Though I was born in Sài Gòn, the capital city of what was formerly South Vietnam is not the childhood home I remember most; rather it is a watery landscape covered with rice paddies and fruit orchards in the Mekong Delta where my family was exiled in 1978 when I was seven. Three years earlier, the North Vietnamese army had defeated South Viet Nam after almost thirty years of civil war. The united country, renamed the Socialist Republic of Việt Nam, set out to pursue its communist ideal of a just society in which everyone was equal and there was no place for a successful businessman like my father.
The farmers in the small rice-farming village of intertwining bloodlines didn’t much care for outsiders from the big city. Everything about us—our accent, our clothes, our shoes, the fact that we wore shoes, and particularly our untanned skin—stood out. The lighter sheen signaled to the villagers all they needed to know. We had never toiled under the sun and had little idea how to farm or fish, which were the only skills that mattered in a place surrounded by rivers and ponds, rice fields and orchards. The villagers were right. Our family knew next to nothing about life in the countryside. Besides my father, none of us even knew how to swim.
In the countryside the Communist government set out to collectivize the rice fields as it had done to private enterprises in the Saigon. Farmers had to turn over to the government their lands and property, including water buffalo used to plow the soil. Under collectivization efforts, rice harvests plummeted, taking our village to the edge of famine. In my family–the outsiders–the villagers found an easy scapegoat. Fueled by alcohol, their anger would turn into violence.
In the months following attempts on my father’s life, I heard my parents mention vượt biên. The phrase, brimming with secrecy and danger, means crossing the border. I understood it to be the most forbidden of all illegal acts. Just the thought of vượt biên, if revealed to the wrong people, could land all the adults involved in jail.
In 1983, after several failed attempts, our family finally made it out to sea inside a fishing boat packed with 155 other passengers. On the third night of our escape, my father roused me from sleep. In the faint light, I could make out the terror on his face which mine quickly mirrored. We knew that Thai pirates often trolled that part of the South China Sea, looking for desperate refugees, to rob, rape and kidnap. Young girls were their favored targets. I curled up in my father’s lap. Transfixed in that position, we barely moved until we heard voices cry out that the ship had passed us. As my father’s embrace loosened, I looked up and saw the familiar dimpled smile only now mixed with undeniable relief.
After more than a year in various refugee camps in Malaysia and the Philippines, my family and I arrived at our new home in a small Texas town. My parents began looking for work as soon as we were settled. During the day, they spent hours at the Immigration and Refugee Resettlement office combing through job postings. At night, they searched for help-wanted ads in the newspaper. They applied for every position that they thought might not require much spoken English.
My parents eventually found work at a bakery. In the long hours at work, the dream of having his own business returned to my father. He decided to open a sandwich shack featuring the quintessential Vietnamese sandwich–a crispy French baguette smothered with liver pâté and homemade mayonnaise, filled layers of roast meat then topped off with pickled carrots, cilantro, slices of cucumbers, fresh chili peppers, and a few dashes of soy sauce. He thought the popular food staple of the masses in Việt Nam would also appeal to Americans. Reality, however, did not match my father’s vision. Our banh mi shop had far fewer customers than he had anticipated. The few non-Vietnamese customers we had usually chose a hot dog or hamburger over the bánh mı̀ sandwich after tasting the free sample that we offered.
At night, the work from the shop followed us home. In between homework, my siblings and I would take turns shredding carrots, whipping mayonnaise, slicing up old baguettes to make toast. My mother would stand by the stove roasting meat, making meatballs, preparing food that she could not make in the small confines of the shop. When not helping my mother, my father would be at the kitchen table paying bills or going over inventory. Each day ground into the next in the continuous scramble to eke out a living.
The shop, where I spent most afternoons outside school, turned out to be a real-life classroom for everyone in our family. American customs and culture, which we had known in books, came to life. My shy mother was forced to speak English to customers and the occasional telemarketers. “I am not interesting!” she would proclaim over the phone. For my mother and native Vietnamese speakers, “interesting” and “interested,” like “boring” and “bored,” were interchangeable.
I started helping at the shop at the onset of my teenage years and left at the end for college. Away from home for the first time, I often thought of my father’s comment. “We already won the lottery by being here in America.” He used to make the remark whenever I complained about trivial matters or got annoyed when a scratch-off lotto ticket failed to deliver on its promise of an easy win. I finally grasped fully what my father meant. In fact, our family had won the lottery, not once but twice. First, by defying the sea in escaping Việt Nam and, second, by arriving in America. The lady of liberty opened her arms to the battered refugees and nursed us back to productivity. Nowhere else could a family like ours have recovered as well in as short a time.
Our family’s story, however, is hardly unique as it mirrors those of countless other refuge seekers in America. In a land of immigrants, a sense of belonging was possible, it just needed time. This was the conclusion of an essay that I wrote in high school, which was published in the Port Arthur News, the very newspaper my brothers and I used to deliver when we first arrived in our small Texas town.
This essay excerpt is adapted from “Of Monkey Bridges and Banh Mi Sandwiches: From Saigon to Texas” a memoir by Oanh Ngo Usadi with permission from O&O Press.