Separation and Reunion of Families
Huong Pham's journey from Saigon, Vietnam to escape communism
essay written by Kevin Pham
Huong Pham's family was one of the more wealthy families in the area. She lived a comfortable and carefree life until August 30, 1975 when South Vietnam lost the war against communism. Pham's life was completely turned upside-down. Her family was stripped of its wealth and was forced to resort to farming. The family decided to separate to escape Vietnam and promised to reunite in America. After a harsh journey on boat, she successfully arrived in California where she worked hard to prevent her children from suffering the same hardships.
Vietnam used to be a free country in which its people lived carefree and happy lives. The Vietnam War, however, turned everything upside-down. People no longer earned the money they deserved for their hard work. The communist government took advantage of the people. Anyone who opposed it was immediately killed or was sent to prison. Huong Pham was one of the many immigrants from Vietnam who fled to the United States to escape the corruption of communist rule. In Vietnam, the communists would invade her family's privacy and strip them of their rights profiting only themselves. Pham, who at the time lived in a wealthy family with a comfortable lifestyle, explained how the communists "made [them] go from top to bottom."1 The family was stripped of everything they saved and valued and was demoted to the status of a farming family. There was only one hope for a promising future: to leave Vietnam. In order to avoid the risk of getting caught, the family members separated. Pham's father, who worked for the Southern Vietnamese military, was taken away by the communists to suffer in a re-education camp where all of the heads of the families went for about 10 years. However, in reality, this camp was a prison. Forced to live without a father, Pham left Vietnam with a few of her siblings on a tiny boat. Miraculously, the tiny boat successfully escaped communist land and she eventually found herself moving to Irvine, California. There, she lived a much better life and eventually reunited with the rest of her family after many years. Pham, whose life was converted from a wealthy life to a poor and unfruitful life, endured much pain and suffering to make it to America. However, she was rewarded with a prosperous life that will ensure that her descendants will never suffer the way she did.
Pham was born in Vietnam, a free country up until the Vietnam War. Pham remembered that Vietnam "was beautiful [because she] was lucky enough to be born in a family that was...upper middle class."2 Before communist rule, school life in Vietnam was very good. Pham "went to a model school when they begin to apply everything they learned from the USA to teach in students in Vietnam."3 The school setup was similar to that of schools in the United States. However, after 1975 when the communists took over, the education system completely flipped backward. Everything became "controlled by the [communist] government."4 Rather than focusing on academic studies, the schools focused on teaching politics. The communist government attempted to brainwash the students to accept the ways of communism. The school was taken over by a student association, "a communist group that [tried] to put kids together and [taught them] again about communism and making [them] learn about the new system."5 They even encouraged children to rebel against their own parents if their parents were anti-communists. Another effect of communist rule of the school system was that the success of students in school became unfair after 1975. Rather than being successful through the abilities of the students, success was determined according to the background information of the students. Those who lived in families who supported the old government had no chance of getting into a college no matter how smart they were. If Pham had stayed in Vietnam, the highest level of education she would have received was high school. Even the school buildings themselves deteriorated. Since 1975, no maintenance had been done to keep the schools updated, showing that the communist government showed no concern for the country's education system.
Before 1975, Pham's daily life was very enjoyable. Being part of a wealthy family, she lived in a very large house that was four stories tall with thirteen rooms. Her family was also large. Her parents raised twelve children including Pham, who was the tenth child of the family. The family had all of the utilities of convenience at the time such as a T.V. and radio. She would go to school for six out of seven days for only four hours each day. Her typical daily schedule would start off with her going to school in the morning. After school, she would eat lunch and take a one hour nap which was common for Vietnamese people. After the nap, she would start her daily chores and do her homework. In Vietnam, chores were a larger part of daily life than in America. People spent more time cleaning the house, making dinner, and taking care of children. Although Pham spent a lot of time doing work at home, she still had free time to spare. She spent her free time playing with her neighborhood friends. The people in each neighborhood were so close to each other that "there wasnít much privacy because people can barge into your home any time."6 With such a carefree and peaceful life, it was difficult for her to predict that everything would change instantly when the communists took over.
Leaving Vietnam became the obvious choice for the family because everything changed for the worse after 1975. The communist government even robbed its own citizens. According to Pham, "they took whatever [they had]."7 Two months after the war ended in April 30, 1975, they ordered everyone to have a money exchange. This was when the old currency of the old government was to be converted to the new currency of the communist government. However, it was not an exchange at all. Pham complained how "the weird thing about it is that it is called exchange but no matter how much [people] bring in, [they] only get 200 dong."8 The government claimed that the rest of the money will be given back when needed for a good reason. People were able to submit a request and the government would consider giving them back whatever they needed for that purpose. "Thatís what they said but it never happened. It [was] just like everyone's money [had] gone out the door. Thatís it. Everybody [had a] maximum 200 dong," said Huong.9 Three years later in 1978, a group of ten men arrived at the family door and ordered to live in the house for a month. "During that month, they searched [people's] houses and [took] away whatever they [wanted] to take away," said Huong.10 Just like that, the government officials robbed the family in broad daylight in front of the public and nobody could do anything about it. The men took whatever they wanted such as: the T.V., gold, jewelry, washing machines, cassette players, and many other valuable things. The family had lost everything they had worked so hard to gain.
Not only did the government steal the property and money of its citizens, but it even forced them out of their homes. Families that were considered rich were forced out of their homes to live in some new area in the farm land "because [the communists] wanted [them] to live a hard life."11 Her mother, however, was smart enough to claim that the family had its own farmland in a different area. Therefore, the family was allowed to work in its own farmland away from the watchful eyes of the communists. At the farmland, the family had to live in a very small straw house. Pham's mother knew that there was no longer any hope of a future for them in Vietnam. She did not want her children to live their lives as farmers because they were not a family with a farming background. Therefore, she decided that it was best to leave and live in America where a few of her children already lived before 1975 to study in college. Pham expected America to be similar to a paradise where she'd once again live in a free life.
The family decided to spread out and leave at different times in order to reduce the chances of getting caught. Therefore, Pham "was sent with [her] older sisterís family and younger brother" to find a way to escape.12 They secretly paid a person who organized the escapes to get them on a boat out of Vietnam safely. They expected to leave on a large boat in an organized fashion. The man they paid "promised a safe trip, safe boat, he promised a lot of food and water on board and that [they would] be out of Vietnam in safe land in 3 or 4 days."13 However, when they arrived at the sea, they were shocked when they found that the boat was so small, it was not even meant to be used in the ocean. Yet, even though the boat was so small, Pham found that there were 59 people "sitting shoulder to shoulder,"14 struggling for space in the boat. The boat did not even come with a captain. The organizer claimed that the captain did not arrive and told the passengers to find a way out by themselves. There wasn't even any food as the organizer had promised. All of these broken promises indicated that he cheated them for their money and "threw [them] in a small boat with a tank of water."15 Because the passengers could not afford to get caught escaping, they did not bother wasting time protesting. During the journey, the passengers had to live off of little amounts of food that they had brought along with them. They could only afford to distribute a capful of water for each person. However, because there were so many people on the boat, "the tank was gone in two days."16 People quickly became dehydrated and many people fainted during the trip. The only direction that the organizer gave them was to head south for three days to find land. By the third day, they encountered many large boats. The passengers tried to signal for help but were completely ignored. On the fourth day, however, they spotted land. Everyone became relieved and filled with hope. However, the minute they saw the land, the boat stopped. They checked and found that the motor no longer worked. They were forced to wait for a while until a small boat came along. There were three major fears for the passengers: getting caught, flipping over due to large waves, and getting captured by pirates. All of the women were ordered to hide incase the boat belonged to pirates. Luckily, the other boat only contained fishermen. The fishermen helped the passengers over to the shore of Pulal Island. The passengers stayed there for two nights until a Norway rescue ship arrived to take them to a refugee camp called Galon. Pham stayed in the refugee camp for four months. She left the camp sooner than most of the other refugees because she already had siblings living in America, which made it easy since the government did not have to arrange shelters for her. She was soon sent to the United States to live with her older siblings who had already been living there. Compared to many other people who escaped from Vietnam, Pham was very lucky to have made it to America so smoothly with no one dying during the journey. Although she was very glad to have escaped Vietnam and live a better life, she was heartbroken at the same time because she knew that there was no guarantee that she would ever see the rest of her family again.
Pham was amazed at how much better her life had become after her arrival in America "because after living in the refugee camp for a few months with no electricity or water, [her] first impression was [that] everything was so bright and so clean."17 She was so surprised at how everyone she met was kind and polite to welcome and help her out. She thought that they were all angels with beautiful hearts. Pham was also surprised at the variety of races that she found and especially took note of how there were so many Mexicans in California. She saw America as a wonderful dream land that was perfect in every way.
Luckily for Pham, adjustment was not a problem. Because her family had originally planned to send her to America for college, she had tutoring lessons to learn the English language. Therefore, she had no trouble conversing with Americans and understanding what was going on. Pham found her life in America to be very busy and felt that there was "no empty day in America."18 She worked very hard in high school because she had dreams to fulfill. She wanted to make her life worthwhile and to make a difference in the world for the better because "it cost [her] and [her] parents a lot for [her] to be there so [she] didnít want to be a nobody."19 She wanted to make her parents proud and feel that their sacrifices and hardships were worth the trouble. With great ambition, she worked so hard and did so well in school that she graduated from Irvine High School within only three years. Although she did not have her parents with her until 1990, her older siblings took good care of her until she became an independent adult. She enjoyed the way how in America there students were given many chances to go to college unlike in Vietnam where a test was taken to decide whether one passes or fails to move on to college. She adapted very easily to American culture.
Pham had very little trouble adapting to the American culture and environment. Although she did not "100% Americanize yet, [she] blended in very well."20 Since America was a free country, she had the privilege to live her life the way she wanted. She basically adapted to what she thought to be the best parts of American culture while she at the same time kept what she thought to be the best parts of Vietnamese culture. Pham took great advantage of her newfound freedom to make her life the way she wanted.
With the new freedom granted to them, the Vietnamese immigrants had the ability to decide what traditions to keep or discard. Although some immigrants tried to keep the traditions, Pham realized that it was impossible to keep all of them. For example, in typical families in Vietnam, children were never permitted to talk back to their parents. They had to obey everything ordered by their parents. In America, however, she encouraged her children "to voice their opinion as long as they do it in a nice way."21 Another change in tradition was in how immigrants ate. In Vietnam they would eat three equal meals while in America their breakfasts and lunches would be much lighter than their dinners. The Vietnamese food itself altered in America. Because many of the materials used in Vietnam were not available in America, the food was modified so that it consisted of American materials. Most of the traditional Vietnamese holidays were discarded with the exception of a few main holidays such as Tet, which was also known as Lunar New Year. In America, Vietnamese people could no longer speak in complete Vietnamese. Many of them found that it was difficult "to speak 100% Vietnamese because some terms are not transferable."22 Many Vietnamese habits, big or small, changed in America.
Pham is now a very successful optometrist living a prosperous life with four children. She has finally reunited with the rest of her family and never fails to make her parents proud. She hopes that although her children are Americans, they will always remember that they are Vietnamese. She plans to visit Vietnam again in the near future and hopes she can return to live there if it ever becomes liberated from communism. Her feelings towards her home country are so strong that she feels that "there is a special connection that [she] always feels warmer when [she] is there."23
1. Pham, Huong. Personal interview. 23 May 2009, 4.
2. Pham, 23 May 2009, 2.
3. Pham, 23 May 2009, 1.
4. Pham, 23 May 2009, 1.
5. Pham, 23 May 2009, 1.
6. Pham, 23 May 2009, 3.
7. Pham, 23 May 2009, 3.
8. Pham, 23 May 2009, 3.
9. Pham, 23 May 2009, 4.
10. Pham, 23 May 2009, 4.
11. Pham, 23 May 2009, 4.
12. Pham, 23 May 2009, 5.
13. Pham, 23 May 2009, 5.
14. Pham, 23 May 2009, 6.
15. Pham, 23 May 2009, 6.
16. Pham, 23 May 2009, 6.
17. Pham, 23 May 2009, 7.
18. Pham, 23 May 2009, 10.
19. Pham, 23 May 2009, 10.
20. Pham, 23 May 2009, 13.
21. Pham, 23 May 2009, 12.
22. Pham, 23 May 2009, 13.
23. Pham, 23 May 2009, 18.