[I wrote this essay for my high school’s literary magazine this past spring, and it tells the story of my family’s escape from Vietnam on a tiny fishing boat. The essay was so long that I decided to divide it into two, and this is the second part.]
In total, the boat held seven passengers, which included three family friends. My dad was ten years old. When the boat reached checkpoints along the river, my grandparents explained that they were taking the kids on a fishing trip and the men were my grandfather’s workers. If the guards questioned them further, my grandmother bribed them with sugar and coffee beans, which had become expensive commodities. My grandmother packed enough provisions to last up to two months. When first making it to the coast, the men cast their nets overboard, pretending to fish. When it seemed no one was watching, my grandfather put the boat into gear and accelerated further into the sea, out of Vietnamese waters. They had finally made it out, after ten years of labor, planning, and tribulation.
Life on the boat was a rough and uncomfortable experience. Thai pirates and hostile wildlife chased their boat for miles. Many ships had passed by without stopping to help. Some even purposefully went the other direction when seeing a smoke signal and an “SOS” sign on the side of the boat. The men spent a lot of time arguing over the best direction to take and how to navigate the rough waters. One night after a few days of sailing, one of the men noticed pink clouds on the horizon. Daybreak would not be for another two hours, so they surmised that they were near a city. My grandfather steered the boat towards the clouds. An hour later they approached what looked like a small city of concrete and steel floating on the water…it was an oil rig! One of the men spoke English and communicated with the platform manager. Hesitating at first, the manager agreed to dock the tiny boat and let everyone come aboard. The oil rig workers provided everyone with large quantities of food and a place to sleep. That night, a powerful storm blew through, ripping the boat from the dock and sinking it. The next morning, they all stared at the spot where the boat had been in disbelief. “God saved you,” the manager simply said. My grandmother started to cry not only out of gratitude but also out of sadness for the boat that had been their only salvation.
The manager requested a ship to transport my family and the other men to an island off the coast of Malaysia where the Vietnamese “boat people” were sent. The refugees called the island, “Kuku.” When my family arrived, there were about one hundred Vietnamese who escaped wanting a better life. An aid worker assigned a small thatched hut for my family to stay in. Everyone felt extremely optimistic and overjoyed to be on solid ground again. My dad spent his time exploring the tropical island, surrounded by beautiful beaches, clear waters, and big yellow fish. Kuku Island was also rather depressing; wrecked boats strewn all over the beaches, and a graveyard with unmarked crosses. Many of the camp’s inhabitants were traumatized and ill. Most families had lost someone during the journey. Even the couple in the neighboring hut lost their 6-year-old during the journey from starvation. Being on Kuku made my grandparents fully realize how lucky they were to still have each other, especially their children.
Next came the proper immigration process. People were examined and interviewed. If they were sane and capable, they would be sent to Galan I, where they would learn English and various trades to prepare for a new life in the host country. The sick, addicted, and suicidal were sent to another island, Galan II, where they would live out the remainder of their lives. My grandparents shuddered at the thought of being stuck on an island forever. A few days passed on Kuku when a ship arrived to transport my family to Galan I, off the coast of Singapore. At their new home, Indonesian volunteer teachers assessed my grandparents’ English level and placed them into language classes. During that time, my grandparents found jobs: my grandfather monitored the electricity supply of the camp, and my grandmother bought a small stand and opened a business selling fish sandwiches and Bánh mì, a traditional Vietnamese sandwich. Life dramatically improved on Galan I, everyone there made the best of what they had and tried to maintain a sense of normalcy.
Nearly a year had passed since my family escaped and they grew more anxious by the day about whether they would be accepted into the U.S. It would take approximately four months until they were granted an interview with Western officials. Rumor was these interviews were strict because the U.S. would only accept educated political refugees and a strong anti-communist stance. To their surprise, the U.S. official approved their application. The next morning, they left with a dozen other families. With only $500 to their name, they arrived in the U.S. exactly 13 months after their escape. The family struggled to find a place to call home, moving several times throughout the course of my dad’s life until finally settling down in St. Louis in 1994. Flash forward to today, nearly forty years since the escape from Vietnam, my grandparents boast a large family of five children, five grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.
As you can see, my dad’s family faced many struggles to reach this country, and they continue to work hard to provide the best life for their children. When I see other immigrant families, I wonder about their stories and what obstacles they overcame to get here. People should be more welcoming to immigrants and not judge them for their differences. If we try to imagine what it’s like to leave your homeland and start somewhere completely new, then maybe people wouldn’t treat immigrants so harshly and show them more dignity.
Ruiz, Neil G., et al. “One-Third of Asian Americans Fear Threats, Physical Attacks and Most Say Violence against Them Is Rising.” Pew Research Center, 21 Apr. 2021, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/04/21/one-third-of-asian-americans-fear-threats-physical-attacks-and-most-say-violence-against-them-is-rising/. Accessed 1 Mar. 2022.
I love learning the backstory of immigrants . After hearing some stories about the difficulties people experienced in coming to Canada and the United States I learned how lucky I was as a 3rd generation Canadian born person. Thank you for sharing the story of your grandparents’ escape.
Thank you for sharing this autobiography, Tyler. It’s an important story that needs to be told.