Unintended immigrants

I know many of you are thinking I should be writing about what is next, or what reported.ly gave me, since it’s the first day without it. That will happen, but for now, an essay I wrote a while ago about refugees, the words we choose and my family. This is how reported.ly’s refugee coverage changed the conversation I had with my parents.

I didn’t even know we were immigrants until I was 7. True to being a child, I knew that my parents had come from Vietnam, as had my older brother and sister, but it did not really click that we were “immigrants.”

It started with a family history project. My father tried to help me fill in all the limbs and branches, but we didn’t get past my grandparents. I was a little distraught, hoping for the rich family history so many of my (white) friends were producing.

My father brought out a binder. That was when I learned. Inside, were letters he wrote to the mayor, representatives, even the President and their responses to his plea regarding his wife and children in Vietnam. There was a newspaper article about my family, written before I was born. My father had documented his five-year journey to reunite my family.

In 1975, my parents tell me, the Vietnam War seemed far away from Saigon, and when it felt close, their confidence in the Americans, who had come to help, buoyed them. So when my father was offered the chance to go to the US to learn about computers, my mother made him go. It was the promise of a promotion when he got back that sold her on it, even though she was pregnant. She would be fine, she said. She had family nearby.

When Saigon fell, my father tried to get back. He got on a plane, he got to Hong Kong, and discovered that Saigon’s airport was gone. What was he doing? He went back to Indiana, and realized he was an unintended immigrant.

From then on he tried to get his family to the US. He got citizenship, he got a job in Iowa, he bought a house and a car. He sent my mother money, couriered through friends in other countries. My mom raised a pig in the bathtub to lie to the communists that came by our home, she said that was where she was getting money. The utility company my father had worked for was very different, and so went with it the driver we had. My mom fired our maid.

It took five years for my family to be reunited. I was born three years later.


Three generations of Buis.

On a long walk during a recent visit to see my parents, I asked my father how he got citizenship. I wasn’t positive. Had we been refugees? No. He said we had gone through the process after he got a work visa. He sponsored everyone else, with a little help from his office. He had taken the test. But at that time, he was often called a refugee, he said.

It was easier than correcting them, he said. “There were too many refugees. We were different.

Would we still be in Vietnam if there hadn’t been a war? Probably. We were doing well.

Would he have likely left voluntarily, if he were there during the war? He’s not sure.

I asked what would have happened if the Americans had won, if we were allowed to go back to Saigon, reclaim the land where my dad intended to build a family home, get his job back as a vice president.

He walks slowly, he thinks about it. We often walk in silence, pondering each other’s responses to questions and answers that are so much more honest now that I’m an adult. These walks started when I was a child, and they are where we have all our serious conversations.

No, he says. Even then, the Vietnam of his youth, the wonderful place where he could climb into the jungle and then be by the beach in minutes is gone. We have more opportunities here. Yes, we struggled, we still do, but we all got a college education. We did OK.


As we’ve been covering the refugee crisis in Europe, I think to the family friends I had growing up. The paratrooper with bullet wounds, but never spoke of it and didn’t teach his kids Vietnamese in an effort to Americanize. The former prime minister’s son, who is now a judge in Northern California. The man who left behind a wife and family, and married again here, without ever telling his first wife. Some were boat people. Some were asylum seekers. My father was an unintended immigrant.

A few years ago, while watching a Vietnamese-English movie about the war, I asked my parents why they don’t talk about the past.

It hurts, my father said. It is so sad to remember everyone they lost, everyone who changed. It’s easier to move on. We look forward. It’s the future that is hopeful and happy.

I understand, a little bit, the joy of the refugees as they land on the beaches of Greece or Italy. They are looking forward.

(My dad called me tonight, Sept. 3 to tell me he flew to Hong Kong, not Taiwan. Apparently a need for accuracy runs in the family. It’s now corrected above.)

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