Her Story

Serena Nguyen's 1979 escape to America from the communist plight of Vietnam

essay written by Nikki Nguyen

Born into a world consumed by communism, Serena Nguyen experienced the hysteria as communists surveyed her every move. Frightened, her family strove for an escape from their doomed homeland. They sailed from Vietnam to Thailand where their fate hung one decision: would they be accepted into America? Passing all tests, the Nguyen family arrived to the mysterious, yet wondrous land of opportunity. However, their struggles continued. Nguyen and her siblings studied relentlessly while helping at their parents’ restaurant. From this bare-boned beginning, Nguyen learns the value of life and family.

   There is magic in what passes from generation to generation. Knowledge, stories, memories—they are a delicate stroke of ink, the young mind a canvas. Serena Ngoc Nguyen’s painting, thus, is composed of twisting swipes of frustration, bent swivels of nostalgia, and thoughtful swirls of hope. It is a painting of a “suffocating life in which people breathed on your neck,” and yet, it is a painting that truly makes Nguyen value her family and believe that her “parents gave [her] life twice.” Her painting conveys the struggles of Vietnam, her home country, under the communists during the Vietnam War, her family’s escape by boat, and their fight for survival in America.

   Serena Nguyen was born into an upper-middle class family; her father was a businessman and son of professor retirees, her mother a descendant from a prominent medical lineage. The third child of ten, Serena was expected to look after her younger siblings even though many servants already helped around their three-story house in the heart of Saigon—the capital of Vietnam. Saigon was a city constantly in motion. Unlike the steady rumble of cars on Californian streets, motorcycles popped and roared on Saigon’s dusty roads. Vendors lined the streets yelling advertisements over the noisy scramble. However, the war had already begun by the time Nguyen was born. Most of its frightening effects did not penetrate the upper class bubble, Nguyen noticed it in the educational system. With most of the country’s power fueled into the war, education was not something that the government emphasized. Thus, there were “…very poor schools with a teacher taking care of almost all the grade levels and no school supplies.” Yet even so, most children did not attend—or did so very rarely—classes because they needed to help their parents or even work to help support the family. Luckily, Nguyen’s mother stopped at nothing to send her children to the best schools available. Thus, Nguyen and her siblings attended a prestigious half-private school.

   The school, even though high-end, was still heavily involved with the war. It, along with all other schools, mostly emphasized the sciences and mathematics to produce scientists and strategists for strengthening the war cause. The school also planned activities in which students helped out the soldiers, such as an after-school session where girls embroidered little handkerchiefs to send to soldiers, fieldtrips during which the students talked to the injured hospitals, and practically any “little acts of caring…because they spent their life defending [Vietnam]” .

   But as Nguyen grew older, the war escalated. The war began to creep more and more into her daily life as her classmates entered the army through the draft. Thus, competition in the schools—particularly among the boys—was intense as boys who passed the college exam were exempt from the draft. Nguyen felt guilty upon passed the college exam because she felt like she “…took a spot of a boy, and he had to go into the war.” Vietnamese boys faced unbearable pressures in their studies, a pressure that virtually determined life or death.

   During final exams, Serena and her classmates saw “a big blast, and smoke and after that, the school dismissed all the kids. It was…chaos because there were hundreds of kids getting out of school at the same time… wondering what was going on.” She learned later that the communists had attempted to bomb the white house—nearby the school—but had missed. It dawned on Serena that the war was happening, and that day by day, battles ravaged her country among others; the bomb could have as well landed on her school. But it was an even greater tragedy how over time, Nguyen “…forgot about it because [events such as the bombing] happened so frequently around us that it doesn’t really give trauma.” Indeed, Vietnamese children lived constantly with the fear of gun shots ringing in the distance, of bombshells going off near their homes.

   In 1975, the Vietnamese president ordered the withdrawal of all troops from Saigon. This came as a surprise; “Vietnamese troops couldn’t believe that they were receiving the orders of giving up…because they had no sign…of defeat.” Saigon standing virtually defenseless, the communists sent tanks and occupied the city. There was no fight, no struggle—just clean domination. But just this event did not convince Nguyen’s parents to leave their homeland because the ones in danger were army and government officials. Only a businessman, Nguyen’s father posed no threat to the incoming communist government. Unfortunately, the family “should have known better.” Food rationing almost immediately took place. Every family was given a certain ration according to the number of people in the household. An official was assigned to every few houses, and people from the families had to report to him in order to receive their food rations; this was how the communists kept watch on each person in Saigon. Also, children in school had to finish “labor” hours—a grade weighted more heavily than both math and science. Students were required to carry out back-breaking work, such as building river dams by hand, for a certain number of hours or else they would not be able to graduate. The power that the communists had over the South Vietnamese was overwhelming; they were able to take away one’s property like “legal thieves.” They lied to the North Vietnamese into thinking that the Americans made the south into a poor, desolate country when in reality the south was more prosperous than the north could ever imagine. Through Boy Scout-like camps, they tricked children into telling any secrets or crimes that their family had committed. No one—not even relatives—could be trusted.

   Their homeland altered beyond recognition, Serena Nguyen’s parents sorrowfully turned towards escape in 1979. The only passage out was by boat; anyone who wanted to get out of Vietnam had to find a trustworthy connection who had boat, pay thousands of dollars for each person, pack supplies for the trip, and sneak by the guards all while not being discovered by neighbors who could give away one’s plan to escape. Upon finding a connection, Nguyen’s father first sent her oldest brother, who was near drafting age, and her oldest sister, who could care for him. They were to sail to a refugee camp in Malaysia, and then ask their uncle, a colonel who had sailed over to America years before, to sponsor them. When the two left, Nguyen could “…tell everybody in the family got tense, waiting for the news because the odds of arriving was very little—like 5%... As soon as [she] walked into the door, [she could] feel it. Nobody felt hungry anymore.” Nobody knew what would happen. It wasn’t until months later the Nguyen family heard from the two siblings. All of the tension that had built up in the household released as the family learned that the two had made it to Malaysia safely. So, knowing that the connection was trustworthy, Nguyen’s father prepared the rest of the family for the journey. On the day of departure, the family—so as to not draw attention—took different rickshaws, a few children at a time, to a gathering location, where a truck picked them up. They “had to sit quietly behind the merchandise, and people put the cover all over [them].” Along the road, the truck stopped multiple times, and other relatives and family friends piled into the truck. Dropped off at a small village, they waited for the rest of the group who would also sail with them in the same boat. A few days later, Nguyen saw the boat; it was a small, rickety fishing boat, and yet, it was to be the vessel which would save her from communism which had consumed Vietnam. As they sailed away, Nguyen “was looking at the scenery, and [she] never thought [she] could set [her] foot back.” Survival was unlikely considering how “three hundred something people [were squeezed] on a small fishing boat…about to sink at any time from…a small storm.”

   Two days into their voyage, the boat encountered a massive Thai fishing boat the size of a three story building. Everybody knew that these were the infamous Thai pirates that terrorized Vietnamese immigrant boats. Everybody knew about the types of things they did: stole money and food from the ship, raped the women, killed the men. Everybody knew that they were doomed. But to the Vietnamese’s luck, the sun went down, bringing on a pitch-black night. Nguyen and all the others in the ship hold were told to stay quiet and turn off all the lights, and in a matter of minutes, all Nguyen could hear was the constant, strained humming of an old engine. Everyone rejoiced in the morning when the pirates were nowhere in sight; they had escaped the bloody fate to which most other Vietnamese immigrant boats had fallen victim. But the celebration fell short when the boat’s engine, pushed to its limit, sputtered its last cry of defeat. Then followed pandemonium. What would they do now? What could they do? Their enthusiasm for survival waned; the voyage was only supposed to take three days and here they were, on the third day drifting aimlessly on ocean waves. It was Nguyen’s father who worked in the engine room until several hours later, Nguyen “saw him coming out, [with] oil all over his face,” but he was smiling, “happy that he got it working.” The group then pressed on towards Thailand. Their misfortune continuing, the next few days brought on suffering as they ran out of food and fresh water. The group lay in the hold, drained of energy and hope. But like a miracle, the soft plunking of rain on the deck raised their tired bodies, and they rushed out, their mouths open to catch the rain on their tongues. And it was on that night that their boat reached land.

   Landing on a fishing farm, the group was promptly greeted by a few somewhat surprised Thai soldiers. Unsure of what to do with a boat full of strangers, they sent them to a nearby Thai elementary school—it was summertime so the students were bounding off someplace else—until further notice was given. That night, Nguyen’s father and others took the boat and sank it, eliminating any possibility for them to be turned back to sea. The soldiers were angry upon finding out but grudgingly let them stay until the soldiers could find and repair the boat. Meanwhile at the school, the group sent letters to the UN everyday to help them stay in Thailand until they could get sponsorship to America. Eventually, the group was sent to a refugee camp, “a kept-in area…with a fence …all the Vietnamese people have to stay there until…they are allowed to get into [America].” But Nguyen felt like a prisoner in those camps. Nobody was allowed to go out, and Thai soldiers terrorized women at night, able to “kill us anytime and blame it an accident” . Luckily three months later, Nguyen’s oldest sister and oldest brother, who lived in America with their uncle, sponsored the whole family, and the Nguyen family flew over to America.

   The first attribute that Nguyen noticed in America was how organized it was. Compared to the crowding of Vietnamese motorcycles on tangled roads, the American street system had signs, specified lanes, and even traffic lights that signaled when and where cars would go. America seemed indeed a land of opportunity to her, especially since she had just come from a land starved by a greedy government. But then, Serena Nguyen realized that although the US was a richer land, her family had arrived to it with nothing and that it would be difficult to adjust to such a new and different culture. In Vietnam, the Nguyen family was at the higher ends of society with plenty of money. They “didn’t have to lift a finger [because they] had…servants all over the house.” Now in America, they had to start from scratch and make their living off of a bare minimum.

   Taking advantage of the fact that Nguyen’s mother was an experienced cook, Serena’s parents began their restaurant business. In order to support the schooling of their ten children, the couple worked sixteen hours a day—double the amount of the average worker. “They were the owner; they were the waiter; they were the cook; they were the cashier.” When they finally closed the shop, drove home, and got to sleep, it would be after a few hours that they would have to wake up and start the day over again.

   It was difficult for the children, too. Nguyen had to juggle a workload of eighteen to twenty credits as opposed to the fifteen of the average college student while driving back to the restaurant to help her parents. Most of the time, Nguyen and her siblings “had to do [their] homework right there in the restaurant” because the dinner rushes were so crowded. But after graduating with honors and officially starting her career a year later, Nguyen comfortably settled down with a house and a husband.

   In some aspects, Nguyen did not mind adjusting to American culture. In fact, she was thankful when she figured out how independent American women were. She respected how American women, much unlike Vietnamese women, did not “rely on [their] husband or somebody else’s money” to survive. But there were some things that Nguyen had to give up. Accepted to UC Davis with a full scholarship, Nguyen expected to attend there for her college, but since UC Davis was far away, her parents, scarred by the thought of the communists taking away their daughter, did not like the thought of it. Thus, in order to give her parents peace of mind, Nguyen refused the scholarship and instead attended the nearby Cal Poly.

   Today, Serena Nguyen is thankful for her coming to America. She had to give up her comfortable life in which she “never had to worry about anything—starvation or money” in Vietnam. However, America has granted her what her life of fame and fortune in communist Vietnam could never have given her—freedom. It has granted her the freedom to do what she desires instead of that of the spying official, to be whom she chooses instead of that of the communist government. And it is this view of freedom and this legacy of her family’s courageous expedition to maintain it that she passes to her children and future generations to come.


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11 Nguyen, Serena. Personal Interview. 23 May 2009, 15.
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