A vintage photo depicting a male- and Vietnamese-presenting individual standing in front of an old building with a white sign that says "Service Parts" in the background.

OPINION: Unsteadiness

by TQ Vu

(This piece was originally published as part of the Duwamish Valley Youth Storytelling Project and has been reprinted under an agreement.)

As part of the inaugural Duwamish Valley Youth Storytelling Project, three local high school students, Jazmine Petty-Yeates, TQ Vu, and Tommy Mac, had the opportunity to participate in a workshop and develop stories connected to community while also exploring the complexities of their intersecting identities. The workshop was facilitated by journalists and community storytellers Bunthay Cheam and Jenna Hanchard to increase access to journalism for BIPOC and employ youth. The project was in collaboration with the Port Community Action Team and sponsored by the Port of Seattle. The workshop helped students become better listeners and storycatchers to continue passing down and honoring the stories of our communities using their medium of choice.

Words From TQ

For the 16 years I’ve been breathing, my dad has always been there for me. Maybe not exactly when he went into the house right before I fell off my bike and got the worst cut I could’ve imagined. But when I struggled with telling the time or having trouble with my brand new iPad not connecting to the Wi-Fi, my dad was always to the rescue. Bringing me home extra Safeway donuts or buying an extra hamburger when he stopped by Dick’s for lunch. My dad and I have always had a good relationship. But that’s because good father-daughter relationships only require a good father and not necessarily a good daughter. Because I thought I knew everything about my dad, from how he chewed his food to how long it took him to shower or drive to places. It wasn’t like he didn’t tell me stories, either. In fact, I heard many of them from his childhood. How he once chased a chicken onto a roof or how he played soccer barefoot in the streets.

What I never considered was how arduous his experiences might have been. The experiences that have put me where I am now. Although I try to not take everything I have for granted, hearing about his journey here made me realize that I continue to anyway. Because the way he described these experiences made me sound like I was being a complete crybaby over a boy not responding to one of my texts. Because when I finally processed the stories themselves, I could barely imagine myself in his shoes and persevering through these experiences. Because when I stepped into a new building, the only thing you could possibly compare to my dad stepping into a new country was the feeling we both felt.

Photo courtesy of TQ Vu.

The Journey Across the Sea: Fleeing Vietnam

Almost 125,000 Vietnamese refugees fled to the United States after 1975. After the North had one Vietnam war, they were taking on the Cambodian-Vietnamese war. But with the new government, those formally on the opposing side in the Vietnam war experienced unfair treatment. This poor treatment caused many people from the South to flee Vietnam. They went to many countries such as the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom 

My father was one of the 125,000 people who wanted to escape the new government. Frequently, the storytelling of many immigration stories is very loose. We often forget that immigrants left their home country, family, and childhood behind. The feeling my dad felt as he watched Vietnam become smaller and smaller can’t be described in words because nothing could compare to knowing that you may never see your family and friends again.

The current Vietnamese government at the time didn’t just have suspicions about the people formerly from the south. From their previous conflicts with China, they were wary about possible spies in the country. As a solution, they “allowed“ these people to leave the country if they wished. After three failed attempts, my dad finally departed from Vũng Tàu, a port city on the peninsula of Vietnam. With luggage about the size of a grocery bag, he boarded the ship that carried 334 passengers. A vessel not meant for 334 passengers. With the number way over the ship’s capacity, the passengers and their luggage weighed the ships so far down, people on the deck could reach over the railings to graze the ocean’s surface.

Many people were forced down into the ship’s compartments because there was no space on the deck. Women, children, and the elderly were prioritized, which meant they moved men under the vessel. Despite these rearrangements, it was still severely cramped below the deck. Passengers sat with their legs spread open and in between each other’s laps. There was no walking space, and they sat in that position for five days straight. To relieve the ship of some weight, the sailors threw off “unnecessary“ items. That entailed anything that wasn’t a person or personal luggage. They threw food, water, and other necessities overboard. That meant there was only enough for teacup-sized portions. For the rest of the journey, the passengers received only rice porridge and water. They didn’t receive any more food or water until they spotted Malaysia. 

The boat trip wasn’t as smooth as its surface. A neighboring passenger puked on my dad. His cousin had bodily fluids spilled onto him. In the dark of the night, they even heard a passenger jump off the ship. Two passengers died from starvation and overheating. It wasn’t sanitary, and it certainly wasn’t pleasant.

When they arrived in Malaysia, the national guard placed everyone on the beach and took some time to speak to authorities. After finalizing decisions, an empty island took in 10,000 immigrants into their refugee camp. Food, water, and jobs made the experience on the island much better than on the ship. The United Nations handed out forms for refugees to choose the country they wanted. The most common countries chosen were the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. My dad wrote down the United States and Australia. He met and interviewed with a United Nations representative, a process needed for each country to decide who would be allowed to immigrate to their country.

My dad and his brother moved into a transfer camp to get their visa and schedule their flight, and finally, they were off to the United States of America.

Photo courtesy of TQ Vu.

About My Dad

My dad was born in Saigon, Vietnam. He grew up in the city until he departed from Vietnam and went through what he described as the worst experience of his life. After his flight to his final destination, he arrived in the United States with his brother. With two outfits, a pair of shoes, and $20 in their pocket, they stayed with their cousin in Seattle, Washington. Despite having almost nothing, arriving in the strange, new country, he described his first feeling as “great.“ Although he had every right to be worried, partially because his cousin had forgotten to pick him up, he also felt free. He went to school briefly to become a mechanic. He worked at several shops and for car companies. He met my mom on a visit back to Vietnam, and they had me in 2004.

About the Boat People

The “boat people” is a term used to describe the refugees who fled Vietnam in 1975. These refugees were citizens from south Vietnam who wanted to escape the new government. The ships they boarded were often crowded and lacked water and food. Pirates were also very aware of the wave of immigrants traveling across the ocean and kept an eye out for these new targets. My dad’s ship was unfortunate with the passenger load and food. But unlike many other vessels, they got lucky in the pirate department and encountered none.

TQ (she/her) is currently a junior in high school. She is a Vietnamese American who was born in America, but her parents immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam. In her free time, she likes to volunteer because she is able to meet new people and help out her community.

📸 Featured Image: Photo courtesy of TQ Vu.

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