Unbreakable Spirit

 

BY: JACK SMITH

An ancient Vietnamese proverb states, “ăn quả nhớ kẻ trồng cây,” or in its English equivalent, “when eating a fruit, think of the person who planted the tree.” While most linguists claim this to mean that one must have gratitude for those who provide for him, I have come to realize that my own interpretation is that one must look beyond the superficial surface of a certain circumstance and acknowledge the journey that led to its realization. During the course of this project, I myself “thought of the person who planted the tree” when I interviewed Vietnamese refugee Khoa Ngo.

My connection to Khoa is that he is an older brother of my stepmother, who moved with him in 1980 to the United States to flee oppression in Vietnam along with the rest of their family. Before the commencement of this project, I hadn’t the slightest inkling of how they had come to arrive in the United States. I had assumed that they had simply boarded an airplane in Hanoi and flown to their new home in San Jose, as my naïve, American mind was inclined to think. Furthermore, I hadn’t ever considered the reasons for which they fled Vietnam; I had simply thought they moved for personal reasons. The Ngos, an accomplished and successful family, had only shown me kindness and exuded positivity and happiness whenever I had been around them. As I was to soon find out, there were years worth of sadness, destitution, and perseverance behind this that took place to help them arrive at their position in life.

The day of the interview, I sat on the plush, navy comforter of my bed. The grey Sunday sky casting a melancholy ambience over the entirety of my neighborhood was visible through my windows that faced the empty street. I eyed the baby-blue clock adorning my wall, watching its hands inch closer and closer to 3:00, the time I was to call Khoa, with a meticulous tick, tick. With each passing tick, I grew increasingly anxious. Although I had known his family for close to six years, I had seldom spoken to him. I originally wanted to interview my stepmother, with whom I was much more comfortable talking, but being only five years old at the time of leaving Vietnam, she had little to no memory of the ordeal. Alas, I had to break free from routine and interview Khoa. Finally, I gathered the courage to dial his number, reluctantly letting my fingers fall on the keys of my phone’s luminescent glass screen.

Seven sharp rings greeted my ears, until the robotic tone of an automated message sounded to notify me that I was being sent to voicemail.

Why is he not picking up? I thought irrationally. Does he not want to talk anymore?

I waited for fifteen more minutes, each minute slipping past more and more rapidly. I finally picked up my phone again and punched his number into the keypad. Pressing the cool glass against my ear, I heard the same succession of grating rings, expecting the call to be sent to voicemail once again. To my surprise, after the fourth ring, I heard the soft, subdued, yet powerful voice greet me from the other line.

“Hello?” he answered in a hushed tone, each word accented slightly by the language of his homeland.

“Hi, Khoa, it’s Jack. I’m calling about the interview?” I responded timidly, unsure of myself.

“Oh, yes! I’m glad you’ve called,” he responded with genuine enthusiasm. My faith in the interview began to grow.

“Shall we get started?” I asked slightly more confidently.

“Yes, let’s get started.”

“How old were you when you moved from Vietnam?”

“I was nine years old, so very young.”

“What drove you from Vietnam?”

“The communists, the Viet Cong, were oppressive. They controlled our lives. Everyone was poor, and my parents wanted freedom and a better life for the family. There were just more opportunities in America.”

Khoa did not mention much more beyond that, but prior conversation with my stepmother about the communist government of the Viet Cong revealed their brutal practices. They promised freedom to the downtrodden Vietnamese, but instead delivered a regime of oppression and subjugation. They set up “reeducation camps,” or concentration camps where those who even slightly disagreed with their practices were jailed. Hundreds of thousands sent to these horrific prisons perished as a result of heavy labor, torture, or murder. As a communist government, the Viet Cong confiscated citizens’ possessions, leading some to take extreme measures to protect items of sentimental value (Khoa’s parents, as it turns out, were forced to swallow their wedding rings as a convoy of Viet Cong soldiers approached their home). Freedoms that are taken for granted in the United States, such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press, were non-existent. The Vietnamese experience was one of misery and cruelty, forcing thousands of citizens to rightfully seek refuge in peaceful countries. This led to the mass exodus of the Vietnamese “boat people,” a group under which the Ngos were included.

“How was your experience coming to America?” I asked, delving into a subject I feared would be traumatic for Khoa to answer.

“It was quite a horrible experience. My family, including my mother, father, five siblings, and I, all packed into a boat that had about 114 on board. We were at sea for fourteen days,” he recalled. A faint tinge of woe began to be evident in his voice.

“Where were you headed?”

“Our boat was going toward Thailand, although we didn’t know exactly how to get there. We had to rely on our uncle, who could read the stars to guide us. Unfortunately, one night, the water was rough, and he was taken away by a large wave as he stood near the edge of the boat.”

From my experience with the Ngos, I had come to understand that Vietnamese culture considers the bond between family members to be incredibly intimate, possibly more so than the average American family. The loss of even one relative has the potential to put an entire family in a permanent state of mourning. However, motivated by the prospect of a better life and future in the United States, the Ngos persevered in the face of their loss.

“I’m so sorry, that’s terrible,” I apologized somberly.

“It was. Our family was very sad,” he agreed. “We also had to deal with pirates from Thailand who sailed in the sea. They would cut off the engine and steal everyone’s valuables. They would also bring guns and fire warning shots to scare us. One time, they accidentally hit my father’s leg while he had my baby sister resting on his knee. It was horrible.”

“How did you end up reaching Thailand then?” I questioned, still shocked at Khoa’s answer to the previous question.

“We were at sea for a few days, and nobody could find the shore. Finally, we were spotted by a US Navy ship, and they towed us to Thailand.”

Khoa’s account of his journey was jarring. Having grown up in the United States, it was unfathomable to imagine being uprooted from my home and forced to make an arduous journey to a new life. After all, the most difficult journey I had ever taken was getting stuck for a few hours in the heavy traffic of Highway 101. While I had faced the high-pitched trill of honking horns as cars attempted to merge, the Ngos had faced the angry hollers of pirates as they robbed them of all they owned and threatened their lives, leaving them with nothing as they continued to travel across the rough waters of the Gulf of Thailand. All of my supposed “problems” in life started to appear trivial.

“So, once you arrived in Thailand, where did you go?” I pondered.

“Well, we went to a refugee camp, where we applied for asylum in the United States and waited three months.”

“That’s quite a long time,” I responded, naïvely unaware of the realities that most refugees faced.

“Yes, but we were lucky,” he asserted. “Most people stayed for two years or more.”

“What was it like to be in the refugee camp?”

“It was nice, but we were just waiting there until we could leave. There was a beach right near it, which I loved playing in as a young boy. The people who worked there were all very nice to my family too.”

Until that moment, I had neglected to remember that Khoa was just nine years old when he left Vietnam. It was uplifting to hear that there was one moment of carefree joy throughout his grueling journey, which must have been especially traumatic for his young psyche. I was also touched that after years of maltreatment and injustice, the Ngos were finally being given the respect they deserved at the camp.
“How did you leave?” I asked, becoming increasingly invested in his story.

“We had cousins who had fled before us and settled in America, so they sponsored us to move there. Soon after, we left and settled in San Jose.”

Despite having already endured incredible hardship, the Ngos’ journey was still far from over. They had to start their lives from scratch and assimilate into a new culture, a new language, a completely new way of life. They had to learn to be Americans while still holding on to their beloved Vietnamese culture.

“We had to look for housing, and my dad had to find a job,” he explained with a tense sharpness in his voice, obviously the effect of revisiting such a stressful time. “He eventually found one selling goods, selling anything, actually. However, he and the rest of us also could not speak English, which made communication difficult.”

“Since you were so young, how was your experience adjusting to a new country?”

“It was difficult at the beginning. We all had to go to school, and none of us spoke English. We had to spend a lot of time on our homework because we had to learn English at the same time. Myself, I had trouble making friends. Some kids made fun of me for my race at school, which was quite intimidating and scary.”

Khoa’s comments on the language barrier struck a nerve with me. In that moment, I was mentally transported back to a Vietnamese New Year celebration a few years prior at the Ngo family residence. It was a joyous occasion, marking the beginning of the lunar new year. Cherry-red envelopes containing crisp, freshly printed ten dollar bills were handed to the children of the family, who squealed with glee at their newfound windfall. Adults and older teenagers cheered jubilantly from the room over as they played the popular Vietnamese gambling game bầu cua cá cọp. It seemed as if every surface was covered with steaming plates of bánh tôm, phở, gỏi cuốn, or any other of the countless delectable, traditional dishes that had been prepared for this occasion. Often, when I attended events at their home, they spoke English, but most of the conversation that night was in Vietnamese out of respect for my stepmother’s parents. As the rising and falling tones and hard consonant sounds that so characterize Vietnamese greeted my ears, to my dismay my brain could make no sense of them. I had no knowledge of the language, so I felt like an awkward outsider present among this cheerful chatter. This example is certainly incomparable with Khoa’s story, but I realized that this must have been exactly how Khoa and his family felt after moving to the United States: they were witness to the extravagance and excitement of American life, but the barrier of English presented a large enough challenge that they were unable to partake in it.

Despite his tumultuous beginning in the United States, it soon became obvious that, according to Khoa, the benefits of his journey turned out to be worth the struggle.

“The United States has a lot of opportunity, much more than Vietnam. Everything we needed to succeed was provided to us. The government had programs to help us get set up. We lived in public housing, and we were on food stamps. That didn’t exist in Vietnam.” I found his perspective interesting, as I’ve regretfully witnessed many Americans look down with disdain upon those who use government services such as food stamps and public housing. This leads the people who need these services the most to be ashamed of their decision to do so, even though it may mean the difference between survival and eventual vitality or a life of permanent destitution. Instead, Khoa took pride in the fact that their new country was providing help to his needy family, which, in my personal opinion, should be the viewpoint possessed by every American.

“Would you ever say that you regret your decision to move here?” I asked, almost positively knowing what his answer would be.

“I was a young child, so I didn’t have a choice, but I don’t regret the decision at all. My family is incredibly grateful to be here, as many people are incredibly desperate to come here. It’s a blessing to be in America.”

Our interview ended on that positive sentiment, as Khoa had nothing more to say. I pressed the crimson-colored button on my phone’s screen to hang up the call and set it down on my bed. I lay down and regarded the off-white, cracked ceiling just above my head, attempting to fully process all the information of Khoa’s story. Suddenly, a wave of guilt washed over my body and mind. In the six years I had known the Ngo family, I hadn’t once heard the story of how they arrived in the United States. Khoa’s account of their journey, which in a matter of twenty minutes made an impact on my heart and my soul, completely changed my view of the Ngos. I realized that they are the single most enduring family I know, as even though they experienced incredible hardship, they escaped their situation with an indescribable combination of grace, love, hard work, and perseverance.

While Khoa had relatively few words, his answers still conveyed a powerful truth: liberty and justice for all is unfortunately not universal outside of our nation’s borders. Beyond the United States, injustices and abuse are rampant in some nations, and many long for the freedom about which Americans don’t take a second thought. Furthermore, Khoa’s story demonstrated to me both the evil of humans and the unbreakability of the human spirit. It’s quite difficult to envision that such malevolence as that perpetrated by the Viet Cong exists in the world, but it’s an uncomfortable reality we must all face and have a responsibility to help ameliorate. However, even when faced with unspeakable travesties, such as those occurring in Vietnam, humans will stop at nothing to better both their own lives and those of their companions.

That night, I turned out the brilliant light illuminating my room and tucked myself under my warm, dry comforter. As I drifted into a deep slumber, I reflected on the interview. Khoa’s words, especially his sentiments of gratitude for being in the United States, echoed through my mind. In that moment, I felt more grateful to be an American than ever.

 

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