The incredible lives of Khuu (101) and Borghild (101)
December 14th, 1912: Two girls are born, 12.000 kilometers apart. November 13th, 2013: Both of them pass away in Lillestrøm, Norway. This is their story.
(This story originally appeared in Norwegian news paper Aftenposten and the magazine A-magasinet October 23 2015)
It is such an improbable coincidence: Two women. Born on the same day. Died on the same day, almost 102 years later.
One of them grew up in China, the other in the small Norwegian town of Lillestrøm. None of them will ever be mentioned in the history books. Yet their lives, like many lives, were marked by wars, love, longing and impossible choices — and they both cherished the smaller things in life.
We do not know if they ever met. Today, however, they lie buried 249 meters apart.
This is the story of Khuu Ngan and Borghild Kronsel Kristiansen.
It is also the story of a century in which people witnessed greater technological changes and transformations than ever before.
It might make you reflect on how little you actually know about our grandmothers.
Part 1: Growing up fast (1912–1940)
In Shui Hao, a village in Southern China in 1930, a young woman is weaving. Outside the open door, a man from the neighboring village walks slowly by. He evaluates her. She is so concentrated on her weaving that she does not notice that anyone is looking at her. She knows nothing of his plan for her.
It was her father who decided that she should sit here on this particular day. She is the youngest of five siblings and makes no protest. She respects hierarchy and her father´s decision. You do as your father says.
Khuu Ngan is born on December 14th 1912, the year the emperor of China is toppled by the Nationalist Party. 2000 years of imperial dynasties have now come to an end. War, unrest and feuds are ravaging the newly established Republic of China. People suffer. Rivalry for land is fierce.
Khuu never went to school. It was not appropriate for girls in the countryside to learn how to read or write. Their future consisted of husband and family. Nevertheless, Khuu has many responsibilities at home. At the age of eight, she is assigned to look after the family´s two buffalos.
How much do you really know about your own grandmother?
Maybe you remember sitting on her lap with her arms wrapped around you, the chocolate in her pantry or the songs she thought you? Perhaps the memories of our grandmothers are rooted in a sense of security and predictability? You enjoyed being with her. But who was she?
Today, Khuu Ngan´s grandchildren tell us that as a little girl she learned to work hard and that she benefited from this the rest of her life. We know that it brought her prosperity and gold, and that she over and over again would tell her grandchildren, whom she sacrificed everything for, that: «Nothing comes for free. You have to work hard to accomplish what you want in life».
We know that she lived for 37.260 days, and that many of them were lived in hardship.
But what did she think about her own life? We don´t know, but we do know that Khuu Ngan was persistent and would not let herself be defeated.
On this day in 1930 she still has her life ahead of her. For hours on end she sits concentrated over her weave. The young lady doesn´t notice the man who repeatedly walks by her door. He likes what he sees. She will be his wife.
Son number 1
After the wedding Khuu moves in with his husband´s family. From then on she will have little contact with her own family. She becomes pregnant with their first son. His name is Lam Buu, but within the family they just call him «Son number 1». Khuu is 19 years old when she becomes a mother. Due to her husband´s ambitions of doing more than just grow some rice and vegetables on the small piece of land the family owns, Khuu has to raise their son alone. Her husband is the youngest among his siblings and is probably not the one who will inherit the land. He wants to become a merchant and travels to Vietnam to learn the trade.
It is a chaotic time in China. There is social unrest in the country. Local warlords fight against the sitting Nationalist government.
Millions of Chinese flee to other countries. Many in the Guangdong province in southern China, the province where Khuu lives, flee to Vietnam — there´s already a large Chinese community there. They are ambitious and do well for themselves.
Khuu´s husband stays in Vietnam for six years. He returns to China only to get his wife, who soon will be pregnant with their second son. Khuu´s husband has managed to save up enough money so that the two of them can leave China and move to Vietnam together to be merchants.
This happens in 1937, as Japan invades Shanghai and Nanjing. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese are massacred — a prelude to the Second World War.
Khuu, however, keeps her focus on her family and their business. At this time Khuu and her husband do something that for us today seems completely incomprehensible. They do this to maintain their bond to their motherland.
As they flee to Vietnam, they leave their six years old son behind with Khuu´s husband´s parents.
Working class life
More than 11.000 kilometers away, by the Aker river in Oslo, a woman born on the same day as Khuu Ngan is tying threads on a weave in ice-cold water. The factory girl, Borghild Johnsrud, is one of many unmarried, childless women working as a weaver at one of the capital´s cornerstone factories — Christiania seildugsfabrik, a textile factory.
Borghild is used to hard work. She comes from a poor working class family and lives in the sawmill village of Lillestrøm. As a child she only gets four years of schooling. Borghild would like to stay in school for longer, but can´t. Her father, Jalmar Johnsrud, works hard shifts at Lillestrøm Steam Sawmill by the Nit river. They know little about contraception — her mother gives birth to ten children and needs the girl´s help at home. These are the living conditions for the working class people in Lillestrøm in the 1920s.
Much of Borghild´s childhood revolves around the river — it gives lives, power and jobs to an ever-growing village. In the summertime she swims and plays with her friends here. This is also the place where her family is doing their laundry. When the river is flooding, the little ones have to jump from timber log to timber log in order to avoid sinking down in the mud that the floodwater has created along the shore.
For the rest of her life Borghild is afraid of water.
The boy in the taxi
In the first few years of her life, Borghild and the rest of her big family live in a 25m apartment in the Brandvalboligen housing complex. Everybody in Lillestrøm knows the building where she lives — a big house with 18 apartments where people who works at the sawmill lives.
Their apartment is small and draughty. The family has little money. The rent is high and several of the people living in the building barely manage to scrape by. Nonetheless, Borghild´s father, while working hard shifts at the sawmill, manages to build his family a house not too far away, at Volla.
Child mortality is high in Norway during Borghild´s childhood — five out of one hundred children die. In poor families the child mortality rate is even higher. Borghild´s family is hard hit. Two of her siblings die at young age.
Just like Khuu Ngan gets big responsibilities at her home in China, Borghild has her responsibilities at Lillestrøm. She looks after her younger siblings. She carries water from the well. She does the laundry — and her initial longing for more education slowly fades away.
On a spring day in 1926 Broghild Johnsrud is confirmed in church. Her parents treat her to take a taxi to church that day. Rolf, a friend of her brother, is also in the same taxi. Rolf is half Swedish and lives at Volla. Borghild and Rolf have known each other almost all of their lives. Their confirmation is on the same day. As time goes by, their relationship evolves and they become very close.
Factory girls by the river
It is said that timber and the railroad made Lillestrøm. The town grows rapidly. The labor movement gets a strong footing in the village. Young girls, however, would often need to go to Oslo to find a job.
The stock market crash of 1929 in New York had a sharp effect on the financial market in Norway as well. Soon, one in three union members is without a job. In an attempt to secure jobs for men who are providing for their families, the Labour Party and the largest labour union (LO) suggests that married women should not be allowed to work. Unmarried women would still be allowed to work, however.
One day in 1931 Borghild Johnsrud, who is now 19 years old, hops on the train headed to the capital and has her first day at work as a weaver at the «Seilduken», a textile factory. Her job is to make sure that the threads are in the correct place so that the loom can produce lots and lots of textile. At «Seilduken» the workers produce sails for boats, fishing equipment, nets, yarn, rope, bags, towels and washing cloths. The job requires accuracy and alertness. The women who work here often suffer from sore and bloody fingers. Borghild, however, is determined to do her job and continues working. Jute and hemp are used to make sacks and coarse cloth for packaging textiles. The materials are rough on the hands and fingers.
The women´s age at the «Seilduken» spans from girls in their teens to women in their 60s. They are all called factory girls since this is a workplace for unmarried women only.
After five years, Borghild´s last day of working at the factory has come — she is about to become a mother.
The black wedding dress
On November 9 1936, ten years after they shared a taxi on their way to their confirmation, Borghild and Rolf Kronsel Kristiansen get married — half a year after their engagement, and perhaps a little sooner than they had planned. They are two amongst many who «have to» get married. In their wedding picture, Rolf is lean and with his hair combed back. Out of his chest pocket, a white handkerchief sticks out. He is squinting in the sharp fall light, arm in arm with his wife.
Borghild holds her head tilted and is smiling at the camera. Her hands are covering her slightly bulging belly. Her dress is black, which is common for the time. It´s practical color– then the dress can be used again at some other occasion.
Seven months later, her daughter Berit is born.
The little family in Lillestrøm is doing well. But in the world surrounding them a storm of unrest is building up.
The remarkable exchange of children
Khuu Ngan was born in a time in Asia when the region was characterized by war and conflict. Her new life in Vietnam is hard. Khuu and her husband have each other and a baby, but not much more. They miss their oldest son, whom they left behind in China, dearly.
They live in a houseboat in Phan Thiet. The coastal town is known for its fish sauce. When the wind blows in the wrong direction, the smell of rotten fish is strong. Here they wash their clothes and cook their food. They sail from harbor to harbor to sell their goods, trying hard to make their ends meet.
She buys watermelons with the little change she has and sells them to businessmen working in the high rises. Her customers are picky, though. When the melons are not ripe, the businessmen do not want her fruit and Khuu walks down all the stairs again without having made a sale. Sometimes she cries when this happens. Not out of bitterness or despair, but rather because she feels she is not good enough at her trade. She learns and gets more experienced. Her wastage decreases as the number of customers increases. All the hard work and struggles are slowly starting to pay off.
But yet again an unforeseen event will have a huge impact on Khuu´s life.
Her second son, little Lin Bao Nan, has an infection in his leg that won´t heal properly. He starts to limp, and Khuu and her husband seek advise from a fortuneteller. The traditional fortunetellers hold a strong position in the Chinese society. Belief in fate is widespread. When the fortuneteller tells the couple that their son´s life will be better if he is separated from his parents, they listen.
One brother out, one brother in. It is a remarkable exchange of children that now takes place. But when the couple travels back to China in 1939, their intentions are for the good of the family.
After many years, son number one is now reunited with his parents and will go with them to Vietnam. His three-year-old little brother has to stay behind with his grandparents in China. The little one now takes over as the family´s link to the motherland. It´s evening when Khuu gently puts her limping three-year-old to bed. She looks at him. He sleeps. For the second time she is now about to leave behind one of her young children.
She closes the mosquito net and says good-bye. It will take more than 42 years before she gets to see him again.
Part 2: The world is on fire (1940–1977)
On April 9 1939, a 27-year-old mother of one walks around in her family´s home in Volla. Borghild Kronsel Kristiansen, her husband and their daughter Berit, live in a small studio apartment.
Borghild has a slender figure. Perhaps she is wearing a pleated skirt. She has baked a cake because today is her daughter´s third birthday.
The party, however, is cancelled. The town of Lillestrøm wakes up to the sound of antiaircraft sirens that are placed high up in the church tower. Norway is at war.
From their windows, people can see big, noisy aircrafts with black crosses flying over Kjeller airport. Then the bombs start falling, followed by explosions and shattered windows. People start to flee. Headed towards basements, neighbors with basements, safe areas, away, gone. They are carrying heavy suitcases, wool blankets and silverware. Some try to camouflage their children with white pillow covers, to make them blend in with the snowy ground.
It is only one kilometer in a linear distance from where Borghild lives to Kjeller, Norway´s oldest airport. They cannot stay. They evacuate. They leave the cake behind.
The bombings affect her for life. The sound of thunder will later make her run for the basement or call for help.
Prosperity and childbirths
In Vietnam, Khuu Ngan is also living in the midst of war and destruction. Japan has invaded Vietnam to better its position in its war against China — the country where Khuu has left her little son behind. Turbulent times marked by civil war and the war against Japan has forced millions of Chinese to flee. In the time between Japan capitulates in 1945 and when Mao Zedong and The Communist Party takes over China in 1949, Khuu and her husband expand their business in the coastal village where they live in Vietnam, Phan Thiet — far away from the turbulent time in their motherland.
He is good at his trade, a fair yet strict businessman. Whenever Khuu makes a mistake, he´s quick to correct her and gently knocks her in the head with his knuckles — to make sure she learns her lesson. She doesn´t flinch. What her father taught her as a young girl still stays with her as a grown woman; she has been married off and now belongs to her husband. He is in charge. Their business model is to buy goods in bulk, divide it in to smaller quantities and sell with a profit. They dry cabbage and squid, trade rice, noodles and meat and make enough money so they finally can move out from the houseboat they have been living in since they got here. Khuu is afraid of the water. She never liked staying on the houseboat.
Between 1938–1942 she gives birth to four children. One of them is a girl who dies shortly after birth — Khuu will later rarely talk about her again. In July 1942 a son, Lam Buu Trung, is born. Her youngest son will later come to play a key part in her life.
Norway is rebuilt
During the war both Khuu Ngan and Borgild Kronsel Kristiansen do fairly well. Rolf bikes off to the countryside to trade Berit´s old clothes in for food. Borghild picks berries and other edible things she finds in the forest. They are resourceful and creative. When food is scarce they take one of the rabbits they keep in a cage in the garden.
The couple does not get more children. «It was war time, and I already had Berit», Borghild explains whenever people ask her about this. She is 32 when the Germans capitulate in 1945. The streets of Lillestøm are filled with Norwegian flags and people chanting: «We won!»
After the war, the country is reshaped and remodeled. Borghild experiences the solidarity between people formed as a result of living many years of war, as well as the small and large revolutions that shapes the welfare state of Norway: Social housing, introduction of child benefits, sickness benefits, the annual holidays act as well as unemployment benefits. These are fundamental changes. While Prime Minister Einar Gerhardsen has built the county, Rolf has been busy building a house. In 1954 the family moves from their small studio apartment to a brand new house sectioned for four families in Odal street. The house is in a quiet neighborhood with small houses with gardens — far away from the unpredictable and often flooded Nid river. They don´t have to wash up in the river any more. They have their own bathroom with a tub, and don´t need to go out side to a smelly outhouse to use the toilet. And, it has three bedrooms! Six years later a brand new Tandberg TV set is in the living room.
The world has come to Lillestrøm. Borghild´s world, however, is still very much focused on family and everyday life.
A time of great misfortune
In the narrative of Khuu Ngan´s life in Vietnam, in the years after the war and well in to the 50s, her life revolves around family and everyday life. Her family does not know of any written statements from the following few decades. Khuu is illiterate. Details from this time period of her life are meager. Still, we do know that many dramatic events in both her family and in the country take place.
The conflict between North and South Vietnam casts a shadow over the life of the family. The battle starts as an armed conflict in the mid 50s, but escalates in 1963 when American troops move in to help the South Vietnamese. Between two and three million Vietnamese and 59.000 Americans are killed during the war.
During this time her third son is hit by a car — twice. The first time he does not get any permanent injuries. After the second time, however, he is paralyzed from the waist down and ends up in a wheel chair. It´s a difficult time to be disabled in Asia, and people with disabilities are completely dependent on their families for any help. Khuu sees no happy future for her son. Later she says it would have been better for him if he were dead.
What do you really know about your grandmother?
In the late 60s, while the war is still going on, Khuu´s youngest son, Trung, is caught for illegal gambling. Khuu is put in jail on his behalf. Khuu´s family believes the government wants to punish him harder by arresting his mother instead of him. Khuu is imprisoned under miserable conditions for months. While she is in jail, her husband dies of a stroke. He is 59 years old.
It is not in Khuu´s nature to be defeated. She doesn´t have time for it either — when she is released from prison she has a shop to take care of. Her youngest son, Trung, is the one who helps her out the most.
Khuu spends her money bribing South Vietnamese officers to prevent her son from joining the forces — a fate that more often that not translates to death.
When the bombs are falling down on Phan Thiet, she refuses to flee with the others. She needs to make sure that there will be no looting in her store. So there she lies, terrified and under a table, while the windows are shattering and the front door is blown to pieces.
Good things happen, but do not last
Good things are also happening: Her favorite son, Trung, who helps her out in her store, gets married to a Chinese girl, Pham. Khuu is very fond of Pham. Pham is obedient, kind, helpful and gives her four grandchildren between the years 1969 to 1972. These are good years. But it will not last.
For the rest of her life, whenever Khuu tells the story of the awful things that happen in the spring of 1975, she cries:
One day her daughter-in-law complains about being dizzy and says she has a headache. «Just sleep a little, then you will feel much better», Khuu says to comfort her. But the mother of four young children is in too much pain, and she decides to go to see a doctor. The doctor gives the young woman a shot, and almost instantly Pham dies. They are never told what caused her death. Autopsy is not an issue.
Four children, aged three, four, six and seven are now without a mother. Still, they do have a resourceful grandmother, who has been through tough times before.
«Where is mommy?» the youngest girl asks again and again. «She is traveling», Khuu replies. She doesn´t know what else to say. Khuu understands that from now on, she has to be their mother.
The loss of a husband
At her home in Lillestrøm, Borghild is not spared from despair either. The two women in Vietnam and in Norway become widows two years apart. In the summer of 1971, Rolf Kronsel Kristiansen´s illness starts with strong abdominal pain. On October 1 he dies of cancer, only 58 years old. The void after the kind, strong and crafty Rolf is almost unbearable for Borghild. She cries, feels lonely and helpless — if a lightbulb needs to be changed, she calls her daughter Berit or her son-in-law for help.
Despite all their suffering, there is some comfort. The grandchildren keep both Khuu and Borghild busy. Borghild´s daughter Berit gives birth to four daughters between 1957 and 1969. «Grandmama» is protective of her grandchildren, but allows them at the same time a great deal of freedom to play around. The woman who has only worked five years of her life now feels she has one job: to look after her own family.
What do you really remember of your grandmother?
Borghild´s granddaughters only need to close their eyes to see her: The radio in the kitchen is on. The weather forecast is over. Then the music of a schottische, a partnered country dance, is played. Grandmama starts dancing in kitchen, her apron still tied around her waist. She stretches her arms out: Dance with me!
On Mondays, some of the grandchildren sleep over at her house. She makes them their favorite dishes, traditional Norwegian cuisine — black pudding and cabbage stew. In the evenings they all curl up in the big couch and watch a movie together. She would often treat them to a bar of chocolate. In the morning she would make their lunch boxes — and if the kids really wanted to have fish cakes on their sandwiches, she saw no reason why not to give them just that.
She starts to go out more often. Sometimes she would take the train all the way in to Oslo. Her sister, Hjørdis, is now also a widow. The two sisters haven´t stopped dancing. Together they would go to the pub called Thranen, by Alexander Kielland´s Place, to dance — sometimes with a little hip flask hidden in their pocket. The community house in Lillestrøm is another of their favorite places to dance. Borghild Kronsel Kristiansen is good dancer, and sometimes guys would fight each other to dance with her.
The secret plan
Peace has lasted three decades in Norway now. In Vietnam, the situation is very different. Khuu has lived there for almost 40 years, but it´s not possible to live there anymore.
In the spring and summer of 1977, Khuu´s son, Trung makes a plan to escape the country. He shares the plan with his mother, but the children don’t know anything about it. The adults are afraid that the children might say something they shouldn´t. It is Trung who wants to leave. His limited experience with the war has been on the South Vietnamese side — he´s afraid of the consequences that might cause. Khuu does not want to leave Phan Thiet. She is reluctant — until a friend grabs her by her shoulders and says: « Your son is alone with four children. Of course you must go».
It happens quickly: Everything Khuu Ngan and her family have built since they came to Vietnam is now suddenly in danger. On one day she owns a house, property and a profitable store in Phan Thiet on the coast of South Vietnam, the next day officers from the North Vietnamese army knock on her door and demand to take over her space. It is not a question. They take what they want.
These are troubled times. The fall of South Vietnam in 1975, the reunification of the country, the entry of communists and the economical sanctions makes life hard for people to do business. At the same time Vietnam fears a war against China and are not at all certain that the large Chinese ethnic minority in the country will be loyal to them. Hundreds of thousands ethnic Chinese flee from the northern parts of Vietnam and into China. In the south, people are forced out on the ocean.
In the evening of September 13their cover-up operation starts: Khuu and her son Trung tells the children Linn (10), Robert Nun (8), Phat (6) and Annie (4) that they are all going out to eat a late dinner. Phat just got a new pair of white sneakers, just like the ones the Americans use. The six-year-old is afraid he will make his new shoes dirty and leaves them at home. The family will never return after the meal. They stack the children on dad´s motorbike, the girls in the front and the boys in the back. Then they leave everything they own and drive off towards the ocean.
Part 3: The escape (1977)
Off the green coast of Vietnam a young man steers his small, wooden fishing boat back and forth on the water. Neither Khuu nor any in her family have ever met this person, but soon their lives will be in his hands.
It is September 13 1977. The 25 year old, Duy Hoan, has no experience as a sailor, he is a nurse. The last few days he has learned how to use a compass. He has been at sea for 24 hours now. Together with six other men from the village he keeps his eyes fixed towards the shore. He has tried to escape before. He was caught and put in jail. If he were to be caught again, his life would be in danger.
At midnight, the seven men look towards the shore for the almost invisible signal that will tell them: «We are here» — two flashes from a lighter. The captain takes his boat past the area where they have agreed to meet twice. They can´t see anything, but they hear babies cry at a temple nearby. Is that them? No that´s not my people, Duy Hoan thinks. He knows his wife and two small children — 16 months and three years old — are among the people waiting for him. He continues to look for the light, but all he sees is a dark sky.
Barefoot in the sand
Under the same sky, in the woods behind the beach, six-year-old Phat walks barefoot in the sand behind his father Trung. The little boy thinks of the new sneakers that he left behind. Together with his siblings, he follows his father towards the place where they have agreed to meet the others. When they get there, they see many of the people from their village. Together they walk out in to the night.
Almost nobody is carrying anything. Khuu has tied a stocking around her waist. Inside is all the gold that the 64-year-old, gray-haired grandmother owns. No one knows she has brought it with her, but right now this is all she owns. Her son Trung has also brought something valuable with him: in his pocket he has a notebook with the address to some relatives in Thailand.
No one speaks. Everybody walks as softly as they can. Phat and his siblings understand the seriousness of the situation. The little ones can´t really see any thing in the dark, but they pick up something about a boat. They walk for a long time. All of the adults are assigned to look after one or two children each. They carry and lift the children through the inhospitable terrain. Then they smell the ocean. And finally: the sound of waves.
The overloaded boat
The young, inexperienced captain in the wooden boat is about to give up when he finally sees two flashes from a lighter on the shore. He steers his boat toward the place he saw the flashes. Soon he sees them — a huge crowd of people comes pouring of the forest. The boat cannot come all the way up to shore, and the crowd of people wades through the water towards the boat. The water comes up to their chests and necks, but they manage to climb, lift and drag each other onboard the boat: adults, small children, elderly people and a pregnant woman.
In the chaos, Khuu slips and falls into the water. She knows she must keep quiet and cannot scream. Even though she is quickly helped up, the incident frightens her. She knows no one in her family can swim.
The young captain Duy Hoan doesn´t have time to count all the passengers, but he can see that there are far more people than he had anticipated and probably too many people for his little boat. He is worried, but they have little time and they can´t leave anybody behind. When they are all onboard and the boat has left the shore he manages to get a rough estimate of the number of passengers. Before he left he had calculated that the boat could carry approximately 30 people. Now he counts 70 souls on board.
The small things in life
While Khuu Ngan brings her son and her small grandchildren on an overloaded boat taking them out to the sea on the coast of Vietnam, Borghild is excited to soon see her first great-granddaughter. The two grandmothers are born on the same day. Khuu has by now twice had to leave her home behind. Borghild, on the other hand, has always stayed in the secure working class society of Lillestrøm.
Borghild is a lady who focuses on the small things in life. Dinner with the family, a little bingo and sometimes dancing with her sisters. Every night she watches the evening news and the weather forecast on the TV. She doesn´t like the images she sees of war and crises on the other side of the world. «Oh, all the suffering!» she would say when she saw these kind of images. She had little knowledge about the war in Vietnam or the hundreds of thousands of boat refugees. In the news they are called “the boat people”, but Borghild knows little about the suffering they go through.
The boat starts cracking
The refugees from Vietnam does not know where they are going, neither do they know how long they will stay at sea. They have enough water and food for 30, perhaps 40 people for a few days. They are, however, 75 people on the boat. Supplies are starting to run dangerously low. The 64-year-old Khuu is the oldest person on the boat. She keeps her hair in a bun in the neck, wears earrings and a traditional Chinese jacket: blue with a low Mao collar.
On deck, in the cargo area, everywhere on the boat she is surrounded by thirsty and hungry people. Few of them can swim. Now they all have to sit very close together in this jam-packed boat, knees pulled up under their chins.
Khuu guards her four grandchildren. She is terrified of the water. The black sky is full of stars. She looks at them and thinks that somewhere up there among the stars, her husband and daughter-in-law are keeping an eye on them. The little fishing boat is frail, it´s made out of wood and the only roof is over the engine room. This boat is not made for traveling over big oceans.
During the first 24 hours they run through big waves. The wind is strong and the boat is too heavy. The bottom of the boat hits the waves so hard that it eventually starts to crack. The boat starts taking in water. The concerns and worries Duy Hoan has had since they left shore, is about to develop into fear. He realizes that they can´t continue in this weather. They need to find calmer water.
A small island will be their shelter. They go ashore and find some rainwater. The first night they all sleep in the boat. The wind is strong and they struggle to drop the anchor. Again and again the boat drifts way from the island, but they somehow manage to get back to the shore again. Some sleep while seated, others can´t sleep at all. In the morning, the boat smells so bad that Duy Hoan commands everybody to get off the boat. Some of the men scrub the boat, the rest are divided into teams — all trying to empty the boat for seawater.
Guarding the water barrel
In the far distance someone spots a big, white boat. The crowd of people, stranded on this little island, is filled with hope. Some shout: «We are saved!» Some set some oil on fire in order to make smoke signals, others wave flags. Nothing happens. Duy Hoan gets everybody back on the boat, and they head toward the big, white boat. However, the hope he initially had that they might get rescued quickly, disappears.
A few hours later, the big ship is gone. When the little wooden boat left the mainland, they have had 50 kg of rice and a box of dried food. Now there is almost no food left. More importantly, though, the 200 liters of water they had is also almost all finished. Up until now they have all had a little bit to drink three times a day. In the evenings they cook some rice.
The drinking water is the most valuable commodity on board. The captain organizes a team of guards to look after the water barrel. One man is guarding the water at all times to make sure no one steals any of the precious water. They all agree that they have no other choice than to continue their mission. Some are certain that they will be picked up as soon as they enter international waters. Returning to Vietnam is not an option. If they return, they are sure they will all be put in jail to die.
They would rather die at sea.
A tired captain
The next morning, the wind has calmed down. The fishing boat continues its journey. People start to sing. Phat and the other children are amused and laugh when they see dolphins following their boat. Yet, the frustration among the adults starts to rise. Again and again they see ships that must have seen them too, but nobody ever stops to rescues them. During the days on the ocean Duy Hoan counts 15 small and big ships. None of them stop to help.
The young captain starts to loose hope. Days with little food, full of anxiety and responsibility for 75 passengers, including his wife and two children and 24 other children, has completely worn him out. Duy Hoan needs to rest. He must sleep. When a young man offers to take over for a little while he accepts and falls asleep immediately. When he wakes up, the waves and wind are back. In the horizon he sees another big ship.
The searchlights disappeared
When they finally reach the ship, the night is dark. The waves are big, the stars are gone, a storm in on its way. Someone shouts that the women and children need to come on deck to show the captain of the big ship that they are refugees, not pirates. They are seen. When the wooden boat is up close to the big ship, they all get their hopes up for a few minutes. The big ship´s searchlights glide back and forth over them. It glides over the young boys who are emptying the boat of seawater. It glides over the pregnant, sick woman. It glides over the small children on deck. The searchlights glide back and fort. Then the lights are switched off, and the boat slowly sails away.
Part 4: A new country (1977–2014)
They are so thirsty. After four days on the South China Sea, the 75 refugees are without food or water. The pregnant woman is exhausted and sick. They can barely keep her conscious. Her husband begs captain Duy Hoan to give her some water. The captain understands that her condition is deteriorating. He allows her to lie down in the engine room, but he makes it clear to her husband that if she dies they have to throw her in the ocean. The other people on the boat start talking about when there is no more water, the only other option is to drink urine. Some say that children´s urine is the best because it´s the purest.
Captain Duy Hoan is about to collapse. They are almost out of fuel too. The stars have disappeared. When he realizes that a storm is coming, he looses all hope.
On the evening of September 17 1977, the refugees once again notice a light on the horizon. They can see that the light comes from a ship behind them, but by now they don´t have any hope that this ship will rescue them either. Without knowing it the small Vietnamese fishing boat has now finally entered international waters. Soon they see an aircraft in the sky above them. It flashes its lights. The captain gets up and sends SOS distress signals to the aircraft. The aircraft flashes its lights at them twice. They have been seen!
The captain from Norway
At 10:05pm on the same evening, captain Svein Ulseth receives the first notice about an incident that will mark him for the rest of his life. The tall and skinny man from Bergen has hosed down pirates from his deck before, but he is well aware that this fall the South China Sea is full of refugees in small and fragile vessels. He has been summoned to the bridge by his crew on the Norwegian company Wilhelmsen´s ship, M/S Toledo. They have received a distress signal from a boat far out at sea.
Captain Ulseth knows that a storm will come in two hours. For the experienced seaman good seamanship is a duty: If someone needs help out on the ocean, you provide help. He changes the course of his ship. For the next half hour, M/S Toledo speeds towards the small fishing boat. In his log, captain Ulseth later describes the drama that took place in very sober terms:
“22:35: Stop. Small fishing vessel packed with people on the side of our boat.”
For Khuu Ngan and the other 74 people onboard the wooden boat, however, the captain´s decision markes the difference between life and death:
“22:45: Start picking up refugees”.
T-shirts and blankets
Ten minutes later, the first of the exhausted and wet refugees climb up the stairs to M/S Toledo. They have been instructed to go three people at the time. The waves are big and the ladder swings back and forth. While still in the boat, Khuu is afraid that someone will disappear. If they fall in the water, they are gone for good.
In all the chaos, Khuu´s son, Trung, tries to keep an eye on his four children. For a few long seconds he cannot see Annie: My little girl! Where is my little girl? He finally finds her and they can all leave the dirty, little fishing boat that has been their home for way too long: At first, the children, then grandma Khuu and the women, Trung and the other men, and lastly: captain Duy Hoan.
“23:05: They are all aboard. (…)Children, women, men. We have searched the fishing boat for anybody potentially left behind, no one found. Full speed ahead, the journey continued”.
Before they sail on, captain Ulseth calls the Vietnamese captain over and asks: “We are going Thailand, do you want to bring your boat?” For captain Duy Hoan, the boat now only represents a memory of exhaustion and fear. It smells awful. It is on the brink of collapsing. The young man replies: “I don´t need it anymore. You have saved our lives. Sink it.” Captain Ulseth equips two of his men with axes and sends them down in the wooden boat to make holes in the bottom of the boat. Soon after, the boat sinks.
The refugees are wet to their bones and exhausted. They are given water, porridge and tea. The pregnant woman is brought to the ship´s infirmary, the rest are placed in the dining area.
“My crew really stepped up. Everybody helped out. They handed out t-shirts to the refugees who were all wet when they came aboard. They handed out 50 blankets and some old mattresses to the ones who were the most exhausted”, Captain Ulseth later writes to “Mr. Wilh. Wilhelmsen” in Oslo. They stay up and look after the refugees that night. At 03:00 a.m. everybody is asleep. Ulseth has alerted the shipping company, the agent, the embassy in Bangkok and the Thai immigration office. To the shipping company he sums the event up like this:
“Just want to say that there was nothing else to do.”
The whole Sunday they sail. They know nothing about their future, but are served breakfast, lunch and dinner and all the water the need. The children walk around in oversized, red t-shirts. The grown ups try to get some rest on the benches up on the deck. The Vietnamese captain receives a receipt stating that he has handed over two sealed envelopes. The following is noted: “It is said that they contain gold.” Captain Ulseth informs the shipping company that everything that has been used by the refugees needs to be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected. He describes a “scabies-looking rash” on some of the refugees. The mattresses they have used get dumped at sea.
Little Phat, Khuu´s six-year-old grandchild, later remembers that the crew on the boat played the then two years old hit by Rod Stewarts “Sailing”:
I am sailing, I am sailing,
home again ´cross the sea.
I am sailing, stormy waters,
to be near you, to be free.
Captain Ulseth´s album
One of the refugees gets more attention than the other passengers: the pregnant woman. Onboard the ship the crew is warming up water and reads the medical book thoroughly. The baby is past its due date, but on Monday September 19, right before the ship docks in the Bangkok harbor, labor begins. Thai officials send one doctor and two nurses to the ship. One hour later the ship is at bay. At 11:30 a.m. the pregnant woman is brought to St. Louis Hospital. That afternoon her baby boy is born.
She gives him the name Na-uy Toledo. It is pronounced Norway Toledo.
On Wednesday September 21, sometime between 10:45 and 11:05 a.m., Khuu Ngan walks down the gangway from M/S Toledo in Bangkok. From the dock captain Ulseth from Bergen takes pictures of the Norwegian seamen carrying the small, barefooted, Vietnamese children ashore. Khuu Ngan gets her picture taken with the captain, who is almost two meters tall. She puts on a big grin.
On the picture of Svein Ulseth and Khuu, he has his arm gently wrapped his arm around her shoulder. On a different picture he leans down to her grandchild Phat. The captain holds the boy´s shoulders. “The relationship between the crew and the Vietnamese during those four days was fantastic. We became like one big family. The children were of course the most popular”, Ulseth later explains.
Perhaps he misses his 12-year-old daughter back home in Bergen, Norway.
While in Bangkok, Ulseth and his crew treats the children to new clothes.
The next few weeks Khuu, her son and her grandchildren spend with relatives in Bangkok. She spends a lot of time looking after the children and tries to give them some food whenever she can. She speaks to them in her Chinese dialect. When people see her, they see a happy, open and kind grandmother. She is patient with them, she has only one mission now: to provide stability for the little ones.
Land of the dreams
None of the 75 refugees from the boat knows where they are going. Some would like to go to France, Thailand, Canada or to the United States. Many of the refugees have good feelings about America after the war. Nobody dreams of Norway — a country they know little, if anything, about.
One day a letter arrives. It will have a huge impact on their lives. It is from a Vietnamese living in Norway. He tells about a prosperous country with equal rights for all. He tells the group that he thinks they should all come. Both the Norwegian ambassador and the U.N.´s High Commissioner for Refugees have already interviewed the 75. Then the embassy does something it could never have done today: It guarantees the Thai government that it will cover all expenses related to the refugees, and specifies that: “(…) all the refugees will be transported out of Thailand within 30 days.”
The new Norway
When the 65 years old Khuu Ngan, her son Trung and her four grandchildren exit the plane on a cold fall day at Fornebu airport outside Oslo, they have arrived in a country undergoing big changes. The former peasant and working class-dominated society is now characterized by wealth from oil, immigration and gender quality.
However, even ten years after Norway first discovered oil, more than 1 in 10 Norwegians lives in a house without a toilet. Yet most people now have a TV, and many have been able to follow “the world´s first TV war” — the war in Vietnam.
The first Vietnamese refugees came to Norway in 1975, the same year that The Norwegian Broadcast Cooperation (NRK) introduced color TV. Many of the refugees have fled from political persecution and so-called reeducation through labor camps where they have suffered torture and mistreatment. Khuu and her family arrive in Norway at a time when the country is still only in the initial face of major wave of immigration to the country. They are now to settle down in a milky white society. Out of four million people in Norway in 1977, about 70.000 are foreign nationals. Out of this group, nine out of ten are European or American, the rest, roughly 7.000 people, are mostly from Pakistan or India.
Some dramatic weeks have passed since Khuu somewhat reluctantly left behind everything she had built in Vietnam for an uncertain future, somewhere else in the world. Her new mission in life is now to look after her motherless grandchildren. She lets go of every other ambition she may have had. Khuu is new to the country and in many ways different from the locals, but in this particular way she does not differ much from Borghild Kronsel Kristiansen or most women in Norway in 1977.
The majority of women are still housewives. Three out of four left school after middle school and only one out of ten children between one and five are in daycare. It is still four years until Gro Harlem Brundtland becomes the country´s first female prime minister.
Lost in Holmenkollen
Four kids, all bundled up in think winter clothes look straight in to the camera. Two of them have their hats pulled down below their ears. Daddy wears a sixpence and holds his arms around them. He is not smiling, but seems proud standing on the terrace of Midtstuen hotel in Holmenkollen. The picture was taken a short time after they arrived in Norway.
From a sinking boat in the South China Sea to a posh neighborhood, close to one of the world´s most famous winter sports arenas — the contrasts are almost impossible to comprehend. In their new home country, however, where the temperature is below the freezing point and the ground and trees are all covered in white snow, they are safe.
The children, Linn, Annie, Robert and Phat, explore their new home country. They are sledding for the first time in their lives. The steeper the hills, the better. One day they take the metro to Korketrekkeren to go sledding, but they get off the metro one stop too early and end up in some of the most Norwegian of all Norwegian things — the cross country tracks. The family stands out and the people skiing turn their heads as they pass by the little family. Later that day they go sledding in the landing slope of the Holmenkollen ski jump.
After only a few months in Norway the family is well integrated in the local society. For grandma Khuu, however, things are a little different. She complains a bit about the cold weather and the lack of rice. Other than that, her full attention is fixed on her family. After a few months, the family checks out of Midtstuen hotel. The team working with refugees within the Norwegian government is new and fairly inexperienced, but they are enthusiastic, dynamic and they have political backing: The boat refugees will be taken good care of. Soon a new 100 m, four-room apartment is ready for them in Blystadringen at Rælingen.
From a hillside behind the apartment houses, Khuu Ngan can see downtown Lillestrøm. It´s only a few kilometers away. In an apartment in Ole Bull´s Street, not far away, lives a widow the same age as Khuu.
The roar from the stadium
These are the golden years for Lillestrøm sports club (LSK). In the fall of 1977, the soccer team wins the series for the second year in a row. They win the national cup final. And they defeat the top European team Ajax in the European Cup. Local patriotism soars in the capital of Romerike, but Ragnhild Kronsel Kristiansen is not interested in the things happening at Åråsen soccer stadium, even though she lives very close by. She prefers staying at home.
Borghild enjoys the simple life. She likes spending time with her sisters, her grandchildren and reading romantic novels. Every day she does the same routine: At 10 a.m. Borghild gives her daughter Berit a call, and after dinner, around 5 p.m., Berit gives Borghild a call. Their conversations are usually about everyday stuff, like the weather.
Borghild Kronsel Kristiansen and Khuu Ngan are now 65 years old. The two ladies are born on the same day, on opposite sides of the planet, and they will live for another 35 years until they both die on the same day.
They live close to each other, but no one knows if they ever met or just passed each other on the street or perhaps on the pedestrian street at the Lillestrøm marketplace.
We do know this: Both women carry with them terrible losses, but they also both share the same quality of being able to cherish the small things in life. They live for their families. None of them are interested in being the center of attention. When the children do something they shouldn´t, Khuu would say: “Don´t do that, we might get a reputation.”
Her signature at the post office
The Asian family is quickly assimilated into Norwegian society. Trung gets a job doing the laundry at the high end Hotel Continental. Because of the tough chemicals he uses at work, he gets both eczema and psoriasis, but Trung never complains about the job. His colleagues call him “Ping Pong” — during these years China wins gold medals in table tennis world championships. His children dislike their father´s nickname, but Trung, on the other hand, chooses to see the nickname as something positive. He too can play table tennis, but does not have time for hobbies.
The children start school. Khuu stays at home, cleaning and cooking. She is used to being able to manage things on her own, and now it´s a useful skill to have. Between her son´s salary and her own unemployment benefit, they manage to provide for their most basic needs. In the large boxes they have on their balcony, she grown salads, sugar snaps and onions.
«Atti! Atti!» That´s how she calls her grandkids in for supper. Often her voice will cause an echo between the concrete houses that are surrounded by green space.
Khuu, the illiterate, hardly learns a single Norwegian word during her time in Norway from her arrival in 1977 till she dies in 2014. Her relatives believe she wasn´t especially interested in integrating into the country she had emigrated to. She didn´t come to Norway to make friends. Her responsibilities were to provide food on the table and to make her grandchildren turn into decent citizens.
Khuu and her family are among the lucky who belong to the first wave of Vietnamese boat refugees. During the next decade over 6.500 others arrive, many of them settle in the surrounding area.
Already in 1980, the Arbeiderbladet newspaper report that there aren´t enough houses nor jobs for the refugees. «The Vietnamese are pushing the boundaries,» the newspaper writes. The workload for those who are set to receive the refugees is described as «completely unacceptable.»
When Khuu every now and again shops at the local Domus store, she does so by smiling, nodding and using hand gestures. She can´t write her name, but every day she goes to the same counter at the local post office at Blystadlia. This is where the old lady regularly comes to pick up her welfare payment.
Some of the money she withdraws, she´ll send to relatives in China. Even though she doesn´t speak Norwegian, the staff at the post office get to know her well. She smiles her way through the transactions.
She´s received a special permit to sign her name in the account book with an «o» — a circle.
In her neighborhood at Blystadlia there is no way residents cannot notice the Asian woman. Every day her neighbors can see her conduct her stretching exercises — tai chi — while she is out walking. Over the course of a week she walks tens of kilometers, usually following two set routes. Often she picks blueberries or raspberries and brings them home as a surprise for her grandchildren when they return from school. She is kind, but she also demands respect — and gets it. The woman does everything she can to ensure that her grandkids get the schooling and education she never received herself. Often they´ll have to get up at six a.m. in order to get ahead of that day´s school work. If they don´t do it, they feel shame.
They never get ordinary presents when they celebrate their birthdays. They are too expensive. But Khuu will get up early and boil an egg for the birthday child. This teaches them to appreciate the small things in life.
Khuu has a temper. When her grandchildren disappoint her, she calls them demanding. She feels that they take everything for granted. «You don´t even know how the character for «need» is spelled,» she says while scolding them.
The grandmother is also proud and stubborn. When the welfare agency offers to give the family free skis, she refuses. She doesn´t want to accept anything for free. She doesn´t want them to beg. She wants them to take care of themselves.
The new man
Khuu Ngan isn´t the only one who cares about her reputation.
Borghild Kronsel Kristiansen has lived alone for a long time since her husband Rolf passed away. She has never removed the ring he gave her when they got engaged. When a new man enters her life in 1983, she takes into careful account what the neighbors might say.
She meets him at the community center on Storgata in Lillestrøm. Plastic chairs, tables with white tablecloths, ample dancing space in the center of the room. A band plays all the right tunes on the tiny stage. For over 70 years this building has been used for both politics and parties. On this evening in 1983 the 71-year-old Borghild meets Peder Jonas Slåttland, who is one year younger than her, at the dance.
The friendly widower with the slick, grey hair used to run a small farm at Hadeland, but now he lives in Lillestrøm. For almost 30 years the two of them will stay together.
As she has done before, Borghild develops a daily routine with Peder. Every morning they call each other — in turns — to make sure the other one is OK. Every afternoon she cooks for him in Ole Bull street. While she clears the table and does the dishes, he rests on the couch. Later they´ll watch the soap opera «Hotel Cæsar» and the daily newscast together. Borghild´s couch is large and comfortable, but the couple still prefers to sit close together. Often they´ll hold hands. Afterwards, Peder has to go home. The only time he gets to spend the night is on New Year´s Eve. On that one night every year, they´ll share a drink before she makes his bed on the couch in the guest room. She doesn´t want him to move in. What would the neighbors say?
Peder is the one who manages to convince Borghild to go on her first and last tropical vacation. She likes to lie in the sun and loves getting a tan. Her grandchildren still laugh when they tell the story of the time when «grandmama»´s skin got more and more tanned, up to a point when they thought she might be ill. It turned out Borghild had confused the sunscreen lotion with a self-tanning lotion.
The idea of travelling far away and to another country did not appeal to Borghild at all. In 1988 they still travel to Tenerife. Borghild´s doesn´t care much for the food. She misses Lillestrøm. Upon returning, while watching «Falcon Crest», her favorite show, she says:
«Well, I´ve been there. I won´t be doing that again.»
Khuu´s suprising journey
While Borghild prefers to stay at home, Khuu Ngan has lived a life of movement. Time and time again she has pulled up her roots, but this time, at Blystadlia, she will finally settle. At least that´s what her closest family believe.
Khuu, Trung and the youngest belong to a group regarded as a success story in Norway´s immigration history. The boat refugees from Vietnam arrived early, they have had time to adjust and now rank high on most surveys of living standards. Maybe this is also due to a strong sense of belonging. Most of them never considered returning to Vietnam a possibility. When they first arrived, it was for life.
But Khuu Ngan isn´t like the others.
In 2004, at the age of 92, after watching her grandchildren grow up, get their educations, good jobs and pleasant families, Khuu feels that her «mission» is accomplished.
She wants to spend her remaining years in China. Afterwards, she tells her family, she wants to be buried in Vietnam, next to her husband and daughter-in-law.
During the course of her life Khuu has six children, 21 grandchildren, 38 great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren. There are many people who love her. But throughout her life she carries a sense of longing. China. Vietnam. Norway. She is always far away from some of those she loves the most.
Ever since she came to Norway, Khuu has sent parts of her welfare payment to her second-oldest son in China. This is the same son she left while he was sleeping under the mosquito net. She has only seen him three or four times since then. Her whole life she has suffered a bad conscience because of him.
Now, Khuu wants to move back to China to live with her «son number two» and his family for her remaining years.
The old woman gets on the plane. She hardly brings any luggage. Instead, she carries her valuables in a stocking around her waist, the same way she hid her gold during the dramatic flight 25 years earlier.
But her time in China doesn´t turn out the way she expected.
Some point to the heat and the humid air. Others say it was caused by bothersome mosquitoes. Perhaps she has become «too Norwegian» for the simple life on the Chinese countryside. And she misses her grandchildren in Norway.
After two years in China, in 2006, she boards another plane and returns to Gardermoen airport. Khuu Ngan returns. Again.
Always far away
She is now 93 years old. Khuu has, throughout her life, experienced a lot of death and pain. All these years she has suffered a guilty conscience for those she has chosen away and abandoned.
When her grandkids ask her how she manages to leave aside all the sad things in her life, she replies that she accepts her fate. Everything that happens happens for a reason. There was a meaning to her husband and daughter-in-law dying. There was a meaning to them leaving China and later Vietnam. There was meaning to them being picked up by a Norwegian ship and ending up in Norway. Everything was pre-determined. That makes life easier to live.
Several times, though, she tells her grandkids that she is sorry for the loss of the shop, the house and everything they had struggled for in Vietnam.
The youngest son dies
In 2008 Khuu is 96 years old, but life doesn´t stop treating her harshly. Her youngest son, Trung, who organized the flight from Vietnam for himself, his four children and his mother, dies suddenly at 66. On his grave is the following salute: Thank you for keeping us together.
Khuu has started to show signs of old age. She can forget to turn the stove off. She asks where her son is and why he doesn´t get out of bed. Eventually, she´s unable to live by herself. Towards the end of 2008 she gets a space at the Løvenstadtunet nursing home, a few hundred meters from her apartment.
At the nursing home she´s asked what kinds of medicines she takes. Khuu has hardly taken a Paracetamol in her entire life, she has preferred traditional Chinese herbal medicine. She is hardly ever sick.
The old woman, close to 100 years old, impresses the staff by balancing on one leg, almost like a crane.
But she doesn´t want to be here.
Khuu can´t talk to anybody at the Løvenstadtunet home. After 30 years in Norway the only words she knows are «eat», «tea» and «let´s go». She can communicate by using her hands or by pointing at small pictures the staff hold up for her if they don´t understand what she wants: Sore throat? A drawing of a throat with lightning shooting out of it. Apple juice? A photo of a glass next to an apple.
One or more of her grandkids visit her almost every day. Every time they jot down notes in a journal about Khuu´s mood, her physical shape and how much she´s eating. One day they write: «She packs her things every day, so we´re going to lock her cupboard for a while.»
During this period Khuu is often sad. She cries a lot. She rubs one of her eyes so often that she has to wear a patch so she won´t scratch a hole in her eyeball. For a while the doctors think about removing her eye, but she gets to keep it.
A few kilometres away, Borghild Kronsel Kristiansen becomes increasingly dependent on her daughter and her grandkids. In 2006 Peder Jonas Slåttland disappears from her life.
One September morning, when it was her turn to call, he didn´t reply. He had had a transient ischemic attack and had to move back to Hadeland. Borghild is 98 years old when he dies four years later, in 2010. She does not attend his funeral.
For over 30 years Borghild and Khuu have lived a few kilometers apart. Could they have passed each other, in a store, at the dentist´s office or at a May 17th celebration, without knowing about the unlikely coincidence they are a part of?
Through 100 years they have lived two very different lives. One has been characterized by dramatic world events. The other has been a quiet, uneventful life in Lillestrøm while Norway has changed from being a peasant society into one of the world´s richest countries.
Now they are both in nursing homes.
Borghild has received a spot at the Lillestrøm treatment center. She has started using a walker and is increasingly afraid of being alone. When she is granted a spot at the nursing home she starts crying, like Khuu, but her tears are caused by gratitude and joy.
It´s good for her to stay at the nursing home. Her relatives decorate her room with furniture and photos she is familiar with. They make sure that there are fresh flowers on the windowsill. She often goes to the hairdresser or has her feet massaged. She´ll frequently see clothes she needs in the local store or in the «Åshild catalogue»: An outdoor jacket despite the fact that she´s hardly every outdoors, a morning gown despite the fact that she has never worn one. Her stubborn and vain characteristics increase in strength. She refuses to sleep any other way than on her back, even though this causes her to develop sores. And even though her hearing is so poor that one almost has to scream at her, she refuses to start wearing a hearing aid.
Two x 100 years
The days go by, until, on December 14, 2012, she is the guest of honor in the main hall, 100 years old. Her grey hair is freshly and handsomely curled. Someone has pinned a small rosette in the colors of the Norwegian flag on her red jacket. Borghild has made it clear: The mayor is not allowed to come, nor is the local paper. And she doesn´t want any fuss.
Of course there is a bit of fuss. It´s not every day someone at the nursing home gets to celebrate a hundred years. One of the employees reads the birthday greeting from King Harald given to all 100-year-olds. Borghild dries away a tear. She has always cared for the royal family. The atmosphere gets even more jolly when a woman with dementia joyfully cries out: «Would you imagine, Borghild received a telegram from the King!»
That same day, at the same time but at another nursing home five kilometers away: Another dressed-up 100-year-old stands before a large, decorated marzipan cake. The party at Løvenstadtunet is in honor of Khuu Ngan.
She has gotten more comfortable at the nursing home, even though she spends a lot of time in front of the TV. She doesn´t understand a word, yet she can sit there for hours on end, watching golf, skiing, Idol and reruns of her favorite TV-series, Dallas and Falcon Crest. But whenever images of war appear on her screen, she experiences a powerful reaction. She starts crying, screaming and waving her arms. The caretakers have to turn the TV off and comfort her.
Luckily this doesn´t happen too often. At the home they have by now started calling her «The Mascot» because of her small figure and her good mood.
On this Friday in December, the mayor arrives to honor her. The local paper covers the event. Khuu receives the letter from King Harald, but she doesn´t quite understand what it´s all about.
Khuu also doesn´t know that the Norwegian man who saved her life in the South China Sea 35 years earlier has just died. Four weeks before Khuu´s 100th birthday, Captain Sven Ulseth is put to rest in Bønes church in Bergen.
Another captain salutes him by the stretcher. On behalf of the refugees in the small wooden boat in 1977, Duy Hoan holds an emotional speech. He calls Captain Ulset «our father». Afterwards, he turns to the casket, puts down a wreath before he bows. The ribbon has a final message: «Thank you for life.»
Love for the family
Borghild often says that she wants to die. She says: «One shouldn´t get as old as this. I don´t want to go on any more.» At the same time, she demands to get the same vitamin supplements she sees a famous actress advertising for. And when she gets pneumonia and an offer to decline treatment, she demands antibiotics.
The caretakers tell each other that her love for her daughter, her grandkids and her great-grandkids is stronger than her wish to die. She doesn´t want to leave them.
Khuu also gets weaker by the day. Her pain increases. Her grandkids take turns massaging her with Tiger Balm to make things more comfortable for her. They bring food they know she likes. But things are going downhill quickly. She sits in her room and talks so much to the family portraits on the wall that they eventually have to be taken down.
Often she asks about her deceased son, Trung, and scolds him for not telling her where he is. When her handicapped son in Vietnam dies in early January 2012, her dementia has come so far that her grandchildren decide that they´re not going to inform her about it.
The ring that changed fingers
Khuu Ngan was strong for a long time. Life gave her a push here, a punch here and a kick there, but she always got back up. At the nursing home she falls and breaks her femoral neck, but she makes it through it. Then she falls and hits her head, but again she recovers. Not until she suffers a stroke in November 2014 does it become clear to her relatives that she is going to die.
Five kilometers away, Borghild Kronsel Kristensen´s family has faced the same reality for 14 days: Borghild doesn´t want to go on. She refuses to eat and drink. All she wants to do is sleep. She has almost stopped talking. The morphine she receives to relieve the pain has taken her to another place.
When her daughter Berit and her granddaughter Bente visit her on November 9, she removes her ring. It´s the first time she does this since her husband Rolf gave it to her when they got engaged 78 years earlier. Engraved in the ring: «Your Rolf, 8.4.1936.» She gives the ring to Bente. The granddaughter immediately puts it on her own finger.
Four days pass. In the second to last journal entry about Khuu, we read: «She can´t talk. Just wants to sleep.» «Took 10 ml. water and 10 ml. watered-out porridge.»
In Borghild´s room, one of her grandkids holds her hand. There is no longer any force in it.
Borghild Kronsel Kristiansen dies on November 13, 2014, a Thursday. Time of death: 17:36. Khuu Ngan passes away at 19:30.
101 years and 11 months after two girls were born on opposite sides of the planet, their hearts stop beating — two hours apart.
Translated to English by Trine Angelskår.