The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Refugee

April 26, 2018

Dr. Tung Nguyen

My life has been separated by a clear line—a childhood in wartime in Vietnam, an adulthood as a refugee in America. For many years, I have listened to stories, read books, and watched shows and movies about the war and what happened afterward. I think that many of these histories and stories are true. But to me, they are true in the way that a blind man’s description of the world based on what he can touch is true. I myself have no pretense of knowing the truths about something that costs millions their lives and weighs heavily on millions of survivors. I can only tell you what I have touched, and what has touched me. So here are some memories.

I remember a woman lying on top of a fresh mound of earth and weeping. And the boy whom I knew under that earth, put there by a bomb dropped by an American plane.

I remember as a child woken by the rumbling of Russian tanks over the paved streets of Ban Me Thuot in March 1975. I remember the piles of army uniforms left at the corner in front of my house. I remember watching the North Vietnamese soldier marching by, many barely older than I was. And how scary they were with the rocket launchers on their shoulders.

I remember my mother waking me up one morning and quietly hustling us to a car to escape. I remember asking her why my adopted older sister was not with us. My mother said that we would be back. It will be decades before she went back.

I remember that on the road from Ban Me Thuot to Nha Trang, I only carried the clothes I wore and the belts of gold around my waist and my ankles. Every single bridge was blown up, so we had to go down before we could climb up. My mother hired men to carry my younger brother. In the distance, dead paratroopers hung in trees.

We met my father in Saigon, and then looked for a way out. I remember crowds. At Tan Son Nhut airport. At the U.S. Embassy. At the docks. Along the way, we were separated from my father. My mother said, jump. The three of us ended up on a barge. It’s a floating piece of wood with sandbags around the side with no engine. We were tugged out to the ocean and left there. It rained. Grown men wept. My brother and I were hungry and thirsty. My mother had a look on her face that I did not understand until I was 33 years old, when my first child was born.

We were picked up by an American freighter. Within hours, we found my father among the thousands of people on the ship. I stopped worrying. My brother and I were hungry and thirsty. My parents brought some gold but no food.

The only memory I had about landing in Manila and being there was that someone gave us a piece of hot chicken before the ship docked. It was the best meal I ever had.

I remember living in Pennsylvania with a white family with 2 kids my age and another Vietnamese boy not my brother. White kids stole my Halloween candy. I failed a True/False test because I did not understand how there were only 2 answers to all the math questions.

I remember my mother disappearing for several months after we got the news that her mother had died in Vietnam.

I remember never seeing my parents during daytime after we moved to San Jose because they were at their Vietnamese grocery store 363 days a year. I remember doing the bank deposit after homework every night. Stacks of dollar bills and checks. And the biggest stacks of all, the food stamps.

I remember flying across the country to college and being surprised that everyone else was moving in with their parents. I remember standing in the balcony at a major meeting on the Vietnam War, ironically enough in the John F. Kennedy Center, and shouting at the panelists, all white men, “Where is the Vietnamese perspective in all of this?”

I remember sitting among Americans who said that the Vietnam War protests made them felt like they were making a difference. And I thought to myself, I’m so glad we helped you.

I remember taking care of Vietnamese American veterans who were dying from cancer and still smoked. One said, “I smoke because it reminds me of the men I fought with.” I understood, because by then I had learned about survivor guilt.

I remember a Vietnamese woman saying to me, “I had so many hardships to bring my son to this country, and he said to me, my life is so hard now, I wish I had never been born.”

I remember a college student who said to me, yes, I came over as a refugee without my father, who was shot and pushed off the boat by pirates in front of me.

I still have a fear of forests. I believe it comes from repeated admonitions by my parents when I was young in Vietnam not to wander off because of mines.

I watch leaders of our community urging us not to forget our roots and where we came from and not to ignore the sufferings and oppression of our people in Vietnam now. And some say now we should vote for people who oppress minorities, immigrants, the sick, and the poor.

I ask myself, what is the use of remembering our history, culture, language and suffering, when we will not use those memories to help people like us. Many Americans, including Vietnamese Americans, are poor, have health problems, and have families they want to bring here.

Here is my truth from what I have touched and what has touched me. I am special, just like all Vietnamese Americans are special, but I am not different, just like all Vietnamese Americans are not different from all the other people who suffer in the world.

And the burden of being a refugee? It gets lighter if we did not keep it to ourselves but share it with as many others as we can.