Becoming a Vietnamese-American
Bach Pham’s 1982 journey from Saigon, Vietnam to escape the communist regime of Vietnam
essay written by Diane Pham-Le
Bach Pham suffered throughout his whole life just to be free. He faced death from family tragedies, war, and concentration camps. After living under communist regime for 29 years, Pham realized that living in Vietnam would not suffice. When he was released from the concentration camp he wanted to escape Vietnam to come to America. When he arrived in America, it was a whole new world full of possibilities. Although it took years for Pham to adjust to his new life, he never regrets coming to America.
Vietnam is considered one of the poorest countries in the Third World. In the past, foreign affairs tore the country apart, but today Vietnam has improved vastly. Vietnam still holds the communist regime (Vietcong), which angers the old and new generation of Vietnam. In Bach Pham’s words, Vietnam is “where [he] [was] born, but [it’s] still [a] communist country.”1 Pham considered Vietnam his home country, but never intends to return. He lived in Vietnam for 29 years and was surrounded by communists his whole life because of the most hated war in America – the Vietnam War. Living in Vietnam was a battle between life and death; millions of people fought to survive and to escape Vietnam in order to live in the better and safer country of America. Pham revealed the difficulties of his life in Vietnam and his arrival to America.
After 1954, Vietnam was divided into two countries: North Vietnam, led by the Communist Ho Chi Minh and South Vietnam, led by Nationalist Ngo Dinh Diem. Pham was only two years old when his family and millions of other Vietnamese people escaped from North Vietnam. The communists took all the landowners and “pretty bourgeoisie or capitalists”2 into custody. Not everyone was lucky enough to pass through the northern border into South Vietnam. They captured Pham’s family, and placed them in a concentration camp for nine months. After being released, his family relocated to Saigon in 1954. His family found it difficult to adjust to a new life because his eldest brother moved to France and his father lost his job and land. Beginning a new life in Saigon was harder when tragedy struck the family; Pham’s mother died of typhoid fever. Because he was only three years old at the time, Pham does not remember anything about his mother. Tragedy struck again when his second oldest brother was hit by a train in 1960.
Because Pham's family was destitute during this time, he received little food and care. His father had trouble finding a job and moving on from his past misfortunes. Consequently, Pham’s older brother and sister had to find a job to take care of the family. His brother delivered newspapers while his oldest sister helped a small trader. Together they earned enough money to support their family. When Pham was five years old, the financial crisis in his family prevented him from attending school. To counter this, he and his sisters were homeschooled by their cousin. Three years later, Pham and his siblings went to public school for the first time. His father found a good job and earned enough money to support the family. Pham continued his education in 1970 at Saigon University, majoring in law. His childhood was unfortunate to say the least; it was “a very miserable one. [He] lost [his] mom and [he] did not have a good life like other children of the same age.”3
As more people died in the Vietnam War, another mobilization began in 1971. Vietnamese citizens were scared for their lives because they did not want to take part in battle. All first-year students in college were forced to mobilize if they failed their classes. Unfortunately, Pham did not pass his classes and had no choice but to join the army. Pham was not the only one in his family who had to join the South Vietnam army – his uncle and two brother-in-laws served as captains in the war. He was sent to the Infantry Officer Academy for training and after nine months, he graduated with first rank as a sub-lieutenant. His regiment was located in Bien Hoa City far from Saigon. Sometimes he went to visit his family in Saigon, until there was major combat between the South Vietnamese and the Vietcong. Life in this time “totally change[d]; [he] was not a student anymore, [he] was a combat man.”4 His duty was to lead forty men and to protect Bien Hoa City. In one year he was promoted to the assistant company, in charge of the army service, and this time he led 160 men. An increase in the number of men meant harder work and more pressure because he had to teach all his men how to fight against the communists, how to protect the people living in Bien Hoa City, and how to protect themselves. There were times when he feared that he would die, but he always said to himself, “if you want to live, you have to kill them first before they kill you. Only kill the Vietcong”.5 Pham continued to serve in the South Vietnam army for four years.
The North Communists took over the South Vietnam government in 1975, ending the Vietnam War. They took everyone who served in the South Vietnam Army and placed them in the concentration camp. There were various concentration camps in North and South Vietnam. Pham was placed in a concentration camp in Tay Ninh in southwestern Vietnam for five years. Living in a concentration camp angered the soldiers in the South Vietnam Army and increased Pham’s disgust of the communists. He already had to kill them and face them in war, but now he had to be closer to them every day. He stated that the communists declared they would free everyone in three days, but never did. To him communists, “never tell the truth. They always lie because they are communists. They are all liars. They deceived us and they try to brainwash us.”6 Compared to his first experience in a concentration camp, the second time was worse because he “was treated like an animal.”7 In the camp, he was forced to cleave trees and build houses; and to cultivate the land for rice, fruit, and plants to grow, learning the communist ways. Many times camps lacked food and clothes. When soldiers were sick and close to death, there was no medicine to treat them. Pham’s companions died because they tried to escape, or they were too weak to continue. However, some of his companions successfully escaped. Pham was close to dying when he became seriously ill, but he knew that it was his “destiny to live on and [be] free.”8 Finally, in 1980, the communists gave Pham his freedom. When he reunited with his family, he decided that he wanted to escape Vietnam. His father and two sisters refused to leave Vietnam because they wanted to stay even though South Vietnam was in control of the communists.
After releasing the soldiers from the concentration camps, the communists forced all the South Vietnamese people to remain in Vietnam. They wanted to continue converting South Vietnam into the "The Socialist Republic of Vietnam."9 If anyone was caught escaping, they would face severe consequences. Pham was not worried about getting caught; he just wanted to escape. Some of his family members wanted to escape as well. His first attempted escape took place by boat; however, he failed the first time because the engine was not strong enough and it had broken. The second time, when he escaped by boat once again, he succeeded. The boat was large enough to carry 60 people, including some of his family members and some other people. Their first destination was Thailand, which took three days to reach. Pham and his family lived in Thailand for three months, and then moved to the Philippines and lived there for some time.
The U.S. government was still involved with Vietnam after the war. It provided programs and organizations that would take soldiers or children to the U.S. An organization called the Cultural Organization took Pham and his nephew out of the Philippines. Pham’s expectations about the U.S. were that he would be able to start over, begin a new life, and find a job. He was hoping to find the true meaning of freedom in the U.S. because he knew many people from Europe, Latin America, and Asia had successfully immigrated to America and are now free and living a better life.
Going to the U.S. presented an obstacle for him because had to leave his home country and had to leave the ashes of his mother and older brother there. Also, his father and two sisters did not wish to leave Vietnam. What was even more difficult for Pham on his journey to the U.S. was that he “[could] not directly go to the U.S. because it [was] very hard.”10 Everyone was trying to escape Vietnam, and if someone was caught they would face drastic consequences. Therefore, many Vietnamese people went to nearby countries in Asia first before coming to America. On the journey out of Vietnam, many people got sick, since they have never traveled on a boat. Another reason for people’s sickness was that it was overcrowded on the boat leaving little room for them to breathe in. Shockingly, pirates from the Philippines invaded boats traveling from Vietnam. There was one incident on Pham’s boat, where the pirates took everyone’s jewelry and money. After escaping from Vietnam to come to America, Pham’s biggest challenge was to learn and adjust to the new ways of America.
When arriving in Valdosta, Georgia in 1982, Pham and his nephew lived with their sponsor, Reverend Joe. Valdosta was a small town that looked like the countryside; different from the Vietnamese environment. Pham thought that everything was completely different from Vietnam because the houses looked like they were built stronger. In the U.S. the houses were, “equipped with all means to comfort people.”11 There was a bathroom, living room, bed room(s), kitchen and garage, as opposed to Vietnam where there is no room for the bathroom and the kitchen is very small. Moreover, transportation in the U.S. was better because the roads were smooth and making it easy for people to walk and drive. In his mind he believed that everybody in the U.S. could buy a car and own a house easily. He had to adjust to the cold weather in Georgia because he was used to the hot and humid weather in Vietnam. Pham saw that families were closer together in the U.S. and when children misbehaved they were not whipped or hit.
Pham and his nephew found that there was a large population of Caucasians living in Georgia. They were not used to the diversity because they were used to living with Vietnamese people and being surrounded by Vietnamese culture. Luckily, Pham did not encounter any racial issues, because Reverend Joe introduced him to many people who were friendly and kind to him; one less problem to worry about. With English as the main language spoken in the U.S., Pham had to learn how to speak English and communicate with others. English was a speaking barrier and it was, “the first problem and [his] main thing to learn. The accent was a problem too. No English [meant] no job.”12 Reverend Joe helped him get job at a Chinese Restaurant. His first job was tiring and hardworking. At the Chinese Restaurant he cooked and helped clean up, receiving $3.75 per hour. Pham was not happy about working hard while earning little, thus he made a new goal of earning a better education to have a real career and to live independently. After living with Reverend Joe for two weeks, he rented a house and lived there for three months with his nephew.
In the United States he noticed that there were numerous of rules people had to follow. He had to learn them because the consequences of breaking the law were not the same in Vietnam. After living in Valdosta for three months, he felt “homesick because there [were] no other Vietnamese people living around [him].”13 He felt isolated because he missed a part of Vietnam where there were people he knew or people who were in the same condition as him. Feeling lonely, he asked Reverend Joe if he could leave Georgia and move to California. He told Reverend Joe that California was a good state for him to live in because he had friends and family there, the weather was hotter, and there was a large Vietnamese community. Reverend Joe agreed to let Pham and his nephew leave for California and he helped them get a plane ticket into California. They relocated to San Jose, California in an apartment with other family members. There, they received a better education and lived in a better environment. Pham enrolled in San Jose City College and studied Computers and Electronics. After one year, he graduated and became an electronic technician. Even though he finally got a good paying job he still was under the care the Aid to Families with Dependent Children, a federal assistance program. He took a loan from the program to buy a car because he needed a fast transportation system to get himself to work and to drive his nephew to school. Living for the first time in California was not as comfortable as he thought it would be: he had to “overcome the hardships in the new land and [he] lack[ed] the money people need to live a good life.”14 As he adjusted more comfortably and quickly to life in San Jose, he saved up enough money to move to Orange County, California. He heard that there was a large Vietnamese community living in Orange County since most Vietnamese people immigrated there; and the creation of Little Saigon and the Bolsa Community attracted them. He has lived in Orange County since 1984.
In 1987, Pham married and later had two children. In his decision for his children’s assimilation of the American culture was that he would equally balance the American culture and Vietnamese traditional values. In his words, “the Vietnamese culture has been around for 4,000 years and [I] cannot forget all [I] know. The American culture, my kids will adapt [naturally].”15 He thought that his children should learn the Vietnamese language because that is what will make them learn more about the Vietnamese culture. At the Vietnamese language schools, the teachers taught the students about life in Vietnam and the traditions Vietnamese people lived by. Pham does not want to see the Vietnamese culture disappear because it was what made him this man he is today.
Immigrating to America was a good decision for Pham, because now he is “free to do what [he] wants. No communist regime control.”16 He enjoys life because he loves life and his family. Although he faced three tragedies in his life he still faces every day with strength. He believes that today, Vietnam has improved massively because there is a better economy and a new president, Van Linh, who helped the people of Vietnam trade and open businesses and companies. Pham has only returned to Vietnam twice and does not plan to go back ever again because life in America has treated him better than Vietnam ever did because here, “life is comfortable and there [is] more freedom and the true meaning of a democracy in the U.S.”17 Pham always thanks his sponsor, Reverend Joe, with all his heart for giving him the chance to come to California. Without Reverend Joe, Pham would not have been able to live in California. Pham has never forgotten the past because it made him into who he is today.
1. Pham, Bach. Personal Interview. 23 May 2009. 1
2. Pham. 23 May 2009. 2
3. Pham. 23 May 2009. 2
4. Pham. 23 May 2009. 10
5. Pham. 23 May 2009. 11
6. Pham. 23 May 2009. 13
7. Pham. 23 May 2009. 11
8.Pham, Bach. Personal Interview. 24 May 2009. 17
9. Pham. 24 May 2009. 13
10. Pham. 24 May 2009. 13
11. Pham. 24 May 2009. 15
12. Pham. 24 May 2009. 15
13. Pham. 24 May 2009. 15
14. Pham. 24 May 2009. 15
15. Pham. 24 May 2009. 19
16. Pham. 24 May 2009. 22
17. Pham. 24 May 2009. 15