To the Promised Land
Melanie Tham travels from Communist Vietnam to capitalist America in 1979
essay written by Kenneth Tham
Melanie Tham, born in 1962, lived with her prosperous middle-class family in Vietnam for sixteen years. She left in 1978, three years after Saigon fell to the Communists. From Vietnam she traveled on a boat, one of the Vietnamese boat people, and lived in Malaysia for fifteen months in a refugee camp. In 1979 she flew to Hawaii, sponsored by her sister. She now lives in California with her husband and two children and works as a budget analyst for the Department of Transportation of California.
The United States of America—a country of promise and opportunity, a beacon of economic and social freedom. It comes as no surprise that people from all over the world converge on America’s borders in search of a new life, giving the nation the informal title of “The Melting Pot.” Melanie Tham was among these migrants; to her, establishing a new life for herself in this new country was “the best thing that ever happened to [her].”1 Her journey, however, was far from an enjoyable experience. As a Chinese girl growing up in Vietnam, she and the rest of her family were forced to flee in 1978, abandoning everything they had. They became refugees, one of the many “boat people” of Vietnam, going to Malaysia and Hawaii before finally settling here in California.
Though of Chinese origin, her parents had to move to Vietnam very early in life, and it was here where Tham and many of her siblings were born. According to Tham, “they were born [on] the little island, Hainan island,”2 but were forced to leave for Vietnam due to the war between China and Japan, the Sino-Japanese War. Tham said that “[her] dad was only… seventeen and [her] mom was only sixteen when they left China for Vietnam.”3 Her father was fairly prosperous in Vietnam as the owner of a small department store, and her mother was a housewife; they were prosperous enough to hire maids to take care of their two-story home located in Saigon.
ham described life in Vietnam as being very relaxed and slow-paced. When asked about daily life in Vietnam, she said: “We [didn’t] have to worry about going home and cook[ing] because we had maids cooking… I [didn’t] have to worry about anything. Go to school, come home, play, and then eat, and sleep.”4 In the morning, after the family had eaten breakfast, her father would drive her and her siblings to school in Jua Lung, the Chinese community outside of Saigon, to attend Chinese school. Her father’s car was representative of the family’s prosperity and status as not many people in Vietnam could afford an automobile. They would stay at the school from eight o’clock to five o’clock, when her father would return and whisk them away to home. Back in Saigon, Tham and her siblings would play a bit before venturing out into the streets of the city to sample the foods of various street vendors. Looking back on the experience, she described talking about these vendors to fellow immigrants: “I miss having these little vendors in the street that you can go in and buy and just eat from there… it’s funny that we were talking about that too, we were like ‘How could we do that’… they [didn’t] even have water to clean our bowl and we would just sit and eat... at that time, you [didn’t] notice these things.”5 After these excursions, they would go home, do their homework, and go to bed on wooden pallets, ready to wake up the next day and begin the cycle anew.
This idyllic life was not to last, however. The Vietnam War continued to rage on, and since Tham’s house was very near the “White House” of Saigon, where the President of South Vietnam lived, gunfire constantly broke through fleeting snatches of silence. In 1973, the United States of America officially withdrew from the conflict with the passage of the Paris Peace Accords, and in 1975, Saigon fell to the Communists. It was then that Tham and her family began to formulate a plan to leave Vietnam. Her father, a wealthy business owner, was thrown into jail. The Communists changed currency in order to confiscate wealth and apportion an equal share to everyone; when people tried to do business and become prosperous under the new money, they changed currencies again. Tham described a close encounter with the Communists: “People were saying ‘Oh, the Communists, they’ll come at night to take you to… go to the rural area and work hard. And I didn’t believe that… I was staying with my friends… right next to my house, and sure enough, they were knocking on my house.”6 They couldn’t leave immediately, however, as the Communists had put very harsh restrictions prohibiting most people from departing. Many tried to sneak out of the country out of desperation; others were smuggled out on tiny rowboats. The danger of this was twofold: not only did one risk being caught by the Communists in thrown in jail, one also had to brave the dangers of the sea in a small, rickety craft. By 1978, the government lessened the restrictions on emigration, allowing people with enough money to leave legally, if not comfortably. There was, however, a catch: prospective migrants had to give eleven ounces of gold to the government and Vietnamese natives were not allowed to leave at all, because, as Tham put it, “Vietnam [was] their own country, why would they want the Vietnamese to leave?”7 So it was in 1978—after proving her Chinese origins and giving up eleven ounces of gold—that Tham began her journey from Vietnam.
To get on the boat to depart from Vietnam, Tham had to travel up through Central Vietnam with two of her brothers, since her entire family did not leave at the same time. She had to stay on a pig farm for a few days before boarding the boat, which, according to her, “was a good experience.”8 While at the pig farm, she witnessed many families being torn apart: “If you happen[ed] to be at the harbor and the ship leave[s], you can just go on and leave… the husband just happen[s] to see the ship leave, he [goes] up there and gone! [He leaves] the wife behind.”9 After a few days, she and her two brothers were able to board the ship. The boat ride took about two days—forty-eight hours—and was not enjoyable, as the refugees were packed tightly together with no room to move around. Many people, including Tham, became sick. She likened the boat voyage to the slave ships of early American history, comparing them in more ways than one: “All the motion sickness, the dehydration… when we got down to the boat, these Malaysians, they would whip us… I don’t know what they were saying, but I guess they tried to group us together; they didn’t want us to run around, so I remember they were having whips in their hands. It was whips.”10 After their stint at sea, however, they finally made it to Malaysia, landing at the island of Kelantan. As refugees, they were not welcomed by the Malaysian government and were forced to remain in a camp. In the camps—basically a tent set up in a rural clearing—Tham and her brothers found themselves with nothing to do. They were given the same food day after day, consisting primarily of rice and beans; to keep variety, Tham would constantly search for new ways to use the same ingredients. Since the camp lacked water, she had to go down to the well and carry buckets of water back to their camp. This abrupt change from comparative luxury in Vietnam to considerable squalor in Malaysia came as a shock to her, and understandably so.
After about nine months, she and her brothers went to the capital of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, and remained in another camp there for another six months in preparation to depart from the airport. The life in this second camp was much like the first, with similar food, but with running water and wood beds to sleep on, “better than in the island [where] we [had] to sleep basically on the ground.”11 Though refugees were forbidden from entering the city, her brothers would sneak out of camp periodically to play in the streets of Kuala Lumpur, a risk she never took herself. After six months they boarded the airplane, and after a momentary and uneventful stop at Guam, arrived in Hawaii.
Some time before, her sister had gone to Hawaii to study, where she eventually married. After the fall of Saigon, this sister sponsored Tham, her two brothers, and eventually her entire family to join her in Hawaii. When she stepped off the plane, she was amazed at the prosperity in Hawaii, and by extension, in America. She described her reaction upon arriving in Hawaii: “It was wonderful. First the roads [were] like wow. The transportation, the infrastructure [were] nice, and she had a nice house.”12 It was not just the nice roads or buildings or mattresses that surprised Tham; it was the people as well. According to her, people in America were “more outgoing than the people in Vietnam,”13 attributing this fact to the differences in cultures. Perhaps most importantly, however, America was the land of freedom, a sharp contrast from the life of fear under Communist Vietnam. She had not originally set out for America specifically and thus had no expectations about what she was encountering; she and the rest of her family had merely wanted to get away from the oppression of the new Vietnamese government. Fortunately, her sister, who was already living in the United States, invited them to join her, exposing them to what is quite possibly the freest nation on Earth. This fact was not lost on Tham, who extolled the virtues of the country: “[we are] able to do what we think is right, rather than whatever we do, we’re afraid that whether we’re doing it right or not, whether they’re going to come and get us or not.”14 In America, the atmosphere of continuous fear was gone, replaced with the glorious corona of opportunity.
Life in America was not immediately pleasant, however, as Tham was forced to assimilate into the new society. The immediate difficulty facing her was school: as a girl in Vietnam, she had learned only Vietnamese and Mandarin, with Cantonese spoken at home. As she entered high school as a sophomore, she had virtually no background in English and was forced to start her education over from the beginning, learning everything—including the language—all over again. According to her, “that was a tough three years… but we graduated.”15 While in Hawaii, she received some government aid, which came as a great boon for her family, helping to tide them over. After finishing high school and attending college for one year in Hawaii, she decided that Hawaii was too small and too limited to the tourist industry. Searching for a better job, she left Hawaii for California, where she got a job making semiconductors in a company in San Jose, near the aptly titled Silicon Valley. There, she met the man she would later marry, who was working in the same company. Both Tham and her future husband came from Cantonese backgrounds, and both had immigrated to the United States. Her future husband had been born in India before moving to Hong Kong, Canada and finally California; he had a strong grasp of English and helped Tham assimilate to Western society. Soon afterward, Tham moved to Southern California and attended Cal State LA, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business administration.
One important factor in helping Tham become acclimated to American culture was the prevalence of fellow immigrants with whom she could swap life stories. In each of her occupations, she met other immigrants, many from Vietnam, and together they discussed their memories of their mutual homeland, such as the street vendors or the tropical fruits. Additionally, while in the United States, she came into contact with many of her old friends in Vietnam. Many of them had fled the Communist regime at much the same time she had, and Tham “still ha[s] a few friends that [she] still write[s] to”16 to this day. As she began to grow accustomed to life in the United States, her experiences as an immigrant drew her to newly-arrived immigrants facing the same problems she had when she was fresh off the boat. She described what she has done to help other immigrants: “My mom… lives in Chinatown, and she lives by this…old folks’ apartment, old folks, so I would sometimes go and help them fill out forms, or if they receive letters from the government I would help them translate for them because I know how it’s difficult not to be able to learn the language.”17 These fellow immigrants revive some of her memories of Vietnam, and though she has created a new home here, she has met people that are living testaments to her old homeland.
Though Tham was able to adapt to life in America, her mother and father had a difficult time of it and never fully assimilated to the Western culture. Having been forced from their home once, from Hainan in China to Vietnam, they were loath to be uprooted a second time; Tham believed that “they would rather stay in Vietnam… if they [could].” 18 In Vietnam, they would have tried to prosper even after everything was taken from them under Communism, but they decided to migrate primarily for the sakes of their children. In Communist Vietnam, their children would not have had much opportunity; though they were old and settled down, their children—Tham and her siblings—were still young and restless, yearning for the chance to strike out and make their lives better. In a display of subservience typical of the Eastern culture, Tham said: “If my parents [had stayed] in Vietnam, I probably would have stayed in Vietnam with them…. If my parents [told] me to leave Vietnam, I [would] have listen[ed] to them.”19 Her parents left with her in order to keep the family together as a unit, and here they have found a remnant of the old country, a place with a language and customs familiar to them: Chinatown in Los Angeles. Here they can maintain a close proximity with their children without being thrust into a completely new and alien lifestyle.
While in the United States, Tham married the man she had met in San Jose, taking his name and bearing two children. They decided to raise their children in a primarily Western atmosphere, evidenced by their offspring’s poor Cantonese. Despite the luxuries of this environment, however, Tham maintained that her children should go to Vietnam: “It’s very different. Maybe you should go back there and take a look, and feel—and experience yourself.”20 Nevertheless, influences from China, Vietnam, and India—where her husband was born—pervade the household, creating a unique blend of cultures.
Now happily married and a budget analyst for the Department of Transportation of California, Melanie Tham is ultimately glad that she left Vietnam for America those decades back. Despite the initial pain and discomfort, she declares that all of her experiences have been worth it, and that she has grown stronger as a result. She firmly declared her final thoughts on her immigration: “I think I’m doing good, daily, so no regrets. I’ll say we now look forward. No regrets, yes. “21 When she began her voyage in 1978, she thought she was merely leaving behind Communist Vietnam, the corrupted land of her childhood; now, she knows that she has come to a land of freedom, a land of opportunity—the promised land.
1. Tham, Melanie. Personal interview. 24 May 2009. 32.
2. Tham, Melanie. Personal interview. 22 May 2009. 1.
3. Tham, 22 May 2009, 1.
4. Tham, 22 May 2009, 7.
5. Tham, 22 May 2009, 22.
6. Tham, 22 May 2009, 9.
7. Tham, 24 May 2009, 27.
8. Tham, 24 May 2009, 26.
9. Tham, 24 May 2009, 28.
10. Tham, 22 May 2009, 16.
11. Tham, 22 May 2009, 3.
12. Tham, 22 May 2009, 4.
13. Tham, 22 May 2009, 5.
14. Tham, 22 May 2009, 9.
15. Tham, 22 May 2009, 17.
16. Tham, 24 May 2009, 33.
17. Tham, 22 May 2009, 24.
18. Tham, 24 May 2009, 31
19. Tham, 24 May 2009, 32.
20. Tham, 22 May 2009, 20.
21. Tham, 24 May 2009, 32.