Interviewer: Jessica Huynh, daughter
Interview Date: June 7, 2010
Experiences: Immigration from Vietnam, Women's history
My Mother’s Immigration from Vietnam in 1979
This report will focus on my mother’s incredible journey to America along with the struggles she encountered. All of the following is from an interview with Hoa Truong, my mother, conducted on June 7, 2010 except as noted.
My mother, Hoa Ngan Truong, was born on May 6, 1960 in Saigon, Vietnam, now Ho Chi Minh City, to Ky Truong and Thi Nga Huynh. After the end of the Vietnam War, many people in South Vietnam feared for their future since an estimated sixty-five thousand Vietnamese had been killed by the Communist north. (historylearningsite.co.uk) During the late 1970’s, the immigration rate between Vietnam and the United States grew exponentially from about one thousand in the first group in 1975 to over one-hundred thousand in 1979 due to people trying to escape this same fate. (americanforeignrelations.com) There are now 1.6 million Vietnamese Boat People around the world in places such as the U.S., Australia, Canada, France, England, and many more. (vietka.com) My mother later became one of these people.
Before the journey:
My mother is the second child of seven—five girls and two boys. Her family was never in the upper class. Her father worked on their rural farm while her mother sold vegetables at the market. The house they lived in was small and had no real plumbing, doors, walls, or floors. The ground they walked on in their home was just dirt. She spent more time at school or doing schoolwork than anything else since she loved school. She liked to compete with her sisters, who were only a few years apart from her, as well as other students. Teachers disciplined students by hitting their hands with wooden rulers, but my mother never had to worry about that. Her future looked bright as she earned the top ranking year after year. However, early in her adolescence, she fell very ill and dropped out of what is equivalent to the seventh grade because she missed too many classes and was behind in school. She helped my grandmother in the market, took care of her younger siblings, and helped with chores around the house. She and the rest of her family were Buddhist but were never extremely religious, so they rarely visited temples. During the Vietnam War, my mother hid under her bed when she heard any soldiers walking by. When it was safe, she came out and played with her friends. She collected chocolates and candy that were dropped from American army planes.
Dating was never a big part of my mother’s life. She did not have any boyfriends. At the age of eighteen, a matchmaker arrived at her house along with my father and his parents. Initially, the marriage was supposed to be arranged between my father and my oldest aunt; however, she did not want to marry him because he was blind in his right eye. Since my father’s family was upper middle class, my grandparents convinced my mother to marry him so they could escape their life of poverty. She agreed, and went out on a date with him. The next day, she married my father, Cuong Huynh, in December 1978, but they never had a real wedding. After a couple of months of living together as newlyweds in my father’s home, he decided that they should leave Vietnam in search of a better life—an escape from the political turmoil. He told my mom that they were going to leave for Canada knowing she would tell her family; however, he actually filled out the documents for the United States. When she finally told her family that they were going to America instead, it was already too late for them to change their destination. My mother had to leave without anyone else except a man she had just met and his family. From then on, it became a waiting game; their names were repeatedly called over a loud speaker for Australia, but they waited until it was the country they wanted: the United States.
The journey (focus):
The trip to America began in the afternoon on May 1, 1979 after completing all the necessary government paperwork. The two-story boat was twenty-six yards long—too small to fit five-hundred-nine people, most of them adults. As my mother climbed aboard, she was worried that the boat would sink or that they would be robbed by pirates. She sat with her knees to her chest along with everyone else on board, touching arm to arm and back to back with the people around her. There was no room to move or stretch. She remained in this position for hours until a crash between her boat and another forced them back ashore. Everyone stayed in a rural farm area with no lights for three days to wait for the boat to get fixed. She boarded it once again, sitting in the same uncomfortable position.
On the first day of sailing, they saw a boat. Everyone aboard was happy, thinking it was an American or European ship that could help them. On the contrary, it was a Thai pirate ship that wanted to rob them. When my mother’s boat raised their flag, the pirates saw them and sailed over. Everyone aboard began to panic and cry as the ship neared and the pirates had black markings on their faces and carried large knives, axes, and other weapons. They repeatedly crashed into my mother’s boat to scare them. Then they jumped over and robbed everyone. She saw them take at least four hundred expensive watches and five hundred gold necklaces along with rings and other jewelry. Her infant niece’s pillow case was taken to put all everything in. My grandmother’s basket filled with food, hygiene items, and gold was kicked into the ocean when they were trying to walk by. The pirates left after feeding the people ice, knowing my mother and everyone else was thirsty.
After a few hours, the second Thai pirate ship attacked the boat. This time, they fed them ice first, robbing them after. My grandmother forced my uncle to put a gold necklace under his tongue to hide it, but after telling them he did not have anything, they saw it and took it. Every couple of hours, my mother’s boat would be robbed by Thai pirates. There were a total of four ships, one of which told all the women on board to move to their ship to search them for money and gold. They were all molested while the men ran their hands all over their bodies. They were relieved when they ordered them back to their boat.
During the four days and four nights they sailed, two people died on board with the bodies thrown into the ocean. One was a doctor from Saigon that brought his two toddlers with him. He became sick and passed away. Since his wife did not leave Vietnam with him, everyone fought over his children. The other was an old woman who suffocated. My aunt, on the other hand, got seasick. She continuously threw up until she threw up a tapeworm.
When they reached an island at night, they stopped there. It was a Malaysian soldier camp on barren land with only wooden rooms. When they stepped on the island, my mother felt like her legs were jelly from being in the same position the entire time. Everyone aboard my mother’s boat was not allowed inside the barracks but had to sleep outside on wooden cots. This was the first time they were able to sleep in four nights. In the middle of the night, my mom was molested by the soldiers while my father had eight gold rings stolen from his shirt pocket. There were no real bathrooms, so they only poured water on themselves with their clothes on to stay clean. They ate canned foods every day and instant noodles, which was a lot better than the porridge they ate every single day while in the sea. They stayed here for one week.
The next island the soldiers brought them to had a refugee camp called Pulau Bidong; it was also in Malaysia. This camp was officially opened on August 8, 1978 and ran until October 30, 1991. (pulaubidong.org) Here, my mother, father, and his family saw my aunt’s friend. They reunited with my aunt, who had reached the island six months earlier. They were surprised because they did not know where the soldiers were bringing them, but, coincidentally, it was the same place my aunt was at. The island had no electricity, so at night, my mother used oil lamps and candles. When she needed to use the bathroom during the daytime, she had to climb a mountain and go to the shore at night. To collect water, she lined up at the wells that were infested with worms. Twice a week, the organizers gave refugees bags with canned food, rice, noodles, and crackers. Many people starved to death when they did not ration their food. The bed she slept on were logs put together with a piece of cardboard laid on top; she woke up with a sore back every day. To collect firewood to cook rice, my mother and her family had to cut down wood in the mountains and roll it down. To earn money, my mother and aunt had to make and sell teabags made from chrysanthemum leaves sent from my great-aunt from Germany. She rotated only the four outfits she brought with her, one of which was stolen. She had left an outfit to hang dry on a clothesline, and after some time, found that she only had three outfits left. When she walked around, she found it hanging on someone else’s clothesline, so she stole it back. One of the few good things about this island was that she got to attend English classes taught by a fellow immigrant.
On this same island, my mother had my oldest brother, Minh, in September 1980. A Dutch doctor saw that my brother had yellow skin and forced my mother to sit with my brother in the sun, so his skin color would turn “normal.” However, her obstetrician secretly told her to run and explained that the yellow undertone was only because he was Asian. After he explained this, she ran with my brother as quickly as possible.
After living there for eighteen months, my mother moved to a church in another area, where she lived on for a month. Here, doctors inspected all of the immigrants to determine if they could immigrate to America. The toilets there were disgusting with no real plumbing. Showers would often be filled with feces because people could not hold it in any longer. However, there was more food and electricity in the church. When the time came to wait for the plane, she and my father stayed up the entire night at the airport since the church organizers did not specify a time the plane would arrive.
It was the first time my mother had ever seen a plane up close let alone had ridden in one. She and my dad fell asleep with my brother in my mother’s arms. In the middle of the flight, a fellow immigrant woke my dad up, telling him he remembered my parents having a child with them earlier. My parents panicked, and searched for him. The man told them he heard a baby crying, and they finally found him underneath their seat. The Boeing 747 made a stop in Alaska for fuel. When they opened the door, it was so cold that my brother immediately threw up.
When my mother reached San Francisco, California on December 4, 1980, my aunts, uncles, and grandmother picked them up from the airport, since they had left the island earlier. My mother was so happy that she cried tears of joy because she knew that she would not have to live the same horrible life she had in Vietnam or in the camps. My aunt’s boyfriend drove all of them to eat immediately after at a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown. Then they drove to San Jose. When she arrived at my grandparents’ home, my mother wanted to use the bathroom. She asked my aunts where it was and they showed her. She was confused since she had never seen a real toilet before, so she repeatedly asked where the toilet was. She thought it was a fish tank since it was so nice and was filled with water. She lived with them for a month before moving to San Francisco so my dad could get a job as a busboy.
They went to a church to find help. They helped them find an apartment in the projects on Church and Market. My mother was afraid because she had never seen so many African-Americans before and was afraid of them. During the day, my father worked while my mother stayed at home taking care of my brother. They cried every day because it was so boring. They had no one else, and she was afraid to leave the apartment complex except when she needed to buy food. When they needed furniture, they collected it from the streets. My father told my mother that if anything happened, she should take my brother and the documents he left in a bag by the door along with the jackets outside. This was a good plan except the apartment had a broken fire alarm that repeatedly went off each day, so she would have to run out multiple times a day.
My mother did not know any current events that were happening in the United States at the time. She knew that the government in America was a lot more caring for the citizens and that the president, though she did not know his name, was a good man. She just knew that everything was a lot more clean—houses, streets, toilets—and beautiful but that it was a lot colder here. She was glad that the beds did not need mosquito nets.
After the journey:
My parents lived in San Francisco for two years but did move around to five different apartments. They had my sister Lily in March 1982. The whole family moved to San Jose in 1983 because of a fire that burned down their apartment complex. At the time of the move, my mom was pregnant with my sister Cathy who was born in August 1983. My brother Michael was born in September 1984 and my sister Nancy in September the year after. In San Jose, my father worked as a cook’s helper while my mother stayed at home. They had me in February 1990. We lived in the same house until we finally moved to our current home in July 2001.
My mother spent her days running errands and caring for the six of us. She was not able to attend adult school or get a job like my father. She got her citizenship in 1992.
Although my mother loved it here in the States, the thing she missed the most was her family and friends that were still in Vietnam. She missed them so much that she would dream about being in Vietnam again every night. Another thing she missed was the delicious fruits.
The most interesting story I heard my mother tell was the story of her at Pulau Bidong. It really showed me how much of a survivor she is. It was the worst island experience, but she also spent the most time here during her trip. The amount of work she put into to help out her family was amazing. My mother’s story is typical in the sense that many refugees had to deal with a lot of the same things she had to; they had to overcome the hardships in order to establish a life in the United States. However, her story is unusual because she had no other immediate family with her to support her and had only been married to my father for four months before immigrating. After conducting this interview, I am very grateful to my parents for enduring everything they had to go through to make a life for themselves here in order for us, their children, to be able to live happy, healthy lives. One third of all Boat People died during their voyage (vietka.com), but they made it.
Hoa Ngan Truong., mother ( San Jose, Ca, 7 June 2010)
and-boat-people.html 6 June 2010.
http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/vietnam_boat_people.htm 6 June 2010.
http://www.pulaubidong.org/history/1975-1979/ 6 June 2010.
http://www.vietka.com/ 6 June 2010.
De Anza Class: History 17C
Instructor: Anne Hickling
Interview Date: June 7, 2010