Personal Spotlights

Beyond the Status Lies Our Stories of Survival

by Thu Quach

As the mother of two beautiful boys who are Vietnamese-Japanese, I often think about how to begin to tell them that they come from a long line of survivors from both sides. That their paternal grandfather survived the ugly Japanese internment camps while their mother and her family left Viet Nam in the middle of the night on a small fishing boat with no idea about their chances for survival. Where does one begin to tell these type of stories amidst our busy daily lives? So I start today with a letter to my sons…

To my precious sons -- Tai and Kenji,

You are so fortunate to have come from a long line of survivors. Your grandparents on your mother’s side were both from rough urban cities in Viet Nam. Your grandmother, who died a few years before you (Tai) were born, grew up in a big family raised mainly by her mother because her father was a political prisoner for decades. She could only afford to finish grade school because she was forced to work at an early age to support her family. She met your grandfather as a teenager. He was a bụi đời (hoodlum of the streets). Raised by his grandmother because he was an illegitimate son, he needed to be tough to survive. I know that you only see him in the nursing home on life support now, but in his earlier years, he was quite the street fighter, able to take down anybody, especially those who were interested in your grandmother.

Your grandparents met and married in their late teens. They had four children in Viet Nam, but their second son (your uncle) died as an infant. They later would have their fifth child (your uncle Daniel) in the U.S. Their life in Viet Nam was always rough, both growing up poor and from broken families -- both doing whatever they could to keep their family intact, amidst a war and resettling in a new country.

As a teenager, your grandfather was so poor that he decided to join the U.S. CIA training because they paid him a few dollars a week. In exchange, he was trained to spy on the Việt Cộng, a Vietnamese rebellion group fighting against the U.S.-backed Viet Nam government. That was his role during the Viet Nam war, a role that when the war ended, would mean that he would be at risk for being imprisoned for having helped the “other side.” So when the war ended in 1975, your grandfather was offered to be helicoptered out of Saigon to leave for the U.S., an offer that did not extend to his family. During the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, he went to the evacuation station, about to step on the helicopter. But the thought of leaving his wife and three small children made him pause. In that split second, he made the decision to stay back, a decision that forever changed the course of all our lives, including mine and yours.

Years later in 1979, our entire family would escape on a small fishing boat in the middle of the night. Sailing in the deadly waters for many nights, our boat was finally pulled in by Thai boats. Afterwards, we spent nearly a year living in different refugee camps in Indonesia before eventually being given “refugee status” by the U.S. and settling in San Jose, California.

Arriving in the U.S. at age five, I remember the many hardships our family faced during our resettlement.   Given the cultural and language barriers, your grandparents had few job opportunities, forcing our family to rely on public assistance in the earlier years. As my siblings (your aunts and uncles) and I became more acculturated, we had to take on new responsibilities in our family. Your grandparents spoke little English, relying heavily on their children to be their language interpreters in the health care and legal systems.   It was extremely difficult for us to be child translators, especially when we visited the emergency room due to your grandmother’s chronic illnesses.

These very memories of interpreting for your grandparents is the very reason why I have decided to work at Asian Health Services, where we care for immigrant patients with language barriers; where we believe everyone has a right to health care regardless of their status, be it language, income, or immigration. The knowledge of what your grandparents have been through is the reason why I want you both to believe that one’s status should never define them as a person. Their experiences, their hardships, and even their mistakes may give them depth and character, but their status should never determine who they are as people.

There is so much more to this story, but that may be the book that I will write for you someday. And as for the story of your paternal grandfather in Manzanar, that is his to tell, and I hope he tells you one day. Because I believe that these stories, and difficult memories, will help you understand that you come from a long line of survivors. And that our stories will empower you to become better people.