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For My Father


I wanted to honor my dad’s story as a boat person survivor and Vietnam War refugee, so I wrote an essay imagining myself as him, speaking in a first-person point-of-view. In September 1984, he left Vietnam at the age of 18.


 

As the only son and youngest child of my family in Saigon, I felt like I was the odd one out. Some may think that being the only son in a traditional Vietnamese household is the dream. I, however, never thought it made that much of a difference.


I stayed out of trouble as much as I could during my prime years in Vietnam. I was never one to cause a ruckus. Especially during the time of war, why would anyone?


Like my father, I was becoming a man of few words. I had a small circle of close friends. During my spare time, I read books alone or went to cafes or the movie theater at night with my friends. Life was pleasant and news of war still felt beyond my immediate reality. That was until I was conscripted in 1984.


It was the day after I finished my high school graduation exams. My heart was palpitating as I read the notice. I couldn’t believe it. The Communists wanted me to fight for them. I could actually die. But there was no way in hell that I was going to die for the bad guys. Either I lived by escaping from their grips or died trying.


Immediately after I received news about my military draft, my cousin Hung offered to take me with him. At the time, my options were: going to war, getting imprisoned for refusing to fight - and possibly beaten and worked to death, and risking my life with the hopes of landing somewhere else that would take me in as a refugee. I chose the path that would

change how I see life.


Philippine Refugee Processing Center

On the day of my 18th birthday, I invited all of my friends to celebrate with me. Little did they know that this was also a farewell party. I have to say, I was a great actor. It would take decades for me to finally reunite with many of them.


As I prepared for my departure, my older sister gifted me a picture of the Mother Bodhisattva, Mẹ Quan Âm. Though I never considered myself a Buddhist, I still have this picture with me to this day. Soon after our exchange, my sister ran away from home to become a Buddhist nun. She, too, realized that she had few choices for her future. Food was becoming harder to have on the table.


For a long period of time, my mother fell into a state of depression, heartbroken over the loss of not just one but two of her children. Distraught over whether her children would survive the war without her, she regretted not being at home more often.


With the picture from my sister tucked in my shirt pocket, I followed Hung to the boat. Though the boat was barely the size of a modern day studio apartment, about a hundred thirty people snuck onboard. All we had were the clothes on our backs and the few potatoes provided to us by the boat organizer. Whatever potatoes we had left over, we hid within sturdy pieces of cloth because we were afraid that others would take them.


We were on the boat for nine days. With each passing day, my ribs further protruded out of my body. The more apparent my ribs became, the emptier my stomach. I thought I was going to die. One man died while trying to bathe himself in the ocean. No one realized that we were leaving him behind, and by the time we did, it was already too late to turn back. The motor could only take us in one direction.


One time, the motor died while we were in the middle of nowhere. Then, I really thought we were going to die. An older woman prayed to the spirits and threw potatoes out into the ocean as an offering. I thought it was ridiculous for her to be wasting food at a time like this, but I had no energy in me left to protest. The moment the potatoes plopped into the water, the motor started up again. This moment, I will never forget. My first miracle.


Occasionally, there were thunderstorms. From my memory, storms on water are much worse, much more violent, than ones on land. At one point, Hung gave me a plastic bag, saying that if we were to ever fall into the water, I could blow up the bag - like how we would with life jackets - to stay afloat. Today, I can’t help but laugh at the thought of how this ridiculous idea was our only lifeline at that time.


When the storms passed, we quenched our thirst with the rainwater. Since rain was our only source of drinkable water, Hung and I tried to make the most out of it. Using pieces of cloth, we soaked up the rainwater, only wringing them out when we were ready to drink. As for our potatoes, we only allowed ourselves to eat them at night when everyone in our vicinity was asleep. We had to eat in secret. Otherwise, people would start fighting over our food, calling us selfish for not sharing on a boat full of starving passengers.


To save energy, we lied silently on the boat, moving and speaking only when we spotted a ship nearby. There were ships that carried cargo and fishermen. Waving our white flags, handmade from the clothes we wore, we yelled at the top of our lungs, calling for help. Yet, despite our tireless efforts, no one came to our rescue. Both ships and fishermen went their own ways. To these foreign ships, we were tiny ants on a sidewalk, dismissible. Deep shock and despair filled us every time a ship passed. How could they just leave us here? Where was humanity?


I promised myself that if I were to get caught and arrested for running away, I would never make an attempt to escape by boat again. However, the possibility of getting arrested disappeared once we reached international waters. No one could bring me back to Saigon ever again. I had no home to go back to.


During the last few days of our journey, the motor died down. There were no potatoes left to offer to the ocean. This time, I was certain we would be gone for good. We were out of food. Everyone on the boat looked like a living skeleton, waiting to be greeted by Death himself.


But it was as if someone from above heard our final breaths of desperation, and one night, we were gifted with a sea storm. The next morning, everyone had water to drink. We were reborn and alive. When I opened my eyes that morning, my ears filled with cries of excitement. There was a shore in sight. Was I seeing things? Was I at the brink of death? Was this what you call a hallucination? No.


Between our ship and the shore was an oil platform belonging to the Malaysian territories.


With hope ignited in him, the boat captain asked everyone to share their remaining food with a small group of strong men. With more energy, they could row us to the platform. We just needed one more push to land.


Though we were on the brink of death, we had to wait for the country's approval of our arrival. In the meantime, a helicopter sent us care packages with food so that we could sustain ourselves while we awaited our last barrier of entry. Eventually, a large ship was called to bring us to the refugee camp at Pulau Bidong Island. Within the span of a few hours, I made it to shore. My toes dug deeply into the earth that I never thought I would touch again. This was my second miracle. Ba, Mợ Bảy, I have reached land. Can you hear me? I am alive. I will live to see the next day.


 

Jessica Nguyen/Nguyễn Thị Mai Nhi is an artist of many mediums, although she finds that writing is the only one that can satiate the hunger residing in her Vietnamese-American soul. Her prose and poetry appear in diaCRITICS, Womanly Magazine, Sinister Wisdom, PANK, Red Pocket Press, and AASIA Journal. Her first book of poems is softly, I speak, (Louisiana Literature Press, 2020). Visit https://www.byjessicanguyen.com to learn more about her current projects or follow her on social media @byjessicanguyen


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1 Kommentar


Ernie Reichert
Ernie Reichert
20. Mai 2021

This is a beautiful, heart-tugging story. I am so happy to you, and others, made it here. You all were so blessed. I hope, some day, we will meet. God bless.

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