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The Lucky Ones
The world was still asleep when I woke up; the morning air crisp with the scent of dew. I took a deep breath; it was time to go into the fields to work. I quietly padded outside to where I had chained my bike to the side of our humble home and started to undo the string that held it in place. Looking up and squinting my eyes at the brightening sky, my fingers moved faster over the complicated knots keeping my bike in place. Once the bike was untied and the string tucked neatly in my pocket, I started my journey on the plain dirt road through the foggy jungle to the fields.
I flew down the road pedaling as fast as I could. Mother told me that menacing ghosts lived in the jungle fog and that if you came too close, their watery hands will reach out and drag you away from the world of the living. Fear gnawed at the back of my mind and gave me an extra burst of strength that sent me to my destination in a matter of minutes. I waved at Vuong as I passed by to let him know that I was okay.
Vuong waved back shouting “Hi Chi Tot!” I smiled to myself as I continued; since I was just 14, he was always worried about me biking through the forest alone.
A few minutes later, after I put on my non la, the sun started to rise and I headed out to do my work. As the day grew hotter I could feel the sun beating down on the back of my neck harder and harder. Around noon I took a quick break to eat something and rub the soreness from my aching muscles. I looked around the surrounding rice fields and in the distance I saw my all of my sisters working as well. Our family’s farm grew a wide variety of things: from rice to papaya. This season was a good one, pulling in enough rice to sell and make a small profit. Even with the government taking three quarters of everything that we grew.
After finishing my small meal, I continued working until the sky was painted with brilliant hues of red, pink, orange, and gold. I wiped my dirty, sweat crusted brow and waved good bye to Vuong as I departed from the field. I walked through the dusty farm grounds surveying the newly plowed area, the sounds of chirping crickets filling the evening air. It was almost dark when I finally returned home with weary bones.
My sisters were huddled around the small fire in the corner. They all looked up as I approached and began to make supper. While the hot broth and noodles simmered in a pot over the fire, Ma and Ba came in. Ma was carrying my sleeping three month old brother Truong. They sat down quietly and once the steaming hot noodles were poured out into the plastic bowls, everyone quieted down and Ba said a prayer to God saying a quick “Our Father” thanking God for the food that was laid out in front of us.
After we finished our meal, Ma said she had an announcement to make. Ba looked expectantly at her and she began speaking softly, “Children, remember when we sent Tuyen away? He lives America now. He went there first and now we can come and join him. This is a chance for us to leave and go to America. We will leave the night after tomorrow, on the night of the new moon. You must not tell anyone, or the Communists might find out and kill us all.”
I sat there and stared at her dumbfounded. Us go to America? And leave the farm? How could it be done? What would we do there? My mind was racing at the speed of light overflowing with questions. My sisters were too young at the time to fully understand how much this opportunity could change our lives. I opened my mouth but no words came out. My mother continued to speak; not noticing my stunned silence.
“We have to start packing soon. Make sure you pack lightly and only the essentials. This is our only chance to escape, and we cannot waste it.”
I thought back to when Ma sent Tuyen away a year earlier to live with uncle. I didn’t know where uncle lived, but Ma had told me that it was a faraway place. I didn’t realize how far until Ma had told us.
Dinner ended shortly after, and we all settled on to our sleeping mats. We all said our good nights and turned over on our sides. I faced the dying flames of the fire we had built earlier and draped the mosquito net over my thin frame. I cushioned my head in my hands and fell asleep.
The next morning I woke up early as usual and attended to my daily duties on the farm. The sun was setting when I started to head back home, waving good bye to Vuong one last time. He smiled and waved back ignorant of the fact that after this night, whatever happened to me and my family, he would never see me again.
A pit of nervous anticipation had nested itself in the bottom of my stomach as I packed all my belongings into a pitifully small bag. Our family did not own much so everything we had fit into small bags that we could easily carry.
Dinner was a quiet affair, I made noodle soup and we sat in a circle and listened to the fire crackle in the shallow pit in the ground. Soon it was midnight and the only light coming through the small window was from the stars.
“It’s time,” Ba said.
I looked at my father and quickly started to clean up the dishes. My sisters and Truong who was in Ma’s arms began to shuffle out of our home. I finished and grabbed my small sack of belongings.
We headed towards the jungle and I inwardly shivered to myself, the thought of ghostly hands reaching out creeping in the back of my mind. I looked at my sisters stumbling along in the dark, clutching to Ma and Ba. They were so young, Trang was only 10, Thuy was only 4, and Thu was 3. They all looked so scared, I’m sure we all did.
After what seemed like an eternity, we reached the edge of the jungle. Beyond was the dock with a tiny boat. It couldn't have been more than ten feet long and five feet wide. We waited there, crouched in the dewy jungle for a long time, seconds stretching out into minutes. Finally, a man came out from within the boat and waved his arms.
Ba saw the signal and told us to run as fast as we could to the boat on the count of three. He whispered three and we took off. I was the first one of my family on the boat. I leaned over the edge and helped Thuy, Thu, and Trang up the side of the boat. Ma came next with sleeping three month old Truong slung behind her back. Ba climbed into the boat last and a few minutes later a few other families joined us.
They all shuffled in and when there were about 40 people crouched and huddled together until there was barely any room to move on board the tiny boat, the captain of the boat came out of the engine room and stared pointedly at us. He told us that we could not stand, speak, or eat until he said it was okay. He also told us that it was a dangerous feat and that if we were caught we would be executed. When he said that, everyone went dead silent; he gave us a small satisfied nod and walked away.
The small sea vessel departed shortly after the captain’s announcement and headed out of the bay that it was docked in. I looked up at the stars and then back at my family. I closed my eyes trying to let the rocking motion of the boat lull me to sleep. Eventually, I fell into a fitful slumber filled with nightmares full of ghostly hands and deadly guns.
I woke up the next day to the sound of the captain striding across the deck. His heavy fishing boots clomping on the weathered wooden floor of the small ship. He was red faced from screaming at the crew members, calling them name after name. Everyone whispered quietly among themselves wondering what was going on. The captain disappeared into the engine room where black smoke was beginning to pour out of the open doorway.
Smoke continued to pour out for the next several minutes, until finally the boat sputtered to a halt. The captain came out of the engine room with a grim look on his face; glaring at anyone who dared looked him in the eyes.
Looking at each one of us in turn he said grimly, “All the water in the ship is now gone. Conserve what you have now; it may be your last drink for a while.”
Everyone on the ship went dead silent apart from the shouts of the crew members within the engine room. One of our worst nightmares had come true; the water that was hidden in what looked like engine oil containers had been put in the engine instead of oil.
The crew was desperately trying to pump out the water in the engine. They were partly successful, but the water that they had managed to pump out was bitter and smelled like oil. We floated there, dead in the water like a sitting duck. There were no signs of other ships in sight, and my family and the other people aboard the ship suffered. The oil-water mix was gone by the end of the week--drunken mostly by the captain and the crew since they were the “first priority”. The families around us were getting more and more sea sick as the day went on. We were not allowed to stand and people had no other choice but to throw up where they sat. The stench of vomit was everywhere by the end of the day, and we all prayed for God to save us.
God must have been listening to our prayers because on the seventh day at sea, when we thought that there was no hope left, someone spotted a small Thai fishing ship on the horizon. We all started yelling and waving our arms at them, hoping that they would come over and help. It worked, and the Thai ship began to grow bigger and bigger the closer it came. It pulled up next to our tiny boat, and the crew let us on board. Once everyone was on board the Thai vessel, they asked us who we were and when we told them that we were Vietnamese refugees, they allowed us to board their ship. The crew members had us stand in a line, with the women apart from the men. They looked at the starving families in front of them and told us that we had to give them all the gold and valuables that we possessed before we could get any water. We had no choice; it was either give them what they wanted or have them take it from you.
I looked over at one of the mean-looking workers as he yelled at Ba. You could see the veins popping out of his neck and forehead. He wanted the “gold” crown on Ba’s tooth. He kept on trying to explain that he couldn’t take it out and that it was not gold. It was copper. The screaming man had none of it and he finally raised his fist and hit Ba squarely in the jaw. Ba fell on the slick floor of the fishing ship and the man began to violently beat him while Ma, locked in the restraining arms of the other crew members, started to sob.
“Give it to me!” he screamed over and over as he and his friend kicked Ba over and over in vain attempts to get the copper tooth out of his mouth.
In the meantime, the women, specifically the girls were standing there wide-eyed and scared. One of the bolder men went up to a girl who couldn’t have been more than 17 or 18 years old. She was pretty for a Vietnamese girl; unusually large eyes with long, silky, ruler straight black hair. He gave her a chilling smile as he reached out and tilted her face upwards.
“Oh, you’re so pretty… So, so pretty…” he cooed at her.
She tried in vain to flinch away from his touch her face twisting in disgust. The rest of us were all thinking the same thing: We were scared. None of us wanted to see her violated and raped by these disgusting people. But there was nothing that we could do but hopelessly watch and hope that she will be okay. Luckily, the captain appeared at that moment, and beat the man that was harassing the girl. He looked pointedly at his crew, and told them that if they came near us again then they would be beaten bloody. Leaving Ba behind, beaten and bloodied, the two men that were beating him finally backed away.
¬We gratefully thanked the captain for protecting us from the vicious crew. He nodded his head and told us to wait a few minutes while he got the necessary supplies to last us a few more days. We accepted the water he offered and he let us off his ship without further disturbance. We watched quietly as his ship began to recede in to the horizon.¬
We floated there and drifted aimlessly in the ocean for the next two days, staring up at the sky wondering if we were going to die here. Suddenly, someone stood up and began to shout and wave at a tiny form approaching fast on the horizon maybe 20 leagues away. It turns out that the tiny form on the horizon was a helicopter. They hovered above the small ship and a few men wearing fancy and expensive looking suits clambered down a ladder that was hanging from the helicopter.
They looked over us with compassion clearly painted on their faces. When they spoke, nothing that came out of their mouths made sense. They weren’t speaking Vietnamese, they were speaking in English. We all looked at each other with blank expressions. We didn’t know what they were saying until a woman stood up; she answered them in English, and they talked for a few minutes but even we could tell that she was speaking with difficulty and a heavy Vietnamese accent. However, it was enough to tell them that we were Vietnamese refugees escaping from the war. They told the women something and then they departed much to the dismay of the other families. They shouted pleas to take them on the helicopter with the businessmen. But by that time, it was too late, they were already gaining altitude and flying back in the direction that they came.
Everyone then turned their burning gazes to the woman that could speak enough broken English for the businessmen to understand. Then the avalanche of questions came.
She tried to answer all of them at once but she finally gave up and cried out, “Don’t speak anymore! I will tell you what he said!” She said that they were businessmen flying out of Singapore. They are heading back to Singapore to call in the Singaporean government to get a cargo ship to help pick them up since they themselves couldn’t do much. They had connections high up in the Singaporean government, very powerful people that could get a ship to them very quickly. They will come back soon and that they will be safe very soon.
It turned out that “very soon” meant the next day. The businessmen came back smiling this time. They boarded the small ship and proudly presented gallons of not water but milk. At the time, none of us cared; it was something to soothe the blistering dryness that had become a normal sensation. It was not until everyone began to throw up again that the businessmen realized that we were all lactose intolerant, since back in Vietnam we had no need to drink milk after we stopped breast feeding. They profusely apologized, but we didn’t care; the milk helped relieve the smoldering heat that had been developing inside our throats.
They left feeling better about themselves leaving with promises that the German ship would come the next day. I fell asleep that night happier than I had been in a long time and dreamed of being free. The businessmen were true to their word and the next day when I woke up from a peaceful sleep I saw an immensely sized ship towering over our pea sized boat. The German ship had finally come. The workers on the ship opened a small opening on the side of their boat and ushered us in. Once we were all in the German ship turned around and began on its journey throughout the rest of the Pacific Ocean to look for other refugees. A volunteer of the United Nations that could speak Vietnamese introduced himself as Hoang. He smiled and ushered us to a small room in the cargo hold of the ship trying to make small talk.
“You guys are lucky you ran into those businessmen; they have very powerful connections and because of that you were one of the first people to be plucked from the waters of the Pacific.” He said in a matter of fact voice. He went on to explain when and where to get food, go to the restroom, and where to find him if we had any other questions.
He smiled one more time at my family and walked away. For the next eight or nine weeks the days blurred together as more and more refugees were fished out of the ocean. We were all tired and just hoping that our suffering would end soon. We knew how lucky we were when we ran into the businessmen that day but it was getting tiresome just sitting there and twiddling our thumbs waiting for the captain to announce that it was time to head back to Singapore. Finally three months after the first time our family set foot on the enormous vessel, the much anticipated announcement came. It was time to go back to Singapore.
When we arrived to one of the many ports that Singapore housed, we disembarked the ship with about 800 other refugees to the temporary holding camp. We all faced a small podium when a small Singaporean man stepped up and began to speak in semi-fluent Vietnamese.
“Welcome refugees, to Singapore! We hope that you will have a splendid time here you will be split into five groups that are to be transported to the five various campsites here. There you will stay ¬¬¬until it is determined if you have family in a different country. If you do then you will be able to join them in that respective country. For those people who do not have family on other countries, you will go and build a life for yourselves in Germany.” He proudly announced.
There we said our good byes to the acquaintances that we made and went to our camps. They transported us by boat around the country and when we reached the camp, we were directed to stay outside of the houses. They left us there with nothing but what we had brought with us from Vietnam, a mosquito net, and a standard blue tarp that was big enough to cover one person and fashion into a make-shift roof. We looked around and once the United Nation workers left the people that were living in the homes inside the camp came out and welcomed us.
“Hello and welcome to Singapore; one thing you will need to know is that the homes that you see here are not available to you because the earlier refugees have come here and made a life for themselves. Please respect that; however, you may stay outside the houses and use the outer walls to prop things onto. Thank you! If you need anything else just ask for Phuong.” Phuong smiled and walked back into his home shutting the door quietly behind him.
We stayed in the small camp in Singapore for the next two or three months and it was nice. Enough food was provided to stay alive and live somewhat comfortably since we had to walk a few miles to get it. I liked it here in Singapore; everything was clean and nice (people came out in the morning with brooms and swept the streets) and everything was happy. Sadly, things couldn’t stay like that forever. It came the day that the United Nations announced that Singapore had too many refugees. It was time for us to be relocated to Indonesia; specifically Ga Lang.
They transferred us by small boats paid by the United Nations to Ga Lang. It was probably around midday when we had to pack up and leave. Unlike Singapore, in Ga Lang, we stayed in a place that reminded me of an annex. I’ve forgotten the formal name for a place like this but everyone there called it the “Ba Racks”. One Ba Rack could house anywhere from three to five families depending on how big the families were. It was nowhere near as nice as Singapore but it was enough.
We were provided with “bunk beds” that were really pieces of plywood that had been nailed together in a bed shape stacked three high. Luckily we were also provided with some mosquito netting to keep the bugs away since we were living in a huge open space without walls or roofs. What we were given was enough to provide a meager amount of protection. Some was better than none, right? My family and I had managed to survive and stay together this long and that was all that mattered. Even little Truong was still with us alive and kicking.
How our family got food was similar to that in Singapore; we would walk a few miles in the morning to stand in line for a few more hours to get to the food distribution place. There we would have to show our ID cards like we would have to in a regular American high school. The ID cards showed how many people were in our family and who we were. The food packages that we received included things like rice, beans, canned food, and dried foods like beans and pepper. On the other hand, water was a different story. It wasn’t like Singapore, where we would get it in our care packages; we had to share a water station with about 15 other Ba Racks. The rule was that each person could get up to about 10 gallons of water. The catch was that you needed to have something to carry the water back to your Ba Rack. If you didn’t have ample storage then you were very limited on how much water could be taken from the pump. But it all worked out okay; everyone got an adequate amount of water for themselves and their families.
The days there went by at varying rates, some went by faster than an Olympian runner in the 100 meter dash and others moved by slower than a sloth on a hot day. But finally word came that it was our turn to leave Ga Lang. They found Tuyen who was living in America and cleared us to travel. That night was our last in Indonesia and the next day, after nine months of living in Ga Lang, we were finally able to call ourselves free. We were corralled into a plane the next day and we were flown out of Indonesia in a few hours. It was about a days’ worth of flying but we finally reached Sea Tac Airport and we couldn’t be happier to see Tuyen there. Finally after a year of living in unknown countries and being known only as refugees, we were free.
Once we all said our exuberant hellos, our now complete family departed from Sea Tac and made our way to the city of Redmond. There our family of eight found a quaint one story home that was just a few minutes’ walk away from the high school and elementary school. It housed four or five rooms; one for me and my sisters to share, one for my brothers to share, one for my parents, a small cupboard sized kitchen, and a tiny living room. It wasn’t much, but it was what we called home for a long time.
When we first started out, we were sponsored by the St. Jude family sponsors, and even though it was common, I sometimes felt ashamed of it; the way that we couldn’t support ourselves in the beginning. But I guess it was for the better since we didn’t know a thing about America. The sponsors were nice people, one family helped with our schooling, another helped with our medical issues, and another helped us get a home. They helped us immerse into American culture and my parents were grateful since they themselves did not know the language well enough to read or write anything.
Their support lasted for about a year which was around the time that Ma and Ba found night jobs working as janitors. Eventually we all did; we had to find some way to pay the bills. Soon my siblings and I had to join them working the night shift at the high school, and we worked like that for the next five or so years. But by the end of the second year we were good enough shape to stop living off of welfare checks.
Once everything had fallen in place, Ma and Ba saved up enough money to lease a small teriyaki place and made a small living that was enough to get me and my siblings through the rest of high school. I guess we were one of the lucky ones in this. We could have died; but we didn’t. and for that I will be forever grateful.