Starting Over After War (Vietnam)

Evacuating from South Vietnam and end of war.

Both my parents are immigrants from Asia, (my mom is from Vietnam and my dad is from India), but I chose my Mom’s story for this essay because she has a very interesting story in my opinion. Her tale is exciting and dramatic. It is a tale of going from privilege and comfort to struggles and hardship, and the lessons learned in the process.

My mom’s life in Vietnam was very privileged in Vietnam. Her Dad (my Grandfather) was the Assistant Director of the Port Authority of Saigon. During the Vietnam War, the port of Saigon was one of the main hubs for receiving and sending goods and services that supported the war efforts. Americans sent weapons and luxury goods such as chocolates and cigarettes (Western consumer goods were considered luxury items in Vietnam at the time ) as well as military and civilian personnel through this port. For these reasons, it was very important that the port was secure. The port authority was part of the South Vietnamese military and my Grandfather was a Lieutenant Colonel. His high ranking position afforded him a personal driver and he interacted with a lot of “important” foreigners. He did a lot of business with foreigners responsible for international shipping. In addition to the personal driver provided by the South Vietnamese military, my mom’s family had their own servants at home, which was important because her Mom (my grandmother) was a full time High School math teacher.

The other privilege is that my Mom went to a private Catholic school. She also had private piano lessons on the weekends and had a one-on one tutor. Every Sunday there was a family get together at her paternal Grandmother’s house. My Mom still remembers getting big gifts like expensive dolls  and her brother (my uncle) getting expensive toy cars as well as her Dad getting expensive liquor from his various foreign counterparts visiting the Port of Saigon. However, the outside was very scary so she had to be either at school or at home. Roads were really dusty and dirty, with lots of desperate people. She still remembers her Mom (my Grandmother) always having a bit of money to give to homeless, crippled veterans who came by begging at the door. Despite this paradox, my mom’s recollection of that time in Vietnam was always positive. She was spoiled and sheltered (her words not mine).

When Mom was 7 everything changed. This was about a month before the fall of Saigon in April 1975. Since my grandfather was a high ranking officer in the the South Vietnamese army, they had to leave Vietnam. Had they stayed, my Grandfather would have been sent to an reeducation camp. Some of his colleagues who stayed behind were forced into these camps. Some were beaten so badly they were paralyzed while others died from injuries sustained from the beatings.

She left on the last commercial cargo ship with her parents and her brother. The captain gave them the office area of his quarters. For some context the captain’s quarters was divided into two, a sleeping area and an office area, but the office area did have a couch. She was squeezed in there in that office with her family and another woman who was travelling alone. For some size context that office was a little bigger than a bedroom closet. Just imagine five people being stuck in an area smaller than your room with four other people for two to three days. This cargo ship took her from South Vietnam to Wake Island, an American territory in the South Pacific close to Guam. While five people squeezing into a small office sounds uncomfortable, my Mom’s family were actually the lucky ones.  When my Mom stepped out of the office in the captain’s quarters, she saw many families sleeping straight on the open deck of the cargo ship. For them there was no roof or any walls to shield them from the elements.

When they got to Wake Island, they slept in big military tents set up for refugees with multiple cots in each tent. Thankfully, she spent only one or two nights there at Wake island. After that a military plane transported the refugee families to Honolulu, Hawaii. There were no seats in the plane; not very pleasant. Before you get the wrong idea about this being a Hawaiian beach vacation, the families stayed in military barracks and couldn’t leave the base. There was no ocean in sight. Fortunately, mom was only there for 3 days.

After that she and her family were flown to to Fort Chaffee in Arkansas (also an army base). She can’t remember this part of the journey. She was at Fort Chaffee for 2 months, but didn’t have to be there for so long. They kept on bumping into family, and stayed longer in hopes of reuniting with more family members. Also, they couldn’t leave until they had a sponsor. Thanks to her Dad’s family connections with a member of Congress from Indiana, they were sponsored by a church in Northern Indiana.

Mom’s family settled in Decatur Indiana (close to Fort Wayne located in the North East of the state). Back then through the eyes of a child it was really fun. My mom never saw so many big houses and wide open space. Decatur was a very small town, less than 5,000 total population. The church that sponsored mom’s family was a Catholic Church that had its own school, so Mom got to go to 2nd grade in a private school – tuition free.  The summer before she started school, one of the nuns tutored her in English. Thanks to this nun and basically through total immersion from TV and only speaking English outside of home, she picked up English in only 3 months. The downside however is that she lost a lot of the Vietnamese language. This mainly was due to only speaking Vietnamese with her parents and in any other situation used English. The result of this is her English becoming a lot better than her Vietnamese. As she got older her English became more sophisticated while her Vietnamese was stuck at the level of a 7 year old.

Mom and family were only in Indiana for a year due to there being no jobs, extreme weather  (hot and humid in the summer and really cold in winter). My Mom’s uncle was living in San Francisco at the time. He persuaded them to move to California, and they wound up in San Jose. At the beginning it was hard for her parents to find work as they had no degree or skills that were valid in the U.S, so they had to – start over.

Luckily it was beginning of Silicon Valley (1976). Mom’s parents went to trade school to learn tech skills. To make ends meet, they received welfare and food donations while they took classes. Within 6 to 9 months  they got jobs at high tech manufacturing companies, and no longer relied on government support. At the time land was cheap and they were able to buy their own homes with the jobs they had after 2 years of working. They were also able save enough money to put my Mom and her brother through college.

The downside to California in the 70’s was a lack of  diversity in the suburbs of San Jose. In her 4th grade she could not recall another non-white family. The next year this non-white student count increased by 4, a Chinese brother and sister moved in there and one Indian kid (not my dad….. he was still in India) and she had a half African American friend. At the end of her elementary school, 6th grade, there were more non white families but no more than 10. For context, this was out of a total of 300-500 students in Elementary school.  Due to this extreme level of homogeneity in her school, my mom was called all sorts of racist names like ‘chink’ , ‘nip’, etc.

As Mom got to Jr High and High school, the student population got more diverse as more families from around the world moved to San Jose. One of her fondest memories is  her 11th grade history teacher, Helen Mineta, Norman Mineta’s sister (Congressman and Transportation Secretary under George W Bush). Ms. Mineta shared many stories about her own experiences with prejudice by telling stories about being a Japanese American during World War II and living in the internment camp. Mom got to meet Norman Mineta once when he came to visit his sister in high school.

Mom now is 50 and my family lives in Palo Alto. She stays at home and helps my younger brother with homework (I do my homework by myself) in addition to being involved in School events. Before starting a family, my Mom went to Santa Clara University (ironically another Catholic school) where she got her Bachelors and MBA.

She then worked at a bunch of high tech companies like AMD. She met my dad in San Francisco and then moved to New York City after they married. I was born in New York two years later.  We lived there until my Dad got sick of the weather (hot and humid in the summer and really cold in winter) and we moved back to California. She hopes that my brother and I are productive and make positive contributions to society. She and my dad also hope to retire in Hawaii (another full circle).

From immigrating to the U.S my mom gained a lot such as going to SCU, having a successful career and — a family. She lost some privileges early on, but that in itself just motivated her to succeed.  The many hardships she and her family faced built character. The values learned, hard work and perseverance, shaped how my mom raised my brother and I. While we do live much more comfortably, she always pushes us to do our best.

This story was written by a student in Palo Alto, CA.

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