KH, in her 60’s, fled Vietnam after South Vietnam fell to the Communists in 1975. Her journey to America is not only filled with the horrors of daily terror but also the remarkable kindness of strangers. It took her family 3 years before they could escape out of Vietnam in a small boat to the legendary island of Pulau Bidong in Malaysia where they waited in extreme poverty for 9 months for a ticket to America. Here’s the transcript of my face to face interview with her.
Heart: Tell me anything.
KH: In my country, I was an elementary school teacher. My husband was a lieutenant in the Army. Then in 1975, the north side of Vietnam, the Communists, took over the south side. They came and forced my husband to go to a camp for three days. That’s what they were doing, forcing the people in the Army to go to camps. They didn’t care what happened to their families. They put everyone who worked for the Vietnamese government on the south side in jails.
But, after 3 days, my husband didn’t come back. Not 1 week, not 1 month, not 6 months. We had just been married for 3 weeks before he was sent off to the camp. They had said 3 days, and I waited and waited, I cried and cried for one whole year.
Then, one day, somebody told me that they had seen my husband in the forest nearby and I said, “Really?” and I followed her to where she told me she had seen him. There, I saw my husband and he was very very thin. They had kept him and a lot of other people in the camp to force them to work. My husband had been working in the forest all that time.
18 months after I first saw him like that he finally escaped from there. I would go and visit him sometimes while he was still there. And my sister came one day while I was still in school and told me, “[redacted], don’t cry. Don’t do anything, act normal. I’ll tell you a story” And I said, “OK, I promise.” And she told me that my husband had escaped from the jail.
So after I found out that he had escaped, I quit working in the school and followed him to Saigon. So, from my village, Gia Kiệm, I went to Saigon to be with him.
Heart: How old were you?
KH: I was 25. So my husband and I were in Saigon now, but we had no house, we had nothing. We slept in a gas station for 18 months.
Heart: How did you eat?
KH: His aunt used to live there nearby, so I would go to her in the morning, and she would give me food to eat. My husband could not be with us in the mornings because he was going to get caught, so I would go his aunt by myself. His uncle had passed away because he was very sad about what was happening to the country. So, it was only his aunt and her children at the house and sometimes my husband would come.
After a few months, we had a baby. I really didn’t want to have a baby then, but it happened. (Smiles) My older daughter was born there. One night after I had the baby, I was still living in the aunt’s house, and they came looking for my husband in the house. They caught him and took him to the camp again. A second time.
They put him in jail in Saigon in a very small room. There were 22 men along with him in the room. They were all lieutenants and captains and all the higher officials of the south side government. You can tell by that, what the Communists wanted to do.
Around midnight, the other guys who were with him asked him if he wanted to escape from there and my husband kept quiet. Because, he was not sure if they were trying to trick him. So he didn’t answer them. But by 2am, a few of the guys started digging a hole, like how they show in the movies and started to escape. When he had first gone into that room, those guys had asked him to give his glasses to them, and he gave it to them. Then they asked for his sandals and he gave it to them. Because what they were trying to do was, everyone was trying to take off their clothes, everything that they had on them. Sexy, one hundred percent. (We both laugh)
No, because it was too hot in there. So, they were like that and they were digging the hole for a long time and they started to go in and out, in and out to make sure they were not going to get caught. Finally, they put their clothes on, and they were ready to get out. But the heavy, fat people couldn’t go through there. So they tried to tie them up and made them sit down and drag them out of the hole.
That’s how he escaped for the second time. But I didn’t want us to go back to his aunt’s house again. Because that morning, his aunt’s son, the nephew had come on a bicycle and I opened the door and I was holding the baby close to me and he told me, “[redacted], they caught your husband last night.” And I remember saying, “Oh my God,” I just remember saying that. So, I didn’t want to stay there because they would try to find my husband again.
So, I gave my baby to his aunt and it was only me and him now. We tried to sleep at the gas station at nights. A lot of people would be there around us all night long. So, if he slept, I would stay awake and keep a watch and when I slept, he would stay awake and watch me. That went on until one day we decided that we wanted to escape from our country. So, we left Saigon and went to Phước Tỉnh.
Heart: How did you know that leaving the country was an option.
KH: My husband’s mom knew someone out in Phước Tỉnh. So she asked them if they could help. You know, we had a house in Vietnam, but we couldn’t go to our house. So we had no place to stay.
But, to escape, we needed money. We had to sell our gold and everything else we had. But the people whom we sold the gold, they lied to us and so we got very little money for what we had sold. In the end, we sold a lot of stuff in Saigon, but we got very little money.
So, in Phước Tỉnh, when we met my husband’s cousin, I told him what had happened and I cried. I told him we had no place to live. And he knew someone who was looking to escape from there to go to the United States, but he lived far from Phước Tỉnh. So, sometimes when the boat that would take people would come, he was not able to arrive in time before it left. So, my husband’s cousin told our story and the man told the boat owner, “OK, if I don’t come in time next time the boat leaves, let these people go in my place.” So, that’s how it happened.
We didn’t have any money because first we would leave Phước Tỉnh in a small boat and then the small boat would take us to a bigger boat. So, we had to ask someone to help us. They were also fleeing with us anyway, and I told them, we will pay them later. But the owner of the big boat didn’t know if they wanted to put their boat through the sea. So, we started going to Malaysia in the small boat, because we were all families that wanted to leave.
Midway the boat sank. And someone in our boat took a white shirt and started waving. A Thailand boat which had fishermen who were catching fish spotted us and saw that our boat was sinking. So, they put women and children into their boat and my husband had to stay back with other men to put the water out of the sinking boat.
I don’t remember exactly but, because they had taken all of us, the fishermen ran out of all the 5 gallons of gasoline and the little rice they had. So after 10 days, they dropped us off at an island in Malaysia called Pulau Bidong. At that time, I had nothing with me and my baby. Just one pair of pants, a shirt and a pair of panties. We ended up living like that for 9 months. After 9 months, my shirt had ripped all over, but I had no option.
Heart: What year was that?
KH: 1978. That island had 42,000 people like us at that time. Those people had escaped from Vietnam and came to that island. The Army had a lot of people there and they asked my husband to wait his turn to get out of the island, because they had to give him a number on the waiting list.
So, on the island, we also had our daughter and she fell sick and she got something like chicken pox. I don’t know if it was chicken pox or not. It was so dirty there, we didn’t have proper bathrooms, the place were very dirty. She was not able to breathe at all one time and I sat outside the tent and she was almost dying in my arms. I had no money, no one to help me and I was crying loudly, “There’s no one to help my daughter? She’s dying, there’s no one to help me?” No one answered.
My husband asked a doctor to help and he said, “If you daughter doesn’t have any milk, she’ll die.” When I looked at her, I could only see eyes and nothing else. She was so skinny. And he gave us some powdered milk and some water and we gave it to her.
Heart: How did you find this doctor?
KH: He was on the island because he had escaped too.
Heart: Oh wow. OK.
KH: Yeah, he had escaped too. So, I borrowed money from a woman to buy everything. I borrowed money to buy powered milk and sandals too. After I came to America, I asked my husband’s cousin how much I owed her for all the money she had given to us when we were in Malaysia and he told me 2 dollars. She had come to America before us and was living in Virginia now. I sent her back that money, and she told me not to worry about it. “Its not a big deal. When you were hungry, I helped you. Don’t worry about it.”
And you know how women have their period right? At that time, I didn’t have my panties, I only had that one pair of pants. And I saw a lady who was washing and drying her clothes one day and I walked over to her and said, “Can I borrow your pants for three days, I will return it afterwards.” And she said, “Its OK.” And she lent me her pants. She’s very tall and heavy and I am short and very skinny. But, I tied up her pants somehow and it looked funny. After 3 days, I went to her and returned her pants and she looked at me and said, “Don’t worry, keep it.” I will never forget that.
After a few months, my husband’s cousin who was living in Riverdale, Georgia at that time made us papers for us to come to United States. But, the first step for us to come to the United States was to go to California, where our plane took a break. A nun took us to a church where she offered us some clothes. I remember there were a lot of old clothes to choose from and I went there to look for some clothes for my husband. I found a pair of pants and shirt for each of us and then we came to Georgia.
When we landed in Clayton county, we didn’t have any money. We were on food stamps, on welfare for a while. After 3 months, I said to myself, “I don’t want to live like this anymore. I’m young, I can do anything. I don’t need any help.”
Heart: Let me ask you, who else came with you to America?
KH: Only my husband and my daughter. No one else.
So, when we moved to Georgia, we lived in Clayton county for 10 years. At that time, I asked a lady in the church if I could help her by stitching some clothes at my house. So, I would stitch from 2am in the morning to 5am in the morning and I would get only 150 dollars a week. I had bought a small machine to stitch clothes with a loan I took from her. I would pay her back little by little each time.
After a while, she said that I’ll have to buy a bigger sewing machine. I told her that I didn’t have any money and she offered to lend me some money. I said, “No, that’s 700 dollar and its a lot of money.” But, she said, “You can pay me back little by little like last time.”
Our apartment had only two rooms and I would stitch in one room and she would keep coming to my apartment and take stitched clothes from me. That was my first job. And for my husband, someone recommended him to work for a cabinet making company. They made tables and all kinds of stuff. And they paid him 2 dollars and 75 cents per hour.
Heart: What year was this?
KH: 1979. So, my husband would go to work by bus. He worked there for one month and they changed their factory to another location. And to go to this new location, he had to take 2 buses to get there. And he was very skinny and the other guys who were Americans were huge and they could handle the work load. But when they had to carry tables around, my husband would have to hold one side and the bigger guy would hold the other guy. (We both laugh) He did that for a few hours and they would have to use the nail guns to punch nails into the furniture.
He would come home and I would think that there was something wrong with him. Even when I would cook and put food on the table, and talk to him, but he wouldn’t answer. One day, I heard my husband talk to his cousin on the phone, “Do you have a school around here, because I cannot work like this anymore. I am skinny and I still have to do heavy duty work like the big American guys. I stand all day and use the nail gun. I can’t do that anymore.”
So, his cousin took him to Atlanta Tech and they took the bus to go there. To qualify to apply for a program, first you have to pass an exam. He got the maximum score in the exam other than in English. His English was only 9th grade standard. So he had to learn English even though he could write in English in Vietnam because he was a Lieutenant. He studied English for 3 months and then wrote and passed the exam again. Actually, my husband is very smart. After that, he went to the college to study Electronics for two years.
After he graduated, that year out of the 11 people who had attended an interview, only my husband got the job. 5$ per hour. When I went to the grocery store I met another Vietnamese lady and she told me, “Your husband got a job, how much does he make?” And I said, “5$ per hour,” and she says, “Phew, I don’t go to school, and I make 6$ per hour.” I went home and told my husband what that lady had said and he said, “Don’t listen to them.”
Two years after that, my husband started making 7$ an hour. Then he heard about cable TV and he quit his job. But two weeks after he took up his new job, they laid him off. And so he went to the Labor department to apply for unemployment benefits and they rejected him because he had quit his previous job. They said he didn’t qualify for unemployment benefits because of that.
Then he went to work for someone repairing TVs in their shop. For black and white TV repair, he was paid 10$, and for color TV, he was paid 20$. But he was scared of the boss, and the manager because they would get drunk and come into the shop and ask him how he had fixed the TVs. They would punch the back of the TV and ask him if he did that to fix the TV. My husband had just fixed that TV and they would punch the TV because they were drunk. Even though they punched the TV, nothing happened to them. And my husband got scared, because they were playing with electricity and high voltage and so he quit that job. (We both laugh)
When he was in college, he would help me with my stitching, but now he didn’t want to help me. He said that because he was a man, he didn’t want to help me. (Smiles)
Heart: OK, is this 1983?
KH: Right. He got out of college in 1982. And this was 2 years after that, so its 1984. He was sending his resume everywhere and waiting to be called for an interview. He would tell me, “Just answer the phone, ask for the name and phone number. That’s it, don’t do anything.” And my English was terrible. So, I remember this, I was vacuuming the floor one time and the phone went off, and I jumped from the floor to the sofa to the table where the phone was and grabbed the phone. The guy said, “I’ve a job for your husband.” And I just said, “What’s your name, what’s your phone number?” That’s all I said. (We both laugh)
My husband called him back, and went to the interview where he was given a test and he got 98 points. The hiring manager was on vacation and they had given the test to a lot of people. And my husband had the highest score, but they didn’t call my husband, they called the guy who had the second best score. So, the guy who had called initially, told my husband, “I don’t know why you didn’t get the job, they gave another American the job.”
Maybe they didn’t want someone Asian, we don’t know. But, they gave him another job and paid him 20,000$ a year and told him that if he performs well for 3 months, they will pay him more. But, just after 2 weeks, they called him in and started paying him more. And now he has been with the company for 33 years.
Heart: Wow, that’s funny.
KH: Yeah. And for me, after I stitched for a while at home someone recommended me to a factory job where they sew McCracken handbags. So, I went to work there.
Then one day, someone asked me if I wanted to sponsor their visa and bring my parents over here. I haven’t seen my parents in a long time by that time and I am the oldest of 8 children. I was here for 3 years then and I was crying every night for them. “When will I see my parents, my sisters and brother again?”
But, I had to be a citizen, for that I had to pass the exam. So, I studied and studied and studied. I had two children by that time and I was very busy in the morning. I had to drop them off, I had to go to work. I would study in my break time. Then I finally passed the test and became a citizen. Now, all my brothers and sisters are here with me. We all live near one another.
Heart: Wow, happy ending.
KH: Yeah, happy ending. I used to have an alteration shop (for clothes) earlier for many years and finally I wanted to retire. Then I stayed home for 2 weeks and I said, “This is very boring.” So, I went back to school for 2 years, because my sister said that only in hair cutting school, they don’t ask how old you are. So, I went to school for 2 years, passed the tests and applied online at [redacted]. They did a phone interview and hired me without even meeting me. (Laughs)
Note: Before you rate this episode, please consider if you would’ve been so open and authentic about your own life. Earlier episodes available at The Anonymous Manifesto.