A Gift From My Mother

(A few weeks ago I signed up for a two-day “Digital Storytelling” workshop by the University of Minnesota’s Immigration History Research Center. I thought I was going to pick up a few tips and pointers, not expecting this to come out of my rambling self-introduction. Thanks for prodding me Erika Lee, hand-holding and patience Saengmany Ratsabout and Elizabeth Venditto, and Mark Buccella for the two photos. And last, but not least, thank YOU for reading my stories.)

I came to America with this shirt on November 25, 1981, a cold Thanksgiving Eve. The shirt was a New Year’s present from my mother, whom I wasn’t able to see again until 1992, twelve years later.

One day after arriving at Singapore Refugee Camp, May 1980.

After the war my family tried to eke out a living as farmers at the edge of a mosquito-infested Mekong Delta jungle, enduring four years of abject poverty and destitute. We had to leave our comfortable city home in order to get away from the prying eyes of the new regime because my father belonged to the old one.

The shirt was the only new piece of clothing I got in four years. It was both a New Year’s and a going-away present. But at the time I wasn’t aware “going away” would mean leaving my family behind, and to be on my own in a yet-to-be-known country. I was only 15 years old.
 
It was the only shirt I had during my journey because the escape from Vietnam was a clandestine operation; therefore, packing would have aroused suspicion from the authorities.

We snuck out of Vietnam under darkness of night, then made a mad dash for the open sea. By daylight, less than eight hours at sea, the engine had already conked out. The hull of the boat had also cracked, saltwater leaked in, making the freshwater stored within undrinkable and useless for cooking. No food and water, we found ourselves adrift in the South China Sea for the next four days.

“Vietnamese Boat People,” Manh Hai, CC 2.0

By the third night, we had drifted into a busy sea lane. Despite our effort to flag down passing ships by burning clothes and banging on pots and pans, none stopped for us.

On the fourth day, all hopes of being rescued or reaching shore had vanished. The heat and the smell were unbearable. It was a combination of fecal matter, urine, vomits and sweat baking in the blazing sun. I call it the stench of death, which I could still smell in my nostrils to this day. With the exception of the crew members, myself included, nearly all 304 passengers had been rendered lifeless by hunger, dehydration and motion sickness.

Towards the morning of the fifth day, a hulking ship suddenly stopped, then went into reverse towards our boat, which nearly capsized in its wake. Once it stopped alongside our boat, we knew then we had escaped death. We waited to come aboard for what seemed like an eternity. Around 5:00 or 6:00 a.m., a rope ladder was dropped down. We all erupted into wailing with tears of joy.

By the time the sun came up, we learned that the ship was an oil tanker

George F. Getty II in drydock for repairs, Singapore 1986. Photo: Getty Oil Company, Ltd

named George F. Getty II, which I later learned belonging to the Getty Oil company of California. The captain, Armando Pizzorno, was Italian with a Filipino crew.

Our first meal on the ship, and in so many days, also happened to be my first non-Vietnamese meal: spaghetti with meatballs. The George F Getty II then dropped us off in Singapore, where it had departed from. Being at the height of boat people crisis, the refugee camp was overcrowded with other rescued Vietnamese arriving daily.

It was also the beginning of an extensive immigration process that took nearly two years, involving a transfer to another refugee camp in nearby Indonesia before we could resettle in the U.S. on November 25, 1981.

Left photo by Mark Buccella, October 2016; right photo was taken on my October-November visit to Vietnam.

A few years ago I brought the shirt back to Vietnam to show my mother. Unsurprisingly, she cried a river.

For me this shirt is a reminder that even though many of us immigrants and refugees left our countries with nearly nothing, America is the only place in the world where we’re afforded the opportunities to escape poverty and persecution to be more than what we might have been destined to be.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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