By Huong T. Nguyen
NCLR Guest Columnist
They’re taking forever to arrive—acceptance or rejection letters from colleges. Small envelopes = bad. Big = good. Or at least that’s what I’m told, because none of my family members have made it that far in their schooling yet. Mom and dad only finished high school, same with my two older sisters. And at the rate my two younger brothers are going, they, too, will suffer the same fate. So it’s up to me. No pressure.
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Mom and dad aren’t exactly the stereotypical Asian parents. You know the ones—helicopter parents who would do anything and everything for their kids to excel in school. Wish my parents were more like that. Just a little. Mom and dad instead are on the opposite spectrum. A charitable description is neglectful.
I guess it’s not their fault entirely. They’ve been through a lot. You see, my dad was in the Southern Vietnamese Army during the Fall of Saigon in 1975. I was 2 at the time. He wanted to leave Vietnam with us in the airlifts, a mass evacuation of the last American forces in Saigon. We missed them, unfortunately. Think my mom and brother were in the countryside at the time.
When the Communist North took over the entire country, it was a dark period for supporters of the American forces. They were imprisoned in so-called “re-education camps.” I’m sure they sat around all day singing camp songs, playing games, and roasting s’mores. Not. As the name connotes, the camps’ purpose was to reprogram them to think properly. My dad was there. I’ve never heard him talk about it, but his silence speaks volumes.
When released, his sole mission was to leave that hellhole by whatever means possible. So he bought a small fishing boat, loaded my two older sisters and anyone else who wanted to come, and sailed away. To where? Good question. Like countless others desperate for a better life, they were hoping to sail to international waters and be picked up by anyone other than their Northern countrymen.
Some folks perished when their boats sank. Others, captured and imprisoned. Many, robbed and sometimes raped and thrown overboard by pirates from Vietnam and the surrounding countries. I can’t imagine the magnitude of despair these folks must have felt to risk their lives and the lives of their children, leaving the only home they knew, and casting their hopes and fears to the ocean.
Thank the universe that no one on my boat met such a terrible fate. After my dad and two sisters left, my mom, brother and I tried two times to escape, only to be captured and sent to refugee camps. In my third attempt—this time alone with my aunts, because my mom had only enough money to buy passage for me—our boat was boarded by pirates. I must have been 4 or 5. I recall vividly when a pirate broke the jade bracelets on my aunt’s wrists, while I sat two feet away. In my mouth, a diamond ring. My aunt’s quick thinking bought us a month’s worth of food at our next refugee camp in Singapore.
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Crap! Three big envelopes. How am I going to pay for college? Parents can’t even take care of themselves, let alone help. There’s got to be a way. I’m not taking this second life for granted.
NCLR Guest Columnist Huong T. Nguyen has shared her military dismissal under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” through her weekly diary blog series. Read Part One: Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way, Part Two: Light Bulb, Part Three: A New Identity, Part Four: The Education of Private Nguyen, Part Five: The Girl, Part Six: No Air, Part Seven: The Truth Will Set You Free, Part Eight: The Trial, Part Nine: The Story, Part 10: There’s A Place For Us, Part 11: The Repeal: No One Left Behind,and Finale: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”: In the Olden Days.
Nguyen is an attorney in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she resides with her wife and two children.