Flight from Oppression
Julie Le’s 1980 escape from Saigon, Vietnam after the communist takeover
essay written by Victoria Tran
Julie Le underwent a remarkable transformation from a young girl in Vietnam to a successful woman in America. Provoked by political circumstances, Le embarked on an unbelievable journey across the sea in search of freedom and a better future. Having left behind her parents, friends, siblings, and home she struggled to build a new life for herself in a land where she did not understand the culture and language. Lonely and confused, she eventually adapted to her new culture while retaining her old heritage. This is her story.
America – symbol of equality, beacon of liberty, land of freedom. For years people from across the globe left their home countries, whether fleeing from oppression or simply searching for a better life, and aimed to reach this promised land. Julie Le is just one of the million immigrants to the United States with an amazing story to tell about her journey to America and all the hardships she faced to pursue “a good and better life.”1
Born in the spring of 1964 in the Vietnamese countryside, Le spent the first sixteen years of her life in South Vietnam. Her family “was rather poor and [her parents] had to work very hard to support the entire family.”2 With the new addition to their family, Le’s parents realized they needed a larger home. Their small home in the poor countryside was incapable of housing eleven people – Le, her four older sisters, her parents, and her four grandparents. Without enough money to support his family, Le’s father decided to move to Saigon in hopes of earning more. Le was only three months old when her family moved to Saigon, her home for the next fifteen years of her life.
Moving to Saigon proved to be a good idea. The Les prospered enough to support an even larger family. The addition of five more children - three girls and two boys – prevented the family from ever achieving great wealth, but it didn’t lead to their destitution. Nobody hungered, but neither was anybody fully satisfied. Although the Les “were not poor people,” to Americans today their home would be considered horrendous, worse than the rattiest apartment.3 However, to the Le family, it was home.
The house, unlike houses today with multiple rooms, contained a single room “only about 1000 square kilometers” with “the kitchen, bathroom, and sleeproom connected.”4 With sixteen people in their family, the Les barely fit in this tiny structure. The parents and grandparents slept on a “hard and lumpy…mattress,” while the children “slept on sheets on the floor” next to the eldest children’s bicycles.5 Even with only one mattress taking up space, not all the children fit into the main room. Some of slept in the kitchen area, while others were forced to sleep next to the “bathroom.” The “bathroom” was actually a little area in the corner with a large pot - similar to a cooking pot – that served in place of a toilet. The entire family shared the one pot and “dumped it out when it was full.”6 The dining room was nonexistent; the family ate dinner in a tiny extension of the kitchen at a table that failed to seat them all. Although they lived in an extremely crowded home, the Le family was satisfied because they at least had a house to live in. Many people in Vietnam at the time were less fortunate and lived on the streets. These living conditions, while considered horrible in present day America, were normal in Vietnam during the 1970s.
While it made finding an adequate house difficult, there was a benefit to having a large family. The Le family, like most Vietnamese families at the time, had many children – ten, to be exact. Similar to other parents, Le’s parents worked day and night to find money to support their children. Le’s father worked as a part-time soldier and nurse; his job took up most of his time so he rarely saw his children. Le’s mother also worked as a nurse that administered shots and sold medicine. However, that was not her only occupation. When she finished her nursing duties, she cooked food, sewed clothes, and cleaned the house for her family. With so much to do, she “worked almost 24-7,” leaving the care of her younger children to her eldest child.7 Her older children ran errands for her, cleaned the house, cooked when she couldn’t, and cared for their younger siblings. When Le was born, her oldest sister was only nine so her parents still played a guardian role in her life. Her youngest siblings however, were nearly twenty years younger than her oldest sibling so they were mainly raised by their older sisters. Despite this, none of the children ever felt lonely or unloved. Having older children raise their younger siblings was a common practice in Vietnam so the children failed to find anything unusual about their situation. Also, with so many siblings to play with, they never resented the fact that their parents were not always there. Fights sometimes broke out between the siblings, but despite everything they all loved and cared for each other.
In addition to family life, the schooling system in Vietnam also differed from that of America. Instead of a five-day school week, children in Vietnam also went to school on Saturdays. For grade school, Le attended a private all-girls school. During her last year there, she “did something bad” and her teacher punished her by making her lie down on a desk and lift up her dress.8 Then, the teacher smacked Le’s bottom a few times with a ruler. While a teacher hitting a student would be considered child abuse in America, in Vietnam it was common and simply considered a method of teaching children or “a show of authority.”9 The discipline system in Vietnam clearly differed from that of America. Another difference in the schooling system involved testing. Instead of taking written tests like in America, students in Vietnam were required to “orally answer questions in front of the entire class” if the teacher called on them.10 By the time Le was in 10th grade, her all-girls school had integrated with a neighboring all-boys school to become a co-ed school. Le looked forward to her 10th year of schooling, her first year with boys, but was denied the opportunity to fully enjoy it. That year Le fled Vietnam in hopes of a better life.
Many factors influenced Le to flee Vietnam, but the primary reason was her family’s realization that they could no longer live under Communist rule. Born during the time of the Vietnam War, Le experienced many communist policies. She was only eleven when the Communists invaded Saigon in 1975. Being so young, she didn’t fully understand what was going on – she failed to grasp the horrors of Communist rule or process that something unusual was happening. She even “joined a youth communist group…[that] brainwashed children into following communist beliefs.”11 Even if Le didn’t notice, life was changing. After the invasion, the currency was continually changed and families lived in constant apprehension. Nobody knew “what currency would be next or how much the currency that was then used would be worth the next day.”12 With the intense inflation, adults constantly worried about their family’s survival. Everywhere, the tension and “fear [were] palpable.”13 Nobody would talk to each other for fear of accidentally saying something that could get them reported. Neighbors turned on each other in jealousy or in fear. No one could be trusted.
Le’s ignorance didn’t last long. She soon experienced firsthand the “horrors of Communist rule” when, in 1978, three years after the communists took Saigon, her father was jailed on the accusation of using illegal means to make money.14 The family suspected that a jealous neighbor reported them, but failed to confirm the accusation. Le’s father was jailed for an entire year. After his release, he realized that his family could no longer ignore all the problems and continue to live under Communist rule. It was “unfair and tyrannical and withheld from [the family] the freedoms and opportunities [they] wanted.”15 From that point on, he and his wife resolved to escape Vietnam with their children and move elsewhere. They knew that under the Communists, their children would never be treated equally or have a good future. Le’s parents made no definite plans about where they would go; they only knew they living in Vietnam was no longer possible. They hoped, however, to be able to escape to America. With relatives living in America, they knew that they would receive help if they managed to reach the country. To them, America represented freedom from oppression and a future for their children. All Le knew about America, she learned from textbooks and letters from friends that escaped previously. With this biased view, she saw America as the perfect world away from all problems that existed in Vietnam at the time. It was the ideal land, and she could not wait to get there.
Getting there, however, presented the biggest problem. The family attempted to leave multiple times, but failed each time and were forced to return home or risk alerting the Communists. All attempts were kept secret and occurred in the dead of night. The plan was to escape undetected by boat. To find a departing boat, however, was difficult. No set schedule existed; the departure time of the boats were well-kept secrets passed by word of mouth. These attempted escapes affected everything – emotional, mental, and physical. No one could predict when he or she would be leaving; they had to be ready on a moment’s notice. Their departure was to be kept a secret, so they couldn’t even tell their friends goodbye. With all the anxiety, the children could not focus on school. They could only think of escaping. Le’s fourth attempt was her lucky one. It was the night of April 10, 1980. Le’s mother took her and two of her sisters to the countryside where there was a rumor of a boat leaving. They dressed in country clothes – loose “black pants and a leaf hat” – in order to remain hidden and unnoticed.16 Le’s mom then left the girls there and ordered them to stay while she went home to fetch Le’s other siblings. Le watched her mom leave with more excitement than fear, then turned and followed her siblings onto the boat.
When the girls embarked, the small boat already held a total of seventy-nine people, packed tightly together. There was little space so the three sisters sat huddled in a corner, “waiting for their parents and other siblings to come.”17 However, the boat left before the others arrived. The captain departed early for fear that if they waited any longer, they wouldn’t be leaving at all. Le and her two sisters were now embarking on a dangerous journey with a “50% survival rate,” with no one but each other to depend on.18 Le was only fifteen at the time, her older sister, eighteen, and her younger sister, eleven. They were three teenaged girls alone on a journey to cross the sea to freedom.
Two days into the trip, the motor on the boat died. With nothing else to do, the people on the boat sat and prayed to their gods to save them. Apparently, praying worked. A few hours after the motor died, “there was suddenly a large ruckus;” a ship had been sighted.19 The ship turned out to be a huge Dutch ship, “larger than a cruise ship…called the Capanomo IV.”20 Le, her sisters, and everyone else on that small boat were very fortunate the Capanomo IV found them. Otherwise, they could have been stranded for days and starved to death, or worse, found by pirates and raped or beaten to death. Instead, a rescue ship that went on to save six other groups of people saved them. The crew was extremely kind and helpful, as were the other people previously rescued. When it came time for dinner, the men served Le’s boat first because they were primarily girls. Although she occasionally became seasick or missed her parents and other siblings, Le enjoyed her time on the ship and thanked god everyday for her good fortune. The Capanomo IV left the immigrants in Singapore before sailing home. Le and her sisters spent two months in Singapore, a “rich place filled with lots of fun,” before they left to America to join their aunt’s family in Oklahoma.21
America, however, failed live up to Le’s expectations. While a beautiful country, it did not provide Le with the freedom and joy she thought it would. Her first year in America, Le stayed with her aunt in Oklahoma. While she never hit them, Le’s aunt forced Le and her sisters to do all the chores around the house and was verbally abusive. They were “treated almost like maids” and forced to do the dishes, wash the clothes, wipe the windows, and clean the bathroom.22 When they didn’t wake up early enough, their aunt would pound on the door until they came running. Often times, their aunt “[yelled] at them for eating too much” and locked up the food so they couldn’t get to it.23 While living with her aunt, Le missed her mother even more. She, however, was too afraid to tell her parents anything about her living conditions because her uncle would go through all the letters the sisters sent back to Vietnam. America was not what Le expected.
In addition, Le’s inability to speak English created a strong language barrier that didn’t improve her situation. In school in Vietnam, Le took French as a foreign language, so she knew no English. She enrolled in the ESL program at her high school in Oklahoma, but that still did not help much. She ended up choosing electives where English was not necessary, like Home Economics and Art. She excelled in those classes and Math, but found English and History much more difficult. During these times, she missed her parents terribly and felt “lonely, isolated, and stupid” because she couldn’t understand anyone, whether it be their language or culture.24 Gradually, however, Le learned to live in America. She carried a dictionary with her at all times and made friends who helped her better understand the culture. Finally, her parents noticed her unhappiness and sent her and her sisters to live with another aunt in California. A few months later, they were joined by their other siblings, and a few years after that, their parents.
By the time the family reunited, they were all different. Each person had grown up and become more independent. When her parents finally came to America, Le was already a college student at Cal State Fullerton. The family was overjoyed to be together again, but by that time, they had all drifted apart. They no longer “relied upon each other like [they] did previously” and each had his own life.25 That was Le’s one regret about going to America – the changed relationship with her family. She regretted that they never were again as close as they once were, but Le knew it couldn’t be helped. They had all changed. She had finally assimilated to the American culture and grown up. She found a job, met her husband, got married, bought a house, and started her own family. Le didn’t need her parents any more, but neither did she forget what they did for her.
She also made sure to never forget her origins or her “Vietnamese heritage.”29 She didn’t throw away her Vietnamese culture, nor did she trade it in for a new American culture. Instead, she integrated the two until both became an integral part of her. In order to preserve her heritage and her children’s heritage, she taught them the “Vietnamese language,” told them stories of her time in Vietnam, and kept “Vietnamese food” a main part of her children’s diets.30 She wanted them to retain a part of their Vietnamese heritage, even if they were born in America. Vietnam was still very much a part of them and she wanted them to always remember that. By telling this story of her life, she hoped her family history and heritage could be persevered for later generations.
1. Julie, Le. Personal interview. 22 May 2009. 1.
2. Julie, Le. Personal interview. 23 May 2009. 9.
3. Julie, Le. 22 May 2009. 2.
4. Julie, Le. 22 May 2009. 2.
5. Julie, Le. 22 May 2009. 2.
6. Julie, Le. 22 May 2009. 3.
7. Julie, Le. 22 May 2009. 5.
8. Julie, Le. 22 May 2009. 5.
9. Julie, Le. 22 May 2009. 6.
10. Julie, Le. 23 May 2009. 7.
11. Julie, Le. 23 May 2009. 7.
12. Julie, Le. 23 May 2009. 7.
13. Julie, Le. 23 May 2009. 7.
14. Julie, Le. 23 May 2009. 7.
15. Julie, Le. 23 May 2009. 9.
16. Julie, Le. 23 May 2009. 10.
17. Julie, Le. 23 May 2009. 8.
18. Julie, Le. 23 May 2009. 10.
19. Julie, Le. 23 May 2009. 10.
20. Julie, Le. 23 May 2009. 11.