>My parents were both 34 years old when they came to the United States. With the eclipse of the 35th anniversary of the fall of Saigon this past Friday, I find it fitting to honor their bravery during the harshest of times of their lives.
On April 30, 1975, Saigon succumbed to Vietnam’s communist forces. And with that fall also crashed my parents’ dream to ever live in their home country again. Like tens of thousands of other Vietnamese who were forced to leave their country, my parents gave up hope long ago that things will ever be the same, and they started a new life in a new country.
Like most immigrants, they rarely talk about their past. And like most children of immigrants, my brothers and I rarely probed into it. Strangely, it was intuitive. We knew when to ask questions, and we also knew when they weren’t welcomed.
Only recently have my parents began unrolling their stories and telling us what we’ve always wanted to know but never had the courage to ask. Slowly, very slowly, I’m finally starting to understand who my parents are. Perhaps it’s because my parents are aging and realize there’s no need to hold onto their stories. Or, perhaps it’s because they’re starting to understand that it’s finally OK; It’s OK that no matter how much my brothers and I will never fully grasp what it’s like to be completely displaced, we will always listen.
During the Vietnam War, my father served in the South Vietnamese army. If I recall correctly, he was a sergeant (though when I was a kid, I didn’t know the difference and used to tell my friends he was a four-star general). My mom was a math teacher. Though my parents married after arriving in the States in 1976, they knew each other while living in Vietnam. Funny story, it turns out my father used to date my mother’s younger sister.
My parents were boat people. From my gatherings, they were the same people that the movies and historical photographs portrayed. They were at sea for weeks in unbearable conditions — completely cramped and with wretched supplies. Sometimes I think about how horribly motion-sick my mom gets these days, and I can only imagine that the thought of finding new life elsewhere kept her from puking out her insides.
They landed in the Philippines. Or was it Japan? Either way, after that they were granted sponsorships from two Baptist churches — my father got his from one in Orlando, Fla., and my mother in Jacksonville, Fla. Completely out of their element and with possibly negative comprehension of the English language, my mom worked at a local bakery and my father was a laborer.
Things are different for my parents these days. They’ve retired in central Florida. They’ve bought a sizable house that’s completely too big for the two of them. My dad’s days seem to be confined to fixing his sprinkler system and feeding his parakeets. My mom is now the social queen of the neighborhood, with folks stopping by all the time to chat with her.
They still hold resentment toward the Communist party. My parents are proud people who still hope to see a democratic Vietnam during their lifetime. They haven’t been back to Vietnam since they left their country almost four decades ago. They want to go, but something’s holding them back.
One time recently I did ask why they’ve yet to go back. I got a mumbled response.
These days, my brothers and I have been trying to get my parents to adopt a dog. We hear that it’s therapeutic to have a pet — it takes away the loneliness and stress. They keep saying that they will. Maybe they’ll actually seal the deal some time soon. Undoubtedly, they’ll have plenty of stories to share with that dog.