BY: ALEX GAO
“I thought I was bringing my five children and I to our deaths,” she recalled, teary-eyed. Rosa was somber in her expression while describing the event that changed her very identity as a person. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, many Vietnamese fled the country to escape the newly installed communist government. Many resorted to fleeing to neighboring countries by boat or ship. This fleeing population was called the “Vietnamese boat people.” Their passage on sea was unpredictable as many died facing danger and hardship from pirates, overcrowded boats, and storms. From 1975 to 1995, it is estimated that 800,000 Vietnamese undertook the dangerous journey. Thong Thi “Rosa” Nguyen was one them.
I first got in touch with Rosa as she was the mother of one of my father’s co-workers. We had long known her family, but it wasn’t until recently that I discovered her former refugee status. Rosa was born in the Quang Ngai province on the eastern coast of Vietnam. In the years after the end of the Vietnam war, Rosa and her husband decided that the family was ill-suited to live in Vietnam. The new corrupt government had put many families, theirs included, in financial crisis, and anyone who spoke up against the government would be declared an enemy of state. Given that Rosa’s husband was a fisherman, they decided that the family would flee on his fishing boat. On the 18th of June 1980, Rosa, her husband and her five kids, ranging from five months old to five years old, boarded their tiny fishing boat in the direction of Hong Kong.
Rosa and her daughters were kind enough to invite my dad and me for lunch to conduct the interview on September 27th at noon. At our arrival at their house in Fremont, my father and I greeted Rosa. Despite the grim topic we were about to discuss, she smiled joyfully, happy to be in the presence of friends. I sat down at the dinner table with my dad’s co-worker who was ready to translate whatever Rosa said.
I first asked Rosa to explain what happened on the fishing boat in Hong Kong. She recalled, “We arrived in the port of Hong Kong but we were told we weren’t allowed to go on land because too many refugees were coming at once. We were left drifting on the sea for two weeks at the port with little food. Our motor had ran out of fuel so we couldn’t go looking for food.” Rosa’s face while describing this scene seemed hurt and regretful. She knew that there was a possibility that her whole family could’ve died during that period. It struck me that Rosa must’ve mustered unbelievable bravery to remain resilient and be optimistic on that boat.
When she said she had little food, I followed up by asking how they scraped by. “All the food we brought with us originally quickly ran out. Other fisherman boats would give us dry goods and rice because they felt bad. For my babies, we gave them powder milk with the water we brought,” Rosa explained while nervously fiddling her fingers. At this point, I realized how thankful Rosa must’ve been to be alive at the present moment and for being able to look forward to her next meal. It really emphasized how minor my daily first world problems were compared to hers at the time.
After those grueling two weeks were over, only male refugees were granted access to go on land in Hong Kong. I asked her to describe what she saw. She recounted the scene, “It was complete pandemonium. All the men rushed to immigration stations to get their paperwork as soon as possible. Many men, including my husband, wrote down wrong date of births and names of their children out of ignorance. Even then, food was difficult to come by as the government officials only gave each person two small portions of rice twice a day. After a couple of days, the families gained ‘refugee status’ in Hong Kong.”
“How were you treated in Hong Kong?” I asked curiously.
“Fortunately, the reception by the people was very positive. The people of Hong Kong were aware that we were refugees and were hospitable towards us. We were provided three meals a day, and jobs could be found if we showed identification,” Rosa replied.
I also asked Rosa about the negatives being in Hong Kong.
“There was a huge communication barrier. Since Vietnamese and Cantonese are drastically different languages, we couldn’t understand what each other were saying. It made it difficult for us to assimilate in their culture,” Rosa responded while making Chinese fried rice.
After a brief period in Hong Kong, Rosa and her family were given a loan by a refugee relocation organization to be able to move to the U.S. They were able to build their life in the San Francisco Bay Area where she raised all of her five kids. She is now a happy grandmother living in Fremont.
To finish off the interview, I asked her about if she had any regrets about leaving Vietnam. She immediately responded, “Absolutely not. Even today, Vietnam is a corrupt place that limits your freedom of speech. The government still neglects its people, which is why many Vietnamese are still emigrating today. If anything, I regret not bringing my extended family to America where the living conditions are much better.”
Since being in the U.S., Rosa has been happy despite the language barrier. She sends money to her extended family in Vietnam to support them, knowing the Vietnamese government can’t steal it. One day, she hopes that she can garner enough money to bring the rest of her family to America.
Rosa’s story is a common one between Vietnamese refugees. She and many others were lucky to be so well received by a foreign country. The Cantonese people demonstrated a great example of hospitality during their time of need and distress. Emulating what Hong Kong did should not be seen as a burden but as a responsibility, a fundamental act of human kindness. Countries that are able should always keep their doors open for the desperate or displaced or hopeless or those latching on to survival. Unfortunately even today we are struggling with this task.
It is important to remember what Rosa endured, as she was bearing witness to the refugee experience. Her testimony, intact and not lost, will be passed along generations throughout her family. Without it, the family is missing a crucial experience which formed their identities. Above all, people should keep in mind this event as whole so such a mass exodus never happens again.