Yesterday was an incredibly exhausting and draining day, yet happy and fulfilling at the same time. My family set me up with a contact who lives in Vietnam now, but who had also fled to the U.S. in 1975. Steve got out the week before we did, traveled the same route through Guam and Ft. Chafee, Arkansas, but was sponsored by a Jewish family & church, and settled in Chicago. His 82-year-old father was a former one-star general for the South Vietnam forces and is still working today as a security supervisor at Disneyland. Well, of course. That makes complete sense to me!
See, my story is neither remarkable or unique, it’s just an example of how everyone migrated to America. It’s incredibly frustrating to me when I occasionally hear the entitled attitude of, “I’m not from somewhere else, I was born here.” You may have been fortunate enough to be born a U.S. Citizen, but someone in your family made a journey similar to my family’s, leaving behind everything they knew for the hope of something better (unless you’re of Native American ancestry and you were robbed!), and may have faced xenophobia at the beginning. Whether it was you, your parents, your great grandparents…do you know your family’s immigration story?
Steve’s knowledge of Saigon helps us navigate through the chaos. We begin at Ben Thanh, a public marketplace in the heart of the city with booths and shops galore. It’s colorful & boisterous. The stalls are manned by a variety of people, mostly young women. I freaked myself out after reading travelers tales on TripAdvisor, most were wonderful but interspersed with a few scary “traveler in a foreign country” problems. As we make our way through the market, something happens: we’re greeted with beautiful smiles and friendliness. There’s an odd familiarity even though I’ve never been to Vietnam before. The faces and the snippets of conversation and the overall cadence seem familiar, and I find myself easing into the scene. Low and behold, I let my guard down and started enjoying it. If that’s not a metaphor for life in general, I don’t know what is.
Steve wanted to give us the lay of the land, but I’m anxious and I want to get to the sole purpose of our trip. We find a very nice cab driver, and we start the search for my grandparents house, the place we all lived under one roof until Johnny came to get us. It was really important for me to find it today, since it was the anniversary of our departure, and I wanted to just be in the neighborhood and soak it all in. After a few minutes of walking around and searching, it’s right there in front of us. I’m pretty sure it didn’t look like this back in the day, but leave it to something connected to my family to be facelifted.
My grandparents were the best ever and their house in the States was always the heart of our family. I spent a lot of time there because we were pretty communal, and everyone in my family lived at Grandma & Grandpa’s at some point in their life. Grandma was the kindest, sweetest, most gentle soul and didn’t have a negative bone in her body. She took care of me while my mom worked until I started school, and after that, every time I came to visit she’d make my favorite dish…batter-fried shrimp. See! It’s Grandma’s fault that I have an addiction to fried food. She would’ve loved Scott because he has a similar gentleness and kindness. She would’ve loved to feed him, and he’d have gladly gobbled it all up, much to her satisfaction. Grandpa had an incredible smile, which is where I think I get my smirk from. He was smart, funny, strong, always stylishly dressed in a shirt and tie, sweater vest, and blazer, and fiercely independent — clearly all traits that were passed onto me! They loved us all so much.
It’s difficult for me to fathom what was going through their minds 37 years ago today when they made the decision to flee. You’ve never been on a plane before; you have no idea where you’re going; you don’t speak the language; you have no money. But we were all together, and I think they just knew we’d figure it out. Our lives changed in a heartbeat, and I’m sad my grandparents and my family lost everything they had.
Neither of them ever got to go home. Grandma died in 1994, Grandpa in 1997. President Clinton didn’t lift the embargo until 1994, when they were both in their 80s. We built a good life for ourselves in the 20 years they lived in the States. I know they loved me so much and were proud of me. Grandpa attended my college graduation right before he died.
I’m staring at the building, but there’s no lump in my throat. It just feels right, like it did when we’d go to Grandma & Grandpa’s house in the states. We visited my grandparents’ graves in Westminster the day before we left for this trip. I needed to tell them where we were going; and I felt like they knew I was there at their house in Vietnam.
Scott had commented at the end of the day that I made it through the tough part without getting emotional. Writing this blog post is a different story — and the floodgates open. Damn you, Scott. I think I liked it better before I met you when I was Hard Tran and suppressed everything! This whole dealing with your emotions thing is hard. It’s odd to mourn a life you never knew, yet be thankful that you didn’t have to experience post-war conditions.
I made it home, Grandma & Grandpa. I saw for myself where we lived.
Shots of the neighborhood:
There’s now a market next door, replacing the old cemetery. Grandma would have liked being able to just walk downstairs to buy fruit & veggies.
The Vietnamese have midday siestas but instead of going home, you just rack out at your stand. Cover your face with your bamboo hat so your friends don’t Facebook you.
An un-remodeled house next door.
The Buddhist temple that Grandma used to attend and volunteer for is nearby. It’s big and beautifully peaceful, but we can’t go inside because it’s closed.
The sweltering heat had finally gotten to us, and we’d only been exploring for about 3 hours. Steve & the cabbie gave us a guided tour of the city on our way back to the hotel. We stop for some fresh sugarcane juice, which was deliciously refreshing! We both looked at each other when we saw them adding ice, and figured, “Oh well, we can always resort to the Immodium or Cipro!”
See the stacks of sugarcane stalks behind the lady?
They push the cane through the extruder, extracting the juice and spitting out the shredded sugarcane in the front.
Yummy, yummy. No problems with my tummy!
Scott powered through the jetlag during the business portion of his trip, but it’s finally caught up to him and he instantly crashes when we get back to the hotel and sleeps for almost 12 hours straight.
It’s been an incredibly enlightening day and the people have been so friendly and welcoming. No one has made fun of my elementary grasp of the Vietnamese language. I usually quickly tell them it’s my first visit since I left as a baby, in an attempt to quantify why my Vietnamese sucks. They’ve all been quite complimentary in saying that it’s an accomplishment that I speak any Vietnamese at all.
I’m struck by the gentle kindness and pleasantness of Vietnamese people that, sadly, I forget about because it’s often overshadowed by the irrational dramatic shrieking. They all are happy for me that I’ve returned. The service at our hotel is impeccable. The young men and women at the front desk, housekeeping, and restaurants are polite and demure, and their excellent English is spoken in soft tones.
I can’t help but look at everyone’s faces and wonder if that could have been me. If we hadn’t left, would I be manning a booth at Ben Thanh market? A hotel maid? Selling food at my little street cart? My closest friends will say that I’d figure out a way to run the business, regardless of what I chose. After thousands of years of war, this was mostly a culture of subsistence living. If you’re never told to strive for more, is that drive to excel innate or do you just do what you can to survive?