Unbreakable Spirit



An ancient Vietnamese proverb states, “ăn quả nhớ kẻ trồng cây,” or in its English equivalent, “when eating a fruit, think of the person who planted the tree.” While most linguists claim this to mean that one must have gratitude for those who provide for him, I have come to realize that my own interpretation is that one must look beyond the superficial surface of a certain circumstance and acknowledge the journey that led to its realization. During the course of this project, I myself “thought of the person who planted the tree” when I interviewed Vietnamese refugee Khoa Ngo.

My connection to Khoa is that he is an older brother of my stepmother, who moved with him in 1980 to the United States to flee oppression in Vietnam along with the rest of their family. Before the commencement of this project, I hadn’t the slightest inkling of how they had come to arrive in the United States. I had assumed that they had simply boarded an airplane in Hanoi and flown to their new home in San Jose, as my naïve, American mind was inclined to think. Furthermore, I hadn’t ever considered the reasons for which they fled Vietnam; I had simply thought they moved for personal reasons. The Ngos, an accomplished and successful family, had only shown me kindness and exuded positivity and happiness whenever I had been around them. As I was to soon find out, there were years worth of sadness, destitution, and perseverance behind this that took place to help them arrive at their position in life.

The day of the interview, I sat on the plush, navy comforter of my bed. The grey Sunday sky casting a melancholy ambience over the entirety of my neighborhood was visible through my windows that faced the empty street. I eyed the baby-blue clock adorning my wall, watching its hands inch closer and closer to 3:00, the time I was to call Khoa, with a meticulous tick, tick. With each passing tick, I grew increasingly anxious. Although I had known his family for close to six years, I had seldom spoken to him. I originally wanted to interview my stepmother, with whom I was much more comfortable talking, but being only five years old at the time of leaving Vietnam, she had little to no memory of the ordeal. Alas, I had to break free from routine and interview Khoa. Finally, I gathered the courage to dial his number, reluctantly letting my fingers fall on the keys of my phone’s luminescent glass screen.

Seven sharp rings greeted my ears, until the robotic tone of an automated message sounded to notify me that I was being sent to voicemail.

Why is he not picking up? I thought irrationally. Does he not want to talk anymore?

I waited for fifteen more minutes, each minute slipping past more and more rapidly. I finally picked up my phone again and punched his number into the keypad. Pressing the cool glass against my ear, I heard the same succession of grating rings, expecting the call to be sent to voicemail once again. To my surprise, after the fourth ring, I heard the soft, subdued, yet powerful voice greet me from the other line.

“Hello?” he answered in a hushed tone, each word accented slightly by the language of his homeland.

“Hi, Khoa, it’s Jack. I’m calling about the interview?” I responded timidly, unsure of myself.

“Oh, yes! I’m glad you’ve called,” he responded with genuine enthusiasm. My faith in the interview began to grow.

“Shall we get started?” I asked slightly more confidently.

“Yes, let’s get started.”

“How old were you when you moved from Vietnam?”

“I was nine years old, so very young.”

“What drove you from Vietnam?”

“The communists, the Viet Cong, were oppressive. They controlled our lives. Everyone was poor, and my parents wanted freedom and a better life for the family. There were just more opportunities in America.”

Khoa did not mention much more beyond that, but prior conversation with my stepmother about the communist government of the Viet Cong revealed their brutal practices. They promised freedom to the downtrodden Vietnamese, but instead delivered a regime of oppression and subjugation. They set up “reeducation camps,” or concentration camps where those who even slightly disagreed with their practices were jailed. Hundreds of thousands sent to these horrific prisons perished as a result of heavy labor, torture, or murder. As a communist government, the Viet Cong confiscated citizens’ possessions, leading some to take extreme measures to protect items of sentimental value (Khoa’s parents, as it turns out, were forced to swallow their wedding rings as a convoy of Viet Cong soldiers approached their home). Freedoms that are taken for granted in the United States, such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press, were non-existent. The Vietnamese experience was one of misery and cruelty, forcing thousands of citizens to rightfully seek refuge in peaceful countries. This led to the mass exodus of the Vietnamese “boat people,” a group under which the Ngos were included.

“How was your experience coming to America?” I asked, delving into a subject I feared would be traumatic for Khoa to answer.

“It was quite a horrible experience. My family, including my mother, father, five siblings, and I, all packed into a boat that had about 114 on board. We were at sea for fourteen days,” he recalled. A faint tinge of woe began to be evident in his voice.

“Where were you headed?”

“Our boat was going toward Thailand, although we didn’t know exactly how to get there. We had to rely on our uncle, who could read the stars to guide us. Unfortunately, one night, the water was rough, and he was taken away by a large wave as he stood near the edge of the boat.”

From my experience with the Ngos, I had come to understand that Vietnamese culture considers the bond between family members to be incredibly intimate, possibly more so than the average American family. The loss of even one relative has the potential to put an entire family in a permanent state of mourning. However, motivated by the prospect of a better life and future in the United States, the Ngos persevered in the face of their loss.

“I’m so sorry, that’s terrible,” I apologized somberly.

“It was. Our family was very sad,” he agreed. “We also had to deal with pirates from Thailand who sailed in the sea. They would cut off the engine and steal everyone’s valuables. They would also bring guns and fire warning shots to scare us. One time, they accidentally hit my father’s leg while he had my baby sister resting on his knee. It was horrible.”

“How did you end up reaching Thailand then?” I questioned, still shocked at Khoa’s answer to the previous question.

“We were at sea for a few days, and nobody could find the shore. Finally, we were spotted by a US Navy ship, and they towed us to Thailand.”

Khoa’s account of his journey was jarring. Having grown up in the United States, it was unfathomable to imagine being uprooted from my home and forced to make an arduous journey to a new life. After all, the most difficult journey I had ever taken was getting stuck for a few hours in the heavy traffic of Highway 101. While I had faced the high-pitched trill of honking horns as cars attempted to merge, the Ngos had faced the angry hollers of pirates as they robbed them of all they owned and threatened their lives, leaving them with nothing as they continued to travel across the rough waters of the Gulf of Thailand. All of my supposed “problems” in life started to appear trivial.

“So, once you arrived in Thailand, where did you go?” I pondered.

“Well, we went to a refugee camp, where we applied for asylum in the United States and waited three months.”

“That’s quite a long time,” I responded, naïvely unaware of the realities that most refugees faced.

“Yes, but we were lucky,” he asserted. “Most people stayed for two years or more.”

“What was it like to be in the refugee camp?”

“It was nice, but we were just waiting there until we could leave. There was a beach right near it, which I loved playing in as a young boy. The people who worked there were all very nice to my family too.”

Until that moment, I had neglected to remember that Khoa was just nine years old when he left Vietnam. It was uplifting to hear that there was one moment of carefree joy throughout his grueling journey, which must have been especially traumatic for his young psyche. I was also touched that after years of maltreatment and injustice, the Ngos were finally being given the respect they deserved at the camp.
“How did you leave?” I asked, becoming increasingly invested in his story.

“We had cousins who had fled before us and settled in America, so they sponsored us to move there. Soon after, we left and settled in San Jose.”

Despite having already endured incredible hardship, the Ngos’ journey was still far from over. They had to start their lives from scratch and assimilate into a new culture, a new language, a completely new way of life. They had to learn to be Americans while still holding on to their beloved Vietnamese culture.

“We had to look for housing, and my dad had to find a job,” he explained with a tense sharpness in his voice, obviously the effect of revisiting such a stressful time. “He eventually found one selling goods, selling anything, actually. However, he and the rest of us also could not speak English, which made communication difficult.”

“Since you were so young, how was your experience adjusting to a new country?”

“It was difficult at the beginning. We all had to go to school, and none of us spoke English. We had to spend a lot of time on our homework because we had to learn English at the same time. Myself, I had trouble making friends. Some kids made fun of me for my race at school, which was quite intimidating and scary.”

Khoa’s comments on the language barrier struck a nerve with me. In that moment, I was mentally transported back to a Vietnamese New Year celebration a few years prior at the Ngo family residence. It was a joyous occasion, marking the beginning of the lunar new year. Cherry-red envelopes containing crisp, freshly printed ten dollar bills were handed to the children of the family, who squealed with glee at their newfound windfall. Adults and older teenagers cheered jubilantly from the room over as they played the popular Vietnamese gambling game bầu cua cá cọp. It seemed as if every surface was covered with steaming plates of bánh tôm, phở, gỏi cuốn, or any other of the countless delectable, traditional dishes that had been prepared for this occasion. Often, when I attended events at their home, they spoke English, but most of the conversation that night was in Vietnamese out of respect for my stepmother’s parents. As the rising and falling tones and hard consonant sounds that so characterize Vietnamese greeted my ears, to my dismay my brain could make no sense of them. I had no knowledge of the language, so I felt like an awkward outsider present among this cheerful chatter. This example is certainly incomparable with Khoa’s story, but I realized that this must have been exactly how Khoa and his family felt after moving to the United States: they were witness to the extravagance and excitement of American life, but the barrier of English presented a large enough challenge that they were unable to partake in it.

Despite his tumultuous beginning in the United States, it soon became obvious that, according to Khoa, the benefits of his journey turned out to be worth the struggle.

“The United States has a lot of opportunity, much more than Vietnam. Everything we needed to succeed was provided to us. The government had programs to help us get set up. We lived in public housing, and we were on food stamps. That didn’t exist in Vietnam.” I found his perspective interesting, as I’ve regretfully witnessed many Americans look down with disdain upon those who use government services such as food stamps and public housing. This leads the people who need these services the most to be ashamed of their decision to do so, even though it may mean the difference between survival and eventual vitality or a life of permanent destitution. Instead, Khoa took pride in the fact that their new country was providing help to his needy family, which, in my personal opinion, should be the viewpoint possessed by every American.

“Would you ever say that you regret your decision to move here?” I asked, almost positively knowing what his answer would be.

“I was a young child, so I didn’t have a choice, but I don’t regret the decision at all. My family is incredibly grateful to be here, as many people are incredibly desperate to come here. It’s a blessing to be in America.”

Our interview ended on that positive sentiment, as Khoa had nothing more to say. I pressed the crimson-colored button on my phone’s screen to hang up the call and set it down on my bed. I lay down and regarded the off-white, cracked ceiling just above my head, attempting to fully process all the information of Khoa’s story. Suddenly, a wave of guilt washed over my body and mind. In the six years I had known the Ngo family, I hadn’t once heard the story of how they arrived in the United States. Khoa’s account of their journey, which in a matter of twenty minutes made an impact on my heart and my soul, completely changed my view of the Ngos. I realized that they are the single most enduring family I know, as even though they experienced incredible hardship, they escaped their situation with an indescribable combination of grace, love, hard work, and perseverance.

While Khoa had relatively few words, his answers still conveyed a powerful truth: liberty and justice for all is unfortunately not universal outside of our nation’s borders. Beyond the United States, injustices and abuse are rampant in some nations, and many long for the freedom about which Americans don’t take a second thought. Furthermore, Khoa’s story demonstrated to me both the evil of humans and the unbreakability of the human spirit. It’s quite difficult to envision that such malevolence as that perpetrated by the Viet Cong exists in the world, but it’s an uncomfortable reality we must all face and have a responsibility to help ameliorate. However, even when faced with unspeakable travesties, such as those occurring in Vietnam, humans will stop at nothing to better both their own lives and those of their companions.

That night, I turned out the brilliant light illuminating my room and tucked myself under my warm, dry comforter. As I drifted into a deep slumber, I reflected on the interview. Khoa’s words, especially his sentiments of gratitude for being in the United States, echoed through my mind. In that moment, I felt more grateful to be an American than ever.




“I thought I was bringing my five children and I to our deaths,” she recalled, teary-eyed. Rosa was somber in her expression while describing the event that changed her very identity as a person. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, many Vietnamese fled the country to escape the newly installed communist government. Many resorted to fleeing to neighboring countries by boat or ship. This fleeing population was called the “Vietnamese boat people.” Their passage on sea was unpredictable as many died facing danger and hardship from pirates, overcrowded boats, and storms. From 1975 to 1995, it is estimated that 800,000 Vietnamese undertook the dangerous journey. Thong Thi “Rosa” Nguyen was one them.

I first got in touch with Rosa as she was the mother of one of my father’s co-workers. We had long known her family, but it wasn’t until recently that I discovered her former refugee status. Rosa was born in the Quang Ngai province on the eastern coast of Vietnam. In the years after the end of the Vietnam war, Rosa and her husband decided that the family was ill-suited to live in Vietnam. The new corrupt government had put many families, theirs included, in financial crisis, and anyone who spoke up against the government would be declared an enemy of state. Given that Rosa’s husband was a fisherman, they decided that the family would flee on his fishing boat. On the 18th of June 1980, Rosa, her husband and her five kids, ranging from five months old to five years old, boarded their tiny fishing boat in the direction of Hong Kong.

Rosa and her daughters were kind enough to invite my dad and me for lunch to conduct the interview on September 27th at noon. At our arrival at their house in Fremont, my father and I greeted Rosa. Despite the grim topic we were about to discuss, she smiled joyfully, happy to be in the presence of friends. I sat down at the dinner table with my dad’s co-worker who was ready to translate whatever Rosa said.

I first asked Rosa to explain what happened on the fishing boat in Hong Kong. She recalled, “We arrived in the port of Hong Kong but we were told we weren’t allowed to go on land because too many refugees were coming at once. We were left drifting on the sea for two weeks at the port with little food. Our motor had ran out of fuel so we couldn’t go looking for food.” Rosa’s face while describing this scene seemed hurt and regretful. She knew that there was a possibility that her whole family could’ve died during that period. It struck me that Rosa must’ve mustered unbelievable bravery to remain resilient and be optimistic on that boat.

When she said she had little food, I followed up by asking how they scraped by. “All the food we brought with us originally quickly ran out. Other fisherman boats would give us dry goods and rice because they felt bad. For my babies, we gave them powder milk with the water we brought,” Rosa explained while nervously fiddling her fingers. At this point, I realized how thankful Rosa must’ve been to be alive at the present moment and for being able to look forward to her next meal. It really emphasized how minor my daily first world problems were compared to hers at the time.

After those grueling two weeks were over, only male refugees were granted access to go on land in Hong Kong. I asked her to describe what she saw. She recounted the scene, “It was complete pandemonium. All the men rushed to immigration stations to get their paperwork as soon as possible. Many men, including my husband, wrote down wrong date of births and names of their children out of ignorance. Even then, food was difficult to come by as the government officials only gave each person two small portions of rice twice a day. After a couple of days, the families gained ‘refugee status’ in Hong Kong.”

“How were you treated in Hong Kong?” I asked curiously.

“Fortunately, the reception by the people was very positive. The people of Hong Kong were aware that we were refugees and were hospitable towards us. We were provided three meals a day, and jobs could be found if we showed identification,” Rosa replied.

I also asked Rosa about the negatives being in Hong Kong.

“There was a huge communication barrier. Since Vietnamese and Cantonese are drastically different languages, we couldn’t understand what each other were saying. It made it difficult for us to assimilate in their culture,” Rosa responded while making Chinese fried rice.

After a brief period in Hong Kong, Rosa and her family were given a loan by a refugee relocation organization to be able to move to the U.S. They were able to build their life in the San Francisco Bay Area where she raised all of her five kids. She is now a happy grandmother living in Fremont.

To finish off the interview, I asked her about if she had any regrets about leaving Vietnam. She immediately responded, “Absolutely not. Even today, Vietnam is a corrupt place that limits your freedom of speech. The government still neglects its people, which is why many Vietnamese are still emigrating today. If anything, I regret not bringing my extended family to America where the living conditions are much better.”

Since being in the U.S., Rosa has been happy despite the language barrier. She sends money to her extended family in Vietnam to support them, knowing the Vietnamese government can’t steal it. One day, she hopes that she can garner enough money to bring the rest of her family to America.

Rosa’s story is a common one between Vietnamese refugees. She and many others were lucky to be so well received by a foreign country. The Cantonese people demonstrated a great example of hospitality during their time of need and distress. Emulating what Hong Kong did should not be seen as a burden but as a responsibility, a fundamental act of human kindness. Countries that are able should always keep their doors open for the desperate or displaced or hopeless or those latching on to survival. Unfortunately even today we are struggling with this task.

It is important to remember what Rosa endured, as she was bearing witness to the refugee experience. Her testimony, intact and not lost, will be passed along generations throughout her family. Without it, the family is missing a crucial experience which formed their identities. Above all, people should keep in mind this event as whole so such a mass exodus never happens again.



Running Targets: Liberation


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!”

Ms. Ho and Her Mosaic Painting “Hiking on King Mountain Hill”
Ms. Ho and Her Mosaic Painting “Hiking on King Mountain Hill”

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.

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.”


Bad Memories?


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.