Editor’s Note: It’s easy to see the current debate over refugees coming to the United States as one that does not affect us here in Pulaski. If we do feel connected, most of our media outlets prime us to feel afraid of immigrants and refugees. But the data just doesn’t support this narrative of fear.
Not only are refugees and immigrants less likely to commit violent crimes than US citizens, but their increasing presence in communities is also associated with a decrease in those crimes. Additional data indicate that resettled refugees and immigrants can be a benefit to local economies, particularly in economically depressed areas like Pulaski. That’s why some small town mayors see hope in welcoming refugees to their communities.
And of course a simplistic narrative of fear about immigrants and refugees fails to acknowledge the ways in which our country has played a leading role in creating or exacerbating the conditions from which immigrants and refugees are fleeing. Truly acknowledging the ways in which we are connected to refugees and immigrants requires that we reckon with that history, too.
Hung Lui wrote the following description of his family’s experiences as refugees for other reasons, but we thought this account might help to put this current national conversation into a local and a historical context. The Lui family’s story is a helpful reminder that, by welcoming a family of refugees nearly forty years ago, we in Pulaski not only helped a family to escape brutal conditions, but we also gained neighbors who became our friends and who have contributed to our community in ways we never could have anticipated in the 1970s.
I think it would be in our best interest – in terms of our local economy and our national conscience – to remember Hung’s story as we consider how we welcome immigrants and refugees today.
My Humbled Life, Parts I&II
by Hung Lui
Part 1: Hometowns
My oldest American friends would tell you that their first memories were quite normal. Their hometown lay in the valleys of southern Virginia, a small town with few traffic lights and shops. There were no traffic jams, hardly any crimes, or celebrities to provide excitement for just a day. Their first memories might have been camping out, a birthday party, or just a chance to ride in the driver seat with their dads. They would have been the little children sitting with the pastor or minister during the children segment of church service. They might even have remembered getting on the yellow school bus for the first time with their friends at the bus stop. That was their hometown: a hometown I would eventually join.
In the seventies, Saigon was my hometown. It was a city in transition. It would even change its name to Ho-Chi-Minh City before I was five. My first memories consisted of walking through the streets with soldiers and guns, hearing bombs in the distance although never in the city, and sitting in communist rallies. It wasn’t the communism that appealed to me. Rather, it was the chance to hold that mike, hear my voice boom in the room and then getting a bag of candy in the end for singing songs about Ho Chi Minh.
But the matters of adults were never important in the mind of a child. I was too engrossed with walking with my mom and my siblings as she did the daily morning grocery shopping.
Refrigerators were still a luxury item in Saigon. It was the smells of the various street vendors with their noodles and cooked treats that captivated me. And even more exciting, getting a coin so I could buy one of those treats. I went to school, played with my friends, and worked on my calligraphy to avoid the strike of a teacher’s ruler. Instead of birthday parties, our extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins had one feast remembered to this day for its whole roasted pig, the scattering of coins on the street for us kids, and my first alcoholic drink with my cousin.
But things changed with a secret. How I knew the secret had been lost to me. But as an eight year old playing with my cousins, I knew it. “We’re moving, don’t tell anyone.” And as a simple as that, that’s how I as a child summed up the immigration of two generations to a place yet unknown, the diminishing of a cultural identity, and the hardships about to be endured.
As to why we were ‘moving’, my father provided the immediate answer. We couldn’t afford to stay. Working since he was fourteen to support himself and his family, he had managed to create a profitable paper company making stationery before the war. Now with the strict communist government, his income had become limited and fixed. With my mother, my maternal grandmother, and seven children, he couldn’t see a way to find enough money for food, let alone other necessities such as clothing, to support us all. There may have been other reasons such as future opportunities for his children, the impending military draft for his sons, and the threat of expulsion of Chinese from the country. But most of these were historical reasons best told by historians, not by me.
It wouldn’t have been the first time our family had moved. Both sets of my grandparents including my adolescent father had left China’s Canton region in the late thirties. They took the dangerous and long route through mainland China to southern Vietnam. My father’s younger sister and brother had already left Vietnam, again via the land route, and made it to Hong Kong. But with the large family he had now, he couldn’t see taking children and adults through that tortuous path again. So he settled for the sea and luck. It would be luck to survive the initial sea voyage and luck again that could rescue us from the refugee camps afterward. He started saving the ten ounces of gold per person needed to get a seat on those old wooden boats. He had already sent my oldest brother off alone before seeing to the rest of us.
Why it was a secret became apparent to me soon after telling my cousins. We had a neighbor that also ‘moved’ out. They had a dog and left him behind. As children, vicious dogs were more frightening to us than any ghost tales. But as I heard the dog bark and then yelp in fear inside as the men entered the home, I knew no greater fear. These were strangers, capable of anything and without explanation. And when the barking ceased suddenly, my fear heightened toward these men.
So one morning, my father arranged a car and a driver to take us to the forgotten rendezvous. As the day grew, I could see the countryside outside of Saigon. It had been three years since the ending of the war, but deserted tanks still lined the road. For me, this was more memorable than the emotions of leaving. The best explanation I have for this lack of emotions was that I was leaving a place. I still had my family and I knew nothing of consequences and dangers. It could have been just another trip.
It would be dark before our family and others gathered to board the boat. The pirates made a speech, instructing us to leave our cash as it would be useless where we were going. Our spot would be inside, in the bow. My family sat down on the floor while other people crammed along beside us. My mother showed us the only food we had for the whole family, a glass jar of preserved lemons. How long we were on the boat, I couldn’t remember. My father said it was several days, maybe seven. I still have flashes of scenes: looking hungrily at a neighbor eating a fresh orange; hearing jokes that the people topside were getting all the best food as a bowl of thin rice soup was passed around to the whole group.
My first memory outside the boat was taking a dump topside after just about everyone had left, including most of my family. I was waiting for my turn to be carried from the boat to the shore. I had no pants, but managed to find a shirt on the deck and substituted the sleeves for legs so I could cover up my nudity. Sitting on a forgotten shoulder, the man went looking for fresh water on the boat. He found a tank, smelled it, and declared it was bad. Strange as it may seem, I can still remember now the smell of that bad water, as if it had absorbed all the flavor of the plastic encasing it. Walking toward the beach, looking through the clear water beneath me, I could see the sharp rocks and corals. I was glad I didn’t have to walk.
The boat had grounded off the coast of Malaysia. By nightfall, it was being pulled by the tide out to sea and sunk. I sat on the beach watching it sink. As I sat on the sand with my head between my knees, wondering if I could fall asleep sitting up, my father came up to me. With a smile as if he was in on a joke, he told me, “Well, everything we had was on that boat, pictures, papers, even your first chopsticks. Now we have nothing.”
Part 2: Refugee Camps
You’ve probably seen those television commercials with an elderly white bearded man, talking about the suffering children of the world. It would show pictures of these unkempt children, playing in dirty streets with sad eyes. I never realized until I started writing these blogs that I was one of them. I was maybe one or two years older then the children in those pictures at the time, but it was me and my siblings. As a kid, I didn’t understand the hopelessness of the conditions at the time. It was still a world of play. If not for the kindness of strangers, I’d still be in a similar situation today. If you looked at my pictures, you probably would have never have guessed the story.
The days following our beach arrival were a torrent of activity. There were probably other boats that landed near that location, because there were people everywhere. Many were washing off in the freshwater stream that trickled down to the ocean or trying to catch a passing fish. Some were putting on as many layers of clothing as possible in the hot Malaysian sun before they started for the next camp because there were no suitcases. Others like me were shy about changing in public and would wrap a towel around their bodies before taking off any clothing.
My attempts at protecting my privacy would be in vain, though. I would eventually have to undress in a group, waiting to be inspected. Males and females were separated, but I still had to be nude like everybody else. I remember feeling uncomfortable as I undressed and watch all the other men and boys do the same. It was the first time I saw nudity in its most crude form. But it was a necessary evil if we were to stay in the camps. Luckily, none of my family members had a disease or a condition that would require us to be separated.
Afterwards we were sent to several interim refugee camps. Food there was easy to obtain as my family had several children. A family was limited to how much food it could receive. But with so many faces, it was a matter of splitting the children, getting in one line to get some bread or rice, and then go into another line, pretending that we never received any. You could buy more and better food with money, but we didn’t have any.
We were finally sent to our final camp. To get there, we had to cross a bridge made of two logs tied together. I was too big to be carried on such a narrow crossing. So, I had to cross it on my own. This was the only scary memory in my whole trip especially since the traverse was at night.
The camp was actually worse than the previous ones because it had to contain so many people permanently. In past camps, we stayed in buildings, sometimes even with beds. Here, we were given only a space in the dirt. It was just big enough to build a bed with tree branches for posts and frame for the family and the neighbors in Vietnam that came with us.
The other groups and our group erected a shelter made of branches and palm leaves. I remembered being jealous of my cousins when they arrived a few months later because they actually had a plastic tarp for their roof. Ours leaked. Under the shelter, several families would stay with their group beds, raised above the dirt and insects with a fire set up right next to it for cooking. Sanitation was another issue.
There were no bathrooms to speak of, only a mountain nearby where people hiked to do their business. I would walk there, find a spot where there would be no dung, squatted down and also did my business. I don’t remember what I used for toilet paper, probably leaves or nothing. It was only later that our group managed to borrow a shovel, dig a hole and put some walls around it, building our own private bathroom. These bathrooms were prized and guarded as families did not want it to overflow quickly. The family next to us whose children I became friends with never allowed us to use theirs. I remembered being perturbed that someone in the night had used ours and not even had the courtesy to flush water through the wooden grates to get rid of their dung. But this little bathroom was a great luxury as it also allowed us to wash in privacy for the first time.
Cleaning was just as important in a refugee camp as anywhere else, even though opportunities maybe scarce. I had forgotten until I was reminded of it years later. I was in another camp, a Navy boot camp. My head was shaved like everyone else at the beginning and the other sailors began to make fun of the back of my head. Since I couldn’t see it, one of my friends told me it looked like somebody had taken a shotgun to it because of all the brown dots on it. I had an idea of what it was, but I asked my mother to confirm my recollections. She told me they were scars from lice and their eggs years ago in the refugee camp. It was bad enough that I and my siblings had to have our heads shaved.
Our living area consisted mainly of a bed made of tree branches. It has six posts and a wooden frame tied together with branches lain across the frame. I can still feel those individual branches and the knots they had on my back. People think it strange that I am indifferent about beds or that I don’t mind sleeping on the floor. But those days were the main reason. Everyone including my father, mother, her mother, me, my five siblings, an eventual baby brother and the five neighbors from Vietnam slept together on the same bed. I used to pride myself for being able to sleep without moving an inch, a skill I’ve lost through the years of having my own space to sleep.
The neighbors from Vietnam were a group of Buddhist nuns. They were our neighbors in Vietnam. Why they came along, I never knew as we never saw them again after the refugee camp. They had taught my mother prayers and chants that she would do every morning when we were neighbors. Maybe it was the thought that these enlightened Buddhist souls would bring us luck. They didn’t have much of their own, though. One of them became sick on the boat and never fully recovered. When she died, I was told to take the place where she slept. I remember seeing a dark spot where she had lain the night before and becoming scared of her ghost. My grandmother who always doted on me volunteered to take the spot.
Death was not common, but it was an accepted part of life. My mother told me one morning not to bother the man who slept in the bed attached to ours. He was sitting there just staring into space. When I asked her why, she told me his wife had died the night before. I looked at the man, but never bothered him. Once there was a big commotion in the camp and I found out later that a man had murdered a woman through anger. I didn’t know the couple, but I remembered being scared walking past the place where they supposedly lived. My aunt’s family, also a neighbor in Vietnam, was not as lucky as ours in their boat trip. The boat had apparently started sinking in the ocean and was rescued, but not before several people had drowned.
Food was scarce, but we didn’t starve. Each family could get a ration of one chicken a month, plus rice and noodles. Other food we had to find through ingenuity or work if there was any. Some families were lucky enough to acquire nets to catch some small fish to supplement their diet. My father once brought back an apple. I had seen pictures of apples in Vietnam and thought they were the size of a watermelon. It was disappointing to see it was only size of my father’s hand. He sliced the apple into nine pieces and divided it all among the family. He also managed to procure a jar of orange flavored gumdrops. Every now and then he would give us children one of those treats in plastic wrappers. I feel guilty even now that once or twice I would wait until the whole family was asleep and steal one. Now that I have money of my own, I hardly buy any candy or sweets.
Water was drawn through a well meant for the entire camp. It was a deep well and people lined up to it. I was proud one day and then embarrassed when my brother and I (7 and 8 years old) managed to carry a bucket attached to a pole on our shoulders. From my memory, people were laughing at how small a bucket the two of us carried. I wished I was strong enough to carry two buckets like so many of the men I saw.
Life, overall, though was not difficult for me. My world still was that the world of a child. I was too little or too weak to work. My father and second brother, only a few years older than I, did all of it. By work, I mean doing things around the camp for other families such as chopping wood, cutting down trees, or digging holes. Maybe there were more standard types of work, but my father would know more than I. He would be paid with money sometimes, but most of the time he received food or equipment which was how we managed to borrow a shovel. Something valuable like that would never be given away permanently.
I played with the other kids and my siblings. It seemed the whole island was our playground. We would play in the dirty waters of the harbor, looking to see which boat would come in or leave, or would run through the various camps. I even learned a new language from the kid in the adjacent shelter during these games. I didn’t know the name of the language, but it was fun to learn by pointing and naming things. My cousins arrived a little after we did so there were even more playmates. I even met a friend from my school in Vietnam. One kid I met was unlike the rest of us. He was fourteen, but he was all skin and bones. His body was always in the fetal position with bent hands and elbows. His eyes were bright and his mouth was constantly open even though all he could make were sounds and not words. It was amazing that he survived the boat trip and that his family had loved him enough to bring and take care of him. I didn’t know what disease he suffered from but it was just another memory that made me thankful for the state I was in.
I had my selfish moments, though. Whether it was reading the cartoon off of a discarded gum wrapper and wondering what gum tasted like, or eyeing another kid drinking a soda. It wasn’t the soda itself, but the foam from the carbonation that caught my attention. It must be a fancy drink to have such a bubbling crust and I would dream of one day buying one of my own. Nowadays, I preferred non-carbonated drinks, especially tinged with alcohol, to the gas that would bloat my stomach.
At night, my mother would sing or tell us stories from Into the West passed orally to her. When I was in college, I managed to read for myself the stories about the monkey god, his monster companions, and the Buddhist monk in English. But while they were recognizable, they didn’t have the same appeal as when coming from her.
She left for a couple of days once. She was in labor and the child was due. When she came back, she had a story of her stay in the hospital. Another woman was also in labor, but she had no means of taking care of the baby. So, she sold it. They talked a great deal and became quite close. Afterwards, the woman gave my mother a set of metal plates with a floral design on it. We still use those plates in our family home, today. Surprisingly they looked as brand new as the day we got them. For my mother, there was really no choice. She kept my littlest brother and we had a new addition to the family.
The days seemed to quickly pass by. It would be ten months before we had an opportunity to leave for America. It would have been either to America or Australia. But as fate would have it, we had some unexpected friends in a little church in southern Virginia that wanted to help us. I was eight years old, standing with my mother, waiting for the boat that would take us off this part of Malaysia and to an airport for the long flight to America. Instead of being profound, I said to her, “Guess what? I haven’t been to school for ten whole months!”