Over thirty years ago, as a communist child from the Vietnamese city of Saigon (capital city of South VietNam) fell to North Vietnamese forces on April 30th, 1975. The fall of Saigon (now Ho Chin Minh City) effectively marked the end of the Vietnam War. The Vietnamese people fled their country any way they could find possible. They became known as “Boat People,” and many settled in America. Vietnamese boat people refers to refugees who fled Vietnam by boat and ship after the Vietnam War, and I was one of those refugees. I believed and still believe that hope is the only way to survive. The number of boat people leaving Vietnam and arriving safely in another country totaled close to 800,000 between 1975 and 1995.
In 1979, I was eight years old, having to escape from my home in Saigon on a crowded boat in the South China Sea. Before my escape, the Viet Cong had captured and imprisoned my mother. I was left to care and protect my younger brothers Vu and Bao. I remember telling my brothers that our mother would be waiting for us when we would land. I knew this was not true but I had made the decision to hope, for them and for myself.
Over the next three days, food became scarce and water was rationed to two teaspoons daily. Many people on board died due to danger and hardship from pirates, over-crowding on the boat, storms, rape, abductions and starvation. We made landfall in Malaysia only by scuttling the boat, after tribal Malaysians threatened us with spears due to the large number of refugees entering their country.
Un-chaperoned by parents or adults, we were fortunate to meet Quyen, a total stranger. With the assistance from Quyen, my brothers and I arrived in the overcrowded Palau Bidong camp. Bidong Island was officially opened as a refugee camp. Conditions on Bidong were difficult. Refugees crowded onto the island lived in makeshift huts two and three stories high made of salvaged timbers from wrecked boats, plastic sheets, tin cans, and corrugated iron sheets. Latrines and wells were inadequate; tropical rainstorms sent rivers of filthy water through the camp; all food and clean water had to be imported from the mainland. Water was rationed. We got head lice, worms and the swollen, malnourished bellies. Sanitation was nearly non-existent and hepatitis was rampant. So many refugees did not survive there. I was afraid to walk past the camp graveyard, which sat like a hungry monster waiting to swallow us up. By this point in time, I had given up on being re-united with our mother.
In the camp, some of the Vietnamese eagerly learned English and looked towards the future. Others would stare with empty eyes out to the sea, not eating, not taking care of their health, chain smoking, just waiting to die. I made a decision as a child to follow the direction the first group of people in looking towards the future. I held onto hope. I’d lie awake at night, pulling nits from my hair, my stomach aching from starvation, hoping to get to America, where the streets were paved in gold. Every day I practiced English with intent to keep that hope alive. After nine months had passed, we reached America.
Suddenly life was so very different from what I had seen in my short life and what I had imagined America would be like. I saw no streets of gold. We were so very fortunate to be taken in by large loving Iowa family. While still hanging on to hope, I focused on gobbling up as much as I could of American culture and learning to speak fairly fluent English. I was like a sponge, soaking up the ways of America and developing a new identity. America and my Iowa family gave me hope for a better tomorrow.
I still hope today on a daily basis, however I wonder what became of all those Vietnamese refugees. In Asian culture, one speaks openly about hardships, personal trials and grief. So many the elder Boat People felt and still feel that they lost their country, their traditions and culture. They feel shame and guilt in the fact that they ran instead of fighting. They feel shame. This is why I choose to speak for other refugees who are too disgraced to hope.
Excerpt from a former grade school teacher, Mrs.Marilyn Rodgers – Iowa Valley, Marengo, IA :
Following a long, arduous, and traumatic journey, the Pham siblings arrived in America and were brought to a rural farm home in eastern Iowa where they found love and comfort and security. This farm family upheld the Midwestern work ethic and values standards; it was a perfect place for Diem to develop and grow. She was already highly motivated and self-driven as well as independent. In the Marengo community and Iowa Valley school system she was nurtured and encouraged by many adults. Several of us, myself included, interacted with Diem during those primary years of her elementary education here.
Diem quickly learned the English language and set herself on a path to success through dedication and effort. Diem was all about the “whys” and “hows” and accepted the discipline needed for her own education. She turned any discouragements or failures into opportunities for learning—made lemonade from any lemons that came her way!!! I was her teacher for her third-grade year of schooling and thoroughly enjoyed working with a child who “wanted to learn”. Diem left this community when still a young girl but persisted in following her dreams and seeking to make the world a better place for all around her. To that end, all of the credit goes to her!!!
It has been a tremendous joy and satisfaction for me to follow Diem on her path to adulthood. I am so very proud of the roles of student, wife, mother, businesswoman, and leader that she has exuded. If I can take any credit for having cultivated an attitude of “positive thinking” in Diem, I am grateful; actually I only helped her realize that in herself—a trait she had when we met!!! I wish Diem success in this latest venture.
Eventually my entire family reunited in America, including my mother. Some of my relatives clung to the old country, old ways. I became their liaison to a new world. Some may call me a Banana: yellow on the outside; white on the inside. I am fine with this label. Like thousands of Boat People, I’ve worked hard to become a US citizen and appreciate the opportunities that were open to me. We survived and yet most don’t talk about the journey. The pain is too great, the shame too much to bear. There is no shame in survival, I want to tell them. I wish to speak for all who look to the future, all who dare to hope.
With privilege comes responsibility. I hold responsibility to gift back to those less fortunate or privileged. My dream and goal is to go back to Vietnam and bring solar power to the villages so that the people have some tools to use on their own leaving them less vulnerable to outside unreliable resources and self sufficient. We take so many things for granted, myself included to a certain extent. Things like electricity to turn a lights or lights on; electricity to filter our water through community utilities; electricity to prepare our food for our families; power to bring heat into our homes. Anything that I could bring back to my village and surrounding areas that could remotely resemble the privileges that I worked hard for earned.
I attended college at the University of Oregon in Eugene – Lundquist Business College where I obtained my degree in accounting. I am now a wife of a very talented medical professional and mother of three beautiful children. I am a minority business owner.
I am a firm believer in karma. (Karma (Sanskrit: कर्म; IPA: [ˈkərmə] ( listen); Pali: kamma) means action, work or deed; it also refers to the spiritual principle of cause and effect where intent and actions of an individual (cause) influence the future of that individual (effect).When we are graced with success in whatever way, shape and form it manifests itself, we need to pass it forward-Wkipedia) . Due to my curiousity about solar energy and the multiple benefits and then purchasing and building up a solar business, this was the perfect opportunity to pay it forward. The time, this idea and dream with bringing solar to Vietnamese villages occurred on a bicycle competition in Viet Nam in 2007. I had originally self identified as Asian, however after visiting my native country, I had some problems self identifying as I had been so blessed with so many opportunities after immigrating to America, that out of all fairness and ownership to myself I had to re-think my identity.
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