Spicy Tuna and Super Crunch Rolls — An Oral History
It was a very lively Sunday morning when my parents decided to make the hour and forty-five minute drive from Douglasville, GA to Athens. We had made plans to go to Srithai, a new Thai-Japanese fusion restaurant that we had began to frequent. We just sat down, and I decided that this quiet atmosphere would be the place to conduct the oral history portion of the roots and routes project. My father has lived in the United States for a while, but his English is still a little choppy. In the places where he uses Vietnamese word, a translation is provided in the transcription. He also frequently mentions a fear of Cambodia; this is because during the time of his life in question, there was great strife between the two nations. During this time (late 1970’s), Cambodia would take political prisoners from Vietnam, especially from Phu Quoc, the island where my father lived.
Me: Okay are you ready?
Dad: Yeah I’m ready
Me: Do you have any interesting stories from when you were a kid living in Vietnam?
Dad: Something like… when I almost died?
Me: Maybe something a little more fun…
Dad: Something fun. Uhh, let’s see. I used to go out fishing with my grandpa when I was about 12.
Me: What happened?
Dad: Me and my cousin and my grandpa went so far out you couldn’t even see the ocean- I mean the island anymore.
Me: What kind of boat did you go in?
Dad: Very small, a very small boat. It had a very engine. When we got out there we were fishing all night with no problem. And then in the morning, a storm came by- a huge storm. And you know, we were in a tiny boat. We tried to run, but it was too late because the storm was already there. Then, one big wave nailed the boat and half the boat was filled with water. The boat was kind of sinking until half of it was underwater. Then it stopped raining but the engine stopped running; it was broken. Oh man, were we scared. The wind kept blowing so we had to put that, uh, that thing- you know that thing you put up when the wind blows to try to hold the boat.
Me: The sail?
Dad: Yeah the whatever it’s called to put on the water to hold the boat straight or to keep it from going upside down. You know?
Dad: But if the wind kept blowing that way it would have blown the boat to Cambodia. It wouldn’t have blown straight to the island [Phu Quoc] but to Cambodia. If we get to Cambodia, they would have chopped our heads off. And we keep praying. I thought it was only going to be a few more hours we got to the border of Cambodia, and the military came out and got us and chopped our heads off. And I’m just very close to jumping down in the water and swimming back to the island to get away from the border of Vietnam and Cambodia.
Me: Uh huh
Dad: And luckily, we were just about to jump. And then a boat from the island came out. It was my uncle and he knew what had happened, so he tried to bring a big boat out there to get us. He tied to small boat to his big boat and brought us back into the island. That was a scary time.
Me: That sounds awful. What is a happier memory you have from your childhood?
Dad: Uhhh.. I got a whole lot of good memories.
Me: But pick your favorite.
Dad: -laughs- Alright I have something funny. When I was young, I was a mess like Logan [my thirteen-year-old brother] and my grandpa put me in a temple[monastery]. There I was supposed to pray with the monks. I was like ten or eleven, something like that. There was a monk in there who was a little bit bigger than me, but he was a bad monk.
Me: Uh huh
Dad: -laughs- Anyway, I had to work. You know, stuff to keep the temple running. I had to do labor for them. Little stuff like filling up the little tanks of water from the water pumps and bringing them back to the temple. When I would bring the water in, he would use it to clean his foot. And you know in the winter time, it was really hard to go to the pumps and get this water. –laughs- He would keep doing that, and it would really piss me off. He was so big and I couldn’t do anything about it. We were in a temple; you know?
Me: Uh huh.
Dad: And one day, he passed by my house on his way to the ocean to swim. You know when I was young I would use slingshots to swing little stones. And I used that when he was in the ocean. I would use that with the little stones you find on the beach; you know? I used those to try to scare him, and I ran him into the water. And I kept getting stones to hit him so that he would swim all the way out there until it was night, –laughs- but then someone called the police.
Me: Gosh, dad.
Dad: Oh they got me and brought me back to the jail. It was more funny when they brought me back to the police station. The officer said “He’s a monk, man. What the heck? You knew he was a monk.” I just said “He was a bad monk, officer”. –laughs- And um, that’s it. That’s my funny story.
Me: Yeah that was pretty funny. You were an awful child. What did your parents do when you were growing up?
Dad: My dad was in the military. He passed away so early. My mom was doing anything to raise the four of us.
Me: Like what?
Dad: Like making and selling banh [English translation: pastries]. She did anything. She also made soups and stuff, anything. She worked very hard- like fourteen or fifteen hours a day for the four of us [he, his brother, and his two half-sisters]- I was the oldest one.
Me: You’re the oldest one?
Dad: Yeah I was the oldest. I was selling lottery tickets at nighttime after school. You know? Like you saw the kids in Vietnam still did when we were there[last summer]. Yeah I did that when I was little too because I had to help my mom out. My brothers and sisters were still very little and did not know what to do. So I was like twelve I knew what to do to help my mom. After school I did that. I would do it more often on the weekends. On the weekdays after school, I would go to the movie theaters or just walk around and try to sell to people to make a little bit of money.
Me: Okay what was it like living in Phu Quoc?
Dad: It was bad because it was a very poor country. When I was growing up, it was very poor. I didn’t even have toys. So when I wanted to play with toys, I have to cut up cans and put them together to make a small boat. Then I played with the boat in the water. Or I would use pieces of wood to like surf on the water. They don’t have surfboards like we do over here. I would use a piece of wood and slide it into the water. Everything was poor.
Me: How old were you when you left Vietnam?
Dad: I left Vietnam when I was seventeen.
Me: How did your family feel about you leaving?
Dad: Well it was a communist country. The communist came in and took over after 1975. And my daddy was in the military for the South. He got himself killed. They [the communist regime] were coming in, and I was seventeen. My mom got to let me escape from the country because if they take over they might make me fight for them [in the North Vietnamese Army] or they would kill me. They would probably kill me because my dad was in the South Vietnamese Army. So that’s why I only stayed for two years after that. At that time, I was seventeen, they don’t want to do anything to me when I was still underage. I was afraid when I was eighteen, they would send me out to go fight with other countries like Cambodia. That’s why I tried to escape. I jumped down into a small boat with some people I know. They got a small boat with like sixty or seventy people on the boat. It just went straight into the ocean. We didn’t even know where it was going; it just went. Hopefully, it would go to Thailand.
Me: What about Vietnam did you miss the most when you left?
Dad: Oh I missed my mom. I missed everybody. I missed my mom the most. I missed my two sisters. I missed my younger brother. But my younger brother, right after I left, he left them too. So my mom tried to get all her boys out of the country first.
Me: And where did you live before you came to America?
Dad: I stayed in a camp in Malaysia.
Me: for how long?
Dad: For about a year.
Me: What did you do in Malaysia?
Dad: In Malaysia, we didn’t have to do anything. We were refugees. We just stayed in and learned English. We were in school for English because we knew we were going to the United States. I wanted to know English for when I came to the United States to try to find a job.
Me: How was Malaysia different from Vietnam? How was it the same?
Dad: Malaysia is- their country didn’t have any war going on. Their people were good. They didn’t have war, so of course their country was better than Vietnam. They didn’t have people tearing the country up. So we camped over there, and they treated us good. Especially the United Nations. They brought us food, whatever we needed to stay in Malaysia.
Me: How was it the same?
Dad: The weather was pretty much the same because it was just as hot. It’s a little bit different because we stayed in the camp. We had no freedom. We had to stay on this very small island where the camp was because that area was dangerous. They didn’t let us go out to the city or anything like that. We had to stay in one place, and it was hard. Especially since those tiny houses held like twenty people in it. We slept tight like everybody was shoulder to shoulder.
Me: Did you stay with other kids or with the adults?
Dad: Yeah, I stayed with kids. I had a couple kids from the boat that I knew. And we went up there and tried to make a little house for ourselves. It looked like a dog house because it was so small. We tried to make it so we can live together. It was fine.
Me: How did you leave the camp?
Dad: Okay, one day the United Nations came over and interviewed me. They asked me how I escaped from Vietnam and what I do and what my father did. I told them that my father was in the military. Then they asked me if I wanted to go to the United States. And I told him yes. They said okay and I was approved to go to the United States. They said when I go to the United States, they got people to help me out with the trip and stuff like that.
Me: How long after that interview did you have to wait to go to America?
Dad: I think it was about four months after I got approved by the government. In four months they brought me out to the big city, Kuala Lumpur. That’s a big city in Malaysia. I stayed there for four months before I boarded the airplane and went to the United States.
Me: Where did you arrive in the United States?
Dad: Well I arrived in Baltimore, Maryland. Well, here’s a funny story. When I left Malaysia I was just wearing a thin short sleeved t-shirt. You know, just a regular short sleeved shirt. This was winter time; it was almost Christmas. It was cold in Maryland; you know how cold it gets. In the airplane, we didn’t know it was cold. We had a little blanket that covered us up. I didn’t even have a jacket on me. When I got to Maryland, they had a whole church come over and pick me up. All types of people were there. It was like seven or eight people that came to pick me and this other Vietnamese guy up from the airport.
Me: How many people came with you to America?
Dad:It was just the two of us. And when we got to the airport, it was so cold. When I walked out that door, it was so cold that I got scared and I backed up and turned around. –laughs- There was a nice young man who was wearing a long coat. He took it off, put it on me, and took me to the van. The van took me to an apartment.
Dad: Okay they took me to an apartment, and the apartment already had someone who lived there. There’s a Vietnamese man living there. I still remember him. They got us to go there and live with that man. They said “just stay here”, and then they had a Vietnamese woman come over and translate for us. Then I stayed with that man; me and my buddy stayed with that man for about two weeks. And then they [UN sponsors] came over and told me they found me a job.
Me: Uh huh
Dad: Then they took me to that job. It was not that far from my apartment you know.
Me: Okay wait, I’m going to get to that, okay?
Me: What was the big-
Mom: (interrupting) Thù, [my house name] eat the food on your plate.
Me: Mom, really?
Mom: Oh sorry I forgot. –laughs-
Me: What was the biggest challenge you had when you first came to America?
Dad: Everything was a surprise. Everything was different. The weather was too cold. I’m scared of being lonely. I don’t know anybody and it was so- Can’t speak English, that’s a big problem I had too.
Dad: And you know, luckily the job didn’t need someone who spoke English good. Just went in there and did what they told us to do.
Me: Okay what was your first job?
Dad: First job is at a gas station. I came in and did the pull up service for a gas station. Like the people who came in and wanted to fill up, we filled up for them. And we cleaned the windows, something like that. The people who came in and wanted an oil check, we did their oil.
Me: Was this gas station in Maryland?
Dad: Uh I cannot remember the name of it, but it was in Maryland. And I walked to work every day; it was about a mile and a half.
Dad: It was funny. There’s a hole in the road on my way to work. I didn’t see it when the snow covered it up. And underneath it was cold, cold water.
Dad: On the side of the street. They had a rail on it, but I didn’t pay attention. I tried to take a short cut to work and I stepped on it in the morning when I go to work. And it was so cold. It almost went to my knee. It passed my leg. It was so cold.
Dad: And I felt like my jeans were ice. It was hard and cold. I was afraid to turn around and change because it was my first job and I didn’t want to get fired.
Dad: So I walked all the way to the gas station and the guy that worked there- I didn’t know if he was a manager or a supervisor or whatever- you know he said “what happened?” and I tried to tell him. It was so hard for me to tell him that I stepped in a hole on the side of the road.
Me: Uh huh
Dad: But I think he knew. He got his car and said “jump in” and I got in the car. He took me back to my apartment and let me change.
Me: Uh huh
Dad: And then we went back to work.
Me: Uh huh. That’s nice. Did you like your first job?
Dad: Uhh, actually yes I do. If I have a job, I love it. That was my first one. And when I turned 18, the sponsors, the people at the church, found me a better job. I didn’t have to work outside. It was always so cold outside.
Me: Uh huh.
Dad: So they found me a better job where I could work inside. I remember that’s-
Dad: That company was named Baltimore Spice.
Me: But what kind of company was it? What did they do?
Dad: The company name was Baltimore spices. They weighed hot peppers or black peppers and put it into boxes. They sealed the boxes and put them into a truck to ship somewhere. You know?
Dad: Sometimes they required fifty pounds. I put fifty pounds on the weight and close the box and put onto a little cart and roll onto the truck. Then I put it in the truck, just like that. I did that every day. And when you do that every day, the pepper gets in your lungs. At night time I would throw up blood because it’s so hot, you know? And I worked like that for four months. It started like $2.89 an hour.
Me: When did you start working with airplanes?
Dad: When I flew to Kansas-
Me: When was that?
Dad: Okay, after I did that for a while I found out I have a cousin in Kansas. Somehow I found his phone number and I called him in Wichita, Kansas, and he asked me to move there and live with him.
Dad: Okay, and then I asked the guy I lived with to help me out and take me to an agent to buy a one-way ticket to Kansas to live with my cousin. Then I flew over there, and he picked me up from the airport. He led me to his house and his family. I lived with his family and started over from there. Then he-
Me: How long did you live with that family?
Dad: Oh I lived with that family for a long time, about two years. He referred me to a job to work with him, and I rode with him. Then the government [refugee agency] had the option for people like us [refugees] to go to school free to become an aircraft mechanic, and I went to that school.
Me: Then how did you learn English?
Dad: I went to school for that too. I had to go to school every night.
Me: What kind of school?
Dad: Night school in Wichita, Kansas. It was held in a church. Yeah, every day- no it was five days a week. For two hours. After I had to- When I was nineteen or twenty, I had to work for eight hours a day then four hours of mechanic school and two hours of English classes. That’s like fourteen hours.
Me: Did you get a job?
Dad: After I went to school, they [his cousin] got me a job in a small aircraft company up there.
Me: What was it called?
Me: Why did you move to Georgia?
Dad: Because Lockheed hired me from there. Boeing was in Wichita, Kansas. I worked there for a while until I got laid off. Then Lockheed was hiring so I put my application in Lockheed, and they hired me. So I had to come down here and take their test. I passed the test, so they hired me.
Me: What did you think about moving to Georgia?
Dad: I was single. I just put my things in the car and run. There was nothing holding me up, so I just moved down here. By the time I got down here, I already knew some people down here.
Dad: My friend.
Me: From where?
Dad: From Wichita. They already had a job here.
Me: What did you like about Lockheed Martin.
Dad: Oh the pay. They paid me good.
Me: The pay?
Dad: Mhmm. Yeah they treated me good. They hired me when I need it. I liked the people I worked with. I had a lot of friends at work.
Me: How did you meet Ma[Translation: Mom]?
Dad: I met Ma in a church. First time I went to a party where one of my friends was playing music. Mommy was in the Vietnamese community and knew that family. They all knew each other. My friend played music there, and I met her there. I asked her what church she went to, and she told me. I went down to that church and tried to catch her. And after that we went a little further- we started dating. Now we’re married.
Me: And when did you know you wanted to marry her?
Dad: I wanted to marry her after I went out of state to work. When I got laid off from Lockheed, I traveled a lot for work. After I left for a long time, I felt like I needed her. So that’s why I asked her to marry me.
Me: How did you ask her?
Dad: I just called and asked because I was out of state.
Me: And how long have you been living in America now?
Dad: Me? Well since 1978. So almost forty years.
Me: What do you like about America?
Me: But what’s the best part?
Dad: My freedom.
Smithsonian Guide Questions
Me: Okay, I’m almost done. I only have a few more questions. Did you bring anything with you when you left Vietnam?
Dad: -laughs- I got nothing to bring. Nothing. Not even other clothes.
Me: How has the area where you grew up [Phu Quoc, Vietnam] changed since you left?
Dad: Oh, well I grew up right there where có ốp[his sister, my aunt] has her house. It was very poor and dirty, but now they’ve built it up. There’s a big city. Everything looks different.
Me: Are there any Vietnamese holidays you still celebrate?
Dad: There’s only one day I still celebrate- Tet [Vietnamese New Year]. It’s the biggest holiday. There’s always parties and festivals. It’s big.
Me: And are there any special Vietnamese foods that you learned how to make from your parents?
Me: Like what?
Dad: Nước mắm[traditional fish sauce]
Me: And how did they teach you how to make that?
Dad: Oh my mom teached[taught] me everything when I was young. I learned from my mom how to cook rice. I learned from my grandpa how to cook fish and shrimp- all types of seafood. You know?
Me: Who taught you how to make Nước mắm?
Dad: My mom.
Me: Are you ever going to teach me how to make Nước mắm?
Dad: -laughs- if you want to.
Me: Okay that was my last question. Thanks dad.
Dad: Of course.