A photo from a newspaper of my family in Watsonville, California during the summer of 1975.
I Had Just Turn Seven
From Vietnam to the Central Valley: Jeannine Laramie
Dr. Jeannine Laramie was born in Saigon, Vietnam in 1968 where she lived until 1975 when she and her family left. She remembers growing up in a poor family and moving around a lot because her father was in the military. When she was seven years old, her father heard about the fall of Saigon on the radio and rushed his family out of the city.
This story was collected by Alexa Tran as a part of her Girl Scout Gold Award Project in 2022.
Alexa [00:00:01] Hi, everyone. My name is Alexa, and I'm a high school student from the Central Valley of California. I'm currently pursuing my Girl Scout Gold Award, the highest honor a Girl Scout can earn, and for this project, I'm collecting and sharing the stories of Vietnamese Boat People from all over the Central Valley. So today I have Dr. Laramie with me, and just do a quick introduction, can you talk a little bit about who you are and what you do?
Dr. Laramie [00:00:25] So my name is Jeannine Laramie, and I'm a physician. I've been here in Fresno for the past 25 years almost, and I do primary care in the valley, taking care of old and young.
Alexa [00:00:42] Perfect. Thank you. So, where were you born in Vietnam? And like, where did you grow up?
Dr. Laramie [00:00:48] I was born in Saigon, Vietnam in 1968 and grew up in Saigon most of my life in Vietnam. And then the war hit. And that's when we came over in '75 to the U.S..
Alexa [00:01:03] And what do you remember about living in Vietnam? Like, what were some things that you enjoyed, or what were some things that you struggled with?
Dr. Laramie [00:01:11] So I knew that we came from a very poor family. My dad was in the army, so we moved around a lot with the army. And I have very few memories of Vietnam because I was so young, and I think I was a nerd, so I had my head in a book most of the time is the story. The hardest part was, I think, not remembering so much of my life in Vietnam. And I somewhat regret that. Maybe I blocked it out. But the best part was when I was with family, my grandmother, especially on my dad's side, my paternal grandmother. Just being with family was the best part that I remember in Vietnam.
Alexa [00:02:03] So have, like, has your family helped you kind of recover some of these memories? Like, have you talked to them, kind of figure it out? I mean, you were young, so did they help fill in some of those blanks?
Dr. Laramie [00:02:15] Yes, to some degree. My mom didn't remember a lot of what happened during the time of our life, other than that we were poor. So, she couldn't share a lot of it. My dad refused to talk about what happened in Vietnam, so he was very reluctant to share part of the life that I was brought up in in Vietnam. I think part of it was he was ashamed of being poor, even though he was in the army.
Alexa [00:02:45] And, so how old were you when you left Vietnam? Do you remember what year?
Dr. Laramie [00:02:51] Yeah. So we, I had just turned seven. The ten days before we left. And the story goes was that my father had heard about the fall already from the radio because he was part of the, the American Army, the Vietnamese Army. So he got us out, and we apparently were on the last bus leaving the city. And at that time, there were already bombs and explosions all around us. My dad did say that our bus was the last bus to have left because when we crossed a certain part of the road, the road behind us was bombed. And then all I remember was being somewhere where there were a lot of boats on the coast, a lot of fishing ships and fishing boats. And that's my experience was being thrown into the shipping boat and then having tons of people piled on top of us to make it out towards the area where the American ships were.
Alexa [00:04:03] So that day that you left, did you know you were leaving that day or was it kind of sudden?
Dr. Laramie [00:04:08] It was sudden. I mean, I think my brother, my younger brother and I, we didn't know what was going on. We just kind of went with the crowd. We had no idea that we were leaving the country. We just knew that everybody was panicked, was panicking. Everybody was wanting to go somewhere and be somewhere where there weren't going to be a lot of shooting and bombs.
Alexa [00:04:36] And who did you come with and who was left behind?
Dr. Laramie [00:04:40] So that day was April 30th, 1975. And my father, because he spoke some English, he was able to guide us towards the American ship once we left the fishing boat. And we have a huge family on my mom's side, it was my grandparents, my uncles and aunts. There were about almost two dozen of us that he corralled together at the base of the ship. He understood enough where the American Navy officers were saying women and children only, we were at down at the gangplank. And he, he was telling the American, he was translating for the people. And he said, the American soldiers are saying that it's women and children only, and that if men were caught and going up the gangplank, then they would shoot. And I don't know, it was I doubt it was a real threat. But that was what he translated. And so he was part of a group of people who were helping all the women and children up the plank, going up to the American ship. And then he also overheard when there were, time had elapsed, that there was a radio message saying, you have to leave now. Okay. And because he understood that message, he panicked. So at that time, we were still down there, my brothers and my mom, my mom. So he grabbed her and pulled her up the plank. And he grabbed my youngest brother and helped my mom pull, go up to the plank because he knew that that was coming. They were going to kick the plank off. And I think what he said was because the officer up on the boat recognized that he was helping them load people up from below, they took a look at him, pulled his arm into the boat, and then kicked off the plank. So we were actually the last family. And on the plank behind him was my grandfather. And some of my uncles. But he got about fifteen of us from our family up. Most of us were all either kids or my aunts and cousins and my mom and my grandmother.
Alexa [00:07:07] So would you say that was the most difficult part about leaving, leaving kind of your family behind? Or what were some other challenges?
Dr. Laramie [00:07:19] You know, I, I don't remember. For me personally, my scariest moment was actually going to the bathroom because you were squatting over a hole. I was so afraid of looking down to the ocean. So that was the most challenging. My brother's birthday was the next day, and so the best part of my memory of that trip on the boat were, were the American officers giving my brother Chiclet gums as part of his celebration for his birthday. You know, so I don't, the rest of it, it was just kind of vague memories. And I think part of it was the memory of what my dad told me had happened. Not that I remembered. Okay, because I, when we traveled, we went to Guam. That was our destination for the Navy, and that whole part of it in Guam, I don't remember because apparently I was dying from dehydration and so I was out for a couple of days.
Alexa [00:08:20] So can you talk a little bit about what the journey was like on the boat? Kind of the conditions?
Dr. Laramie [00:08:26] I remember it was cold and it was always wet. And we were all huddled in a space, all of us who were given a space to huddle in. And my father was the one who was designated to go to get food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And he would come home or to the that area with his ration. And he was dividing it among all the family members. That's really all I remember.
Alexa [00:09:00] So you mentioned that you stopped at Guam. Did you land in any other countries or refugee camps?
Dr. Laramie [00:09:07] Not as far as I remember, no. I think from Guam, we must have taken a plane to Arkansas next. And that's where we settled for a couple of, I don't know, days, weeks.
Alexa [00:09:19] So to Arkansas. Is that where you grew up or did you go somewhere after that?
Dr. Laramie [00:09:24] No. So a lot of the refugees I learned later on, we were designated to any of the, I think four or five destinations the U.S. had at the time for the refugees. So we were in Fort Chaffee in Arkansas, and they were encouraging us to find whoever families or sponsors at the time. And fortunately, when he was in Vietnam working for the U.S. Army, my father befriended a soldier who lived in Washington, not Washington, Watsonville, rather, California. And so he had give my father's number saying, "Anytime you need me for anything, you just call me." And that's what my dad did. He called my sponsor, our sponsor, José Moreno, and he said, "Yeah, come on over, we'll take care of you." And so we were given a plane ride to Watsonville, and I grew up in San Jose for most of my life in California and then moved on to college and med school afterwards. Yeah.
Alexa [00:10:36] So what was it like growing up in this, like, new country with a totally different environment? Do you have any memories of, like, specific things that happened at school or maybe with your family?
Dr. Laramie [00:10:48] Yeah. So my dad taught in Watsonville, he taught ESL to the two of us, my brother and I at Freedom Elementary. That's where my sponsor's wife, Mrs. Mareno, worked as a teacher and then as a principal. So I just remember my dad telling us that we have to learn English to blend in, and that you have to obey. Behave. Obey. Do what everybody else tells you to do. Do what your elders tell you to do. That was easy because I was pretty much an introvert, and I was shy to begin with. So, I was more of a listener, and I learned but with observation. And so that was the reason why I think I adapted so well. It was, I feel more of an adventure than anything else growing up. It's a challenge to be part of this new life, to learn English primarily to fit in.
Alexa [00:11:58] And were there a lot of other Vietnamese refugees, or were you, was it kind of just you guys?
Dr. Laramie [00:12:03] It was just us in Watsonville. Yeah. And about six months later, we moved out of Watsonville and to, to San Jose because my father had earned enough money working at the liquor store that Mr. Moreno owned to rent an apartment.
Alexa [00:12:23] And so were, how did you end up in the Central Valley?
Dr. Laramie [00:12:29] So when I was in med school, my husband was two years ahead of me, had a residency spot in Fresno, and he had, we were both Californians to begin with. And when he had left the medical school to go to Fresno, I ended up two years later applying for the residency program in Fresno. And, been happy to stay here all these years.
Alexa [00:12:59] And what has it been like being a Vietnamese American in the Central Valley? Because I know it's not really, not as big populations as maybe like other parts of California. But would you say that there are a lot of people that you feel like you can identify with?
Dr. Laramie [00:13:19] In the areas that I grew up, my exposure to other Vietnamese people weren't prevalent. I went to most of my elementary school year, we were the only Vietnamese people there. My first interaction with a Vietnamese person my age was actually in junior high. I knew of one Vietnamese girl at that time. And then in high school in San Jose, that was when I had more exposure to Vietnamese people, and I had to somewhat relearn the language, so to speak. Coming here as a physician, I didn't have a large Vietnamese population. I really have about maybe less than half a dozen Vietnamese patients. So I can identify with them because I relearned Vietnamese, so I can speak to them medically. But because they're older and not a lot of them are my age group, as patients, it's, it's a little tough. People in my age group, we're kind of scattered and we're all professionals, which is nice, but we don't have a lot of time to socially interact. So when we do, it's nice to bond again, you know, because we have the same, a few of us have same experiences as being boat people.
Alexa [00:14:54] So how have you kind of shared your Vietnamese heritage with, like, your children? Or are there any specific traditions that you continue?
Dr. Laramie [00:15:06] I think the big celebrations like Tết, we still carry on traditionally. But for the most part, because we live in the Central Valley and my, my families aren't here specifically. My mom and family are mostly down in Southern California. I have not been able to share enough of the experience with them, and they've grown up here also with not a lot of Vietnamese people or friends. So they're kind of cut off from that. My oldest understands a little bit of Vietnamese, but she can't speak it very well, and my youngest speaks nothing. And so it's different. So Tết is the only bond, per se, that they can share with their grandmother right now.
Alexa [00:15:57] It's like the exact same for my family because we have family in NorCal and then same thing like we go for the big celebrations, but that's kind of it.
Dr. Laramie [00:16:06] Yeah.
Alexa [00:16:08] Is there anything else you want to share about, like, your experiences or some takeaways?
Dr. Laramie [00:16:16] I think, relevant to what's going on in the country right now with the refugees that we've incorporated from Ukraine, the Ukraine area, I guess, is in order to be successful to me, in this country, because this is truly a land of opportunity, you have to have the commitment and the drive and the knowledge. And education does take you a long way to being part of the society successfully and to be happy. So assimilation is really, super important to me. Learning the culture, learning the language. I don't think I would have been as successful if I didn't do that and been part of a larger Vietnamese community per se. So I am grateful for the experience that I did have growing up. But I'm also very happy that I was able to reconnect to my heritage and learn the language again on a broader level because I think it brings a level of maturity and wisdom when you are able to do that.
Alexa [00:17:33] All right. Thank you so much for sharing.
Dr. Laramie [00:17:35] My pleasure.