My mom at an Indonesia internment/refugee camp in 1985.
Two Years and Every Penny
From Vietnam to the Central Valley: Huong Pham (as told by her daughter, Cat Fan)
Huong Pham was born in Kiên Lương, Vietnam where she lived until she escaped at twenty years old. Pham escaped because she felt tied down by the restrictions of her current situation. She was only able to go to school up until eighth grade because after eighth grade, the war prevented her and many other people in her region from receiving an education. Additionally, she felt pressured to stay at home and take care of her parents instead of forging her own path. So, for two years, she saved every penny she had to buy a boat engine so that her brothers would take her to escape with them, as they were planning to escape too.
This story was collected by Alexa Tran in 2022 as a part of her Girl Scout Gold Award Project.
Alexa [00:00:00] 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 Cat Fan with me, telling me the story of her mother, Huong Pham. And just to do a quick introduction, can you talk a little bit about who you are and what you do and also about your mother?
Cat [00:00:29] Okay. So for myself, I was born here in the U.S., in San Jose, California, around in May 1986. And so I've been born and raised in the Bay Area but we had moved over to Stockton when I was a lot younger and then eventually made our way to Tracy, California, from like my elementary to high school years. Currently, I am 36 years old. I live in Pleasant Hill, California, so East Bay not too far from the Central Valley. And I work at Meta, and I have three kids. My mom specifically, she actually, she has four kids. I'm the oldest of the four kids. And she had worked most of her life running a business in Tracy. You know it's like a, it was like called Friday Bargain Store, but it was like your one stop shop for like t-shirts to shampoo to toys. So back in Tracy, around the early nineties, there wasn't a Target or a Costco or a mall of any sorts. And so this is where like most of the town would come to buy supplies they needed. Tracy during that time was primarily white and migrant workers, and so we were like one of the first Asian families in that area and then supplied like merchandise to them.
Alexa [00:02:16] And where does your mom live now? Does she still live in...?
Cat [00:02:21] So my mom now lives in Bethel Island, California. It is right off the delta waters from the Rio Vista area. And she has a home that's just right on the docks.
Alexa [00:02:37] Okay, perfect. Thank you. So just to go all the way back, where in Vietnam was your mother born and where did she grow up?
Cat [00:02:48] Yeah, so my mom was born in Kiên Lương. The counties like area, she did grow up in Kiên Lương as well.
Alexa [00:03:01] And what does she remember about living there? Like, what were some of her favorite things or some challenges?
Cat [00:03:09] One of the stories that she would tell me a lot is her strongest memories are like swimming. She would talk about like how would she learn how to swim and dive underwater for long periods of time and hold her breath and be able to like catch fish or fish underwater. So even though they live in Kiên Lương, I don't know how far from the ocean it is, but the family is primarily like a family of fishermen, historically, and fish and the ocean and also like farming or growing fish in the ocean as well. So a lot of her memories like living along the beach and like swimming, a lot. The hardest part for her that stood out to her and it may be like a Vietnamese mother thing, but has been drilled into me too is a story about like how she was unable to go to school past eighth grade. And that was like right after the war in 1975. And people around that region mostly were not allowed to pursue school after the war ended.
Alexa [00:04:27] All right. Thank you. So how old was she when she left Vietnam? And what year was this?
Cat [00:04:37] So, she was about, she was twenty years old when she left Vietnam in 1983. She said she grew up more of like, like for example not being able to go to school past eighth grade was like around when she was like twelve years old. And they, her family decided to leave Vietnam because a lot of her brothers, which were my uncles, had to, had worked for the U.S. government in some capacity during the war, and so when at the fall of Saigon and the war ended, all of her brothers had to work as janitors or clean the streets or go into reeducation camp. And so at twenty years old, in 1983, she had left Vietnam with two of her brothers, older brothers, and they had the three of them, along with two other uncles, they're her brother's, brother in law. So she was like the only woman with a boat of five men fleeing Vietnam.
Alexa [00:05:47] And what was the hope for leaving? What were like the ambitions she had for after?
Cat [00:05:54] Yeah. So she was the youngest daughter of seven kids, and my grandparents or her parents had told her that they wanted her to stay with them, to take care of them as they get older. And she didn't want that life for herself. My uncles or her brothers all were able to have family support, to leave, to head towards the U.S. because of all the government work affiliation. But my mom, because she was a girl, was more or less pressured to stay home by her parents to take care of them. They like had some animals like pigs and chickens on the farm, and they wanted her to be like the primary person to help take care of that. And so she left because she had bigger aspirations.
Alexa [00:06:56] Mhmm. So who did she leave behind?
Cat [00:06:59] She left my grandma and my grandpa. So she left her mom and dad. When she left, she more or less snuck out in the middle of the night. When the government or the city officials realized that she was gone, my, her dad ended up sitting in jail for two weeks because she was unaccounted for. And at this time, she didn't, she knew that was the repercussion, but she still snuck out and left. And then she talked a little bit more about her journey of like how to get out without the support of her parents.
Alexa [00:07:49] And what was that like to not have the support of her parents?
Cat [00:07:55] It was difficult for her. She had shared more of the story about, like, saving all of her money since she was eighteen. So for two years, saved every penny that she had and had to talk her older brothers to take her with them. And they didn't want her to go with them because it was dangerous. And they didn't want the liability because she was a girl. And she had offered, like all of her money in savings and told them, like, hey, if you take me, then I will go ahead and like buy the engine for the boat. And so my uncles, her brother is like, were like, okay, decided and agreed to let her go. So she had said like the night that she left and snuck out of the hous,e in around that time from when she was twenty years old, there was still a heavy amount of guards patrolling the town. And it was more of like, you know, people were fleeing at that time. So it was kind of, you know, if the guards notice you leaving or fleeing is basically like shoot to kill. So she talks about sneaking through the streets, getting into like the river, the nearest river, and then swimming within the river to finally get to the meeting point with her brothers.
Alexa [00:09:27] And like, out of all of this, what was maybe the most difficult part about leaving for her?
Cat [00:09:40] I think with her, there, so with her, like the difficult part was just leaving behind her mom and dad and having that sense of guilt. It's the knowing that, that was her responsibility that they wanted for her and wanted from her and the difficulties of, like, trying to save money to, like, try to get out. But you're really unable to because you're like a woman and you're uneducated in the area. And so she had told, she shared with me, like, after she had left Vietnam and everything, then it's like the journey of getting out of Vietnam and a journey in the sea and then going into internment camps. So I think it was more of like that guilt that they say, like that filial piety like you feel like you have to take care and sacrifice for your family. And in this point, in this instance, like she did something that was very selfish for herself.
Alexa [00:10:54] Yeah. Like especially an Asian culture that's so pervasive so I can see how it was very difficult for her. Um, can you describe what the journey was like?
Cat [00:11:06] Yes. So she talked about a long journey out in Kiên Lương, there's a lot of, there's like a small river that leads to the bigger Mekong Delta River. She had shared that she swam through it in the middle of the night and ducking under water and holding her breath if there were guards close by or if she could hear people. And the journey was hard because it's scary in the dark in a war torn country. Being twenty year old female alone and all she had with her was just like whatever clothes that she wore because she knew nothing was going to hold in the water. She had already gave all of her money to her brothers to buy the engine, and the hope was that she would meet them at the meeting spot and they would make it, too. So, eventually she did find the meeting spot with them towards the end of the river where she said was closer, where it connects to the main ocean that she was, they were familiar with because they fish for a living. And said that they shared and told me about how their boat went out into the ocean and they didn't have a sense of location and direction. They went towards the direction of away from the coast knowing that, like, if any of the soldiers sees them, then they would also be killed. And so she, once she got on the boat, she had a pair of scissors that she carried with her and she used scissors to cut her hair into a boy haircut and put a lot of dirt all over her face to try to hide that she was female. She also was, like really thin and malnourished already because of the war. And so she, they had gone out in the ocean for the remainder of the night and for two days had the engine take them as far as they can away from the Vietnam coast. By day two, they ran out of gas and at that time, they said that a Thai fishermen boat approached them and actually robbed them and beat up the uncles and beat up her brothers and at that point, started pulling off like the gold teeth of the brother in laws that were in the boat with them. My mom said she was more on the side of the boat, holding on to pretend like she's almost dead or dying. The boy cut. And she would like to tilt her jaw to make it look like it's broken, and so they would just leave her alone mostly, but really attacked the four other men that were on the boat. And then by the next day after it, like most of the boat, everyone's injured and they're out of food and gas and they're just sitting out in the sun and really thirsty. Another boat had approached them which were also Thai fishermen as well, which like later on we learned that's like called Thai pirates that found an opportunity. They knew people were bringing everything they had with them had came and said, "Hey, if you give us your engine, we will take your boat and pull you to like the Thai shore coastline because you're pretty close." And so they took their word for it, gave them the engine, tied their boat to it, and then that other boat pulled them through the water and about ten minutes later, cut the string. And they hit like this sense of despair because now they have no engine on top of it, nothing to barter from, and they're just floating in the abyss with like no sense of direction. She said by day three, they weren't sure, like direction, food, where they were and they woke up and they had noticed and realized they floated towards the shoreline and panicked. They thought maybe they had floated back to the coast of Vietnam. It turns out that it was off of Thailand's coast and somehow the boat had made it there. One of her brothers spoke English because he went to school in Florida and was a part of the Air Force per se through the Vietnamese. So he was able to talk and luckily, the car that drove along the freeway stopped and it happened to be an American soldier. And my her brother was able to talk to them to say like they were Vietnamese people that have left. And so that soldier had took them to, had sent them through the process and then from there, they went through a journey of, like, refugee camps.
Alexa [00:16:33] And how long were they at the refugee camps?
Cat [00:16:38] Yes, so they were in Thailand refugee camp for a year and a half from around '83 till the end of 1984 because the camp that took in like true refugees was closed. And so they were in like a internment holding camp. From there, they, when the refugee camp opened, was in Indonesia. So they moved there. They were there for six months. The typical time period was three months. But one of her brothers had a really hard time passing the English test, and so they were there for double the time frame. So they were there for six months. And then once he passed and they were sponsored, they were in Singapore for a week and then admitted into the US.
Alexa [00:17:34] And where in the US did they resettle?
Cat [00:17:38] So they finally arrived in the U.S. May 4th in 1985, and they had resettled in San Jose with one of their uncles or like family friend relatives that they called uncle. And then the three of them stayed there.
Alexa [00:17:58] And what were some challenges adjusting to this new country?
Cat [00:18:05] Yes, the biggest part for her was being twenty years old and having to learn English. They settled with no money, but they did receive like a six month advancement of welfare money. My mom had worked initially too, so whenever her brothers found jobs, she would just work with them. And she shared with me like such an awkward time. Like when they finally felt like they were about to get some reprieve, my uncles, because they were male, like they are able to go to work and eventually saved enough money to move out and get their own apartment. The uncle that they were staying with was very old school traditional and had really, I guess the situation became more like an indentured servant. Like they really wanted her there at the house cleaning and cooking for them. Any free time that she had, she would go to school. She would go to the local community college and try to learn English. She excelled in math because math is in the universal language. But then once it comes to like she shared with me, like calculus problems where you have to understand what they're saying, then she's unable to solve it. But she said that she was there and felt like she couldn't get on her own two feet because she wasn't able to make money to move out to get on her own. And then whatever jobs that she was able to land with her brothers, like a janitor work or whatnot, didn't last as long or it wasn't as consistent. And so she had shared with me that she finally just had left the house and moved in with a friend and, like, tried to figure it out from there. And then that friend ended up being my dad.
Alexa [00:20:11] So in some of these difficult times, where did she find or like how did she find strength?
Cat [00:20:20] For her, it's really it feek like, built into her DNA. Like the war and growing up in the war, she had to learn to work a lot and a lot of extra hours. So I think when she came here to the U.S., she talked to more about like really wanting to have a better life for herself and just continuing to like educate herself wherever she can and just really, like, build on her own and start on her own without anyone kind of putting on what they think she should be doing because of being the only girl in the house, the youngest and really wanting to get her education and make something out of herself. So, that really pushed her through. My mom's also like a very stubborn, tenacious personality, too, like, I don't know, if you tell her she can't do something she usually would do it. Or if you say, like, she doesn't like to depend on other people. So, for like example growing up, she would ask my dad to help her with this koi pond and he took, he dragged his feet. And then one day she just like, digged up her own koi pond. Put the layering for it. Built the little bridge over it with power tools. And I'm like, in concrete built her own water fountain, rock mountain with it. So she's kind of like that, like she will figure it out herself. And so that I think that's kind of what like drove her strengthwise. It's like something that, like, innately was like a part of her.
Alexa [00:22:10] Yeah, that's amazing. So how did she end up in the Central Valley?
Cat [00:22:19] Yes, so living in San Jose with eventually turning to my dad, or her friend, they had me first in '86. And then in '87 when they had my brother, they decided to move to Stockton to open a business because one of her brothers had lives there was living in Stockton and he was able to start a business and he was doing, he had like a warehouse with like imported materials and whatnot. So, my parents moved to Stockton to, like, help him with this business, learn it to build their own. And so that's how they ended up in Stockton. The neighborhood with, they end up, end up actually moving to the house right next door to my uncle. But the neighborhood that we grew up in was a very like Vietnamese, Southeast Asian, like Cambodian ethnic enclave, where the majority of every neighbor there was either Vietnamese or the next neighborhood over was all Cambodians.
Alexa [00:23:21] So they felt that like strong sense of community with other Southeast Asians, right?
Cat [00:23:27] Yes. Yes. So, they moved to an enclave area, yeah, where like I just remembered every night, like all the neighbors would be over at our house or my parents were over at their house and all the kids are already playing. And so, and even at that time, the neighborhoods were rough. But I think like just because additional family was there that it worked out for them. And then starting a business. So, the first business that they opened was a Chinese restaurant. And then they kind of grew from there. Like then after the Chinese restaurant in Stockton, they sold it and then opened a hamburger drive-in joint in Tracy by a high school. That did really well. They sold that and then leased a bigger property to sell merchandise and then did that for another like fifteen years.
Alexa [00:24:28] And as you were growing up, what kind of Vietnamese traditions they carry on with you and the rest of your family?
Cat [00:24:37] Yes. I mean, I would just remember the Vietnamese New Year and wearing ao dais and there's a lot of Vietnamese food. A lot of, every time the family would get together, there's just food everywhere. And a lot of playing Chinese cards or something, the tiny little cards, and they just sit there and they play with each other. I don't know what it's called. They look like little poker cards. But I grew up just watching all of my aunts and uncles playing all day. So I felt like the biggest tradition was like food, Vietnamese New Year, and playing like Vietnamese or Chinese poker or something, whatever it was called. But yeah, and then we were also Catholic, so going to the Vietnamese Catholic Church every Saturday or Sunday, and then going through like communion, baptism and all of that and get together.
Alexa [00:25:44] That's about all the questions I have for you. Is there anything else about your mom's story that you want to share?
Cat [00:25:51] I think that's pretty much conclusive of it. Yeah, her journey here.
Alexa [00:25:55] All right. Thank you so much for your time.