My parents came to visit me, my husband, and the grandkids for Spring Break and provided interesting lessons in world history as I quizzed them about their past. It started innocently when I was taking them to visit a relative my parents informed me that I had. The relative’s home was located in a Chinese Vietnamese part of Houston. We were driving on Bellaire Blvd when we crossed a street whose name my dad immediately recognized. At the intersection of Bellaire Blvd and Nguyen Khoa Nam, my dad blurted out impromptu: this street is named after a Vietnamese general who had fought for the South Vietnamese army. The general committed suicide after the Americans pulled out of the war, forsaking South Vietnam to the brutal communist takeover from the North. Dad’s memory is as sharp as ever, his intellect always inspiring.
It seems that every time I visit my parents or they visit me, I learn about a new relative that I never knew in my childhood –big family, small world. It should not be a surprise as my dad is the youngest with 10 siblings altogether, and the only surviving one is his older brother who still lives in Vietnam. The others were sisters and brothers from the same dad but different moms. They lived in China and Vietnam, with two sisters and one brother immigrating to the United States in the 1980s and 90s, having been sponsored by more established relatives.
My dad has always been a self made, pull-yourself-up-by-the-sandal straps kind of man. Due to his father returning to China and marrying other wives, then subsequently getting stuck in China due to the Communists rising to power there, Dad grew up fatherless and poor in South Vietnam. At that time, the South was a budding young democracy just freed from French colonization in 1954. Interestingly, the North Vietnamese general who led the rebellion to free Vietnam, splitting it into North (communist) and South (democracy), was Ho Chi Minh. This Moscow trained revolutionary leader not only secured Soviet and Chinese aid to fight off the French, but also later to aggressively advance into the South against her American ally. HCH died in 1969, just six years before realizing his vision of “unifying” north and south into one country. The day that the capital of South Vietnam was overtaken by Communist soldiers, I was still a toddler living with my parents in Saigon.
At a young age, my Dad had to drop out of school to support his single mom. But Dad was ambitious, smart, and educated himself in the ways of life. He enjoyed the free market in South Vietnam and acquired some wealth for himself as a hard-working businessman selling hair accessories and other products. That’s where he met my hard working, independent mom, herself an emigre from China (fleeing from the bloodshed of war). She settled with her family in a town in South Vietnam that was bustling with many overseas Chinese. Together, my parents’ marriage survived cultural differences, war, two separate boat escapes and refugee camps, immigration, and raising six children in a new land.
Now they are in my car, as my Southern husband and I decided to introduce Dad and Mom to Texan culture via the Houston Rodeo. Realizing that they are aging so fast and will soon take their unique history with them, I decided to quiz them on the car ride with my broken Vietnamese:
Did we have any relatives who fought in the Vietnam War? It was something that I had thought about periodically but neglected to ask before. Yes, my mom answered. Several of your cousins on your dad’s side fought in the South Vietnamese army and died. One survived and is now living in Hawaii.
I knew that I had many relatives who’ve resettled in various countries of the world, but did I have any relatives who died trying to escape Vietnam after the Communists took over? Yes, also on your dad’s side. One of your aunts was twenty something years old when her boat sank at sea and a lot of people died. About how many? Numerous–the entire boat.
These rickety makeshift boats carried anywhere between dozens to hundreds of refugees, desperate to seek freedom and a better life. An estimated 2 million people became boat people refugees between the late 1970s and into the mid ’90s. This deceased relative had attempted the escape after mom’s refugee voyage in 1979, so we both guessed that it must have been in the early 80s. Your aunt had a husband and young daughter who left on a different voyage, Mom continued. They were sponsored to immigrate to Canada. He has since remarried, had another child. But the refugee girl whose mother died at sea committed suicide when she was a teenager.
Wow, I never knew this. It must have been a difficult life for my cousin growing up without a mother, knowing that her mom was pregnant and died at sea with her baby sibling. Then her dad had moved on but the daughter was still grieving and found it difficult to continue. Either that, or she suffered from mental illness regardless of any childhood trauma that might have occurred.
My parents reminded me that the Communists were very evil, their political and military campaigns were ruthless. They converted some South Vietnamese into sympathizers (Vietcong) through deceptive political campaigns that were very sweet sounding. They even fooled Dad’s older brother, my uncle. I’ve heard these sentiments and words many times before when I was growing up in Southern California. But this time, I decided to ask for more details–
What did they do? They disregarded ceasefires and rules of engagement during war. In 1968, both sides had agreed to a ceasefire to celebrate the Vietnamese national holiday of New Year, aka Tet, but the North Vietnamese took that opportunity to slaughter thousands of civilians in the town of Hue. Starting in the mountains and countrysides, they indoctrinated the citizens with communist propaganda that Vietnam should be a free country with no foreign influences, that Vietnam would be prosperous without Western ties, that everyone is entitled to equality and prosperity, that we should be a unified country with peace and justice for all. Dad went on to share that at first the Communists used night-time political meetings targeting the less populated rural areas to seduce the poor civilians with hopes of prosperity and equality.
Dad continued in Vietnamese, with an air of sad indignation, Their rhetoric sounded so so sweet, like the Democrat Party politicians today. But, I was not fooled.
My mom said that their campaign of anger and resentment (probably based on past mistrust of the white capitalist colonizers) split some families up leaving family members to align with opposing political parties.
Isn’t that like Conservative and Progressive positions dividing American families today? Mom nodded at my observation.
But quietly inside, I was also thinking of the American Civil War in which a few families found siblings or cousins serving on opposite sides of the war. One of Dad’s cousin, who now lives in Hawaii and with whom my parents have reunified, was actively supporting the Democratic South as a soldier in the 1960s while his small town mother was collecting taxes to financially support the Vietcong.
What about you, Dad, how did you escape the war and Communists’ wrath? So then I learned that in the late 60s, Dad had moved from the seaside village to Saigon, a democratic stronghold, to blend in with the larger population. He had made a small fortune as a hard-working businessman and had saved up millions. In the days prior to the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, the Communists leaders had seized the banks and imposed heavy fines and taxes on business transactions. Quickly they stole the citizens’ savings, seized all assets, and allowed only $200 per family. Dad had an automobile at the time and the Communist Gestapo-like agents ransacked his property and jailed him for a day until they found his hard earned money that was hidden in the console of his car.
They wanted everyone to be poor and hungry, dependent on their government rationing, so that no one would have the energy or means to protest. They were very cruel! Dad and Mom stayed in the city for another two years, then packed up their young kids and returned to the seaside to live in hiding. No one knew who we were and there were barely any markets, but dad was scanning the periphery of the coastline, plotting our escape which came to fruition three years later. Both mom and dad went on separate escapes, and I retell part of their survival stories in my book, East Meets West: Parenting from the Best of Both Worlds.
Today, Dad added, the Communists in power are as corrupt as ever ruling with an iron fist top down, imprisoning political dissidents, censoring speech, controlling the press and education, imposing heavy fines and trumped up charges for business practices that put white collar scandals like Enron and the Savings and Loans debacle to shame. It is not a nation of equality or prosperity for everyone as the young foolish political activists previously advertised.
Instead, with totalitarian power won since 1975, Vietnam has dissolved to a nation of tyrannical rule, lawlessness, gross abuse of human rights, and massive corruption based on who is in charge and who you know. The wonderful utopia where there is no longer poverty, oppression, and suffering was strategically and masterfully dangled before a naive, idealistic public, who coveted a piece of the prosperity pie, both in Vietnam and in America. Whatever the skin color, people struggle with overlooking our own sins, blaming our woes on a faulty government, envying our neighbors’ worldly success, and coveting our neighbors’ possessions. And this end (which turned out to be a rotten pie) somehow justifies the treacherous means to get there—leaving millions dead or escaping the utopia by a perilous journey at sea.
America is not close to being a perfect union, but we are a nation of laws that protects our citizens with constitutional rights. The immigrants who have been allowed in from war torn countries and from the cruelty of oppressive communist countries such as Cuba, Venezuela, parts of Latin America, the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc, as well as North Korea, China, and Vietnam, mostly appreciate this and treasure the freedoms we have here. In this land, we have freedom of speech, of religion, the right to assembly, to vote, to bear arms against a tyrannical government, etc…Yet, infighting between the two major political parties, if not kept in checks and balances, can lead angry ideological revolutionaries to lose a free nation under the mantle of “equality” and “social justice.” And then where will the American people go to find refuge? The admonition that the road to tyranny is paved with good intentions makes sense to me when I consider my parents’ history, and world history, full of fallible human nature.
As a Christian, I know that there is only one heaven, and it cannot be fought for with words or war. It cannot be obtained by swaying public opinion, glorious Hollywood movies, media propaganda, or deceptive slogans.
As I reflect on Mom and Dad’s words, I realize that they are incredible survivors. They lived through a lot of pain and suffering first hand. Stories like theirs may be overlooked by the movie makers and news journalists, these perspectives ignored by the dominant social justice warriors today who champion the ever elusive cause of “equality for all people” and the sweet sounding “rights and justice for everyone.” The truth of South Vietnam and the plight of her scattered people are not a simplistic black versus white perspective. But I, for one, am grateful to be grounded with truth and facts of world civilizations that have not made it to the standard history books. Indeed, Mom and Dad are not politically correct today to be proud Americans, promoters of a strong national defense, and defenders of individual liberties against government overreach. But I will be their mouthpiece and I will share their long suffering wisdom and insights.
For a more balanced perspective of the war not marginalizing the South Vietnamese, check out these two articles:
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