On Leaving


When my watch indicated that the time was already 7:20 pm, I knew I was in big trouble. I had scheduled my Skype interview with Ngan at 7:00 pm, and I was already 20 minutes late! I was initially very happy about the seven o’clock schedule, as I would have ample time to finish my dinner and rest before the interview. Yet, it was not until 6:55 pm when I found out that I had to go to a mandatory dorm curriculum at the same time! To make things even worse, I had left my phone in my room, so I was unable to tell Ngan about the delay. As time slowly went by, my heart beat faster and faster. Finally, by the time I got out of the curriculum, it was eight o’clock already.

Being my cousin-in-law, Ngan has always been nice to me ever since I first met her four years ago. We had been close, but this time I wasn’t sure if her patience was strong enough to tolerate my clumsiness.

After a few rings, she picked up my Skype call and greeted me with her usual warm smile and expression. I could see her in her bedroom, sitting on her bed and leaning on the wall next to her. As I apologized for the delay, I was surprised to find that she was not mad at me at all, but instead asked me if I had enough time to eat dinner. All I was thinking was, “Lucky man, cousin!” and my guilt and nervousness largely melted away. Soon, we began the interview.

Being a dumb and inexperienced interviewer as I was, I abruptly started by stating, “So, tell me about your story!”

She giggled a bit. “It was 1975, ” said Ngan, “and I was only four years old. My uncles and my dad all served in the army during the previous Vietnam War. Unfortunately, they fought on the side of the losers.”

I immediately recalled what I learned about Vietnam War in class, about the communist victory, the southern government’s defeat, and the eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops.

“Our family wasn’t poor, but during the war…we lost everything, and we had to start over again.”

Then there was a brief silence. She wasn’t looking at me but was instead looking up at the ceiling. I wondered what she was thinking, but there was no way to tell.

“After the war,” she then continued, “the communist government wasn’t so nice to the soldiers who once fought against it. Many were arrested and convicted with unreasonable charges. The life of those who made it through wasn’t easy, too. My parents were forbidden to have a high-paying or governmental job, and my sister and me were not allowed to enroll in any decent schools or institutions. Some people may even look down on us, calling us by offensive nicknames.”

Upon hearing this, I was shocked by the inequality and persecution at that time in Vietnam. It must have been really hard for Ngan’s parents.

“My parents knew we would have no future there, so ten years after the war they decided to move to America.”

“Well, why America?”

“My uncle was an American citizen living in San Francisco, and luckily he had enough money to sponsor our family. With his help, we applied for refugee status, and we were approved. Later, my uncle helped us buy plane tickets for the four of us—my parents, my sister, and me. We first flew to Thailand and spent two weeks in a refugee camp there. Then, we flew to Japan, Seattle, and finally San Francisco.”

To be honest, I felt somewhat relieved. At least Ngan’s family flew here by plane, not by an unreliable boat that could have been attacked by pirates.

“I was too young to remember every detail, but I remember that many people came to the airport to say goodbye. My grandparents were there. They were too old to travel, so they chose to stay in Vietnam. I remembered seeing my grandmother crying…everyone was crying.”

I tried to picture the scene in my mind—the crowded airport, parting family—but it felt like nothing I imagined was close to what actually happened. Then, I asked her about how she felt as she left Vietnam.

“Honestly, nothing.”

I was surprised by her answer.

“I was only four years old, and…I guess I was too young to realize the magnitude of the situation. I didn’t know the U.S. and Vietnam are two different places. I didn’t know why everyone was sad, and I didn’t know I wouldn’t be able to come back for a very, very long time.”

She then paused again, only this time was much longer. I was planning to ask another question, but after that statement I was completely speechless. There was deep emotion in her tone and her expression, so overwhelming that I could feel it through the computer screen. Looking at her face, I sensed a little bit of regret. Somehow, I knew it was much more complicated than that.

“What I clearly remember, however,” she finally said, “was how tough the first several years in America were. None of us spoke English, and we had nothing in the U.S. other than my uncle. Struggling in the new environment, trying to learn the language…it wasn’t easy for all of us, especially for my parents.”

I could really relate to what she said. Being an international student, I fully understand how hard it was to be in a strange place. I struggled a lot during my freshman year in Priory as well. Even now, I can, without hesitation, say that it was by far one of the most difficult moments in my life.

“The next time I went back to Vietnam, ten years had passed. I was really happy to be back, really happy to see my aunts and uncles, really happy to be back in the country where I was born. Vietnam is still my home, after all. Here in the U.S. I am Vietnamese American, but when I went back to Vietnam, I’m simply Vietnamese.”

As she talked about her returning experience, I was able to see her smile again.

“Of course, many things had changed, too. The country wasn’t as authoritarian as it used to be, and my family could finally enjoy some freedom. My grandparents, however, passed away a long time ago. That day at the airport was the last time I saw them.”

It was almost 8:30 pm by now, and I thought it was time to end my interview. My final question for her was, “Do you think your parents made the right decision coming here?”

“Yes, definitely. I’m very thankful for what they did. Had they stayed in Vietnam, I wouldn’t be able to come to America, wouldn’t be able to go to the university I like (Berkeley), and wouldn’t be able to be married with your cousin. In short, I would not be able to become who I am today.”

I agreed. Although the context of my experience was very different from that of Ngan’s, there were still many similarities. Both experiences were about taking risks, leaving home, struggling to fit in, and finally, hoping for a brighter future.

“Leaving was the hardest thing to do,” said Ngan, “but it was the right thing to do.”