A Tribute to My Beloved Parents – From Courageous Refugees to Proud U.S. Citizens

Happy Lunar Year! May the Year of the Monkey bring you much happiness, abundance of health, and prosperity in all that you! To honor this special day, I am dedicating this post to my loving parents, with whom I come to appreciate more and more with each passing day of my residency in Mommy-ville.

A Parent’s Love Knows No Bound

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They vowed until death shall they part!

Both of my parents recently turned a whopping 80 years young. To say they are “great” parents is a definite understatement in my eyes. They not only gave me the precious gift of life through God’s blessings. They have enriched my life in profound and countless ways. Without their personal sacrifices, tremendous determination, and sheer courage, my siblings and I would not have the luxury of living the comfortable lives that we do today in The States. We would not understand the privilege of being U.S. Citizens much less fully embrace true peace and freedom with all their mighty glories. I am always grateful to consider this remarkable nation my home because of them.

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My folks at my Mama’s 80th birthday last summer.

Sacrificing All For The Elusive “Brighter” Tomorrow! They are Nothing Without Their Kids!

I wholeheartedly credit my parents for making the most difficult decision of their lives, to leave their home country of Vietnam when they did. Their sacrifices were immense. They not only left behind priced material possessions they worked so hard for so many years to obtain; a successful business built from nothing. They also abandoned their ethnic cuisine, close relatives and friends, the only way of life they knew, and a rich culture so heavily steeped in traditions. For the sake of their kids’ education and future, they felt compelled to immigrate to a foreign country they knew nothing about let alone speak a word of that native country’s language.

In 1975, towards the tail end of the Vietnam War, the last U.S. military airplane left Vietnamese soil. Saigon was history. The North Vietnamese troops marched victoriously to South Vietnam to claim what was now theirs. Drastic and horrendous changes rapidly impacted not only my family’s way of life but the education system as well. Everywhere we turned, those around us who appeared to be intellectuals, students, religious figures, merchants, etc., were being sent to re-education camps as a way of reforming their minds via education and physical labor. I call it “brainwashing through physical torture with no end in sight”.

Papa often recounts, “Nobody dreads war more than I do. Nobody fears cruel physical torture and imprisonment by the Viet Cong more than I do. I would have stayed beneath their vicious radar for as long as I could. However, when I witness with my own eyes, my children studying their hardest, doing their very best in school only to be left in the dust by the Communist school system. They were merely second-class students. When all opportunities are reserved for the Viet Cong children who barely make the slightest academic effort, it’s beyond infuriating. It’s downright shameful and wrong! My children will never amount to anything but selling coffee in our cafe shop, cleaning seafood or peddling questionable products in street stalls. What kind of life would that be for them… for their children? What kind of a father would I be to sit and do nothing?” Those searing thoughts gave my parents the audacity to bid  farewell to Vietnam after strategically planning for nearly a year.

Into The Darkness: Sailing Forward Through Fear and Not Looking Back!

There were six of us in my family. Leaving in small groups was crucial to avoid being detected by the Viet Cong soldiers. My two older sisters left quietly at dawn that unforgettable day. My mom and I were next to leave later that morning. I remembered she was dressed in the simplest, brown-colored ao ba ba, a traditional Vietnamese long sleeves buttoned-down silk shirt, and silken black wide-leg pants that flowed effortlessly with her with every step. She had a woven shopping basket in one hand, and my little hands in the other. Her voice was calm but stern. We were to give the impression we’re just out shopping for the day’s grocery. My papa and older brother left a few hours later on bicycles. They rode around the markets for awhile then casually ditched the bicycle and hopped on a xe do, a small bus, en route to Cam Ranh, a southern coastal city of Vietnam just one hour away from our native city, Nha Trang. Within a week, we were all united at a family friend’s house near the edge of Cam Ranh Bay.

That very last night in Cam Ranh left a permanent impression in my mind. I was nearly six years old at the time, but I can still recall hiding in that tiny public restroom with my mom. We were tucked in the furthest corner of that blackened “box”. Electricity was unheard of in these rural corners of Vietnam. The stench of the surrounding and the numbness of my buttocks sitting still for hours on that disgustingly wet floor felt overwhelming with each passing hour. We were to remain “incognito” until we got the “sign” to move. My mom looked at me several times, firmly signaling me to not make the slightest sound or movement. Even at that tender age, I knew not to screw up for the consequence would be deadly. Once we heard my papa’s voice calling us, we literally bolted out of that unsettling darkness. That very first breath of fresh air was astounding and so welcomed. Then within minutes, we were told “It’s Time!” by a family friend.

In the midst of a muggy, eerie night on May 15, 1981, we secretly boarded a rickety fishing boat docked nearby. We quietly fled with nothing more than the depressing, filthy clothes on our backs and a small bag of our “everything”. We never looked back! We were at sea for a total of five excruciating nights. The conditions on the boat were extreme and unsanitary: no bath and no toilet for 28 people. The men were on the upper deck, posing as fishermen on the waters in search of their next catch. Women and children were tightly tucked into the bottom wooden deck like a tin can of sardines, with just a two-foot sliding door to enter and exit. It also served as a window to what little fresh air we could inhale. Bare in mind, that bottom deck was built to store fishermen’s netting and their catch of the day. It certainly was unintended for hiding people, specifically 20 scared babies and their mothers.  Starvation was taking its toll. People were becoming restless.  Each family was responsible for carrying enough “nibbles” for their family until we were hopefully rescued by a naval ship from other countries once we entered open waters. Insanity could casts its ugly shadow on its victims in mere seconds. Fortunately, we had no encounter with sea pirates because that was a very frightening but common fact on Asian waters. Within minutes, you could be taken as slaves/wives if you were young girls or women. That would have been the last anyone would ever see or hear from you.

Around three in the morning on the fifth night at sea, a thunderous storm casted its fury on our families unexpectedly. The once calm water was now transformed into monstrous waves, crashing into our boat with massive force. Heavy winds violently splashed briny water into our faces, stinging our eyes. Within minutes, water rapidly crept into the boat despite our countless efforts to remove it. Those from the bottom deck were quickly summoned to crawl out of that hell hole. Families clung onto each other tightly suspecting the worst. With each passing minute, the terrifying waves appeared higher and more turbulent. At times, we felt the boat would surely tip over.

The hopelessness among those on board were thickly draped with a blanket of fear over each pair of eyes. They sensed the inevitable hands of death knocking at their door. We could do nothing but desperately prayed to Guanyin, The Goddess of Mercy. Though my papa had never stepped foot inside a Buddhist temple in his life nor was he a man of any faith, he felt the strongest urge to pray. We were praying loudly in a Buddhist chant, repeatedly begging for mercy and to be lifted from this nightmarish storm. In return for the Goddess’ mercy, some vowed they would never kill another animal of any kind. Some swore to a vegan life for a specified number of years; others – their entire life. A few promised to shave their heads and to remain bald, similar to living the life of a Buddhist monk. My papa promised to devote his entire life to Buddhism. He remains true to his words. He still refuses to kill garden pests like ants or tomato worms despite seeing them destroy his prized plants every gardening season.

Do Miracles Exist? How Can We Explain What Our Eyes Saw?

My parents recalled it was in this brief moment of great despair, when we truly believed we were drifting towards our own mortality, that something miraculous appeared right before our eyes. A firm push was felt and a loud thump was heard from the sides of the boat. A pair of whales, suddenly surfaced from the deep waters, one on each side of the boat. These majestic mammals stayed closely alongside the boat throughout the remainder of the storm which last for 20 amazing minutes. People were in disbelief! Was this “their” own reality? Were they so starved… so desperate for survival… so scared out of their minds, they have ALL reached the state of hallucination? How can a pair of whales come out of nowhere? Why did they anchor themselves so closely beside the boat like they did? Why did they stayed for so long? Was this a miracle? We don’t know! We will never know!  What we do know and witnessed was without them, our boat would have flipped over. The boat was stabilized against the crashing waves upon their appearance. We just know that people were screaming and cheering! Some were overcame with tears; so overwhelmed with emotions. After the storm subsided, the water became calmer. The whales were nowhere to be found. I’ve heard my papa said all my life “If it was just one person witnessing this occurrence, then his words would be doubted. But everyone except the babies on board witnessed the same event. We prayed with our hearts! We believed in The Goddess of Mercy! For that, she granted us mercy!” In his eyes, it WAS a miracle!

At Least We Were Safe! We Were Together!

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My family of six, on board the naval ship that rescued us. I’m in the turquoise shirt.

To make a long story shorter, by early morning of the sixth day, the raging waves was history. Although we were still stranded at sea, we managed to escaped death. Towards mid-day, we were discovered and thankfully rescued by one of U.S. naval ships patrolling around The Philippines islands. They brought on us board and fed us. We “somewhat bathe” for the first time in days. We were sent to the nearest refugee camp in Palawan. In one painfully long year, we meagerly lived at two different camps, awaiting news of sponsorship from our Uncle from The States.

28 family and friends, asylum seekers, risking their lives to escape a communist reign. This was taken after being rescued. by a naval ship near The Philippines islands.

The actual faces of 28 family and friends/refugees, risking their lives to escape a communist reign. That’s me in the turquoise shirt. This was taken after being rescued. We briefly boarded the naval ship docked beside our boat on the Philippines islands. We were headed for the refugee camp on Palawan.

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This picture was taken right after we were rescued at sea. My father (with a hat, white shirt on the left) and the rest of the men stood on this exact fishing boat for six days. That sliding window on the left is the entrance/exit to the bottom deck where I and the rest of the women and children hid until we were out of Communist territories. Before we boarded the naval ship nearby, someone captured this moment as a souvenir.

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My family took this picture on our last day at Palawan refugee camp after being here for three months. We were being sent to the refugee camp in Bataan near Manila for further screening and interviewing. Behind us was OUR fishing boat. The upper deck where the men stood against the side rails for six days at sea, was removed. Behind my father, side rails is kept in tact. During our time at the camp, our boat was used as a public example of what refugees would use to escape death.

Life in the refugee camps was incredibly difficult but we did our best to survive.  At the very least, our family was safe. We were always “together” through the hardships! Food was rationed and disbursed daily by a camp director. Each family received the same amount of food regardless of the number of people in the family. One of our close family friends had 12 mouths to feed. He was given the same amount of food as our family of six. Everyday, my parents woke up before the rooster crowed. They would carry several empty containers to the nearest water pumps, and manually pumped drinking water for our family’s daily use, be it bathing, cooking, drinking, etc. Upon sunrise, the drawing for choice cuts of meats (i.e. fresh fish, pork shoulder/fat, belly, etc.) begins. If luck was not on your side that morning, your family was stuck with the boniest part of the pig or the smallest fish. IMG_8582

Some things are worth their weight in gold! An apple (the everyday fruit I often take for granted these days) which was imported from elsewhere, costed as much as a jar of caviar. One of my mom’s fondest camp memories was exchanging some fish and meats we opted not to eat that day with a local filipino woman selling apples from outside the camp grounds. This was a rare opportunity to taste this rare fruit, so foreign to our Vietnamese family.  She excitedly cut the “expensive” pale red fruit into six thin pieces. She recalled fondly, her piece, though small, was the most delicious and sweetest fruit she had eaten up to that point. If you were willing to fork out one precious can of rice in exchange for a skimpy scoop of ice cream, then your family was beyond rich. Finally, we heard from our Uncle and he graciously sponsored our family to the States shortly thereafter. We arrived on U.S. soil in June 28, 1982. It was the BEST day our lives.

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My family standing in front of our quaint living quarter in the Bataan Refugee Camp. Our first time in new garments in nearly a year. My mom finally cut her incredibly long hair. It was here that we saw her hair traditionally parted evenly in middle for the very last time. We were to board our first ever flight to the United States on this day – June 26, 1982. Plenty of “first” moments to come and we we were so ready!

 

They Gave Us That Which We Cannot See With Our Eyes But With Our Hearts!

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My papa with his granddaughter on Waikiki Beach, Oahu, HI in March 2012.

Since arriving to The States, my parents worked tirelessly as blue-collar workers, with nothing to their names or in their pockets. They forever struggled with the language barrier for the sole purpose of feeding their four growing children. They unselfishly supported their kids in every which way they could through college. How many parents can endure that much and be so loving in their resiliency?

My mom, in her heyday, ran a busy coffee shop and managed the family households with help from her maids. She rarely lifted a finger when she came home from work. She had no need to. In this new world, she was now a factory worker for an auto parts manufacturer without air conditioner or heater. In the scorching heat of summer, sweat profusely flowed down her face. In the blistering months of winter, she shivered down to her bones. For a graceful lady born in the coastal city of Nha Trang with pristine beaches just steps from her comfortable home, factory life was beyond challenging but she never uttered a word of complaint.  My papa became a janitor at a local church nearby. Though the work was physically exhausting, his schedule was flexible and the church staff was kind. They were considerate and patient with his broken english.

On minimum wages, my parents often went with so little but gave plenty to their kids. Despite their long work hours, they made sure home cooked meals were on the table every night. The core values they taught us were preached and practiced throughout their daily lives. Money was important but family always came first.  They ate simply but healthy food. Growing their own seasonal foods was (still is) liberating and rewarding. I am most grateful for their wisdom about life and how to live with dignity, integrity, grace, and confidence. My papa often said, “Regardless of how people treat you, they will always remember you for your character. Be genuine with yourself and others. Avoid the pitfalls of living beyond your financial and emotional means!” I’m still learning and doing my best to practice what they preach.

This blessed child of a courageous and determined refugee family, who came to this country with nothing but hope was given everything (and more) under God’s grace. I feel deeply grateful and most fortunate to call my parents – Ba and Ma!

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