A Father’s Journey
Phuong Lang’s 1980 escape from An Giang, Vietnam to create a new life in America
essay written by Vincent Lang
Phuong Lang, now a successful engineer and father, retells the story of his grueling escape from the communist Vietnam to the democratic United States. Facing Thailand pirates to aimlessly drifting on the ocean, Lang expresses his emotions and feelings before, during, and after the Vietnam War. From the constant artillery bombardment in his childhood town to the graduation from Cal State Long Beach, Lang survived multitudes of challenges and obstacles, emerging a completely different person than the one boarding a boat on 1980.
Violently erupting in the 1960’s, the Vietnam War claimed six million Vietnamese and American lives and enacted a constant struggle between communism and the free world. Lightly armed, the Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army relied on guerilla warfare and savagely fought the United States, utilizing stealth traps and civilian spies. While the United States possessed superior technology over the North Vietnamese, guerilla warfare took a heavy toll on American lives and morale. After the fall of Saigon on April 1975, northern Vietnamese communists seized control of the barren country, forming a Soviet Union satellite and succumbing to the domino theory. Throughout the war, both Northern and Southern Vietnamese escaped to the outside world through means of boat or land travel. Now a successful engineer and a father, Lang retold his treacherous story of his escape. Both compelling and inspiring, his story contained the beauty and essence of the Vietnamese culture, the collapse of democracy, and the rise of communism.
Born in 1963, Lang experienced firsthand the bloody carnage and gruesome destruction of the Vietnam War. Living with his family and working in his father’s jewelry shop, he constantly dealt with the death of his friends or relatives. During his childhood, he had nine brothers and sisters, typical of many Vietnamese families. He lived in a middle-class society, depending on his siblings and himself; his village, located near a communist-controlled town, had stationed American soldiers who constantly bombarded the enemy village with mortars and artillery shells. This exposure to battle physically hardened Lang, but also mentally scarred him. He recalled observing masses of dead Vietnamese and American soldiers driven through the village on military trucks, towards the chaotic back-lines of the American military. Although his father worked in a jewelry business before the communist regime, Lang learned about responsibility through his role as an older brother. He willingly attended Vietnamese school where “the classes [were] very crowded” and students lacked “a whole lot of paper”; some students had to “share [books] with the classmates and [they got] very beat up.” 1 Although Lang struggled through everyday life, he managed to complete elementary school only learning basic instructions and minor education; he lightly studied Biology and French.
Before the communist regime took over, many Vietnamese people lived a simple, agricultural life. Although farming relied on cooperating weather and good rain, many Vietnamese peacefully carried on their lives due to the wealthy Americans pumping money into the struggling country. Also, some Vietnamese depended on their harvest and crops to carry themselves through the harsh, unforgettable winters and the dry, humid summers. Families, some composed of ten children, learned to equally distribute their duties and responsibilities amongst family members. While some children traveled to cities to beg for money or shop for supplies, others helped their parents by planting the seeds, controlling the water buffalos, or gathering the crops. After completing their chores, many children, like Lang, passed time by playing games or hanging out with friends. Back then, Vietnam “didn’t have a lot of technology”, so Vietnamese children played “soccer,…in the river,…or with kites.”2 Typically, many children created their own toys due to a shortage of supply or money. Using clay or natural materials to construct crude automobile or plane toys, kids sometimes entertained themselves by watching the occasional chicken-fights. Strapping sharpened blades to the bird’s legs, Vietnamese people watched as the birds fought, selfishly betting their tainted money on the victorious chicken. This form of social activity not only killed time, but also created a sense of individual freedom. Lang and his friends occasionally swam in the winding river near his house, enjoying life away from communism and pretending life was still normal. Even though Lang lived in destitute-uncivilized life by today’s standards-he remained optimistic.
When the communists began to capture cities and take non-compliant Vietnamese people as prisoners, the communists implemented their socialistic theories. These theories, ranging from economic conformity to social class stability, aimed at discouraging any rebellion, dissention, or revolution. The communists changed the currency, forcing many families to accept stationed soldiers, who destroyed personal privacy, in their houses. During this time, the communists robbed Lang’s family and took away his father’s business. Throwing his father in jail for approximately six months, the communists permanently forced Lang to live on a tight budget of two hundred dollars to support a family of eleven. Regardless of the amount of old money turned in, the communist government only gave two hundred dollars. Some people committed suicide, because they couldn’t stand the oppressive government and their ridiculous rules. Lang remembered how his father performed back breaking labor everyday and how his family lived with simplicity and only basic necessities. This harsh and cruel treatment “lasted for maybe two to three years” and it remained “a very tough time” because his parents “didn’t see a future for the children.” 3 Feeling confused, uncertain, and misguided because of his lost father, Lang felt determined to escape with his family and his belongings. While the government created theories to limit the population’s ability to think individualistically, the corrupt police brutally enforced the unfair laws and the military conquered new people under the communist regime’s rule.
Before venturing to the unforgivable ocean on an old, unreliable river boat, Lang had high hopes for the United States, because of what he had learned at school and what people had told him. During the violent war, many refugees were luckily sponsored and mailed vital information, regarding the United States and the American culture, back to Vietnam. These refugees described the United States through letters and pictures, depicting the American life. They retold stories of amazing, new technologies and promised that the refugees would have a more fulfilling and better life in America. Before 1975, Lang had seen pictures of beautiful landscapes in the United States. He had high expectations, but also felt grateful because of the opportunity to escape from communist Vietnam. He “[thought] he was going to have a good life in the USA”, and “was excited to get away from communist to come to a new country.” 4 Although the boat escape was an uncomfortable, treacherous, and tough nightmare, his expectations about the United States pushed him to survive.
On a calm night with a full moon brightly shining across the ocean waves, Lang, his two older sisters, and forty six other Vietnamese people boarded a rusty river boat approximately twelve meters wide, and headed for the United States. Having enough food, water, fuel, and gasoline, the boat began its supposed four day trip towards Thailand. Believing in an improved life for his family and himself, he remained hopeful throughout the trip. After traveling across calm waves for a day, the river boat entered international waters where they encountered Thailand pirates. Surrounding Lang’s boat, the pirates “searched the boat”, looking for “gold and jewelry inside the engine” and any valuable possessions. Next, the pirates “broke the engine and smashed it with hammer” before “telling everyone to get back on the boat again.”5 Afraid for their lives, Lang and his two sisters unquestioningly followed the pirates’ orders and unwillingly re-boarded the old, rusty boat. Stranded and slowly running out supplies, the boat gradually drifted into the open ocean.
The people, aimlessly floating aboard the broken ship, quickly ran out of water, food, and supplies. During a rare rainfall, Lang and the passengers utilized broken pieces of plastics and crude bottles to collect rainwater. They continued to suffer, until they spotted an object sticking out of the ocean. Hopeless and desperate, Lang and his fellow passengers exhaustingly and painstakingly paddled towards the object with some broken, splintered wooden planks. After paddling for a day and on the verge of exhaustion and collapse, the people “approached a big boat, or ship”, which turned out to be an “oil rig that belonged to a Singapore Company that did some kind of oil searching out there.” 6 The oil rig, on a three day shift left, rescued, fed, clothed, and sheltered the survivors. The crew, mostly composed of Singaporean seamen, allowed Lang and the passengers to live comfortably on the ship, before heading back to land. There was also an incident in which the oil rig picked up another stranded boat, full of sun burned and dying Vietnamese refugees. Describing them as unrecognizable creatures due to their horrific sunburns, Lang felt gracious and relieved that he had endured a better fate than others. Based on many stories, some survivors learned about incidents in which pirates raped, looted, and even killed entire boats of refugees, who were trying to escape Vietnam and communism.
After temporarily living on the oil rig, Lang and his fellow passengers were relocated to a Thailand refugee camp where the United Nations allowed them to live in crowded, overheated barracks. Staying in the refugee camp for seven months, Lang learned to speak, read, and write English. He studied diligently, intent on traveling to the United States and completing the rigorous requirements for citizenship. Before traveling to the United States, a refugee had to complete an interview and an extensive background check. The Americans, intent on securing their borders, also required many refugees to have a sponsor, American citizens who funded and supported legal immigrants. Every month, the United Nations personnel created a long list posted with names of people sponsored to travel to the United States. After the allotted seven months, Lang and his two sisters were relocated again to an Indonesian refugee camp where they lived in a staging area for one month. “In March of 1981”, he received a call about him and “his sisters going to the United States.”7; both nervous because of the language barrier, but also excited because of the opportunity for a new life, Lang and his sisters learned that a Buddhist monk and temple had sponsored them to live in America. Before flying to the LAX airport in the United States, they prepared for their journey by waiting in Singapore for three long days, filled with exhilaration and apprehension.
In the last few days of March, Lang and his two older sisters boarded a plane which eventually landed safely at the LAX airport. During the flight, they felt scared and excited-scared because of the vast language barrier and excited because of a new life. Lang, unaware of his destination, recalled the United Nations personnel “not [telling him] up front where [he] was going”, until the plane “land[ed] in the airport…and some people approach…as sponsors.” 8 After meeting his sponsors, Lang and his sisters experienced their first car ride, driving from the crowded airport to a secluded, holy temple. The city lights and American technology astounded him--“everything [seemed] beautiful and exciting”, especially the “streetlights and the lights of cars.” 9 They spent their first night in the beautiful, spacious temple. Lang and his sisters soundly slept, knowing they were cared for by the generous Buddhist monks. Lang felt especially comfortable and relaxed in the foreign, new world.
Enrolling himself into high school and renting an apartment with the help of relatives and friends, Lang began to slowly adjust to the American life. Although the language barrier proved a major obstacle, he managed to overcome it with ESL classes and the support of his friends and relatives. School primarily remained a hardship. In Vietnam, school teachers asked “students to come up to the front of the class as [they] started to question [them] about the lecture”; students had to verbally answer the question and if they got it wrong, the teacher would physically hit them with a stick. 9 This physical abuse of students not only reflected the barbaric nature of communism, but resulted in the brainwashing of many innocent Vietnamese people. To Lang’s surprise, many students in America learned their material through bookwork and reading, rather than lectures. This difference took awhile for him to adjust to, but ended up benefiting him, especially in the fields of mathematics and science.
After graduating high school, Lang enrolled into Cal State Long Beach. Strong in physics and mathematics, he majored in engineering and pursued a career dealing with robotics and electricity. During his first semester, Lang felt shocked at the amount of self-study and self-reliance colleges required. The new education system confused him at first, but he soon conformed to it. Developing study groups with his close Vietnamese friends, he “[hung] around [Vietnamese students] to support” himself because in “1981, many refugees came to the United States from Vietnam...with the same situation.” 9 Luckily, no one bullied Lang during his school years. By 1988, he graduated Cal State Long Beach and his brothers and sisters began to incorporate the American culture into their everyday lives.
The assimilation into American culture proved difficult for Lang and his family. Balancing school and jobs, Lang’s sisters attended two year colleges and tirelessly worked to earn much-needed money for him. “At the same time”, they sent “money and other stuff” back to their struggling, hungry families still living under the harsh Communist regime. 10 Lang, retaining his Vietnamese heritage and culture, tried to stick with his fellow refugees, learning to live with both American and Vietnamese traditions. Although the language barrier proved difficult and tricky, Lang eventually learned to live with both his old and new culture. With constant exposure to English, he picked up the language rather quickly. After meeting Ann Hoang, his future wife at Cal State Long Beach, Lang moved to a residency in Long Beach. He had his first son, Vincent Lang, in 1992. Wanting his son to retain the Vietnamese tradition and culture, Lang enrolled his son into Vietnamese school and Vietnamese Boy Scouts.
Feeling shameful of the Vietnam War and its horrendous cost of lives, Lang hopes that Vietnam will one day return to its old roots of democracy and freedom. Labeling communism as an evil, oppressive form of government, he wishes that the world would help rid current communist nations of their corrupt, sly politicians and cruel socialist theories. Lang, now fully accustomed to the American life and culture, hopes to one day return to communist Vietnam only as a visitor, visiting the site of his childhood, meeting with old friends, and re-forging old friendships. He acknowledges his past and origins from Vietnam, but not from communist Vietnam. Today, there are no immediate relatives of Lang still living in Vietnam; Lang does not have any plans to sponsor new immigrants. Looking back at Vietnam’s past situation, he feels ashamed by its technological and educational status. Lacking behind other Asian countries in modernization, Vietnam still remains a poor country filled with irreversible poverty. According to Lang, Communists “[didn’t] care about their people. All they care about [was] their party; their party is all about whoever joins the communist party gets the benefit. They don’t care how the country is going. They just care about their party only.” 11 Even now, Vietnam is a struggling country that refuses to recognize its problem. Communism, an unattractive, barbaric, and inhumane government, remains preventable by the democratic and free Western nations. Now forty nine years old and comfortably living with his wife and two children in Irvine, Lang doesn’t regret his escape from Vietnam. He hopes that Vietnam will one day return to its roots as a thriving, democratic nation where people rule themselves and can feel safe.
1. Lang, Phuong. Personal interview. 23 May 2009. 1.
2. Lang, 23 May 2009, 8.
3. Lang, 23 May 2009, 2.
4. Lang, 23 May 2009, 3.
5. Lang, 23 May 2009, 3.
6. Lang, 23 May 2009, 3.
7. Lang, 23 May 2009, 4.
8. Lang, 23 May 2009, 5.
9. Lang, 23 May 2009, 5.
10. Lang, 23 May 2009, 6.
11. Lang, 23 May 2009, 8.