my sisters and me. The television said that
there were American war ships that were anchored of the Vietnam coast in
International waters. We heard that anyone, who could reach them, would
be taken aboard. We heard a lot of stories of people dying in the
streets and in the water, trying to get to the boats. We heard about the
planes of orphans that were being shot down and killing all on board,
both children and staff. The stories were so painful to watch.
Everyone’s family was being separated. Later, we were to find out that
some of the family members were to get out and other family members that
were never to be heard from again. This time was so painful to all of
us, being that we had to leave behind people. I still remember that
feeling when I think back on that time, as I’m sure you do also. It was
sad to think about all of the soldiers and other people that tried to
flee my country and was left behind. What will happen to them?
Suddenly, in the middle of the
night, on April 29th, we got a call from my mother-in-law.
She had received a call from Hawaii, but she could not understand what
the person on the other line was saying. She was sure that it was
someone in my family who had called. David got on the phone at once, and
after many calls and what seemed like a lifetime, he handed me the phone
and it was my brother. He said, “We all got out. The American say
‘Wake…something, I don’t understand. We are scared.” I could not believe
it. They had made it here. They were going to Wake Island, a military
base. After all of this darkness and fear, the promise that I had made
to my father on my wedding day was surely coming true. My family would
soon be here and we would be together again. We called Mr. Kirsch and
told him that we were leaving for Camp Pendleton in California to get my
Back in Reno
The eyewitness news from Channel 2
came to interview my sisters and I. On the next day, my mother, two
sisters, and my brother started work at a plant. The news came again to
film us at work. They reported that my family was the first refugees to
arrive in Reno. What a welcome! David had told me, “I am not a religious
person, but I have been praying.” We did not realize that there were so
many programs to help all of the refugees. All we could think about was
getting everyone to work to get our debts paid off. It was too bad that
my sisters, Ngoc Anh, Kim Loan, and my brother Tan Long had to go to
work instead of go to school. My sister, Kim Phuong, was sent to school
with her two younger sisters, Hoang Thu and Thuy Phuong, who were
already attending school here. The younger sisters helped the older
sister. The Americans, now having their husbands and sons home, opened
their hearts to the refugees who were arriving here. It was during this
time that very many funny things happened to us, as we translated our
language into English.
Some things such as:
Do you remember that? I’m sure my
friends, that all of you have these memories.
1976 Afraid to be Poor
My last child, a girl, was born on the year of the dragon. I named her Elizabeth Xuan. The “dragon”, which was luckier than her older brothers, was carried to full term. She moved, twisted, and turned a lot. She was born on January 2nd at 6 a.m.; she was 6lbs. and 12 ounces. My husband later told me that the nurse had asked him what he wanted. He told her that his sons wanted a puppy dog and the he wanted a girl. The nurse had told my husband that his sons would be disappointed. Of course, when you gain something, you will lose something. I have two children already and now a third! The girl that David had been waiting so long for had arrived. But I was more concerned with being poor again, so just after 2 weeks, I found someone to take care of the kids and I was off to work again. However, now, when I look back, I am very sad to see that my children had grown up alone, almost without parents. I see now what I had lost. The children became closer to their friends than to me. I feel bad for them and for me.
In 1977, a company named, Barth &
Dreyfuss of California hired David. He was to be the president of a new
division that they were opening, called Westview. We moved to Los
1978 The Wave of Boat People
In 1978, communications between
Vietnam and America opened up, and letters started to fly back and forth.
The big waves of “Boat People” fleeing Vietnam were ending up in
neighboring seashores. By the end of 1978, David was transferred to
North Carolina to open up another production facility for Barth &
Dreyfuss. At the end of January, we left for North Carolina. With us
came my mother, sisters, and my brother. The job and the money were very
good, but this place was very depressing. Also, during the end of this
year, my fifth aunt wrote and told us that the communists were planning
to destroy the Phu Tho Hoa graveyard. My mother asked my aunt to dig up
my father’s remains and have them cremated and put in a Buddhist temple.
My aunt also sent one of her sons to flee the country by boat (vượt
biên). He arrived safely at Puala Bidong Island.
1979 Hurricane David Arrives
My aunt wrote again and told us
that our father would be joining us. We knew that this was a signal that
she was taking my father’s ashes and was going to flee by boat also. We
waited and waited, but there were no letters and no news. We all began
The Irony of a Hurricane Named David
This huge, dark, and powerful
killer named David had killed over 1100 people in the Caribbean Islands.
The storm’s huge waves and violent winds sank many boats that were
loaded with the men, women, and children who were fleeing Vietnam for
safety. It took some time, but my husband was able to find out from the
Red Cross if my aunt had arrived. The boat, Minh Hải, departed from cape
Ca Mau, but was not reported arriving anywhere. More than twenty of my
relatives were on that boat, including my aunt and my father’s ashes.
All of them lost at sea. My father had been killed twice!. Once during
the war and now fleeing his country. The new had shattered me. I could
only sit in my house and weep; I felt numb. After this incident, David
drove to Charlotte and signed us up to sponsor two refugee families.
At this time, a boat from World
Vision (if my memory serves me right), was in the open sea looking for
and rescuing boat people. There were also many Vietnam vets in North
Carolina. One man I knew, who was the father of Tommy’s friend, had been
injured when he was hit with napalm. He can not blink anymore and he had
no nose. Another time, a black man had asked me if I was from Vietnam,
when I had said yes, he told me that he had left his legs back there. My
friends, many American share our pain. I’m sure that you can feel the
pain as I do.
1984 Moving Back to California
David worked from company to
company, a few months here and a few months there. He was very unhappy.
He finally opened up a company with a Korean man, printing fabric. His
partner was not a very honorable man and lost all of the company’s
money. They had to close the plant. Unemployed, he quit drinking and was
determined not to draw unemployment benefits. This was a terrible time
for my husband. He would sit for hours in front of the television, not
even seeing it. His soul seemed to be gone. There were many nights that
he would just sit up in bed in silence and he never spoke a word about
it to me. Some time later, I heard about Vietnam vets having flashbacks
when they were under stress. To this day, I do not know what this was
from. I saw that we were back at the beginning again, and I got
unemployment benefits. Luckily, my sister, Thúy Phương, brought home a
cosmetology standard textbook for me to translate from English to
Vietnamese. I agreed to become a paid translator and made some extra
1987 My Mother-in-law Passes Away
I heard this year that Vietnamese
people were able to return home to visit their relatives. David started
working for a company named Design Collection. This company sells fabric
for the ladies apparel trade. I passed cosmetology school and got my
license. I then passed and got my license to be an instructor. I began
teaching at the school that I was formerly a student of. In the middle
of the year, my mother-in-law passed away. She had told her children
that the coffin was to be closed and no one was allowed to see her dead.
She wanted everyone to remember how she was when she was alive, not her
She was gone before seeing her
only son succeed. She was gone before her Vietnamese daughter had a
trade, other than cooking, to take care of her family if needed. All of
the holiday meals, packages of cookies, and homemade candies that she
sent every year, were gone. I remember that she was there for David and
I whenever we needed her. The love from a mother from any country is the
same. Now she is at peace alongside her husband in the place that she
had prepared for herself for all of these years.
David is happy with his work now.
He travels to New York and the Carolinas, and spends about a month on
the road. I am working and going to college at night. However, this is a
dangerous time for my sons. My husband and I have started to taste the
fear of not know what our children are doing. It is our fault that we
are not close to them. They had their own friends and lives and we just
sat at home and worried about them.
1990- David’s fourth sister,
Barbara, passed away from a heart disease. This hit my husband very hard
because he and Barbara were very close when they were growing up. I saw
his sister Betty for the second time.
1991 David Had a Heart Attack
David had had a heart attack and
was in the hospital for a few weeks. This was the result of many years
of abusing his body by smoking, drinking, eating bad food, drinking
coffee, and being stressed at work. He was up by 5 a.m., smoking,
drinking coffee, and working all day. He would fly all night and arrive
in different cities and start working all day without the proper rest.
When the body feels that you do not care anymore, it will give up.
When David had started working at
Design Collection, he knew nothing about computers. However, he was able
to learn and develop a program that is still used there today. When he
had first started working there, there were only a dozen employees. Now,
there are almost 100!
The doctors told him to slow down
or he would not be around to enjoy his grandchildren. He quit smoking
for the last time and started taking care of himself. He knew the pain
of growing up without a father or a grandfather. He likes to joke
around, so he told me, “ Besides, I’ve already trained you, why would I
leave you now? Ha, ha.”
I passed another test and began
working for the State Board of Barbering and Cosmetology as an examiner.
The War in The Gulf
My two sons said that if their country needed them, they would go. My husband tried to tell them the horrors of war. No matter what he said to them, they would still go if they were needed. He told me that he feared that they would leave as boys and return changed forever. He feared that they would have terrible memories to live with for the rest of their lives. I was also afraid of these things. I lived in fear until the day President Bush brought the military home.
During this time, my daughter began
arguing with her father and acted like she hated her mother. When she
sad, she would always talk to her friends instead of David and me. For
this, I blame myself. I spent all of my time giving her material things,
that I forgot to give her the one most important thing, myself. My
husband tells me all the time now that his greatest regret was not being
able to see his children grow up; their first steps, their first word,
and everything in between. He sees all he has lost when watching his
granddaughter grow up now and know this is a great sadness for him. Now,
there are many orphans of mixed blood, Amer-asians, and the HO program
(South Vietnamese soldiers released from prison) who are starting to
come to America.
Lawrence is working and going to
college now. My first born is very independent. When he was very young,
we left him to grow up alone. He gave in to his younger brother to make
peace. Most of the time, though, he played by himself. I remember when
Tommy was only a few months old, he knew his mother. I had to hold him
for one hour every night from 8 to 9 p.m., before he would let me put
him in his cradle to sleep. However, time goes by, and does it go fast.
In the blind of an eye, in 1993, Lawrence got married. My first
daughter-in-law is Chinese. Her name is Elaine Wai.
Design Collection opens its first
new division, Division 92, Inc. David owns a percentage of this company
and is now the President and CEO of Division 92 and Vice-President of
Design Collection. At the end of 1994, Tommy began working at Design
Collection also. In 1995, Elaine became pregnant. Unfortunately, our
first grandchild is lost. This is a great sorrow for us all. I often
wonder if it is because of the Agent Orange. This chemical was used all
over Vietnam and my husband could have been exposed to it like many
other vets. Could it be that the poison went from grandfather to son to
grandchild? Could the war have followed us only to destroy the next
1996 The United States has one more
Elaine became pregnant for a
second time. This time, a beautiful girl was born in June. We now have a
perfect new granddaughter named Emily. So now, the United States has one
more united citizen. Emily has three-quarter Asian blood and one-quarter
of American blood. If this mixing keeps up, there will no more black,
white, yellow, or brown, but only one color, neutral. I am trying to
make up for the lost time with my own children by spending every free
minute that I have with Emily.
1997 How My Husband Fooled Me into
Moving On To Water
Elizabeth began working for her
father this year. She really is close to her father now. Not too long
ago she usually chases her two brothers to bite them, now she turn in to
a young girl with beautiful long hairs.
My husband tells me that he wants to buy a boat so that he can go fishing and so that we can spend our free time on the boat relaxing. I told him that that sounded okay, but in my mind I remember that I can not swim. How was I to know that the day we took possession of the boat, that this would be where I would spend all of my time? The air is clean and it is always cooler here and most of my problems with allergies are gone.
In 1998 my husband’s heart seemed to be strong and the lifestyle and weather were agreeing with him. One day he told me,
“ Since we’re here all of the time, we
should buy a bigger boat.” I have to say okay. Living on the water has
been David’s dream for many years. Having this boat is like a dream come
true to him. My children now tell me that he seems like a different
person. He is relaxed, happy, and at ease. I am sure that this is the
end of my rainbow. It is like we are eating the fruits that we had
planted. When I see my husband so happy, I remember a lot of things. The
success did not just drop out of the sky. All this is from many years of
hard work. It is the result of all the great sorrow, pain, and despair
that we have endured. We climbed one mountain only to find another one
higher and steeper. We could only keep climbing. And we always ask
ourselves, “Did we do the right thing? Did we repay those who lent us a
helping hand, like Siu Woo, Mr. Kirsh, and Mr. Knauer? And all the
Just before Thanksgiving, we had
received bad news. Elaine only had one week left to live. My husband
talked to her on the phone and told her that we were leaving and would
be there soon. We arrived 12 hours later and only Elaine's body was
there. She had go in coma passed away before we got there. The words
that my husband had spoken 12 hours ago were the last words that they
were to have between them. Again, I was witness to the fine line between
life and death.
When my father was shot in the
war, it was quick and very sudden. The anger and pain rushed over me
like a giant wave. Elaine died in bed slowly in peacetime. I was with
her the night that she died. It seemed that when she took a breath in
that she had to struggle. She would hold her breath for a very long
time, as if it was over, and then her breath would leave her. Suddenly,
after a 4-day struggle, the last breath came in and went out. It was
over at 53 years of age. She died at her daughter's house. She wanted to
be cremated and her ashes to be spread over Table Rock, near the place
where she grew up, lived, and died. She was a woman of simple desires;
she lived simply and died the same way.
I remember her from the day that
my mother-in-law and all of my husband's relatives met us at the airport
in Portland, Oregon. In another blink of an eye, 30 years had flown
away. We met on a Thanksgiving holiday and said good-bye on a
Thanksgiving holiday 30 years later. One more life had gone. Good-bye
2000, 32 Years Later
May 28, 2000, the day that we remember my father.
32 years later, I see seven of my mother's children around her (my oldest sister could not make it in time). My mother feeling a mixture of the loss but happy that she had waited for the time that she was to be with him and did not remarry. She gave herself for her children to have a chance at a good life. All of us even have our own families and lives, but we still stay close to my mother. I guess my husband says it best, "I look at this tiny woman and I know that she gave up two of her youngest children. She did not know if she would ever see them again, and yet, she still let them (the two sisters that we brought over in 1974) leave Vietnam for a chance at a better life. Then, on April 28, 1975, she made a dangerous journey to the airport with her remaining children. She did not even know a single word in English. Somehow, she gets her whole family on one of the last airplanes leaving Vietnam. I have more respect for this woman than most men that I know. She is one of the bravest people I know. You and your sisters and brother are very lucky to have her." I myself do not have the words to thank her for all that she has done for us. She gave herself beyond what people should have to give. I can only know how lucky that I was to have her as my mother.
In March, my second granddaughter
was born, Charlotte. Emily looks like her mother and Charlotte looks
like her father. Emily speaks English and Chinese. She understands
almost everything in Vietnamese, but she is too shy to speak it.
However, she does know how to get me to do anything that she wishes.
When she wants me to play with her, she says, "Bà nội lại đây
(grandmother come here)," with an accent that melts my heart. In this
year we got the news of my brother-in-law's sudden death. I still
remember the day that he brought David to my old home in Phú Lâm to
introduce him to me. He was our matchmaker. I will always be grateful to
him for that.
Even today, David can speak very
few Vietnamese words, without the accents. When I cook stir fry, he
reminds me," Put a lot of cu hanh (onion)."
I hear people ask him about what
had happened in “Nam” and his answer is always the same, "We retreated,
we went back on our word to the Vietnamese, and we lost. What more is
there to say? I feel ashamed."
I don't look at this man that has been beside me for 32 years, as a foreigner. I only see a husband, father, and good man that have taken this journey with me. He made sure that our children spoke Vietnamese to my family and me. He felt that his children should know where they come from and to be proud and respect both cultures.
There, my friends, this is my story, seven up and three down; like most other stories. Looking back over the past 32 years, I can see all of the hard work at trying to achieve the goals that I set for myself. Always trying, never giving up, and taking opportunities when they were given, have paid off. If you sit and wait for something good to happen, get comfortable because you will be waiting forever.
Sometimes I tease David, "Americans owe
Vietnamese people for the way they have taken care of the Vietnamese. My
mother is 75-years-old, still very clear-minded, and she eats well. When
she gets sick, she has good doctors and hospitals to care for her. All
of my siblings have good lives, and you, you must owe me. You enlisted
in the Navy on your 16th birthday and your mother had to sign for you.
Then, you ask to go to Vietnam. You go across the world to bring me here
to pay your debt." He replies, "Debt of love. I loved you in a past
life. It's like a debt of money, you make payments and slowly you pay it
off, but you still finish. It's a debt of love that I will have to pay
forever. If I don't pay you off in this life, I guess I'll just have to
go through this again in my next life."
So, after those years of treating his wife like air, he realizes that the air is also precious. Some husbands and wives go through life and never learn this.
Now, David and I are both old. David is no longer slim and muscular, but is more like a barrel. No longer am I the petite girl that stood, next to the quiet American, in front of my ancestors' alter, asking for my father to help me on our wedding day; but round like a long curdle pillow.
In 1979, hurricane David took thousands of people, "boat people", including my fifth aunt and my father's ashes to the bottom of the ocean. I thought that all was lost, but the ocean is still there.
Every day, I am one of these "boat
people." I live on a boat that is anchored in a harbor. I stand by my
husband, David, who has the same name as the hurricane of 1979, sharing
his dream. I can hear the ocean breaking and I hear the ocean bumping
the boat with a light thumping sound. David says that it is the ocean's
heart beating. I realize now, standing here, that the vow that I made to
my father so long ago, had come true. I believe that my father was there
to guide me and see that his family was taken care of.
Writer: Truong Ngoc Bao Xuan Abbott