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Leap of Faith

By Keyshawn Ashford

“I was given a bible, told to jump out of a plane…..I really didn’t believe nor understand exactly what we were fighting for,” he recalled, somber and stoic in expression while describing his time in the Korean war. “I was a line soldier, machine gunner…I was ordered to open fire…..on many occasions we were in villages… I  killed children…[killing children] you regret but not women, they were fighting as soldiers. I never regret opening up on adults who were trying to kill [us].” The Korean war was short compared to most wars. However, the Korean war was a bloodbath. Nearly five million people died. There were more civilian casualties in Korea than Vietnam and World War II. It is estimated on History.com that more than half of Korean war deaths were civilians

Growing up my Grandpa never spoke about his time in the war. I recently got in touch with my Grandpa Robert to conduct an interview about a veteran experience for my English class. This was the first time I had a discussion with him about his experience. I laugh because we had to give him a lot of notice including questions and schedule in advance because I think maybe he is still on military time. During the interview I discovered that Grandpa was actually drafted. I asked him where he was at the time he got his draft letter. He said he was 23 years old working for a plumbing company that manufactured plumbing equipment. The year was 1950.

Grandpa couldn’t specifically recall what the war was about, but he remembers a lot of talk about communism and a possibility of WWIII. He recalls it being a fight over western cultural ideals and eastern ways. There was a lot of talk about good vs. evil. When searching if this was in fact true I found this quote…..“If we let Korea down,” President Harry Truman said, “the Soviets will keep right on going and swallow up one [place] after another.”

History.com also states that “In fact, in April 1950, a National Security Council report known as NSC-68 had recommended that the United States use military force to ‘contain’ communist expansionism anywhere it seemed to be occurring, “regardless of the intrinsic strategic or economic value of the lands in question.” Simply, it appears the Korean war, regardless of death toll, was meant to stop the spread of communism, regardless of cost.

Although it is important to understand why Grandpa was fighting and the background of the Korean war, I wasn’t necessarily interested and couldn’t quite understand. I wanted to know all about his training and battles. Therefore, I asked him what training steps he took before going overseas and before going into battle. He recalled going to Fort Haling, Kentucky, for basic army training. While there he described being able to choose the airborne division. He described learning how to drop out of planes with a parachute and then he learned hand-to-hand combat training for ground defenses. Grandpa described learning about physics, like I am now.  My Grandfather said, “You can’t jump with a lot of wind. On one jump twenty-three soldiers jumped but twenty-two parachutes failed to open.” I was freaking out. In training Grandpa was issued a uniform. Grandpa was able to remember his number on his issued uniform. He emphatically stated “US 52009861” but instead of “Robert” he had to write “Bobby” on his outfit. After basic and airborne training “Bobby” was placed in Japan and learned more combat training but was on standby alert to be shipped to Korea. After about 30 days in Japan Robert “Bobby” Mardis was off to the Korean War front lines.

I asked him, “When you finally landed in Korea what was going through your mind when you heard actual bombs going off?”

He described, “The only thing I wanted to do was to make it out alive and the only thing on my mind was survival.” Those that did not focus during training died first. Again, he said the only thing on his mind when he opened fire on the enemy and they fired back was basic instinctual survival…. period. He also remembered his first combat was at night. He recalled navigating what he described as booby traps. In this first battle they were getting overrun and had to fall back. That evening he recalled sleeping in holes. He also remembers dragging the wounded back, and even though it was difficult he said, “When you are scared you can do anything.” As if in a movie line, he said, “Never leave a wounded soldier!” It was relayed to me almost like a command.

I then wanted to discuss specific instances he thought stuck in his mind. I asked, “Grandpa, can you discuss if you had any significant battles?”

He said, “No battles I was necessarily a part of were recorded in history but rather stuck in my mind. I recalled regular missions with a lot of gunfire going back and forth so much that there was a cloud of smoke from my machine gun fire.” He remembered shooting down on villages as a radio machine gunner but also the grenades in fox holes stood out in his mind. Grandpa described most battles as being extremely bloody. He recalled many women, children dying and its impact. He said a lot of his comrades went A-wall. He was choked up when he talked about quite a few of his close buddies dying in combat. He said, “You never knew when you was going to be killed.”

After a while we then talked about his darkest moment which really impacted me on a deep level. I wanted to hear about the time he ended up wounded. Grandpa recalled going into a very bloody battle where his company was getting overrun. He ended up wounded in his leg, but it wasn’t life threatening. In order to survive he put two dead soldiers over him. The bodies were continually shot at, and lying underneath he lasted two days. “During this time I thought about dying. I recalled thinking about hunting, fishing and my home life to get me through.” To this day he walks with a cane. Assuredly, a constant reminder of his days at war.

After hearing about Grandpa’s darkest moment, I wanted to know if there were any moments he felt particularly proud or felt accomplished. He also recalled a moment when he saved his friend whom he called “Scrubs.” He said Scrubs had type A blood and Grandpa was type O, and despite the difference in blood types he was able to save his life by giving Scrubs blood after he blew his arm off.

Despite all my Grandpa sacrificed and went through, I needed to hear about his experience as a black man and what that meant during and after the war. He did say that in 1950 black men were treated poorly; specifically he said, “Black was miserable when you left and was miserable when you came back,” although when he was back in the United States he kissed the ground and soil and was glad to be back. “I recalled how badly black men were being treated during the war and  I believe it’s worse now. Every white person thought black people were going to rob them and shoot them despite the fact black men like myself were fighting on their behalf to help stop WWIII from occurring.” Grandpa also recalled General Macarthur only allowing two to three black men per company. Grandpa said the black men he knew fought harder and smarter. He also despised certain people because of the way they treated him, like a third class citizen. Despite fighting equally some men never changed their racist opinions.  This is important because this shows how discriminated against as a black male in the war.

Overall, Grandpa said he doesn’t miss anything. But there were some but few beneficial things that came from his time in Korea, including being able to go to school for free and the ability to buy a home with a lower interest rate. He said, “If I were to give advice to anyone going to war, it would to be to just look out for each other and have good thinking.” In retrospect, he said the only decision that he wished could have changed was actually being drafted. “A lot things could have and still need to change with people in Washington when it comes to war,” he said. He recalled personally having a different way of thinking when he came home. He hoped that Washington would come up with a better way of supplying people for war. He also questioned the success of the Korean war itself. He said he believed it is still rough for Koreans and is still a bad situation, especially in North Korea. He said it wasn’t worth it in the end in his eyes. He said, “Nothing was accomplished.”

Conclusively, I was glad to be given this assignment. I never had spoken to my Grandpa about his experience in the Korean War. I’m grateful to have had this conversation considering he is 89 years old and still moving. This important because maybe one day I can teach my kids about  how their great grandpa was in the Korean War. Also seeing my grandfather being a black male in war shows that you can overcome any obstacle.

 

 

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Remembering the ‘Forgotten War’

BY: OLIVIA FLYNN

“Many of my friends were already in the war. I chose to go into the war. I was eighteen years old and didn’t realize what I was getting myself into.”

My grandfather, Richard Stone, served as a soldier in the Navy, during the Korean War. We know him as Poppy, but to his fellow soldiers he was just another one of them. The Korean War was fought in the early 1950s following the North Korean invasion of South Korea. In today’s society, keeping up with global news is effortless and accessible, making it easier to be aware of conflicts. However, the news during the Korean War was few and far between, giving Americans only partial information and little concept of the violence that was taking place on South Koreans. In instances like these, sometimes pure recognition of a horrific event is enough to give voice to those who fall victim to it. Although all events like these should be recognized, you truly don’t understand the toll and damage it can have on someone until it is being inflicted on a loved family member or friend. My grandpa is 86, but no one is ever able to guess that because of his amazing personality that can light up a room. His traditional style is one of the best parts about him, getting up every day to read the newspaper and watch the weather channel, while dressing in his ironed slacks and Sperry loafers. Poppy makes the smallest outings exciting and has tried his hardest to continue our family traditions after my grandma passed away six years ago, which I truly appreciate. Not only am I grateful that I was even able to interview him and share his story, but his message is powerful and meaningful and insightful. His words bear witness to all the Korean voices omitted by the American media at the time, as well as the soldiers who went unrecognized and unheard.

The timing of my interview worked out perfectly because my mom was visiting my grandpa for the weekend when I called. My grandfather lives in Palm Springs most of the year and Michigan in the summer, but was in Palm Springs when our interview took place. I was sitting on my bed, surrounded by pillows, with my sister in her bed next to mine. It was 7:30 at night, and I had just taken a break from watching the Oscars so I wouldn’t miss my opportunity to call him. I called my mom and was oddly enough a little nervous, even though I see my grandpa at least six times a year. My mom answered and put me on speakerphone so that both her and my grandpa could hear the questions, while I briefly explained the assignment. I actually found it helpful that my mom was also part of the interview because she was able to ask even more questions that built off of mine, just out of her own pure interest. Although I couldn’t see the two of them over the phone, I knew that they were sitting at the kitchen table next to each other. Just hearing Poppy’s warm voice made me less nervous, but made me a little bit more reluctant to ask him questions that I feared would upset him or make him sad. I had talked to Poppy about his time in the Korean War prior to the interview, but something about the questions I was about to ask him felt deeper than the ones I would normally ask.

I had talked to my grandpa earlier that day just like I usually do, so it didn’t seem like I was just jumping into the interview, not giving him a warning. I started off with easier questions in the hope that I would slowly ease into the questions that were maybe more difficult to answer. I first asked Poppy, “In what years did you serve in the Korean War?”

He immediately knew the years and answered, “I served from 1951 to 1953.” I moved on to the next question but feared that he would give short answers to all of my questions.

I continued on to ask him, “Did you choose to go into the Navy?”

Showing his prominent sense of humor he replied, “Yes, once I hit eighteen I realized that it was better to sleep in a ship than homeless in a hole. No, but really, many of my friends were going into the Navy as well. It was an overwhelming sense of patriotism that clouded any fears we might have had.” Knowing that my grandpa went into the Navy by choice gave me a sense of closure, simply because he wasn’t being forced to do anything he didn’t want to do. As seen in many wars and genocides, both the victim and perpetrator can be forced to do things against their will, leaving both sides angry, depressed, confused.

Although Poppy had mentioned it in many stories before, I asked him, “Were you given a specific job in the Navy?”

I could hear my mom in the background add, “Yeah, Dad, what were you told to do?”

I recognized the sound of my grandpa shifting in his chair as he faced towards my mom to answer, “Well yes, it was a large group of us rather. We were told to look out for enemy submarines which can be somewhat exciting since you didn’t really know where they were coming from.” I sat for a few seconds in shock, thinking of something to say. I didn’t know how to respond to something that seemed so terrifying yet brave.

I have always had a fear of needles, so my grandpa would tell me how in training they would stick a needle in each arm at the same time in order to vaccinate the soldiers and would then continue down the line. For some reason this made me less afraid when I was younger, knowing that if my grandpa could do it, so could I. Remembering this prompted my next question, “Do you remember any details from the training you went through?”

He took a moment to think and then replied, “When hearing about how the war was affecting Korean citizens, it gives you a new sense of the ‘every man for himself’ mentality. You truly learn how to take care of yourself. You learn how to operate equipment, and then are forced to go to school for six months after boot camp in San Diego. Learning to work potentially dangerous equipment as an 18-year-old was kind of like learning to drive. Exciting, but the thing you’re operating comes with a lot of risks.” Having to learn how to operate dangerous equipment would likely make anyone uneasy about the responsibility that it holds. Typical 18-year-olds are nervous about going to college and moving away from home, having to manage their schedule and money. The fact that my grandpa was only 18 years old and was using life threatening weapons, while not knowing if he would ever return home, is truly remarkable and speaks a lot for the many other soldiers who fought alongside Poppy and weren’t as fortunate enough to tell their stories.

Knowing the smaller details about life in the Navy made me wonder about Poppy’s thoughts on his overall Navy experience so I said, “How do you feel your time in the Korean War either affected you positively or negatively?”

He answered rather quickly, stating, “It was definitely positive. I know that’s not what most war veterans would answer, but I was extremely lucky that I walked away without any life lasting injuries. Overall it taught me how to be organized and led to me getting better grades once I went back to college. I don’t know how else I would have learned those skills if I wasn’t part of the Navy.” I was honestly shocked at how relaxed he was while answering all of my questions, and how he felt that it was an overall positive experience. Similar to forgiveness, I think looking at it in a positive light is a way of being able to move on and not allow such a meaningful event to impact life entirely. If I had been involved in a situation such as this one, I don’t know if I would be able to forgive the people who oppressed me. I think I would hopefully try to but you can never really predict your reaction to such a traumatic event.

Hearing my grandpa’s point of view on entering the Navy made me curious about how his family members felt when he announced his decision. I asked Poppy, “How did your friends and family feel about you entering the Navy?”

Poppy stated that “they were pleased because most of my friends were serving as well. I don’t know if my parents were necessarily proud but more pleased than apprehensive.”

I could hear my mom in the background say, “Gosh I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if one of you went into the Army. I would get way too worried about you.” It’s hard to realize how parents should cope with this type of situation because they are overwhelmingly proud, yet overwhelmingly scared as well. It makes you reflect on how the parents in Korea must have felt when watching their kids experience such violence.

Knowing that my mom was going to ask this next, I jumped in and said, “Were you scared or nervous at all before entering the Navy?”

Being the brave person he is, Poppy replied, “No, not really. I didn’t realize the magnitude of the event before I got myself into it. While in the war you don’t really realize how much is at risk for both sides until years afterwards. Looking back one of the more scarier events was while we were stationed off the coast of Korea and our biggest fear was accidentally hitting a mine. Knowing that we could all be blown up in a matter of seconds definitely put us on the edge of our seats.” Hearing this showed me a new side to my grandpa that I had never seen before. I was honestly wondering how he could have handled an event such as that, seeing as he gets super excited whenever we do something such as going out to dinner. He’s such a mellow person that never gets stressed, so to hear this really shocked me, considering that it completely goes against his organized and ritualistic personality.

I ended our interview by asking Poppy, “How did witnessing this event change your life after the war?” For a moment all I could hear was silence on the other side. Not even my mom was chiming in with her usual follow up questions. The interview had gone so well up until the final question and I worried that the silence meant I had hit a sensitive spot.

We gave Poppy a moment to gather his thoughts when he said, “As most things in history, you don’t realize the magnitude of the event until it’s over. Seeing the newspapers and the memorial that was dedicated to the Korean War in Washington D.C, knowing that you were a part of that, puts you in a state of confusion. I think most of all you feel pride and patriotism, but you also realize that it did cause harm to a lot of people that shouldn’t go unrecognized. I’m glad I was able to help in sharing yet another side to the story. You can never hear too many voices.” I was relieved that his silence was because he was formulating his words and not because I had made him upset. Then I realized that throughout the interview I had continuously questioned whether I was asking the right questions in order to get the best answers, when it wasn’t supposed to be about making me feel comfortable or special. I was merely doing the job that thousands of news channels didn’t do and that was to recognize the event for what it was, a mass murdering.

Although some of my grandpa’s answers were fun or lighthearted, he likes to say that it is the honest and authentic way he viewed the Korean War. While unfortunately being traumatic to many people, the story wouldn’t be complete by just hearing them. In order to bring truth and recognition to events like these in history, we need to look at the event as a whole, hopefully helping to prevent further problems in the future. In order to remember stories like these in the future, we need to take responsibility in sharing them now. In order to give younger generations a meaningful connection to these past events, we need to take advantage of the media platforms we have today. The fact that the Korean War is often referred to as the “Forgotten War” makes me furious and sympathetic for not only my grandpa, but for every soldier and victim that died because they should not be remembered as “forgotten.”

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.

 

Eternal

BY: ANDY WANG

To my generation, the Cultural Revolution is the name that older generations always talk about at the dining table but we can never truly understand what it is. “I am the kind that is not suitable for politics.” As my maternal grandpa said this to me about his experience as a Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution, I was surprised by his optimism towards that crazy decade.

Since I was raised up by my maternal grandparents, I had heard stories about their early years including those of the Cultural Revolution.  The Cultural Revolution was a social-political movement led by Chairman Mao Zedong within the People’s Republic of China from 1966 to 1976. At the beginning of this movement, my grandpa volunteered to join a pro-Mao faction and became a Red Guard who followed Chairman Mao’s command “Bombard the headquarters,” which called for the overthrow of the corrupt bureaucracy. As the movement progressed, the situation turned worse in 1967 due to the army’s intervention which escalated the movement into a bloody campaign between the revolutionary and the conservative. Armed skirmishes broke out throughout the nation and countless peasants and students were killed or injured simply because of their allegiances. At present, the bloody campaign has been censored by the Party itself and those who experienced it avoid addressing this tragedy. I felt embarrassed when I called my grandpa for this interview. Surprisingly, my grandpa calmly accepted and insisted on being interviewed face to face. Though I was surprised by his demand, I agreed conducting the interview during the fall break. On October 16th, 2015, I interviewed my Grandpa in my dorm room. When my parents arrived at school with my grandparents on that morning, my grandma heard about the interview from my grandpa and wanted to engage as well. After me begging her not to participate, though I seemed spoiled, she accepted my proposal. Before the interview took place, I asked my roommate to leave the room and let my grandpa sit on his chair. As he seated, he took off his cap and tidied up his grey hair. Though wrinkles made his face look aged, his eyes remained young and vivacious. As we both seated, I placed my phone on the table near him and started recording.

“Grandpa, as I have told you, I will interview you about your experience during the Cultural Revolution.”

“Ok,” he replied while adjusting his sitting posture.

“The Cultural Revolution started in 1966 when Chairman Mao Zedong rallied the people, especially the students, to overthrow the corrupt bureaucracy. This catastrophe lasted for 10 years. I experienced many events and tragedies during that decade, so what event or period do you want me to tell you about specially?”

“From the time you became a Red Guard,” I responded.

“Ok, so now I know where I should start.”

He cleared his throat and started telling the story with a slow but clear voice.

My grandpa, Zonggui Zhao, was born in Harbin under Japanese-controlled Manchuria in 1943. When he was two, the Japanese surrendered and the Soviet Red Army conceded its authority in Manchuria to the communist-led Liberation Army commanded by Chairman Mao Zedong. He attended elementary school in the same year the People’s Republic of China was founded. During his 16 years’ school life, he witnessed life improving, encouraged by the victory from the front line in Korea. He was educated to become a skillful communist to help strengthen the mother nation. He became a faithful communist and was accepted to the nation’s best mathematics institute, Harbin Institute of Technology, to study advanced mathematics. Coincidentally, he skipped one year of college and graduated the year before the Cultural Revolution began. “I feel lucky that I graduated earlier, or my life would be ruined like those of my classmates,” he responded with sadness every time people asked about his college life. When Chairman Mao rallied the students to rebel, my grandpa just finished his graduation internship at the oilfield in Daqing, Heilongjiang Province. He was transferred back to Jinzhou, Liaoning Province, and worked for the research institute affiliated with the ministry of machinery and electronics industry to develop high-tech weapons for the army land force. After hearing Chairman Mao Zedong’s order to “bombard the headquarters,” those who just graduated including my grandpa gathered together and planned to “bombard” the government.

“What was your role in the faction?”

“Since I received a college education and was good at composing articles as well, I was elected to be the vice commander of the faction and my responsibility was to organize public rallies, writing denunciatory posters against the government, and most importantly, organize the daily routine of the faction.”

“Have you experienced any life-endangering situation and how did you respond?”

My grandpa paused for a moment.

“It was early 1968, the party shifted towards the far-left and chaos escalated into armed skirmishes. The military authorities were involved as well. In Jinzhou, the local military authorities chose to side with the conservatives and us, the revolutionaries, became their targets. During that period, the revolutionaries were also armed by the infantry academy which sided with us. When we had public rallies on streets, I was holding a rifle tightly and my eyes kept sweeping the surroundings because I was afraid of being attacked by the conservatives. In the middle of the year, the situation deteriorated further and the conservatives were planning on attacking our headquarters which was the commanding point of the city. When notified of their plan prior to the attack, I decided to withdraw my people from the headquarters and flee to Beijing, the capital city where no armed skirmishes took place. Though we survived, unfortunately, at least two of my colleagues who chose to stay died soon after our retreat. Even though the officials claimed they committed suicide, I suspected that they were shot by the conservatives and then hanged to pretend that they committed suicide.”

I stopped for a moment and did not know what to ask next because I have never expected my grandpa experienced such danger. The room was as silent as an empty one.

After I recovered from the shock, I decided to choose and ask questions with extra caution.

“What was the worst part of your experience?” I asked.

“It was during the Class Cleansing Movement and I was imprisoned illegally in a faction-owned prison for four months from August 17th to December 17th.”

“Why do you remember the date so precisely?”

My grandpa paused for a moment and took a slow but deep sigh.

“I was beaten by the man in charge often and was forced to do heavy labor work during the day. Life at the time seemed like hell.”

“Why did they finally free you?”

“Because after months of thorough investigation on me, they did not find any evidence that I had any ‘Three-Anti’ actions.”

“What do you mean by ‘Three-Anti’ actions?”

“‘Three-Anti’ is a campaign against corruption, waste and bureaucracy.”

My grandpa paused again for a few seconds, stared at the ground, and elaborated.

“Before I was freed, the chief secretary asked me to confess the crimes that another leading member of the faction had done and I told them absolutely nothing because he did not do anything against the party and Chairman Mao. However, by telling them nothing, I risked my chance of gaining freedom because they might keep beating me until I confessed.”

“What are the most vivid memories that stuck with you throughout your life of the Cultural Revolution?”

“During the Cultural Revolution, the evil side of mankind had been revealed directly and starkly.”

With a sigh of sadness, he continued.

“In order to avoid taking responsibility, my fellows gave up all the crimes they had committed to me.  I bore those charges instead of planting them on someone else, then I was put into a ‘Struggle-session’ that lasted for three days and nights with no rest at all.”

I could not believe what I heard and I could not imagine what my grandpa had suffered. After pausing again for a moment, I decided to end this interview by asking my grandpa the last question.

“How did your experience change you as a person?”

“It made me realize that I am the kind not designed for politics. I stayed away from any political movements and became devoted to my research.”

Before leaving for Los Angeles, my grandpa told me, “It was right to not let your grandma engage in the interview because she does not even know those experiences of mine which I shared with you.” I did not respond; instead, I prayed to God for not letting my grandma know her beloved husband’s tragic experience since it is hard to bear witness. Let it be sealed eternally.

I had been proud of my grandpa since I was a child and was glad to have this opportunity to know what he had experienced when he was my age. At the beginning, I was shocked by the atrocity he has witnessed, but my shock gradually vanished as the interview progressed and I was surprised by his strong optimism and determination during that chaotic decade. Instead of making him depressed, his experience motivated him to devote himself to his profession and achieve his great reputation in his profession. As the ancient Roman poet Horace stated, “Adversity reveals genius, fortune conceals it.” The catastrophe did not ruin my grandpa; instead, it promoted him to a great future.

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.