BY: NICOLAS TAN
Dead silence. Suddenly Ms. Ho hears footsteps, scurrying at first with minimal sound but exponentially getting louder. She turns the two bodies over. Dead. Bullets shot straight through the head and the heart. Blood. Blood spilling everywhere. It’s gruesome, it’s gory, it’s a civil war between the citizens and the corrupt government. Those two gunshots really crack the air. She could hear screaming, people in her boat yelling at the dead ones to wake up. The footsteps stop along with the arrival of a couple of Vietnamese security guards, dressed up all in dark rather camouflaged green, holding up flashlights at them. It’s dark all around, the water, the sky, the fate of some of their lives. “We don’t want any harm,” she tells them, “we gave the needed gold to get our boat and our boat leader is a very kind and good one.” Pause. BANG! A bullet rocketed straight out of one of the guard’s hidden rifles headed towards her, in a fish tank where she was hiding, but deflected from a basket next to Ms. Ho’s head, veering off instead to her sister’s back. This was real, this was a part of Ms. Ho’s teenage years when she fled her country, Vietnam, after the Vietnam War, the war in which both the US insurgents as well as the capitalist South Vietnamese lost to the Northern Vietnamese communists in 1975. 1977 was when Vietnam decided to kick out all Chinese, a thankful act for those who wanted to get away from the corrupt communists. Luckily for her, she just so happened to be able to pass with her special double racial ethnicity as Chinese and Vietnamese.
Ms. Xuan Ho is my mother’s friend whom she met at Oracle many years back. She is a black haired, middle-aged computer scientist who now lives here in California, working at Oracle for the last 16 years. She also has an extremely traumatic backstory that got her from Vietnam to here, raising her family, getting a living and more. Having been to all of my birthday parties when I was younger, she knows me pretty well. I knew her vaguely from my past, yet, as one can tell by looking at a five-year-old’s brain, they seem to forget those kinds of things.
It was a casual Monday evening down at the Oracle Headquarters where my mom helped to arrange to meet with her. My hands were anxiously tapping at my thighs to get ready for the massive overload of quick jotting and typing of notes I would have to take in a couple minutes. I didn’t know much of Ms. Ho’s background information until my mom told me in the car on the way to Oracle Building 200. I forgot my pen so I decided that I could just type and record with permission via my notoriously indestructible Nokia. The time in our car said 5:01 and the meeting was supposed to start at 5 sharp. I was very nervous and asked my mom to drive a bit faster, but she barked back that she didn’t want some GTA V police car to come over anytime soon. 5:02.
After many stop-and-ask questions and joking some three to Pho puns with my mom about being so late, I finally found Ms. Ho waiting patiently for us near the mirror that viewed our majestic crescent-shaped backyard filled with the beautiful fountain and the “floating” Oracle America’s Cup Winner Boat. The wall we were near looked like the common office-styled “100% Pure Wood” theme.
“Christine! Your son! He’s grown so tall since I last saw him!” Ms. Ho exclaimed to my mom.
“Thank you! Ahaha!” said my mom.
There was some quick talk about life and all between my mom and her while I started setting up my computer for note-taking and more. After a while, I felt that the environment felt right enough to dive into my first question and so then I did. “As a refugee, what sparked the sudden desire to leave your birthplace and country? Was it a life-and-death experience? What did you witness or what did you do to get out of the place?”
Ms. Ho, being a native of Vietnam, told me: “The real reason for trying to escape Vietnam was because after the World War ended and post the split of Vietnam’s North and South to being just a single ‘Vietnam’ ruled by corrupt commies, people would be living in fear because all citizens would have no freedom. Everyone would have at least one official look after every single check, bill, action that a citizen has been doing to make sure everything is under the legal rules of the communist government. No freedom at all. People would mostly just follow everything the corrupt government would say as means to not get suspected on and watched over even more. For my family, we were somehow claimed as the third richest family of all of Vietnam.”
When she said this, I expected some sign of happiness or positive facial expression, yet when I glimpsed at Ms. Ho’s face, she seemed to portray the contrary.
Looking down solemnly at the empty table we were sitting at, she said that “The communist government would send armies and thugs to go out at night and ransack those rich families’ jewelry store (our family had one too), and would torture the parents and temporarily jail the kids. They felt that by ransacking and stealing money from the rich and putting it into the hands of the government would even out the economic disparity gap capitalism always would have, thus achieving their dream goal of an economic equilibrium, communism. Everyone gets everything the same, everyone is not broke but not rich at all either. We didn’t want anything bad to happen to us, so my family decided to flee at night with 267 other Chinese Vietnamese, with the aid of the fact that the Vietnamese recently decided to kick out the Chinese. Myself being part Chinese and Vietnamese, I was an exception, but I still went. My parents had to bribe boat leaders to take me away, and they went their ways. I was alone with strangers.”
Hearing this, I reflected on how grateful I should be for having the opportunity to be born in and live in such a beautiful place as the Silicon Valley. I don’t think that I would’ve stayed alive for long if I would’ve had to leave my family, like what Ms. Ho did, as means to head on to a non-assured path to liberation.
“We were placed in a small boat as big as roughly two small tables, not big for 267 people. We would vomit from such huge seas and having only two decks; sometimes the top deck filled with the boat crew and family would vomit on us and cause illnesses to spread. Many got sick and some died. Many times, we would get stopped by Vietnamese Communist Security Guards who would ask what we were shopping for. I would have to hide inside the many fish tanks our boat had in the bottom deck. Sometimes they would let us go if our boat leader would bribe them, but sometimes they weren’t as friendly.”
“By not friendly,” I interrupted, “do you mean blockading-kind-of non-friendly or?”
“No,” Ms. Ho insisted, “non friendly as in they would stick out their rifles and check to see if we were there via noises down in our level and hearing from the top. One time, one couple was so happy that we were fleeing that they clapped really loudly and made so much noise that the guards came and shot them dead and tried to shoot me but missed. God saved me that day. Many times we would get the worst of the worst health conditions. I was only able to recover back to a healthy condition but barely alive when we were stopped by a Malay Marine who would’ve shot us down if my boat leader didn’t negotiate with them to let us onto their island, Paulo Bidong, where I waited for my sponsor to America.”
I then asked her if she had a pivotal moment that really inspired the motivation to leave Vietnam. “My kind friend,” she explained, “told me that our family was on the list of getting robbed one night and that we should go somewhere safe. Knowing this in advance, we decided to bribe the government ahead of time so as to not get raided and to get the government to like us and no longer bother us. It was really all about money, fear, and lack of freedom.”
Freedom. I heard that word come up a lot.
“It’s a key word to every individual’s happiness. Without freedom, there’s a lot of limits to what you can do in your life,” Ms. Ho insisted.
“So what got you here from Malaysia?” I asked, using it as a transition to my next question.
“I got here by a sponsor from my elder sister who was living in Arkansas,” she declared. “She helped bring me here on my 23rd birthday. I was given clothes too, a wonderful thing, because over there on the boat we could only bring one set of clothes and that was it. Also, I was baptized as a Christian in Arkansas in a church I stayed in and helped out in because when I was about to get shot in my boat that other time, I thought that in America there were no Buddhist temples and so I prayed that if I wouldn’t die I would convert. I always keep promises.”
“Okay, this one may be hard, but because you aren’t a soldier who killed somebody, was there ever a time when you saw someone die and felt sad because you couldn’t do anything to help them?” I nervously asked, knowing that we weren’t supposed to discuss these kinds of questions, as we were warned.
There was a small pause. I sheepishly looked around the room as if I had done something wrong. Eventually, noises of birds outside the window chirping broke up the silence.
“Yes, of course,” she said, looking sternly at me, her eyebrows furrowing into a V-shape. “I remember back on the Malay island one time when I heard one of my neighbours say that one of my friends has felt trapped staying on that island for so long (six months) and decided to take the chance and commit suicide. It was very, very depressing. Her whole family had already died, and the neighbour who told me was her husband. Another time, that same person’s brother also had a very sad accident. He was traveling by boat and so happened to cross some Thai pirates who saw he had a ring on his finger and tried to cut it off and ended up doing so as well as pushing and drowning him in the ocean too.”
I felt as if all these Vietnamese refugees were just like running targets, people with bounties on their heads which would attract others to try and ruin their lives. I felt pity for her.
“Lastly,” I told her, “how did you adapt to this new cultural place from Vietnam’s? And, rather off topic, but how do you believe your words can be relayed to later generations?”
With confidence, she replied, “Not being a born American, it took a rather long time to figure out how things go in this capitalistic country versus back home in the communist area. There were times when I would be scared and embarrassed because of my need for food stamps as a jobless refugee when I first got to the US. Eventually, I was able to know where to apply for jobs, got married, had kids, was able to do night school, thus earning a nine year degree for Computer Science and also now am working at Oracle as result. I do mosaics too!”
Her facial expression of a leader showed. “About advice to give,” she declared, “I believe that while it may be hard to grasp, as my kids have shown me by ignoring it like it’s any other story, my words can be relayed to later generations via the things I have gone through. People these days in the US are very spoiled and take things for granted. Their lives were so smooth when raised up while I had to struggle to build from scratch, building from the very bottom. Our generation had to work very hard, sometimes harder than this one due to the disadvantage of not having the amazing technology we now have these days. My whole trip, starting from the moment I left Vietnam via the boat (being known now as Boat People), has definitely shifted my life to a better one (the more I go on in life). I thank God for that and for all the deeds he has given me. I learned the importance of freedom too, how it can affect one’s life via lack or attainment of human rights, and more.”
Thanking her, when I went in the car to go home, I took into account all the things Ms. Ho said, and started to reflect. I felt that her pride to not stick with food stamps and all was a good thing too because it helped her motivation grow to be like the rest and work hard to get her to the good living she is living in now, and I feel that I should do something similar to that too later in my life. I reflected on all the concepts and things I have taken for granted in my life. What would happen if I was placed in a different situation? If I had no life with freedom, no human rights given to me? Would I survive? Would I make it as well as Ms. Ho was able to do? This interview bore witness to a human’s rights event, for the crisis Ms. Ho was placed in was because of a lack of human rights, the right of freedom, one of the most important of all human rights. For me, this situation that she was in is very important to record, for, as history plays out, people will tend to forget these genocides, tortures, and even despotism that took place in the past. Things that can be very useful resources to look back for possible future leaders. To make a better future, one must know and remember all the traumas, the victories and successes of events in the past. The Vietnam War effect was a big one and should not be forgotten. One of America’s losses in war, losing to the Communist Viets. The Vietnam War was meaningful for both Ms. Ho and for witnesses of her story, for it affected Ms. Ho in a positive way by cause of a negative reason. Due to the lack of freedom and the vast corruption in Vietnam, she fled and ultimately found paradise in America after years of hard work. Truths that this testimony revealed were that hard work pays off, freedom is an essential necessity to the happiness and success of an individual, communism and despotism defy many human rights, and being a witness, while it may not be directly you in the picture, does indirectly take you into the events that show what happened, almost like a memory placer. The value of this testimony is that it is one that should be remembered; it is essentially a witness journal. I believe that while it is very important to know of famous stories of the struggles of, say, Malala, we should also keep account for those who had to go through difficult and traumatic experiences too that got them to their paradise. For Ms. Ho, her enemy, Vietnam, took away her freedom, yet she fought and persevered and was able to reach her paradise of freedom, in America. We must keep into account these things. We must give respect to those who had to work equally hard to get to where they are now. Let us stop being the running targets of our fear and enemy and let us strive for excellence by surviving and telling them to others to let their wisdom grow and learn from our mistakes and fears.