4 September 2011
A Time to Remember
It is seven in the morning when I reach my destination, a quaint, one-story house, in the middle of the suburbs. The yard is green and full of flowers. There is a lemon tree and an orange tree on either side of the home. Grass, how often do you see grass in Arizona? I walk up to the metal screen door and ring the doorbell. A woman in her forties answers. She is a petite
woman with fair skin, dark, brown eyes and a warm smile. Her name is Nathalie Nguyen Thu Nguyet and she was a refugee from the Vietnam War. She came over to the United States when she was just eight years old. She was born in what was then Saigon, Vietnam in 1967; her father was a medic in the South Vietnamese army during the time of the war. She lived with her mother and four siblings in a little village near the beach. She greets me and I am surprised to hear that she speaks perfect English. She invites me into her home and offers me some tea. I accept and look around while she goes into the kitchen to retrieve it. I notice some black and white photos on the wall. It is a family picture taken back in Vietnam. Nathalie comes back with the tea and laughs. She takes down the picture and points out the people to me. That picture was taken when she was seven years old, about one year before the family left for America. I ask her to tell me about the day they left for America.
The owner of the boat decided to leave Vietnam and offered to take whoever wanted to come. My brothers and sisters should be thanking me because without me. Outside they could hear bombs going off. After dragging her children to shore. Her mother then rounded up the children and took them down to a friend’s boat to hide until it was safe to go back home. “You’d never believe it but we never planned on coming to America. The smoke in the air made it hard for them to breathe.” On April 29. The boat was about the size of a small bedroom. 4.
Everyone wept with distress. They were all terrified and yet. They packed lightly only bringing a change of clothes and a little rice and soy sauce. Now we all think that it was very lucky that we did but at the time. Quickly decisions were made. They had lost.We sit down and she says. 1975. Tuan. everything seemed surreal. Nguyet’s mother.
. My Kim quickly herded her children off the boat. Her husband was still in Vietnam so she couldn’t leave yet. It was an accident. It sounded like it was getting closer. Life as they knew it was about to change forever. My Kim. Where could they go? The next morning. Nathalie remembers huddling on a table with her four siblings. 9. received news that their town was going to be bombed the next day. The boat was extremely crowded as most of the neighbors had taken refuge there. She remembered being afraid that she would get left behind on the boat. it was announced that the South Vietnamese had surrendered. Would they stay and make the best of things or would they go. about 20 feet in length and 8 feet in width. because they were so young. 2. Thu. and Tu. she discovered that Nathalie was missing. 6. it was another story. Nga. she rushed back onto the boat to find her daughter. the night before the South Vietnamese government surrendered. Still holding the hands of her other children. She shouted frantically but Nathalie could not hear her over the commotion. they’d be tending to the rice paddies right now. The children were crying and everyone was worried wondering what they would have to do should the Viet Cong win.
At the time. and no idea where they were going to end up. Being stuck on the boat was all her fault. It rained and everyone crowded closer together under the small awning on the boat. The owner of the boat announced for the last time that they would be leaving. it began to rain. I was worried that if I got off the boat I would be left alone. I didn’t know if my mother had left the boat or not. And worried. Biet did au day. And wet. Food and clean water were scarce. no father. It smelled awful. how could she support and care for her five young children in a foreign land while her husband was not there? They did not even know where they were headed. a lot of people on the boat were seasick. with no money. Heck. For every minute on that boat. My Kim wailed with grief. Her older sister was seasick. or fortunately depending on how you look at it. and her mother would not let her forget it. it began to pour. When I saw my mother’s face. About six hours after the boat left the dock. Everyone was so relieved. Everyone was too busy trying to make plans for themselves. They had not planned to stay on the boat for very long. when the family was finally reunited. I was so relieved. I remember crying so hard. The small boat pitched violently. all she heard from her mother was Cai con Nguyet do. My whole family just sat there on the floor of that boat holding each other and crying. tai vi no ma minh moi tren cai tau nay. They spent a miserable four days on that boat before they were spotted and rescued by an American ship returning to America. The wind slapped cold water in their faces. And miserable. the boat had left the dock for destinations unknown.” Unfortunately. So many families get separated in times of chaos like this.
Nathalie gives a wry chuckle. “I was screaming for my mama but no one was paying attention to me. the boat rocked constantly and the crush of people on the boat was suffocating. Which basically means it is all Nathalie’s fault that they were stuck in the middle of the ocean.She tried to push past the crowd to get off the boat to find her mother and the rest of her family. in fact.
The American ship took them to Camp Pendleton in Southern California. “The best thing about being rescued was the food they gave us. She had no idea what she could do to make a living. We were alive and together. Eventually. Everyone scrambled for sponsorship. the refugees from the boat walked over to the other side. They didn’t want to leave. Many died. Nga. A rope bridge was thrown onto their little boat. They had been very lucky. “Looking back on it now. They were so comfortable at the camp. almost fell off the bridge because she was so seasick. Luckily. I know that some people drifted at sea for months on end. My Kim tearfully accepted fearing that they could never get sponsorship
.Her mother kept on chanting “Cam on Chua. The refugees there became a community. They got to know each other. Cam on Chua. They became friends. At first. They were afraid that they would have to split up. She slept in a tent with several other families.
Nathalie smiles and takes a sip of tea. a sailor on the boat caught her in time. Every time I think about it.” Thank you God. Nathalie’s sister. She remembers cartoons every Sunday morning and old movies in the evenings. her mother’s fears went away. Gradually.” However. An American family told My Kim that they would like to adopt Nathalie and her younger sister. She had no money with her. Nathalie chuckled. They gave us this packaged meat that was like Spam but not. I see that we were very lucky. they were informed that the camp would be closing. however.” They were so glad to get off the cramped little boat. God knows many weren’t so fortunate. One by one. She remembers playing with her brothers and sisters after lunch. Her mother worried how they would get by once they reached the United States. I’ve been trying to find that meat since we came to America. I say a prayer of thanks. It was difficult for a single woman with five children to find sponsorship for her whole family. The American ship was huge to a little girl. it wasn’t long before new troubles started to arise. Thu. She has very fond memories of her time there. There were rows and rows of tents.
. She says that her family owes her big time for getting them to America. for all the doors of opportunity that have been opened to us. they were thankful because they still had one another. The whole family was distraught. While we still mourn that loss once a year. again miraculously. she discovered that she could not bear to part with any one of her children.
This was a difficult. they were reunited with their father two years later when he was released from a labor camp. didn’t know how she could go through with it. Troi oi bay gio minh phai lam sao day. You just have to make the best of your circumstances and have faith in God. Right before My Kim signed the papers finalizing the adoption. Miraculously. She was terrified of the thought that she would never get to see the rest of her family again. harrowing time for them but they got through it together. They moved to Pomona. May dua con cua minh phai lam sao day.” Nathalie grins. a little town in southern California where. they did receive sponsorship eventually. we spend the other 364 days thanking God for everything that he has given us. The day we lost our country. “April 30th. She didn’t know what to do. What would she say when she found her husband again? How could she tell him that she’d given two of their babies away? Nathalie could see the agony and indecision etched on every line of her mother’s face. “There is a reason for everything that happens. No matter what happened or where they went. they would be together. Ngay mut nuoc.with so many children. It was decided. Her mother was torn. Even when they were at their lowest. even if you do not see it at the time.