BY: KATRINA JIM
Life as a refugee. This is something I have never been through. The best way for me to understand the experience is to conduct an interview apart from reading books. I started asking Mr. Lai and Myles whether they knew any refugees. Sadly, they were not able to contact one immediately, but they said they would keep an eye out for me. Then I went up to Mr. Polk; he suggested finding Mrs. Hemiup. Mr. Polk said I might have a better chance. “Thank you so much, Mr. Polk. I did not think about that. Thanks.”
“No problem,” he said.
I hustled up to find Mrs. Hemiup hoping for a good result. When I met her, I asked, “I was wondering if you know any refugee I can interview.” Then, I explained why I need to interview a refugee and the purpose of my assignment.
Mrs. Hemiup paused for a while. She said, “I might be able to help you.” I went from a state of disappointment to a state of excitement. I finally had some hope in finding a refugee. She continued, “I am going to email my friend and see if he can help you.” I was so happy that my heart almost jumped out of my chest. I thanked her so many times before I left.
Immediately, I opened my laptop and emailed Giao Nguyen. In the email, I introduced myself and informed him about the purpose of the interview. I went back to my room and was thrilled to see his reply. After a while, my mailbox made a sound, “Ding.” I knew I had a new email. I opened the email and read it. I was adrenalized when I saw the reply. He was willing to help me. He even sent me a little autobiography.
Giao was originally from Vietnam. He fled to the United States because of the Fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975. He attended high school in Colorado, class of 1978. He then moved to San Jose, California, and attended San Jose State University, class of 1984 with a BSIE degree. He had a few previous jobs. He worked for United Technologies, Sega, and an Architect Design and Construction firm. He also tried opening a furniture venture and operating a restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City. He is currently a worker at AT-TECH.
We finally met on Wednesday night. I was so grateful because he was willing to stop by Priory on a rainy day just for an interview. He finally arrived. When he got out of his car, I saw a man with an office pouch approaching me. This is my first impression of Giao.
Mrs. Hemuip was very nice. She stayed after school especially for Giao. Mrs. Hemiup wanted to meet Giao. She even led Giao from the Priory entrance to the Anselm House. Giao asked, “Do you want to stay for the interview?” Mrs. Hemiup agreed to stay for it.
“Hi, I am Katrina. Nice to meet you.” I felt excited but also shy.
We headed to the Anselm House study room. The study is a small room with two tables and a few chairs. We chose the table closest to the door and made ourselves confortable. Then, I asked him if I could tape record our conversation. He nicely said, “Sure, no problem.”
“So, you left Vietnam?” I asked.
“Yes. The communists were about to take over the country,” he continued. “My parents moved from the North to the South 20 years before the communists came. In 1975, the same thing happened. We had a chance to flee the country. So we did!” I was surprised that the same tragedy could happen twice. I felt relieved that he had a chance to leave.
“When did you leave Vietnam?” I asked.
“April 23, 1975,” he replied, “a week before the event.” Wow, I was surprised. He was able to leave before the North began to attack the South in South Vietnam. He continued. “My aunt’s husband works for the US Embassy. He signed us up for the departure.” I was amazed at how lucky he and his family were.
Out of curiosity, I asked, “What kind of name would you give to your incident?” I was thinking about how Cambodia and Rwanda had genocide, but Giao’s incident was technically not considered genocide. He took a breath. “It is a brainwash, and makes us see their way.”
My heart fell. I think “brainwash” is a very powerful word. It reminded me of World War II when people were brainwashed by the propaganda of Adolf Hitler.
“How long was your journey?” I asked, starting to have more understanding about the brainwash incident.
“From Vietnam we went to Guam Island’s transit station. We stayed there for three months. And then, a sponsor picked us up so we moved to Camp Pendleton, which was another transit camp in Southern California, where we stayed for 2-3 weeks; and then we settled in Houston, Texas, by plane.”
“Oh, I see,” I replied (in shock). The journey was very long and complicated, I thought. “How did you feel about having to move away from home to a new place?” I was afraid to ask because he might not want to talk about it.
“Well, as a teenager, I was curious about stuff. I was looking forward to whatever comes my way. Everything is new. I am in a different environment.” I was really surprised. I thought that he would say he had a bad memory about it. I cannot believe that he enjoyed the transition and experience. I think he is very special; he is quite optimistic about his situation. He then carried on. “I felt excited to go to America, first time riding on an airplane.” We all laughed.
Further, I asked about his struggles in the United States. “Did you encounter any difficulties when you first came to America?”
“Yes, school and language were problems at first. The English is in a different level. But I studied English as a second language since 6th grade for three years, so I was able to pick it up quickly.” I can empathize with him. I had similar feelings when I first came to the United States. “I remember falling asleep during a Biology test,” he continued. “I did not know what to do and it is after lunch. It is hard enough to understand normal daily life things; it is harder to get science terms.”
I responded, “I understand.” From talking about the difficulties, I found that I could totally understand his situation. Similar to his situation, I was not good at English when I first came to Priory. As a matter of fact, I took a long time to understand the culture, and also to adapt to the learning environment. I was starting to understand his feelings even though I am not a refugee.
He went on, “Also, my sports skills were not as good as those American kids. My coach gave me a ‘D,’ which I do not appreciate.” At the same time, we both giggled because we went through the same experience.
I told him I was very surprised that he did not have to go through rough times like most Vietnamese did.
He agreed with me. “Yeah, my experience is different than other people who left. I think their journey was more challenging. I heard a lot of horror stories. The high ranking people in the military, they were all put into the education camp. It was sort of like in prison. And then they were being brainwashed again. Some people died of malaria and malnutrition.”
Giao went back to Vietnam in 2004 for business purposes. From his descriptions of his journey, Vietnam had just started to open up. He also went back and forth from Vietnam to the United States since then. “Now, the society is more capitalism; but not much changed,” he added.
Out of interest, I asked, “Do you consider this a life-changing event?”
“Definitely. I think I have a better life over here. I am a better human being compared to over there. I would have no chance for education or job if I stayed in Vietnam.”
“Do you read any books or watch any movies about the event you went through? Do you think they bear true witness?” I was trying to understand the reliability of the public media.
“I read some books about the Vietnam war. The book I read was written by one of the reporters of the Vietnam War. So, it portrays what happened during the war.” Afterwards, I found out that the book is called Anloc. He carried on. “I think movies are just fictions, not true stories, like Apocalypse Now.”
Later on, I did some research on Apocalypse Now. It is a movie directed and produced by Francis Ford Coppola in 1979. This is an American movie depicting the Vietnam War in 1955.
I tried to understand whether he regrets leaving Vietnam. “Well, I kind of miss my childhood friends. But I am glad I came to America.” I was happy when I heard that. I think it is important not to regret anything from the past. It already happened and nothing can change it.
“Have you met any other refugees? Do you share your story with them?” I think it is interesting to talk to someone who had similar experiences.
“Yes, everyday. I live in a community of Vietnamese refugees. We exchange what happened, sometimes.”
After having an understanding of Giao’s experience, I asked him about his previous job because I find it really interesting. I knew that he worked for Sega, a toy company. When I was small, I used to play with toys produced by Sega. He then gave me more information about his interesting job.
He began. “I am a technical recruiter, mostly dealing with IT jobs, software, web development, web design, database and stuff.” Then he added, “Trust me, what you study in college is not your occupation in the future.” I was really inspired by what he said. My mom told me the same thing a while ago.
Afterwards, I walked him to the door and thanked him again and again for letting me interview him. I was really excited that night. I typed up all my notes while the memory was still fresh.
In conclusion, I really enjoyed the interview. I think Giao is very special. From my knowledge, most people who went through such incidents do not want to mention it ever again. But Giao was very open to talk about his experience. I am really surprised that he did not have many bad memories from the experience.
Later on, I started to write up the interview bit by bit. It was an interesting experience understanding a refugee’s life. From interviewing Giao, I understand that going through a war does not always bring horrible experience; there are thankful people, like Giao. I also learned that there are a lot of ways to bear witness to events. I used to think that the only way I can gain knowledge is to read a lot of books. I never thought that listening to a person’s story could be so interesting and inspiring. I believe that Giao’s account is the most truthful among all the books about the Vietnam War.