Drifting

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.

 

 

Advertisements

Man of Higher Faith

BY: TARIK SHIHADEH

“The trepidation, the awe of witnessing a man plummet off a skyscraper… I recall exactly what was running through my mind at this moment. But I’ll never know what was in their minds as they descended to their demise. Did they recall their sins? Any regrets? … I remember distinctly the sounds of their bodies smashing into the earth. This just isn’t something you can forget, or like make up.”

Today, Jay is a man of higher faith, but if I were to conduct this interview ten years ago, he wouldn’t be apt to talk about what he witnessed. He’d still be coping with his PTSD. He was only 21 years old when he experienced the events of 9/11 on the streets of New York City. For years after, he was tortured by the persistent and tantalizing imagery of the collapse of twin towers, as well as the suicide jumpers taking their own lives. In 2006, he moved to California to not only pursue career opportunities, but to escape from his past. He had to completely evacuate his hometown just to fix himself. There, he found solace in Christianity, where he became a devout Christian, which would aid him in his endeavors to jump the hurdle that was his PTSD. Fortunately for him, his faith seemingly cured the black shroud that would follow him around.

Jay, 35, is a successful banker. I was able to establish ties with him via my uncle, who is his lawyer. Jay has been my uncle’s client ever since he moved to California back in 2006. I conducted this interview over the telephone, as Jay is a very busy man. He chose not to reveal too much personal info about himself.  I was only able to gather that Jay has a family of three. He also preferred that I would not incriminate his real name. He told me to use the alias Jay. When I politely questioned his decision, he said, “I want there to be this sense of mystique to loom over the interview. I like the audience to conjure up images of how they think I look. I want this interview to read like a book, where you don’t know how the characters look, but you keep the image in your head about how they look.” Furthermore, I inquired whether or not I should describe his voice, because like a character in a book you don’t know how he or she sounds. He requested that I not describe his voice because leaving his voice ambiguous adds to the mystique of his presence.

I commenced the interview by asking Jay what his immediate reaction was to the event.  “I was scared shitless. Excuse my profanity. I remember being on the street and noticing how it suddenly became shady. And then – BOOM! I also recall seeing the first airplane mere seconds before it collided and disintegrated. I was with my girlfriend at the time, and neither of us could muster up the words to describe what we just saw. We cowered behind a car for fear of more attacks. And as you know, there were definitely more.”

To piggyback off his response, I asked him what were the most vivid memories that he could recall. “I saw the whole thing, you know. So I still remember most things pretty vividly. Like I’m never gonna forget the planes’ collisions into the towers. And the actual collapse of the towers, which was thunderous and deafening, is not a seamless sight to forget. But the absolute most afflicting and traumatizing event that I witnessed in the whole shtick was the suicides off the towers.”

I gently prodded him to elaborate on the jumpers. Luckily, Jay was more than happy to. “The trepidation, the awe of witnessing a man plummet off a skyscraper, is sickening to say the least. I remember it invoking feelings of nausea and insurmountable grief. I recall exactly what was running through my mind at this moment. But I’ll never know what was in their minds as they descended to their demise. Did they recall their sins? Any regrets? I don’t even know who these people were. But I was over encumbered with feelings of sadness for my fellow humans. I remember distinctly the sound of their bodies smashing into the earth. This just isn’t something you can forget, or, like, make up.”

What I found most interesting in his last response was that Jay questioned the jumpers about their sins. Upon first talking with Jay, he didn’t strike me as the type to be religious. So I asked him to talk about the tidbit about the sins. “Well, I’m a deeply religious man. I haven’t always been, but for the past nine years I have been a devout Catholic. I want to believe that each of those jumpers are up there with God right now, but it also begs the question as to whether or not these jumpers confessed their sins.” I pushed further by inquiring about his faith. Specifically, how he found his faith. He obliged. “For years after 9/11, I was struggling with major PTSD. My life was falling apart, as I turned to my personal demons to cope with the PTSD. After college, in 2006 I moved here to pursue not only work, but also a new beginning. One of my colleagues at the first bank I worked at introduced me to his church and I fell in love with it. My faith has really helped me overcome the PTSD induced from that horrific event.”

I find it fascinating and ironic how Jay found faith and guidance in the most liberal area of the United States. Here in California, most liberals associate Christianity with violence and corruption as history has proven. But in the standout case of Jay, one man found peace with his inner self from a religion with a bloody timeline. Even if you self-identify as an atheist, you have to respect him.

Moving on from the last series of questions, I questioned where Jay saw himself in the future at the time of 9/11. “Certainly not in California talking with a high school student over the phone about my experiences at 10:30 p.m. Like I said before, I turned to many of my personal demons to try to alleviate the PTSD. I was smoking, drinking, and bingeing on foods. I wasn’t worried about my future, and any motivations for success were killed off. But going along the road that I was taking, I’m not sure if I’d even be alive to tell you this.”

We both got a good chuckle out of his first sentence. I continued the interview by asking him if 9/11 changed the way he viewed members or organizations involved in the event. “I mean, at the time I think everybody was xenophobic to Arabs. I hate to admit it, but I was too. But in my defense, we were scared of the unknown. We had never been attacked on American soil up until that point. We had no idea if there would be a full-fledged invasion by the terrorists. Obviously now, I’m a changed man. My faith eliminated that fear factor and animosity towards Arab entities. And I think most people have moved on from that

Islam phobia. We as a society have embraced cultural sensitivity. It isn’t politically correct to have fear towards a Muslim.”

My penultimate and perhaps most challenging question entailed asking him if he thinks that witnessing this travesty has benefitted him. Jay went a little silent at first, perhaps contemplating his response. He responded with, “I think that’s a difficult question to answer. The events of 9/11 lead to the darkest and most recessive point in my life. And I will never forget that imagery of people falling out of buildings and buildings collapsing. So to say that I benefitted from that event, I’d have to say no. But I think for what it’s worth, I’ve benefitted with how I eventually coped after the event. Finding Christianity has led to the most expansionary period of my life. I’ve abandoned my personal demons, I met my wife at my church, and my son will be graduating kindergarten in May next year. I’m doing well for myself right now, and luckily I don’t think about 9/11 and obsess over it.”

I solicited my final question to Jay, which involved asking him if there is anything that he wishes he could tell his past self to mitigate the shock value of witnessing the events of 9/11. He simply replied with, “Just find God’s light.” I politely asked him to elaborate, but he wouldn’t budge. “I think it speaks for itself. If I found Christ earlier in my life, I wouldn’t have had to been setback by the PTSD. Simple as that.”

I thanked Jay for his time and apologized for taking so much time out of his night. It was 10:30 p.m. when I conducted the interview. It took an hour and a half to finish up. Thankfully, Jay thought nothing of it and claimed that he had enjoyed the talk.

It is absolutely crucial for every single American to never forget the events of September 11th. It can’t be forgotten because something of that ilk can easily happen again. And we must recognize the witnesses of this event, and not dismiss their stories because what they have to say is just as important as what those who died on 9/11 couldn’t say. This meant a lot to Jay because he was directly afflicted with the aftermath as he had sunk to new lows. But thankfully for him he found Jehovah in the darkest places of his life, and he bounced into a boom period. For those that read this interview, they could enrich their understanding of witness literature, and maybe even gain inspiration from Jay’s story. Truth is utterly subjective. Jay’s story reveals that everyone experiences things differently. Jay mentioned that he witnessed the event with his girlfriend at the time. He never exactly told me what his girlfriend’s emotions and reactions were to what was going on. And in light of Jay’s situation, it is important that we approach witnesses of horrific events with the utmost sensitivity. Because as we know, there was a massive PTSD factor in Jay’s story. There is quantifiable value in this testimony, as any one of us can one day become a witness. And any one of us can find God’s light if need be. Jay’s testimony grants every witness an option to overcome his or her obstacles.

The Denied Home

BY: KONSTANTIN LARIN

Home.

It’s the idea that connects people all over the world. Some live in their home all their lives, while some lose their home and are forced to find a new one. However, the most unfortunate grow up without a home altogether. As I’ve found out, my paternal grandmother Zoya belongs to the latter category.

Even though I’ve known my grandmother Zoya my whole life, I’ve never really asked her about her youth. I was only aware that, after the Russian Revolution, her family, like many others, was forced to move all over the country to escape persecution. As a result, I felt a little nervous when my grandmother called me on Skype to start the interview.

Truth be told, I didn’t expect that call. I was planning on calling her next morning, not on a dark and quiet San Francisco evening. Needless to say, the change in schedule didn’t calm me down.  Nevertheless, my nervousness subsided when I saw my grandmother. She was energetic as always, her gray hair cut short and contrasting with her dark eyebrows and olive skin.

She sat in front of her computer, diffused morning sunshine traveling through the curtains and lighting up her living room in Volgograd, with a big, ornamented carpet visible on the opposing wall. Even though I couldn’t feel it, I knew that it was much colder in Volgograd than in San Francisco, despite the sunlight suggesting the opposite.

In the beginning, we just made small talk in Russian. I asked my grandmother about her wellbeing and found out the reason for the change in schedule that it was simply more convenient for granny Zoya. Then the interview started.

To start the interview, I asked my granny about her father. I knew little about him, except that he fought against the communists in the Russian Civil War and for that had to travel far away from big cities to avoid pursuit by Soviet officials.

“He was a White officer, but when they lost he joined the Red Army until he retired in 1925,” she said.

That sentence caught me off-guard as it contradicted what I fought I knew about my great-grandfather. After all, he not only was an army officer, but also managed to switch sides, an undoubtedly difficult move considering that the Red Army was a communist force, while Whites were patriotic anti-Communists, which made them the biggest enemies during the Russian Civil War. While a simple soldier could have changed sides relatively easily, the officers had more power and were thus assumed to be more loyal to the cause, meaning it was harder for them to be accepted by the other side.

“He worked as an accountant,” she continued, “because he was educated. He had to, to be an officer in the White Army.”

She explained to me why her father had to run. “It was dangerous to be a former White officer. When you went to work, you sent your papers to Cheka [USSR’s security force]. When they checked then and learnt you were a former White officer, they chased you. So we had to move all the time. We lived in Noviy Oskol, and Kursk, and Karmak, and Nijni Tagil ….”

Here granny listed many places in Ural, some of which I knew, but most didn’t. Grandmother was unsure how long they stayed in one place, but she thought it varied from a couple of months to a year.

I felt a great sympathy towards my grandmother, as well as doubt about how I myself would have lived through that situation. I tried to imagine a life like that, always on the run, afraid that the next time you would be too late to move and you would be imprisoned and your family left with no way to support itself, but I knew that everything I imagined was just a shade of the real experience my grandmother and many others had to live through.

My grandmother explained to me that, while her father’s former position as an officer made them refugees, his talents allowed them to survive. “He was educated and had really neat handwriting,” she said. “At the time it was really rare; most people were ignorant and uneducated, especially in villages. So my father wrote letters for them to the government. They liked him for that and that’s why, when the papers arrived asking for him to come for questioning, they would always tell him and we were able to safely escape.”

Luckily, her father survived the pursuit. “In 1940, he travelled to Moscow to plead for the end of persecution. He was admitted to Kalinin [important Soviet functionary], who signed the papers that allowed my father to work freely. Thanks to that, we were able to settle in Talica.”

Unfortunately, her story didn’t end on that happy note. “We lived in Talica until 1947, when my mother died. Then we travelled to Belorusia to our relatives, but my father was sick with tuberculosis and died soon after, in 1949. On the bright side, we weren’t really affected by WWII, as we were far from the battlefront.” Grandma smiled, trying to put a positive spin on her misfortunes.

I was shaken by this, as even though I knew that my granny’s parents died when she was young, I didn’t know the details and was extremely surprised by grandmother’s fortitude, calmly discussing such extremely traumatic events and even finding strength to smile about the small successes. Still, I continued the interview and asked her about some details. “Do you remember when the persecution started?” I asked.

“It started before I was born,” she replied. “I’m sorry I can’t tell you much, but I was just too young to remember most of it. My elder brother could have told more, because he was born three years earlier.” Suddenly, that sentence ignited her memory. “He was born in 1927, and it must have been just when we became refugees. Yes, it all started in 1927 and ended in 1940, when I was six, soon after my younger brother was born in Karmak.”

I later found out that the start of the family’s persecution wasn’t accidental, even though it came after the end of Civil War in Russia. That year corresponded with the rise of Joseph Stalin to power as a leader of the Soviet Union. He was famous for his paranoia and tendency to repress everyone he fought was against him, so it certainly made sense to start with those known to disagree with the USSR policies.

Finally, I asked my grandmother whether she had anything from her time as a refugee.

“How could I? We were too poor,” she remarked. “We had only what we could carry, just clothes and pillows and beddings. Even if we had kept anything, we would have had nowhere to put it. In Karmak, we lived five people in a single room.”

Still, she ended the interview on a high note. “It became much better when we settled in Talica. Even though there was war going on, we had a cow and chickens and gave their milk and eggs to help the army during WWII.”

The interview provided me with a lot to reflect on. My grandmother spent her early childhood on the run, with no place to call home and no possessions to treasure. Remembering her first real home filled her with joy, despite her stay there ending in tragedy. However, even today many are forced to live the same way my grandmother once did, lacking any home and unsure whether they’ll ever find one. The testimonies of witnesses such as my grandmother reveal not only the tragedy of children born and raised without a home, but also the ease with which just one signed paper can bring salvation to whole families.

Running Targets: Liberation

BY: NICOLAS TAN

Dead silence. Suddenly Ms. Ho hears footsteps, scurrying at first with minimal sound but exponentially getting louder. She turns the two bodies over. Dead. Bullets shot straight through the head and the heart. Blood. Blood spilling everywhere. It’s gruesome, it’s gory, it’s a civil war between the citizens and the corrupt government. Those two gunshots really crack the air. She could hear screaming, people in her boat yelling at the dead ones to wake up. The footsteps stop along with the arrival of a couple of Vietnamese security guards, dressed up all in dark rather camouflaged green, holding up flashlights at them. It’s dark all around, the water, the sky, the fate of some of their lives. “We don’t want any harm,” she tells them, “we gave the needed gold to get our boat and our boat leader is a very kind and good one.” Pause. BANG! A bullet rocketed straight out of one of the guard’s hidden rifles headed towards her, in a fish tank where she was hiding, but deflected from a basket next to Ms. Ho’s head, veering off instead to her sister’s back. This was real, this was a part of Ms. Ho’s teenage years when she fled her country, Vietnam, after the Vietnam War, the war in which both the US insurgents as well as the capitalist South Vietnamese lost to the Northern Vietnamese communists in 1975. 1977 was when Vietnam decided to kick out all Chinese, a thankful act for those who wanted to get away from the corrupt communists. Luckily for her, she just so happened to be able to pass with her special double racial ethnicity as Chinese and Vietnamese.

Ms. Xuan Ho is my mother’s friend whom she met at Oracle many years back. She is a black haired, middle-aged computer scientist who now lives here in California, working at Oracle for the last 16 years. She also has an extremely traumatic backstory that got her from Vietnam to here, raising her family, getting a living and more. Having been to all of my birthday parties when I was younger, she knows me pretty well. I knew her vaguely from my past, yet, as one can tell by looking at a five-year-old’s brain, they seem to forget those kinds of things.

It was a casual Monday evening down at the Oracle Headquarters where my mom helped to arrange to meet with her. My hands were anxiously tapping at my thighs to get ready for the massive overload of quick jotting and typing of notes I would have to take in a couple minutes. I didn’t know much of Ms. Ho’s background information until my mom told me in the car on the way to Oracle Building 200. I forgot my pen so I decided that I could just type and record with permission via my notoriously indestructible Nokia. The time in our car said 5:01 and the meeting was supposed to start at 5 sharp. I was very nervous and asked my mom to drive a bit faster, but she barked back that she didn’t want some GTA V police car to come over anytime soon. 5:02.

After many stop-and-ask questions and joking some three to Pho puns with my mom about being so late, I finally found Ms. Ho waiting patiently for us near the mirror that viewed our majestic crescent-shaped backyard filled with the beautiful fountain and the “floating” Oracle America’s Cup Winner Boat. The wall we were near looked like the common office-styled “100% Pure Wood” theme.

“Christine! Your son! He’s grown so tall since I last saw him!” Ms. Ho exclaimed to my mom.

“Thank you! Ahaha!” said my mom.

There was some quick talk about life and all between my mom and her while I started setting up my computer for note-taking and more. After a while, I felt that the environment felt right enough to dive into my first question and so then I did. “As a refugee, what sparked the sudden desire to leave your birthplace and country? Was it a life-and-death experience? What did you witness or what did you do to get out of the place?”

Ms. Ho, being a native of Vietnam, told me: “The real reason for trying to escape Vietnam was because after the World War ended and post the split of Vietnam’s North and South to being just a single ‘Vietnam’ ruled by corrupt commies, people would be living in fear because all citizens would have no freedom. Everyone would have at least one official look after every single check, bill, action that a citizen has been doing to make sure everything is under the legal rules of the communist government. No freedom at all. People would mostly just follow everything the corrupt government would say as means to not get suspected on and watched over even more. For my family, we were somehow claimed as the third richest family of all of Vietnam.”

When she said this, I expected some sign of happiness or positive facial expression, yet when I glimpsed at Ms. Ho’s face, she seemed to portray the contrary.

Looking down solemnly at the empty table we were sitting at, she said that “The communist government would send armies and thugs to go out at night and ransack those rich families’ jewelry store (our family had one too), and would torture the parents and temporarily jail the kids. They felt that by ransacking and stealing money from the rich and putting it into the hands of the government would even out the economic disparity gap capitalism always would have, thus achieving their dream goal of an economic equilibrium, communism. Everyone gets everything the same, everyone is not broke but not rich at all either. We didn’t want anything bad to happen to us, so my family decided to flee at night with 267 other Chinese Vietnamese, with the aid of the fact that the Vietnamese recently decided to kick out the Chinese. Myself being part Chinese and Vietnamese, I was an exception, but I still went. My parents had to bribe boat leaders to take me away, and they went their ways. I was alone with strangers.”

Hearing this, I reflected on how grateful I should be for having the opportunity to be born in and live in such a beautiful place as the Silicon Valley. I don’t think that I would’ve stayed alive for long if I would’ve had to leave my family, like what Ms. Ho did, as means to head on to a non-assured path to liberation.

“We were placed in a small boat as big as roughly two small tables, not big for 267 people. We would vomit from such huge seas and having only two decks; sometimes the top deck filled with the boat crew and family would vomit on us and cause illnesses to spread. Many got sick and some died. Many times, we would get stopped by Vietnamese Communist Security Guards who would ask what we were shopping for. I would have to hide inside the many fish tanks our boat had in the bottom deck. Sometimes they would let us go if our boat leader would bribe them, but sometimes they weren’t as friendly.”

“By not friendly,” I interrupted, “do you mean blockading-kind-of non-friendly or?”

“No,” Ms. Ho insisted, “non friendly as in they would stick out their rifles and check to see if we were there via noises down in our level and hearing from the top. One time, one couple was so happy that we were fleeing that they clapped really loudly and made so much noise that the guards came and shot them dead and tried to shoot me but missed. God saved me that day. Many times we would get the worst of the worst health conditions. I was only able to recover back to a healthy condition but barely alive when we were stopped by a Malay Marine who would’ve shot us down if my boat leader didn’t negotiate with them to let us onto their island, Paulo Bidong, where I waited for my sponsor to America.”

I then asked her if she had a pivotal moment that really inspired the motivation to leave Vietnam. “My kind friend,” she explained, “told me that our family was on the list of getting robbed one night and that we should go somewhere safe. Knowing this in advance, we decided to bribe the government ahead of time so as to not get raided and to get the government to like us and no longer bother us. It was really all about money, fear, and lack of freedom.”

Freedom. I heard that word come up a lot.

“It’s a key word to every individual’s happiness. Without freedom, there’s a lot of limits to what you can do in your life,” Ms. Ho insisted.

“So what got you here from Malaysia?” I asked, using it as a transition to my next question.

“I got here by a sponsor from my elder sister who was living in Arkansas,” she declared. “She helped bring me here on my 23rd birthday. I was given clothes too, a wonderful thing, because over there on the boat we could only bring one set of clothes and that was it. Also, I was baptized as a Christian in Arkansas in a church I stayed in and helped out in because when I was about to get shot in my boat that other time, I thought that in America there were no Buddhist temples and so I prayed that if I wouldn’t die I would convert. I always keep promises.”

“Okay, this one may be hard, but because you aren’t a soldier who killed somebody, was there ever a time when you saw someone die and felt sad because you couldn’t do anything to help them?” I nervously asked, knowing that we weren’t supposed to discuss these kinds of questions, as we were warned.

There was a small pause. I sheepishly looked around the room as if I had done something wrong. Eventually, noises of birds outside the window chirping broke up the silence.

“Yes, of course,” she said, looking sternly at me, her eyebrows furrowing into a V-shape. “I remember back on the Malay island one time when I heard one of my neighbours say that one of my friends has felt trapped staying on that island for so long (six months) and decided to take the chance and commit suicide. It was very, very depressing. Her whole family had already died, and the neighbour who told me was her husband. Another time, that same person’s brother also had a very sad accident. He was traveling by boat and so happened to cross some Thai pirates who saw he had a ring on his finger and tried to cut it off and ended up doing so as well as pushing and drowning him in the ocean too.”

I felt as if all these Vietnamese refugees were just like running targets, people with bounties on their heads which would attract others to try and ruin their lives. I felt pity for her.

“Lastly,” I told her, “how did you adapt to this new cultural place from Vietnam’s? And, rather off topic, but how do you believe your words can be relayed to later generations?”

With confidence, she replied, “Not being a born American, it took a rather long time to figure out how things go in this capitalistic country versus back home in the communist area. There were times when I would be scared and embarrassed because of my need for food stamps as a jobless refugee when I first got to the US. Eventually, I was able to know where to apply for jobs, got married, had kids, was able to do night school, thus earning a nine year degree for Computer Science and also now am working at Oracle as result. I do mosaics too!”

Ms. Ho and Her Mosaic Painting “Hiking on King Mountain Hill”
Ms. Ho and Her Mosaic Painting “Hiking on King Mountain Hill”

Her facial expression of a leader showed. “About advice to give,” she declared, “I believe that while it may be hard to grasp, as my kids have shown me by ignoring it like it’s any other story, my words can be relayed to later generations via the things I have gone through. People these days in the US are very spoiled and take things for granted. Their lives were so smooth when raised up while I had to struggle to build from scratch, building from the very bottom. Our generation had to work very hard, sometimes harder than this one due to the disadvantage of not having the amazing technology we now have these days. My whole trip, starting from the moment I left Vietnam via the boat (being known now as Boat People), has definitely shifted my life to a better one (the more I go on in life). I thank God for that and for all the deeds he has given me. I learned the importance of freedom too, how it can affect one’s life via lack or attainment of human rights, and more.”

Thanking her, when I went in the car to go home, I took into account all the things Ms. Ho said, and started to reflect. I felt that her pride to not stick with food stamps and all was a good thing too because it helped her motivation grow to be like the rest and work hard to get her to the good living she is living in now, and I feel that I should do something similar to that too later in my life. I reflected on all the concepts and things I have taken for granted in my life. What would happen if I was placed in a different situation? If I had no life with freedom, no human rights given to me? Would I survive? Would I make it as well as Ms. Ho was able to do? This interview bore witness to a human’s rights event, for the crisis Ms. Ho was placed in was because of a lack of human rights, the right of freedom, one of the most important of all human rights. For me, this situation that she was in is very important to record, for, as history plays out, people will tend to forget these genocides, tortures, and even despotism that took place in the past. Things that can be very useful resources to look back for possible future leaders. To make a better future, one must know and remember all the traumas, the victories and successes of events in the past. The Vietnam War effect was a big one and should not be forgotten. One of America’s losses in war, losing to the Communist Viets. The Vietnam War was meaningful for both Ms. Ho and for witnesses of her story, for it affected Ms. Ho in a positive way by cause of a negative reason. Due to the lack of freedom and the vast corruption in Vietnam, she fled and ultimately found paradise in America after years of hard work. Truths that this testimony revealed were that hard work pays off, freedom is an essential necessity to the happiness and success of an individual, communism and despotism defy many human rights, and being a witness, while it may not be directly you in the picture, does indirectly take you into the events that show what happened, almost like a memory placer. The value of this testimony is that it is one that should be remembered; it is essentially a witness journal. I believe that while it is very important to know of famous stories of the struggles of, say, Malala, we should also keep account for those who had to go through difficult and traumatic experiences too that got them to their paradise. For Ms. Ho, her enemy, Vietnam, took away her freedom, yet she fought and persevered and was able to reach her paradise of freedom, in America. We must keep into account these things. We must give respect to those who had to work equally hard to get to where they are now. Let us stop being the running targets of our fear and enemy and let us strive for excellence by surviving and telling them to others to let their wisdom grow and learn from our mistakes and fears.

A Daughter’s Revelation

BY: GIGI DE FORT-MENARES

“It became very messy. They had the higher ground and they had heavy artillery. They were shelling the city. There were snipers everywhere; they would shoot at ambulances. People couldn’t walk in the street without fear of being shot in the head.” My dad was very calm when he said this. I, however, was not. Internally I couldn’t help the twinge of fear and regret I felt for my dad as he recounted all the horrors he experienced as a Canadian UN peacekeeper is Bosnia Herzegovina.

It was October 10th when I finally conducted the interview. My dad suggested that we do it after dinner. I quickly agreed. He’s usually rather talkative after dinner, perhaps because he has usually consumed a glass or two of wine by then. Night had fallen when my dad finally walked into my room after dinner. He sat in my leather chair that tends to squeak if moved the wrong way, that I have in front of my glass desk. I sat on my double sized bed and faced him. I had wrapped myself in my duvet and set my laptop on my lap. I couldn’t help but wonder how this was going to play out. I knew that this was a difficult subject and that I needed to conduct an in-depth interview, but I was concerned because of my dad’s tendency to keep a lot of things to himself.

When the interview project was first introduced to us, I immediately knew who I was going to interview. I was going to interview Sidney de Fort-Menares the man who had been in both the Canadian and the Chilean army. That was the extent of my knowledge when it came to my dad’s history as a soldier. The only thing I knew was that he had been in two different armies. I saw the interview project as an opportunity to learn more about my dad’s past. My dad is a rugged looking man, a couple inches shorter than six feet tall. He has a beard that connects with a trimmed moustache. He has blackish brown hair that is littered with white. He has an interesting personality as he is very closed off and likes to be in control. He also has this tough-guy persona and is very set in his views, but he is a good dad, even though he and I are very different. I wanted to use the interview as a way of seeing and understanding another side of my dad. He never talks about his time in the army. The fact that he never talks about it, along with his sometimes difficult personality, made me wonder if he would take this seriously. I had my doubts, but those faded as soon as I asked my first question.

“Overall, is this a difficult subject to talk about for you?” I asked.

“It’s always a difficult subject to talk about, because you see a lot of terrible things. People die. That’s what combat is all about. People die, people that you know die … That’s a very sad looking plant.” As he said all this he hadn’t looked me in the eye once. He was looking at the orchid on my desk. The flowers were brown and crinkled, and he seemed to use it as an opportunity to steer away from the topic. I could already see that my dad isn’t as unaffected by his time as a soldier as I originally thought.

“Yeah, it died last week; it was really sad,” I responded. He quickly asked me to continue, perhaps not wanting to dwell on this for too long.

“Why did you join the military?”

He sighed as he responded, “Because my father was in the military, and my grandfather, and my great-grandfather, and my great-great-grandfather, we’ve always been in the military.”

“But did you want to join the military?” This is a question I asked for myself, because my dad had always seemed so tough and strong and was always so gung-ho about being in the military. I couldn’t help but question if that’s what he really wanted.

“I… when I was a young lad, I did not think I had a choice. I mean, it was expected of me.” I was shocked. I truly thought that he had joined the military out of complete desire. Perhaps I should have known; my dad was always a very bookish guy.

I continued by asking a very open-ended question, “What was your war experience?”

“In 1992 in what is now Bosnia and Herzegovina, I was in the Canadian army with the United Nations. I was a captain, Queen’s York Rangers, 1st American Regiment. It was raised to fight the rebels to God, king, and to country back during what the Americans call the American Revolution. We call it the American Rebellion.” I couldn’t help but smile and roll my eyes a little. There’s the dad I knew. Strong and very upfront about his beliefs, these are the kind of responses I was expecting when asking these serious questions.

He continued on giving me background on the conflict, “At one time there were around 30,000 people there. They were from many different countries. I was sent to a town called Sarajevo, which was the capital of Bosnia. I don’t know if you know this, but there was a country called Yugoslavia, the socialist republic of Yugoslavia which fell apart in the early 1990s. It was basically made up of several different small countries. It was a federation. There was the Croats and the Slovenians who were mainly Roman Catholic, there was the Serbs who were Orthodox, and there was the Bosnians that was divided into like three different groups: Catholics, Orthodox, and Muslims. There was Montenegro which was also mainly Muslim, but not completely; there was also Christians. And Macedonia which was mainly Orthodox.

“It was a mess. It became almost like a tribal war. The people were all mixed in. All of them were so mixed and they all had their own histories. The reason why they kind of got all mixed up was because they were invaded by the Turks in the 1450s, and it was part of the Ottoman empire for a long time. So when things fell apart and the government started to fall apart, all these people wanted to have as much land as possible, in what they considered to be their ancient lands. And they started killing each other and that’s why the United Nations eventually had to go in.

“At one time there were more than 1,200 Canadians. But we were split up all over the place. Most of us were in Croatia; some were in Bosnia. My job was coordinating. I had very few men under me. And the old part of the city was mainly held by Muslims, while the newer suburbs, across the river, were held by Serbian Orthodox. And it became very messy. They had the higher ground and they had heavy artillery. They were shelling the city. There was snipers everywhere; they would shoot at ambulances. People could not walk in the street without fear of being shot in the head…it was a mess.”

A shadowy look seemed to come over his face as he thought hard about what had happened. He continued recounting, “There were terrible things that happened there. You know, there was very little food, most of the things weren’t running, the hospitals were totally destroyed and overwhelmed. And, you know I remember one time, one of the few places that people could get food was an open-air market in the old part of town. I think it was a Sunday or something, you know, the Serbs shot a 120 mm mortar shell into it, a high explosive, and about 80 people died in the market. All women and children, pieces of bodies all over the place, you know, it was…a lot of civilians were being killed. This was not just two armies fighting against each other.”

I didn’t even have to ask my question regarding a vivid memory. I could tell that this for him was very vivid and very hard to talk about. He wouldn’t meet my eyes. He seemed to grasp is hands a little tighter. And I couldn’t help but widen my eyes in shock as he recounted the things that he saw. I wonder what he felt in those very moments when he saw the aftermath of that explosion. Even though I could tell this was hard for him to talk about, he still remained very calm as he continued narrating his experiences. I guess I didn’t really expect any less.

“They were burning down houses. If you were a Croat in a Serb area, they would burn down your house. If you were a Serb in a Croat area they would butcher your cattle and burn down your barn. You know, they were trying to move people by forcing them out of different areas.”

He impatiently asked, “What else?”

“Regarding the marketplace, were you there?”

“No, I got there afterwards. I probably wouldn’t be here if I had been there, Gigi,” he responded smartly. “I had to investigate what kind of weapon was used, how many people were killed, many, many, many of them were just families. They were all women that had been lining up for hours to get bread, bread and vegetables. We were also under constant fire. It was very difficult getting around the city. And the Frenchies got into real trouble, and we had to go and help them, at a bridge that crossed that river. The Serbs tried to sneak in using United Nations uniforms.”

“So, you said that you were coordinating? As in you were coordinating attacks?”

“No, we were trying to coordinate flights into the airport for food and stuff like that. Getting people out and trying to keep the peace basically. But, there really was no peace, because the Serbs were really intent on taking over Sarajevo. It was the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. And basically what I did was I counted battery fire, making sure they didn’t cross the river.”

“Do you feel like this experience left a lasting emotional effect on you?”

“Not, not really. I think that it taught me how ineffectual the United Nations can be. But then again I had served before with the United Nations, at the border between Israel and Lebanon, but I was there for a very short time.”

I couldn’t help but be surprised and admittedly unsatisfied by his response. Obviously, I don’t want my dad to feel emotional pain or grief. And I certainly wish he hadn’t seen the things he had seen. But I just didn’t want him to hold back for my sake, so I pressed on.

“So when you came back do you think that your life changed at all after seeing all that?”

“No, I’ve seen worse.”
I quickly asked if he could elaborate.
“I’ve seen worse in Africa. I’ve seen people hacked to death. Burned alive.”

He still seemed to avoid the deep emotional content that I was searching for. I was searching for a more emotional response after he revealed the more gruesome details of his experience. I don’t want to say that I was frustrated. But I couldn’t help but wonder if he would reveal more if someone else was interviewing him.

“Did that leave an emotional impact on you?”

“Never turn your back on people you don’t know,” he said almost hauntingly.

“Can you elaborate?”

“Uh, it teaches you not to trust humanity, Gigi. War either makes you stronger, or it breaks you, or kills you, one or the other. Do I worry about it? No. Do I wake up sometimes dreaming about it? Yes. I never suffered from anything like PTSD. I get nightmares about it.”

“Do you have —”

He interrupted me as he seemed to realize what I was searching for, “Well you know, there are things that I do that most people probably don’t, right? Well, when I walk outside, I always look at the rooflines.”

“Is that why you always sit facing the windows in restaurants?” I asked quietly.

“Yes, I like to have my back against the wall.”
He finally started talking about how witnessing these experiences affected his life. This is what I was searching for. I wanted him to share with me his emotional experience. Because it is those experiences that are the ones that witnesses do not want to forget.

“Do you have any regrets, or did you ever feel like giving up?”

“I never felt like giving up! We’re de Fort-Menares, for God’s sake, we don’t give up.” I smiled at that, as he said it with so much pride and his typical bravado.

“Do I have any regrets? Uh, I regret things that could have been done better. We had…I don’t know how many Canadians died over there. But I think we lost around 24 people. I knew a couple of them, yes. It was a land mine. They weren’t shot or anything, just their vehicle was blown up…I was attached to the Canadian unit, because my regiment was not there.”

“Is there anything that was really motivating you to keep going?”

“ The idea that I was getting paid, both by the Royal Bank and the Canadian government,” he said with a smirk on his face.

I groaned and laughed a little. I was hoping he was going to say my mom or the idea that he might start a family someday… .

“I was making extra money,” he said defensively.

“Anything else that may have been motivating you?”
This was my final question, so I was searching for something final. Something that would really encompass my dad’s experience.

“No, they told me where to go and I went. No soldier has ever tried to save the world, Gigi. Most soldiers just want to save themselves,” he laughed bitterly. “It’s not something that we’re, you know, I don’t think that most people that come from the middle of Alberta would know where the hell Bosnia Herzegovina was. But that’s where they ended up.”

Our interview ended with that. I feel like during that whole process I was searching for something. I was searching for more emotion. I didn’t want him to hold back. I knew that he did, because he’s still trying to protect me. Because that’s what dads do. Honestly, I was beginning to think that he wasn’t affected at all by the experiences he was recounting. He talked about everything in a very calm voice. There were times when he paused or didn’t look at me, and those were the only signs that gave him away.

Perhaps it was bit naive of me. But my dad has always seemed so unfazed and proud of his work as a solider. My dad’s my hero, so I’ve always seen him as somewhat invincible. But the little signs that he gave me throughout the interview revealed to me that he isn’t unfazed by what he has seen. For the majority of the interview, he wouldn’t look me in the eye. He never looked down though. He is a man of pride after all. He would also tighten his hands ever so slightly, and there was the tiniest difference in his voice that indicated stoicism and pain. But I think that overall, he’s just trying to not show weakness. This is very characteristic of him. It’s a part of who he is. This is why he was reluctant to talk about his time as a solider in the first place. And even though he didn’t burst out into tears, through little signs, I became aware of his true feelings. My invincible father wasn’t as invincible as I originally thought. And I see him as all the more stronger now that he’s shared what he’s been through with me.

Learning about my father’s experience in Bosnia Herzegovina was very interesting and emotional. This interview allowed me to hear my father’s story. It allowed me to hear a deep and personal account of a witness firsthand. And because this witness happened to be my father, I think it left a greater impact on me. The witness wasn’t just a faceless name in a book. The witness was my father. He bore witness to the atrocities of war and will forever carry that burden. And because my dad is who he is, he will insist on always carrying that burden alone. I am thankful that he opened up to me, and by doing so he has made me a witness; I hope that making me a witness alleviated some of the burden that he carries.