The Infinite Journey

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
This is my mother's story of fleeing Vietnam after the war. I appreciate anyone reading it and am grateful for feedback.

Submitted: December 08, 2015

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Submitted: December 08, 2015

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This short story depicts the life of my mother, Duong Thi Ngoc Huong, as she attempted to flee Vietnam following the war. It is told through a first person narrative to give a personal insight into the life of a young refugee escaping a war torn nation in search of a better future.

It was sometime in July 1979. I had gotten out of school for the summer holidays. Although the war was in the background, things seemed joyous. Being in seventh grade, the adults tried to shield us from the atrocities that were going on in our country. All I knew was that my father was taken from me when I was three years old. I comfort myself with the thought that I don’t actually remember him, or hardly even knew him. In our village, word got around quickly that Saigon was still reeling from the effects of the war, however, Ca Mau was relatively unaffected because it was located about 300km south of the city. Additionally, we had a geographical advantage – being located next to the sea provided us fish and seafood. My sister, Chi Tu and her husband owned a hair salon. I knew it was successful because of the traffic of customers we received in and out of our home daily, I understood that we were better off than most Vietnamese families. Regardless, fighting poverty was still a daily battle. There was an extreme shortage of rice, and famine was occurring all across the country.

Before the war, most summers my siblings and I would spend our days playing in the fields without a care in the world, but this time I knew there were other plans for me. I knew this because I had overheard Chi Tu speak with mother and, although I didn’t know the full context of their conversation, I understood I was going somewhere. My heart leapt of excitement and I almost exposed myself eaves-dropping on the adults. Hardly able to contain myself, I shared the news with a school friend. She was a few years older than me. I was disappointed to see that she wasn’t as excited as I was, but to think of it, I would also be pretty upset if my friend got to go somewhere new and I had to stay in Ca Mau.

With a lightly packed bag of a few clothing items, we were off to the docks: myself, Chi Tu, her husband Anh Tu, her two children Di and Thi. Anh Tu knelt down and explained to me that if anyone were to ask, I would have to pretend that Anh Tu was my adoptive father and that because he is Chinese, so am I. Chi Tu took out our tickets, which I later found out were purchased with the money saved up from the salon, and explained to us that we were to dock the metal boat – the better kind. I was so flattered that they had chosen me out of our nine siblings to take on this adventure.

Once we got to the harbor, we all understood we had been deceived – there was no metal boat –instead, it was made of wood, broken, disheveled and in a poor state. There were hundreds of passengers boarding and since there was only one boat, our group was quickly pushed along with the rest of the angry passengers. Observing my surroundings, I estimate the boat to be around 25m long by 5m wide and I knew the final count of passengers was 403. Every single person was huddled up tightly to sit on the floor. Once every couple of hours, it was deemed acceptable to ask the stranger in front of you if they would be willing to let you straighten out your legs to eliminate the muscle cramps. The ship was far overloaded. Despite the inhumane conditions, everyone was thrilled to be leaving. Vietnam, being under extreme communism, was a difficult place to live.

After only having traveled some km from Ca Mau, the crew had discovered issues with the boat. We stopped in Ran Hao to set up camp while the boat was being repaired. My mother, hearing the news, made her way to the camp to see me. Although I was happy to see her too, I didn’t quite understand why she had come. She said she had used this opportunity to see me again. Seeing the poor conditions of the boat, she had changed her mind and was now begging me to stay. I assured her that everyone else will be fine, and so will I. Mother didn’t seem too convinced, but eventually gave in. She broke down in tears. Though I couldn’t understand what was so upsetting about my vacation, her cries were contagious. She held me and cried harder than I’ve ever seen her or anyone else cry. In response, I did the same. Pausing from this deeply intimate moment with mother, I looked up to see many other families in similar scenarios.

After a couple of days, we were back on the ocean on the same overloaded little boat. Now we had another fear waiting ahead of us. Rumors said that nine out of the ten ships departing Vietnam were captured by the Thai pirates. The stories include the theft of valuables, sexual advantage of the females, and sometimes the kidnapping of the younger females sold for human trafficking. We knew the odds were against us, and it was no time before we encountered some misfortune of our own when the pirates stopped our boat and started to take control of the crowd. I could sense the panic in the air but this wasn’t a complete surprise to us. Hearing stories of other encounters with the pirates, we knew what we were in for and tried to stay as calm as we could. The pirates ordered half of our group to hop over to their ship, leaving more room for them to rob our valuables. A young female passenger attempted to hop over to the Thai ship. Because of the rough waters, her leg fell through getting stuck between the two vessels. The oscillating motion of the waves rapidly smashed our boat back into their ship. It broke off a chunk of our wooden boat, and what seemed even worse at the time, took her right leg with it. I could see the blood. At this point, the Thai pirates had her on their boat, and with a shortage in medical equipment, they couldn’t do anything to help her. With the shock and trauma of the injured lady and the broken boat, the pirates tied our boats together and promised us that they would take us to land. I didn’t understand why they had a sudden change of heart but something in me, still didn’t trust them. We still had some time before we would arrive at land and luckily these pirates had little interest in sexual abuse and for the duration of this journey, protected us against future pirate invasions.

At this point we had lost our sense of time. Night and day started to blend, and after what felt like days of navigating the rough seas, we could see our first sign of hope; the Malaysian harbor. Upon arrival, we caught word that the lady from the boat had passed on from the injury to her leg. Once the sun had set, we had nothing left to illuminate the boat and as the world got darker around us, so did our spirits. Every piece of my clothing was thoroughly soaked as water continued to pour in from the missing chunk of the boat. We had been huddled together out on the ocean for several days without any proper care. There was an air of desperation on the boat and the stench of hundreds of unwashed refugees seems to be the only thing that I could remember.  I dreamt of a steaming warm pot of Ca Koh, just like my mother used to make back home.

Though there was a refugee camp set up in Malaysia, the port which we arrived upon was hesitant to accept us as the ratio of resources to – now 402 passengers – was deficient. There wasn’t enough food to even feed the locals. However, understanding our circumstances, they couldn’t reject us and agreed to let us recover for a few days. In doing so, Anh Tu traded his gold ring for a tub of noodles. Having starved for several days, the food was quickly devoured. Anh Tu forbid me, Thi and Di to do anything but lay still to preserve energy. Two days later the Malaysians had helped us set up for our continuing journey. They provided five little boats to distribute the 402 of us. Each boat had a limited supply of beans, water and petrol. And off we set for the waters – again.

In attempt to preserve petrol, the five boats drifted along the ocean, eventually all in separate directions. The boat only supplied coverage for the captain resulting in scorching heat during the day and extreme cold during the night. Shortly after, chaos broke out. We had exhausted our supplies and everyone initially went crazy. It was like a tight cage of wild animals. At night time, there was nothing but complete darkness. There was nothing in the horizons apart from more water and sky. In combination of the salty air and extreme dehydration, my lips cracked. Thi, being seven years old at the time, was crying and begging to go home. Di, ten years old, sat silently in despair. Likewise, Anh Tu, attempting to preserve energy also sat still. Chi Tu laid there like she was already dead, unable to move or speak. Observing everyone around me, I could barely feel anything. There was no hope. Everyone had given up and were just waiting. Once the dehydration was extreme, we broke off wooden pieces of the boat that were deemed “unnecessary” to make a fire to distill water. With limited resources, only one or two cups of water were produced and had to be shared amongst around 80 people. This meant we each got a drop of water to hold us against the tip of dying. It was enough to merely moisturize our lips and tongue.

In a far distance, we could merely see what we guessed to be an oil station. However, with insufficient petrol, we were unable to reach the land. About ten days of just drifting on our life lines, an enormous Norwegian cruise labelled “Lyskilde” (translation: light source) approached us. Once I got onboard, I recognized a lot of the passengers that we separated from in Malaysia and was sad to see that some of them also hadn’t made it yet. Some of the passengers, including Chi Tu, had to be hoisted up as they lacked the energy to do anything themselves. Due to the trauma of all the Vietnamese passengers, the Norwegian medicals understood to be careful in feeding us. They made chow – Chinese/Vietnamese porridge and slowly and gradually fed us to avoid expulsion. Though recovery took time, we understood we had been saved.

As night fell, we noticed the ship had begun to slow down. We were steadily approaching land. With stark contrast, the image of a greatly lit city outline of Singapore against the black sky stuck with me forever. It was civilization and it was beautiful. It was hopeful. Our devastating journey had finally felt rewarded. Everyone on the ship was fluttered with joy, in silence. The woman next to me, probably in her early 20s, turned to me and whispered with a smile, “Say goodbye to Vietnam for good”. Her words struck me and my world begun to spin. I didn’t understand. “What do you mean for good?! What about mother?! I won’t see mother again?!” The realization that this journey wasn’t an ordinary vacation sunk my heart. My throat clogged up. I burst into a desperate sob at the thought that my mother had begged me to stay but I wanted to leave – for what I now understand to be permanently.

Eventually a van took us to our camp. Our arrival brought reunion and joy amongst ourselves and the already settled Vietnamese refugees. My family and I were placed in house number two. Like all the other houses, the male refugee ratio was dominant. I noticed an old man in the corner of the house. He sat still and silently with a soulless look. After a couple of days I asked Chi Lien, another resident of the house, the story of this mysterious man. She pointed to two sad looking boys, about the age of Thi or younger. “Those two boys are his sons” she informed me. This surprised me as there had been zero interaction between the man and the boys in the time of my residency, which had now been several weeks, in the same house. His escape from Vietnam boat had, like ours and a large majority of the other boats, been captivated by pirates. His wife had been violently sexually abused by several Thai men – whilst he was forced to watch. With deep shame, his wife committed suicide by jumping into the ocean. With the rough waves, it was impossible to locate her body to hoist up for a ceremony. These events had broken his life. This was the horror story of only a single man amongst a million refugees. 

Settling for a temporary life in Singapore, I was allowed to work. Though working in a factory processing pig food eight hours daily, was unexciting, earning money was more than thrilling. I had saved up money to buy basic clothing items, various spices and other food products to send to mother. These items were significant considering the famine back home. Additionally, this was her first message received of our survival. To say the least, mother was beyond ecstatic to receive the present.

A relatively comfortable life in Singapore lasted a few months. Though this was a great place, we understood it was temporary. In preparation for our more permanent destination, videos featuring Norwegian lifestyle were provided. The only destinations with relative familiarity through media and stories, were France and USA. We were so baffled by these videos. It appeared there was nothing but fishing and snow in this remote world. It was so foreign it didn’t seem realistic. Anh Tu pleaded for us to be taken to France instead of Norway, but was denied. By the end of October, we had landed in Norway.

As winter was approaching, it was cold and the daylight was short. It was so gloomy and melancholic. We all had a deep sense of sadness and nostalgia for home; where the sun beats daily, the streets are filled with aromas of food and dirt and bustling noise rarely dies out. Not only were we some of the first Asian settlers in Norway, there was close to no immigration before us. There was no rice, no fish sauce, not even soy sauce. Bread and potato brought little satisfaction. Then, it started to snow early November. What a bizarre place.

Though we remained grateful for a new start in life, it was difficult to adapt. Chi Tu cried daily with sorrows of missing home. Being fourteen, I began attending school again. Alongside normal classes, we were all, including the adults, obligated to attend courses on integrating in Norway. I picked up the language pretty quickly. Citizens of Bergen, the city which we settled in, were friendly and welcoming. We also had a strong community of 300-400 Vietnamese people in Bergen which supported one another. Though a part of me still aches to go home, I was happily integrating into my new life in Norway.

 

 

 

 

 


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