Khanh Duy Vo is a thirty‑one year old South Vietnamese male who lives in Chelsea, Maine with his South Vietnamese wife, Mai and their three month old son Duy Joseph. Khanh, of slight build, is approximately five‑foot two‑inches tall, with shiny black hair and dark brown eyes. He appears to be in excellent health.
Khanh escaped from South Vietnam and arrived in the United States in 1979. Khanh’s parents arrived in the United States from South Vietnam almost two years ago and now live in Georgia with one of his sisters. Khanh’s other three siblings reside in Louisiana. Mai’s parents, who migrated from South Vietnam to Louisiana when she was seven years old, also live in Louisiana.
Both Khanh and Mai recently received their Master of Business Administration degrees from Thomas College. After the graduation ceremony, Khanh and Mai took their son onto the stage to have his picture taken in full graduation dress that Mai made specifically for the occasion.
KHANH’S LIFE STORY
Let’s see…I can go back as far as the time I had to go to my [paternal] grandmother’s funeral and I believe I was one year old. I’m pretty sure I can remember that far back ’cause I think it was a dramatic event that triggered me to remember it. She was killed in 1963 and that’s the year that I was born. I was born in January and I believe that was when she died ‑I wasn’t even one. Oh, yea not even one year old. So I do remember going to her funeral or wake with my sister and my brother and that’s all I remember. This was in South Vietnam. I was born and raised in Saigon. I believe her death was caused by being hit by a military vehicle and it caused some internal bleeding in her brain and we didn’t realize that. You know she stood up fine, she went home and she died that night. That’s all that I remember. My [paternal~ grandfather died before I was born so I have no memory of my grandfather at all. Both of my mother’s parents died way before I was born. In fact they died when she was only seven years old so I have no recollection of them. My mother has a picture of my grandfather. That’s all I know.
I have never seen a picture of my grandmother. They died pretty young so my mother went to live with her sister, helping her run a little tiny restaurant ‑ like a sidewalk restaurant with a couple of tables. I think she stayed there five or six years helping her sister with the restaurant and baby‑sitting her kids. Then she went to work. Now this is what I heard from my mother years ago. I believe at the age of seventeen or eighteen she went to Saigon, she was a country girl. She grew up in an area thirty‑five miles northeast of Saigon where our family has a farm. So, it was pretty much like our second home. So she moved to Saigon. She wanted to be a seamstress and my grandfather ‑ my father’s father was the teacher. He had a little school to teach people how to sew, how to make clothes. So she went there, I don ‘t know for how long, but that’s where she met my father. They started dating and then they got married. My father was pretty much a carefree person. He would do the necessary things but other than that he’s not going to spend time wasting his time worrying about things. I think because it’s pretty much, not the culture, per se, but … Iet’s say you were a male person you tend to have more power than the female. So that’s the way he was brought up. I think his father and grandfather was brought up that way and even now he’s still the same person. He rarely does housework. He likes gardening and to have pets in the house ‑ things that he wants to do. But in terms of cooking, doing the dishes, cleaning the house ‑ he doesn’t do it. My sisters or my mother do that. I don’t think I’m like my father because I came to the U.S. at the age when I could start seeing the difference in Eastern culture and a Western culture. Especially after getting married. I think it’s a two‑way street. People say you got to meet people half way and give her fifty percent of your time or whatever but I don’t believe in that. I believe in giving the person a hundred percent and I expect a hundred percent back. It’s not like fifty fifty. Fifty‑fifty is like you hold back. So I do the housework. My primary responsibility of the home is washing the dishes and doing the laundry. I do my own ironing. I starch everything and I even iron the clothes. Other than that I watch a lot of T.V.! When I do my ironing I watch T.V.!
I think my mother had my sister at the age of 20 and me when she was 25 and I’m the middle kid. I have an older sister, an older brother and two younger sisters. They are all here in America. My brother left Vietnam in May of 1979. I left in September of 1979 and was rescued by a Japanese merchant ship and it brought me and other people to Singapore. So I arrived in the U.S. after four months of staying at the refugee camp. My brother was unfortunately not rescued so he landed on some deserted island in Indonesia so he didn’t get here until April of 1980.
I was still in Vietnam during the fall of Saigon. I do remember the TET offensive a little bit and at that time I was five. We had a little farm about thirty‑five miles northeast of Saigon and we thought that place was a safe place to stay. We didn’t want to stay in the city ’cause we were afraid of getting all kinds of bombs and all that stuff so we all packed up. Each person had a little bag of some food and extra clothing and all that and we pretty much went to that farm. I am not sure how long we stayed there, probably a week or so, but then we went back to Saigon and the TET offensive was still going on. We had heard that it was pretty safe to go back to the city so we went back and there were still little fightings here and there in the city but then it ended. The outside of the city was pretty much destroyed but the inside of the city was still intact. And that’s probably another traumatic event that I tend not to forget or it’s hard to forget. And then seven years later in 1975 the North Vietnamese Army began to move South. Well, they were in the South for a long time but they never became active in terms of trying to take this city over and that city over. So I believe in the beginning of March of 1975 a month before Saigon fell ‑ when Saigon fell that was it ‑ that was the end of the Vietnam war, they started moving south aggressively with troops and weapons and ammunition ‑ you name it. They all started heading south and pretty much took the towns that were on their path. They pretty much won every battle on their way and they reached Saigon on the 29th of April, 1975 and the very next day we lost Saigon. Again we started to pack up again ‑ some with medication. I do remember my mother made some dry noodles and she said “Just in case you get lost from the city, you find some water or hot water and cook it. ” She also packed some Band ‑Aids and extra clothing and all that stuff in a little bag But we didn’t stay at our house, we went to my uncle’s house which had like a four‑story building. The reason for that was if a bomb hit the house it would have gone through probably the first, second and third floor first and we would be safe in the basement so we all gathered there. I do remember seeing my aunts and uncles on my mother’s side who came from the farm that I stayed during the 1968 TET offensive. So they went to the city this time and we were all there ‑ no less than a hundred people there. It’s a big building. I’d say about eight or nine families gathered there. On the 29th, I still remember, we were having dinner and it was five or six o’clock at night and we could hear the shellings start to hit the city. And my father said “Alright let’s go, let’s finish your meal and let’s go to your uncle’s house”. So we finished that and we went over there and we slept there overnight. The next morning we turned on the radio and we could hear that the communists were coming closer and closer to the city. The women started to change into farmers clothes, really ripped clothes, and started to erase their nail polish and wash their face to get the make‑up off. When the communist came in if they saw you with make‑up, with nice clothes, they’d think you were capitalist then they’d probably kill you or whatever. And we made peasants clothes just to wear in case they found us in that little basement. The men were fairly calm. I still remember exactly what I was doing that morning. I was clipping my nails with my mother and she was cleaning her nail polish and so I said “I’ll just clip my nails to kill my time” because we didn’t want to leave that building. My father and uncles and other guys started to say “Well I think they’re [the communists] here”. The shellings stopped then. And we heard on the radio at eleven‑thirty in the morning, April 30, 1975 that they took over the residence of the president of South Vietnam. That was it. That was the fall of Saigon. The end of the war. In the afternoon we said “Well, we’re not going to stay here, they haven’t come to our neighbor yet ‑ I think they’re still out there somewhere so let’s open up the doors and leave”. So we walked from that building all the way to the main street of our town and we saw them driving into the city in big trucks with soldiers and we started saying “Well, they don ‘t look so bad “. They weren’t killing people at that time. So we said “Welcome to the city”, not knowing what was to follow ‑ the new life that would follow. We pretty much played along. The very next day or two, it was May 2. If you’re from an eastern or communist country that’s May Day ‑ like our [American] labor day. They started to organize parades and all that stuff and we said well, it doesn’t look too bad so we said let’s go to one of these. I don’t know why that night I couldn’t sleep. I think I was looking forward to seeing the parades. So we went to the parades and came back and life started to change. What they [the communists~ did was first of all they went into the city and looked for South Vietnamese Army officials and officers with high ranks. I think they d id it within ten days. They gathered an of them together saying “You were the people who d id the killing. You gave the southern part of our country to westerners so we’re going to re‑educate / brainwash you”. So they pretty much gathered an these people and sent them away. I believe some of them are still in concentration camps at this time after almost twenty years. Most of them came back. My oldest uncle, my father’s brother came back three years ago from a concentration camp after twelve years or so. They moved him all over. They started to move him away from the city and from there they transferred him all the way to the Chinese border, way up north, and then to various concentration camps. He finally made it back to another town about 120 miles northeast of Saigon. He was there a year and a half and they finally released him because of his poor health. So he made it back in fact he came to the United States about two years ago. My father was not a high ranking official before he became a civilian before 1975 so they considered him as not somebody who was directly involved in the war. So he went to a concentration camp for only ten days.
After the TET it wasn’t that bad in Saigon, the city was pretty much intact after battles. Again, I was born and raised there so I didn’t really experience a lot of it even though you could hear about it on T.V. or reading a newspaper. Daily you’d hear about a battle here, a battle there ‑ 500 people killed in this town, this town was burned, whatever, but pretty much experiencing it in the media. I did experience it 1968 and again in 1975 but not much other than those two big events.
Schooling back home is a little bit different due to the large population in the city of Saigon or now Ho Chi Minh city. With the large population we had to split the schooling into two shifts. The first one started between six‑thirty or seven o’clock in the morning. and you go until noon time and the second shift would start at one o’clock in the afternoon and go until five o’clock or six o’clock at night. On a typical day I’d wake up and usually we would have breakfast right there at the school. It’s street vendor type breakfast. Sometimes a slice of bread with cheese or butter or I’d have a glass of soda for breakfast. Or a glass of milk or sometimes a fruit. Then we’d have to wait outside the school.
Sometimes parents would drop off their kids or kids pretty much walked to school. Then you’d go to classes. The difference between the U.S. school system and Vietnam is that you don ‘t move from one class to the next. You stay pretty much in one room and you have new instructors coming in every hour. So you just stay there. I believe it is still like this there now so I’m speaking in the present tense now. Every time an instructor comes into a classroom the whole classroom will have to stand up. I don’t know if we say good morning or good afternoon but we just stand up and bow. If he says okay you can sit down now then you can sit down ‑ if not, then we stand. Each class has like a class president and he’ll say stand, sit, or whatever ‑ he gives other students orders. It’s just like respectful for the teacher. Let’s go back to the past a little bit. We never had computers back home. We didn’t have the technology that you guys have here. Math was completely done by hand with slide rulers or a piece of paper ‑ no calculators. Not until probably a couple of years before Saigon fell that we started to get calculators but they were pretty much kept by the instructors or the teachers. They’d say no you don’t want this. You want to do it by hand first. If you get stuck then I’ll let you borrow it. Sometimes that’s a good thing to do ‑ teaching the kids the hard way first and then do it the easy way after instead of giving you the easy way and then you get used to it and then you can’t deal with the hard stuff do give them credit for doing that. I really didn’t like school. I was a really lazy person. I never wanted to do my homework.
So you go from seven‑thirty to noon time and then you ‘d go and have lunch at home. Mother cooked the meals. Each family is different. My parents were fairly easy. We could talk during lunch but some families you can ‘t talk during lunch, d inner or breakfast. Some families you finish eating and then you talk. My father didn’t really care. He would say if you had anything to share then do it [during the meal~. And I’m pretty sure we always had a hot meal for lunch because it was a male‑dominated culture. The females pretty much stayed home and did the cooking. We’d have rice, vegetables, fish I don’t remember having a favorite meal~ I did like the fried fish. My mother would prepare the fish and then deep fry or boil the fish and dip it in fish sauce with a little lemon and hot pepper and we’d have rice and vegetables. And we always had fresh vegetables. Pretty much the typical Vietnamese lunch or dinner. And the portions, they’re pretty identical for lunch and dinner so lunch is considered a big meal too. Breakfast is different. Sometimes you’d eat the food that you’d had for dinner or lunch but not an the time. The difference is that [at breakfast you’d probably drink coffee or juice or water or tea ‑ tea most of the time. After lunch, then we’d all nap for about an hour and then the father would go back to work and the kids would go out to play and mothers would pretty much start dinner. If you’re a shift worker the company will not allow you to go home and nap. But let’s say you’re an office worker, which my father was, they allowed you to go home for an hour and a half to two hours and you make up those hours when you come back. So you start work at seven o’clock or seven‑thirty and you don’t usually come home until six o’clock or six-thirty at night instead of eight to four [as in the U.S.]. So you go home and you have lunch with your family and sometimes you take a nap or read the paper and then go back to work. So people would get together and have a family lunch and then everybody would nap. And then the kids when they wake up at two or three o’clock in the afternoon they go outside and they play games and all that. Different families would play together but the boys would play with boys and girls would play with girls. Even within your own family girls and boys played separately. Sometimes they would let the girls play with boys but not very often. We didn’t have a lot of toys so we made our own toys. I use to make little trucks that carried lumber or logs. At that time I couldn’t afford to buy rubber wheels so I made the truck wheels by taking two bottle caps to make one wheel so it would take twelve bottle caps to make one truck. I would cut up aluminum cans to make little boats. Along the side of the boat I would have two sticks and across from that stick I would have a rubber band and then another stick to roll it back and when you let go of it, it was just like a little propeller. I enjoyed doing that. Sometimes now I feel like making one of those models that I made a long, long time ago.
So we’d play until five or six o’clock until the dads come home and then we’d go wash up and have dinner. If I felt like doing the homework I’d do it, if not I’d say “Nah, I don ‘t want to do it, In do it early in the morning!” I have to admit I was really lay. I never wanted to go to school, I always wanted to play. I would consider myself a loner then. I was never active. I would go and play with other kids but I would never start a game or anything. I’d actually just follow the big guys. See my brother is three years older than me and within that three years range he would have his own group which was so separate. For the boys, you’d have thirteen years old over here, ten years old over here, seven years old over here ‑ all separate play groups. And then you’d have girls on this side. Once in a while we’d play games together. I always wanted to follow my brother. And he had a bigger bicycle than I did being the oldest son. So after dinner we would wash up again and probably watch a little
T.~ and then do homework if we felt like it. Saigon is a really, really crowded city ‑ it’s the size of Boston with about three million people, so houses are extremely small So within a small neighborhood you can see people walking cause it’s always hot in the house and you’d go out and play again. We usually went to sleep about nine or ten and get up around six o’clock.
I don’t think it was my decision to leave Saigon. I believe it was my parents’ decision to let the boys go because after 1975 the communist began to move west to Cambodia and Laos and sometimes they would have little battles with the Chinese in the North. So they [the communists] started to recruit males to go fight. I think when you reached sixteen they’ll go look for you so my brother was sixteen and was a prime target. That’s one of the reasons that he left ahead of me. He tried three times and he made it the fourth time. After the communist came in nothing is private anymore. Everything has got to fall under the government’s control so they wouldn’t allow people to go out and ~sh for two or three days. What you’d have to do is go buy gasoline or diesel sold by the government and they would say this week you’re allowed to buy twenty‑five or fifty gallons or whatever, depending on the size of your vessel. Because they know two days out there at three hundred miles or whatever you would use up to fifty or one hundred or whatever amount of fuel then that’s all they’ll allow you to have. Just enough to get you out there and back in. If you want to leave the country, which is about a hundred times longer than the normal fishing trip in and out then you need additional fuel. You have to buy fuel in the black market and it’s probably one hundred times more expensive. If you can’t afford ‑ if you don’t have the cash or gold you do this. It’s like a pyramid system. Let’s say you have a boat and you know me. I can go out and say this guy has a boat who would like to leave the country but he can’t afford to buy food, fresh water or fuel~ If you want to go you pay me, say, $5, 000, $10, 000, or whatever and I’ll go pay him. So you [the boat owner] want $5,000 [from each person to transport them] I’ll go tell that guy $7, 000. I make a little profit for myself and I give you the $5, 000 to buy fuel or whatever. If I begin to make a profit then I can make enough money for my ticket. People made a living out of doing that. So sometimes you have to go through three or four levels. Once you [the boat owner] have enough money to buy the things that you need to have for the trip you have to select a site. It’s not like you can all drive down to the dock and get on board and then take off It’s not like that. Sometimes you have to bribe the local government and the local dock people. You say well we’re going to have ten people tonight, five people tomorrow night and then another group ten or fifteen days later. Sometimes you have to wait weeks just to get enough people together to go because transportation is really bad back there. The town where the boat was docked was about fifty miles south of Saigon and we had to go through several checkpoints to get to the town My‑Tho where the boat was docked. The day that I left Saigon to go down to the boat it was a really bad day, raining left and right, you know, pouring really hard. At this time my brother was on one of the Islands in Indonesia. Going from one town to the next I needed a permission from each town. For example, if I wanted to go visit you and I live in Augusta and you live in Washington, I have to go to the town of Augusta and say well, I need a permission to go from Augusta to Washington. I’m going to go to Cherilyn’s house and I’m going to stay there for three days and I’m going to return that day or whatever. Once I get to your house I have to go to your town house [hall] and show them my permission. I’m here now and I’m going to stay here for three days and then I’m going to leave Washington and go back to Augusta after three days. And we had all that ‑ and it’s all fake id. ‘s and all that stuff. So the checkpoint guards never bothered to check because it was pouring and they didn’t want to get out of their little booth so we pretty much went through and I believe we ‑ me and another family had to get off that bus and take a siclo which is like a tricycle that comes from the French “cycle” and it’s got two wheels in the front and one in the back and you can fit two or three in the front and it’s like a little bicycle with two wheels and they’ll just transport you. So we got on one of those and we go all the way from where the bus couldn’t go any further. We go from there down to the point where the boat was and at that time it was low tide and muddy as heck. The guys had to take all their clothes and just wear shorts and we would literally walk out to the boat because we couldn’t dock too close to shore. So we got on board around nine‑thirty [at night], I believe. I was anxious. They had to hose the people down because people had to go through the mud to get on the boat. And it was getting so crowded because they never had a computer system to check okay, this person’s going to be on‑board with group of five or six~ Everything’s pretty much word of mouth So let’s say that you say “Well, my boat can only take fifty people” and sometime you have two or three hundred people showing up. And the local people, if they know there’s a boat out there picking up people, they’ll join you! Even though they haven’t paid any money, what are you going to do? They’re going to say “If you don’t let on, I’m going to go tell’. So sometimes you want to go keep them quiet, if you have room, you let them go. And so someone who has paid may have to stay behind. It’s very unfair thing to do but it was life and death…you had no choice. So again, if the local people got on board and you had people who already paid to go you’d have to go because let’s say you had to leave at five o’clock and that’s it, you can’t wait any longer! So we got on board and because it was so crowded the captain or one of the people working in that group ‑ the organizers or whatever said [to us~ there’s no more room so I’m going to put you downstairs which is where the engine room was. To separate me and the engine was a piece of plywood. In an area no bigger than probably, four by six were five or six people down there. I couldn’t even stretch my legs out. I was in this type of position [knees tucked under chin and arms wrapped around knees] from nine‑thirty at night until ten o’clock [in the morning] the next day. So if you can imagine the ship coming from Africa with all slaves in there we were worse than that. We were like sardines in a tight box. So it’s not just that, it’s also the fumes coming from the engine. Oh, forget about the bathroom! You’re in heaven if you get on board, that’s it…you’ve made it on board! So we started the journey, I think we pulled anchor sometime before midnight because we had to wait for high tide. There were 174 people on a boat that was about fifty feet long. That was September 16, 1979. So we went down the river before we reached the mouth ‑ where the river ends and the ocean begins, there were checkpoints again on each side of the river. Normally we would have had to stop to show paperwork but we decided not to stop because we were leaving the country illegally so we kept going. They started to shoot rockets at our boat and the closest one, at that time I was still down below, you know, right next to the engine so I could feel the boat rocking and I could hear loud booms from shelling. At that time I wasn’t scared. I was extremely tired, being down there since nine‑thirty the night before. But I was somewhat alert to hear the conversations upstairs. It was a wooden boat so you could hear. So after that instance [the shellings~, till this day I don’t know why they didn’t go after us. Usually they’d get on a speed boat and say “Hey, Stop! Come back in!”. So we just kept going. One of the things that I think helped us was the people who owned the boat started to redecorate so it would like one of the Coast Guard ‘s. They painted it grey just like a Navy skipper or whatever you call it. The same color as the communist navy. So I think doing that would fool the checkpoints. So we kept going and I would say three or four miles from that area we could still see them. We still could still see the two checkpoints and we landed right on a sandbar! We got stuck there and we couldn’t go anywhere else! People started to cry “Oh, my god! They’re going to come after us. They’re going to arrest us. They’re going to put us in jail for at least three years”. People were praying. Praying that they would get out of there safely or praying that the check guards wouldn’t go after us. And then it started to hit me! said if I get out of this, if we can get this boat off this sandbar, then what next? Then I realized that we were not equipped to go the distance. That distance we wanted to go from Saigon or that town My Tho to Singapore. I don’t think except for the crew, nobody knew how far we would have to go. The hype pretty much made people think oh, we’ll go, we’ll go. But then when we were actually on that boat leaving the country, we said oh, my god! But then, we couldn’t turn around. It was too late. So people said let’s go. So the guys pretty much took off their clothes and they jumped off and started to push the boat, or tried to get the sand out. You can’t just pull sand out! So we waited there not long, I’d say about probably about forty‑five minutes. We were just sitting like a sitting duck out there and we waited and waited and waited! And finally the water was high enough for us to start over again. Then I started to cry. Because I said that’s it. This is the last time I’m going to see my country and I could see it in the horizon, you know it was a beautiful day, a sunny day and I said that’s it. That’s going to be the last time. And then I said wait a minute! Am I going to make it? Am I going to die out there? I’m not going back now. Many things going on right now but the main thing that I still remember up to this date is that I asked myself is this the last time that ×‘m going to see my country and my family too. So we kept going, going, going and then I think we headed southeast for a day and then directly south from there. Along the way we saw several big ships in their routes to whatever destination but they wouldn’t stop. We tried to get their attention by burning our own clothes because we wanted to reserve the fuel. So we couldn’t burn the oil to get the smoke. So we started burning our shoes or whatever we could find we would bum. And then we started to run out of fresh water. Right before we left, right before we got from fresh water to salt water, one guy put a fifty gallon bucket of fresh water on the boat just in case we’d need it. So the ration was an ounce and a half of water a day. And it’s not like right from the fountain. It’s like muddy water. So we kept going, going, going, and going and along the way we’d see several ships that just kept going away from us. We got real~ disappointed. We’re dying out here and nobody bothers to stop or even at least to give us some fresh water. Food was not an issue because when you’re tired you don’t want to eat, you want just water. So that’s all we wanted. So we kept going and going and on the beginning of the second night we encountered a major storm, a very, very big storm. And I was still healthy then. I could get out of that little hole there. I said I can’t stand it down there anymore so I went upstairs to the second level of the boat. And I do remember helping the elderly and the young kids who were very, very sick. They were seasick. They were vomiting here and there. And you’re out there on the ocean and it’s not like oh, I’m going to go take a walk and make myself better. You have nowhere else to go but jump off the boat and get eaten by sharks or whatever. So I do remember that night helping people around and the third night we hit another major storm and that’s when I got sick myself So I still remember laying on one guy’s lap ‑ the guy that I left with and his family. So that very night, once we got out of that storm I got better. There was a big ship that anchored right in the middle of nowhere with no lights on or very few lights on. We started going towards and it started to turn on all the lights. It was a tanker, a big, big tanker from I think Nigeria. So they threw down two containers of fresh water, I think we got about forty gallons of fresh water. We started yelling yea! We were hoping that they would pick us up. Oh! Let me get on board! And take a shower or whatever and have some food. But no, they said you can’t get on board. We’ll just give you fresh water and that’s it and they took off The next morning was the fourth morning [of the journey~, September 21, 1979 about nine‑thirty in the morning. And this time I was on the third floor. I was on the top of the, what you call the cockpit(.~) and it was extremely hot. You’re out there in the ocean and it was like a tin roof And my little backpack was gone, it was somewhere in the ocean because of that storm, so I only had a pair of cutoff jeans and a shirt. So I had to take off my shirt so I could lay on the roof or sit there and we pretty much sat there. All you could see was the horizon and water and you! And people began to get claustrophobic and getting really feisty. You know, getting angry at this and that and saying “Who chartered this course~’ or whatever, and starting to blame people and all that stuff And then we saw an airplane just flying up really high up and we started yelling. We were running out of clothes to bum. Somebody decided to chip part of the boat and put it in a metal can and they said, that’s it! We’re going to put some fuel in here to bum it! So we started burning and we got the smoke. And I think we were able to find a bedsheet, a white bedsheet big enough and we wrote S.O.S. on it. But you ‘re like 2, 000 feet up high and you can’t see what’s on it but I think they saw the flag. So the plane started to fly lower and lower and lower and lower until we could see on the side of the plane U.S. Navy! Wow! Well, I knew U.S. was United States but I didn’t know what “Navy” was because I never knew English. And people were yelling with joy! Now I’m not trying to become a sexist but the women started to put make up on! It was funny! But what else could they do? The men started singing “Oh, we’re going to the U.S.A.!” and an that! That was very first one that responded after we got the forty gallons of water from that tanker. So it [the plane] started to circle around our boat for awhile and then we could see a parachute right on the back and a long plastic tube about two feet long at the end of the parachute that dropped in the ocean. So we swung around and picked that thing up. We were knowledgeable enough to know what it was. It was a one‑way radio. We could talk to the plane directly but they couldn’t talk back to us. And out of 174 people only one or two people could speak English, not fluently though! And this person, to this day I still remember, he was a really fragile person. His beard and moustache was getting longer and was salt and pepper ‑ he was in his fifties then. He had crutches because he had lost one leg As a matter of fact he has a very cute daughter and I had a crush on her. Nothing else but having a crush on a girl out there ‑ you know it’s funny! This wasn’t my first crush. I think I had a girl that I was really close to but dating is a no‑no if you’re under eighteen. So anyway, besides that point, he was able to put that thing together. The problem is that you had to throw that thing back in the water in order to talk I don’t know why. Or maybe he misread the instructions. So he threw it back in the water and it didn’t work! And guess what! People on the boat started to blame him! They said “What did you do to that thing? Our only chance of survival! What did you do to it.~!” And I felt so bad for him. He was trying to help people but then people turned around and started blaming him for breaking the thing! Anyway, one guy jumped off the boat and got that thing back and we were able to fix it or maybe just a button that we didn’t turn on or whatever. Again, I was probably ten feet away from that thin$ they would never let people get close to that thing. It’s like ya! ‑ it’s our ticket to freedom! So they threw it back and it was about ten‑thirty in the morning. And the plane came back. I think the plane began to receive the signal from that device. I think it was transmitting certain signals. So the plane came back and this person now said “If you can hear me, if you can hear my voice, please circle our boat three times”. Because of course they couldn’t talk directly to us so the plane’s started doing that. And they said well, let’s double‑check. Let’s do the same thing the opposite direction but lower. So the plane’s starting to go the opposite direction three times and everyone’s yelling yea! And they said let’s try one more time. “If you can hear really well dip your wings”. And they started going this way [making airplane dipping motions] so we said that’s it. So then the plane took off! And just completely gone! And people started blaming that guy again for what he said ! They said “What did you say to that plane? Did you tell it to go away?”. And the people got really frustrated. You have to remember now again, we were in that boat for four days, not enough water and people were just getting on each other’s case. He said “Well I just told them that if they could hear me to do this and that”. So they kind of calmed down for a little bit. The plane came back and they said yea! They were really happy to see the plane the second time. This time the plane dropped two big plastic containers. We were able to retrieve those two. One of the two had medication, fresh fruits, fresh water, juice, cereals and all that stuff so we pretty much had a party there. There was about forty gallons of fresh water. And then we said well, let’s split now. At that point you would have different groups now. People get on each other’s case and groups would blame each other. We didn’t pay attention to one of the two containers. We concentrated on the food of course because we were tired and thirsty. Somebody spotted something on the outside of one of the containers. It was a picture of a little boat and a little anchor with an arrow pointing down and a picture of and airplane circling around. And then a picture of a big ship ‑ that was the key to freedom! It doesn’t matter what language it is, you can pretty much tell from the picture not to go anywhere… we’re going to get you help! Again the plane took off but at that time we were pretty sure that something good was going to happen. So we sat there and waited, and waited and waited for about forty‑five minutes later. It was close to high noon now and we saw a shining spot at the horizon. We only had only one pair of binoculars and people were fighting for that! So the spot got bigger and bigger and bigger! And we thought “Oh, my god!” And the name of that ship was Canadian Highway. There is no way that I can forget that name. And people said Canadian? ‑ Canada? We’re going to Canada./.l! And as it was approaching it was getting so big that we wanted to back away from it because we thought because we were getting so close we were going to hit each other! So we’d start to go away and I think they told us not to go so we dropped there and kept our distance. But then we saw a Japanese flag And then we started to wonder, “Are we going to Canada or are we going to Japan?”. Anyways, they began to put down a ladder ‑ they didn’t put down a skipper, I don’t know why they didn’t do that. And at that time people were celebrating like you wouldn’t believe! That’s it! We’re going to the U.S.A.. We’re going to Canada! We’re going to Japan! So they started to pick up people. We’re in the water and we had to climb that ladder and it wasn’t easy. That ship itself was carrying 4, 000 Toyotas! Can you imagine how big? It was like a Navy carrier. And so they brought us to the gymnasium and now we started to think well, what is my future, where am I going? But we were glad that we were no longer out there facing danger. I think that’s when we started to reflect because we had all day, that afternoon. And that afternoon they started to check up on the little kids and old people and give us medication to take to get rid of fatigue and all that stuff And people started to reflect on what we just went through, something that we never thought of We never knew exactly what was going to happen. It was pretty much like I’m running away. I don’t know where but I’m just going to run away. We were running away from the government. So we got on board and the distance that we covered in four days [in the boat] was only 1/15 of the total distance from Saigon to Singapore. It took that ship [the Canadian Highway overnight! Boom! ‑ We were in Singapore six o’clock the next morning! In less than twenty‑four hours we were in Singapore! Singapore is a little island and it’s like Hong Cong with lights and all that stuff and we were happy just to see lights. But let me back up a bit. After they got the last person off the boat somebody [from the ship, I didn’t see this with my own eyes and I don’t think I wanted to, pretty much destroyed our boat. I think they put a couple of flares to bum the boat. I don’t know why they did that. Safety reasons probably ‑ they didn’t want something floating out there on the ocean? After we were rescued we found out that the U.S. Navy was making a deal with the Japanese government and it was done in forty‑five minutes. And the agreement was, as I understand it, if these people [those who had been rescued] could not get sponsors from Australia, Canada or wherever, then Japan would have to pick them all up and Japan would have to bring them an the way back to Japan.
So we arrived in Singapore the next day and I was sad to hear that they destroyed our boat. It was the only thing that brought us to freedom. I have plans sometime in the future just to make a little model out of the boat. Something like a souvenir just to remember. But anyhow, so U.S. immigrants and Singapore officials got on board. They wanted to give us shots and check on everybody. They did the paperwork. I & S [Immigration Services~ came out and started did the necessary paperwork to get us to the refugee camp. So I’m pretty sure by noon time that very morning we got on little boats because that ship was so big that it couldn’t dock. It couldn’t go an the way in so it had to anchor far, far away. We got on little crew boats that brought us all to shore and then I started to feel like I was walking in the clouds. I had been in the ocean for five days. I was not balanced and I still had my cut‑off jeans on and that one shirt and no shoes! I was dark from being out in the ocean for five days. The bus ride took us to the refugee camp which was an old U.S. Navy barrack and I think the U.S. Navy just pretty much give it up and give it to the refugees. So that day when we got there we met the officials and they gave us some money to go buy clothes and shoes. I don’t think I could sleep that night because of my physical condition at that time. Everybody was in the same condition from being out there for so long ‑ fatigue. And then think about the future. Where will I end up? Do I stay here in Singapore? Do I go to Japan, America, Canada? I knew that I had somebody in the U.S. but what happens after I get to the U.S. ? Do I go back to school? Go to work? Do I like it there? Will the people like me? Thousands and thousands of questions going through my mind. And then I start thinking about my family. What were they doing at home right now? I knew one thing for certain that they wanted to know where I ended up; a letter would do. It’s pretty much a standard thing that people would do when they got to the camp; they want to write letters. They want to write exactly either of the trip or they’re going to write their loved ones saying I made it safely to Singapore or whatever. So I think I couldn’t do it because I was tired so I waited until the next morning and then I finally wrote the letter but I couldn’t mail till I would say, ten days later because it would take a couple of months [to get there]. You have to understand that back home then it would normally take about a month a month and a half to get the letter from America to Vietnam or even longer. Sometimes up to three or four months! So I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to wait for an official who was going to Hong Cong and from Hong Cong to Vietnam so he pretty much hand‑carried my letter home. And this is the story I just heard no more than three weeks ago when my parents were up here. When my brother left [Vietnam] the government pretty much cut half of the rations for my family so we had to go out and bought rice, sugar, soap or whatever out there in the black market. And my father then he wasn’t working, nobody was working We had a hard time trying to make ends meet. So my mother borrowed some money from one of her friends there and she wanted to open up a little sidewalk cafe [in Saigon~. It didn’t work out well because her partner pretty much dropped her. He said he didn’t want to be part of that anymore cause he wasn’t making money so he pretty much left her and my mother was stuck with a huge debt. So she had to haul the stuff a couple of tables, back home and on her way home… Well that guy who carried that letter home he didn’t deliver it letter personally, he dropped it in the mailbox at the Saigon post office till they delivered that. So the mail person arrived at my house as my mother was getting home with really, really major depression. Her business just failed and all that stuff So when she got that letter she thought it was a death notice from me or whatever, saying your son didn’t make it ‑ he died out there in the ocean and all that. So she didn’t want to open that letter because I couldn’t write my name outside [for a return address) because government would say “oh, your son is here now, you’re in trouble now”. So she got it and I think she hesitated for awhile, she waited for about or fifteen minutes. She wanted to sit down, calm herself down, and this story I heard just three weeks ago after fourteen ‑ fifteen years, and then she opened the letter and there it was! I’d said [in the letter] “I made it to Singapore safely after for four or five days”. The whole neighborhood started to come over! Then she started celebrating and her business part was pretty much history then. So I stayed there at the refugee camp for four months. They gave us enough money to get by ‑ two and a half Singapore dollars which at that time was the equivalent of one and a half U.S. dollars. Again, a dollar and a half in 1979 ‑ 1980, you could get by but we wanted to buy more clothes. They had a big store, like a Goodwill, you could go in and get any clothes you want for free. Shoes and whatever. But we wanted to buy new clothes so we would find jobs to do. One of the jobs I Still remember was laying underground cables. The people who ran the camp didn’t discourage us to go to work but at the same time didn’t want to encourage us to go to work. Say, if you want to go out be careful because at that time we were not legal then. We were not residents of Singapore nor other countries had accepted us yet so we were just there temporarily. So we’d say “Well it’s okay, it’s a small island, it’s not that bad “. And you know Singapore is a very safe city or country to live. So we started to go out and find jobs, find work to do and this is how it worked. You would go with other guys, like five or six of us would stand right at the gate of the camp and you ‘d just stand there just like you see on T. ~ the people in the Gaza strip in the east. They’d have a pickup truck that would stop and you’d jump on and they’d say I need four people today to do this or that. Sometimes ten people would jump on and they’d say we need only one or two today and we’d say okay you go today and In go tomorrow. We were good enough to say you go today and I’ll go tomorrow. So we were able to make between ten to twelve dollars a day which was like almost ten times more than what were getting from the camp. We started to buy new jeans, a watch, clothes. It felt like “Hey, I’m making money right now!”. And people started to save money and they would literally send money back home to help families. In my case, because after I left, the food rations from the government was completely cut off from my family because it was the second offense against the government. The first offense was my brother leaving. So that pretty much cut off all food rations. I don’t think I sent any money home at all. I do remember the family that went with me, that escaped with me [from Vietnam~ sent $100 back home to my parents. I think $100 back home, if you lived conservatively, you would have enough for a month.
I finally got in touch with my aunt who was living here in Portland, Maine. She ‘s my father’s younger sister. I got a letter. I got her address from my father who said write to her when you get anywhere. She’ll probably contact you sometime. So I was somewhat disappointed not to hear from her in the first ~wo months that I was there. I don’t know what happened but she finally wrote back saying “If you want to, you can go to the U.S. and stay with this family. Don’t then split from them there. Because if you come with this family you should stay with this family”. So I came with that family and I said okay In follow you, I’ll go to the U.S. first because that family also had a sponsor from California. So my aunt said it’s fairly easy in the U.S., once you get to the U.S. you can go anywhere you want, you don’t have to ask for permission.
So I took her advice and I stayed with that family. So I went to Oakland, California first. I stayed there for a week just to get my Social Security [card and my legal paperwork done and I flew from California to Boston and from Boston to Maine. Boy! English was the first thing that I had to encounter because that was the first time flying by myself Somebody came to the house [of the sponsor family in California] and picked me up and brought me to a big house with other refugees who were getting ready to fly out of California, so they gathered people there. So the next morning they took me to the airport and the driver said [to a flight attendant] “This person is flying from here to Boston and from Boston to Maine. If you don’t mind keeping an eye on him”. So I flew to Boston and it was no problem. I waited in Boston about forty minutes and I went up to the counter. Because at that time when you get out of the plane the flight attendant is not going to follow you. So I went up to the counter and I don’t think I said anything to her and I gave her my ticket. She looked at it and shook [nodded] her head and at that time I was pretty sure that I was on the right track here. So then she asked me “Do you speak any English?”. So I said “small’, meaning little. You know I could learn a couple of words here and there. So she understood and she said “sit here for 10 or 15 minutes”. So I sat there and she came and got me. So I got on board and I think I got on board one of those little express planes to fly to Maine. It was snowing, not bad enough, I could look through a window. The first time in my life I saw snow and it was probably eight or nine o’clock at night. We landed and we walked directly from the plane to the gate. My aunt couldn’t make it. She showed up late for some reason. Another Vietnamese lady came out and asked me if I was Khanh and said “Your aunt will be here any minute now. I ‘m here to greet you”. She said ” Well, d on ‘t worry. I know who you are. You don’t know who I am but your aunt should be coming any minute now”. My aunt finally showed up and I think it was kind of a good feeling to see a Vietnamese person there waiting for me. And once I got out of the airport, there were four or five other Vietnamese families waiting for me and I think the tradition started even before I got there. I think it started in 1976 or 1977. The Vietnamese population in Maine was extremely low. So what they did every time, it doesn’t matter if you’re a relative of mine as long as you know somebody from Vietnam is coming to Portland or Bangor, everybody would gather right at the airport. Sometimes they’ll make signs and all that. I’m kind of sad that they don’t do that anymore or they do that very small with just a few families or relatives. I don’t know why but I think people began to move south to California, Boston, and Louisiana and so again the population is getting smaller and smaller. I was extremely happy to see Vietnamese people out there waving and welcoming me to Maine. So I got to her house and had dinner there at about ten‑thirty at night and we sat and talked for about half an hour because I was tired and they had to go to work the next day because it was during the week. But I couldn’t sleep. All week in California I couldn’t sleep either because of the time change, it was the opposite. So I would stay up an night long and sleep during the day. So I woke up the next morning and my aunt before she left for work she made me something for when I got hungry and there ‘s the phone if you need to call your friends or your family. At that time I didn’t realize how much it would cost to call so I stayed on the phone long enough to make my aunt poor! Like day after day calling my friends all over the U.S., friends, relatives, whoever I could think of! We had phones in Vietnam but very limited. Doctors, lawyers or a rich family you could afford it but the average or middle‑class family I don’t think could afford it. My aunt didn’t tell [about the cost of the calls], she didn’t want to rain on my parade. So she said call whoever you want to cal~ So I just calling for a week long and it was $300 to $400 worth of long distance calls and then she said this is how it works. If you call this town it’s free and if you go a little further it’s a little more expensive and you get out of state it’s more expensive. It’s just the opposite now. But then I realized I can’t do that, I can’t call so I asked my friends to call me! But we got through that. My aunt’s kids, my cousins, at that time they spoke English fluently because they had been in the country for five years and they came here when they were fairly young so they picked the language up fairly soon and easy. So they were watching T.~ and I would be asking what’s that guy saying? And they had a hard time trying to translate from English to Vietnamese and at the same time they were enjoying their own shows and they didn’t feel like translating. Even if they wanted to they couldn’t have because there were words they didn’t know. So I would be like “Oh my god, tell me what they are saying!”. So the first week there I pretty much watched cartoons ‑ Bugs Bunny, Woody Woodpecker.
Then I believe the very next week she brought me to the Cathedral Grammar School because I told her I wanted to go back to school cause I had already taken two or three years off I never wanted to go school. After the communists came nobody wanted to go to school. Because of my English limitation I made an agreement with the school that I would stay back two years so I started my sixth grade over. I was in eight grade in Vietnam. I should have been in tenth or eleventh but I went all the way back to the sixth grade and I was the oldest sixth grader there. I was seventeen years old. It didn’t bother me though cause that same school had two other Vietnamese guys my same age, my same situation so they pretty much knew what I was going through. Plus my aunt was a real active member of that church and I didn’t have to pay for school there. I made many Anglo friends. I’ll tell you a story that scared me; I win never forget. I think it was my second day in school and at that time I think it was January. No, no, no… let’s see. I arrived in the U.S. on my birthday, January 18, and I started working at Central Maine Power Company (CMP) my birthday too! Well, anyway, I was standing out there during my recess and I wanted to talk to the kids but I couldn’t! But the other two guys at that time they were pretty much broken in; they were pretty Americanized and I don ‘t remember where they were at that time. So I was just standing there and a whole group of American girls came over and I was dying to talk to them! I would say they were at least eighth or seventh graders. And at least seventeen or eighteen of them started talking to me! And I felt so bad. I felt so impolite that I couldn’t respond. I know that they were trying to say hello to me and all I could do was just smile back. I felt wicked bad. So pretty much toward the end of that mid‑day recess they went back inside but one girl came over with long, brown hair, and that’s why it scared me ‑ long brown hair and light brown eyes and she starts speaking to me in Vietnamese!!!/! I said to myself “What is going on here?”. And she said “Those girls wanted to know your name, where you came from, and how do you like the U.S.”. And she started talking to me in Vietnamese fluently and you won’t recognize her [as a Vietnamese]. She doesn’t look oriental. Her mother is Vietnamese and her father’s an American who was a soldier over in Vietnam. She came back [with her parents~ in 1975. So that was my very first contact! I dated Jackie for five years. She was my first true love. We dated for the next five years. She’s in Seattle. As a matter of fact I talked to her on the phone yesterday. She’s a financial advisor at one of the security companies ‑ one of the bigshots! We’re still really good friends. We communicate almost weekly now.
So I completed the second half of my sixth grade, the whole seventh and eight grade. ×got out of that and I skipped my freshmen year in high school and I went directly to my sophomore year. I started as a sophomore at Cheverus High School. Again, I was so fortunate because you have to take a test if you want to attend that school and that was one of the two things [in which I was fortunate]. The second is tuition. In 1983 it was $1, 400 a year and there was no way that I could afford to pay that much. So during my junior high years I was able to make friends with Bishop Edward O’Leary, the bishop of Portland and he said “If you can get into Cheverus, I’ll pay your tuition”. So he paid three years of tuition, free ‑ completely free tuition! All I had to do was pay for my own lunch but he picked up the tab. Once in a while I would go see him and he would give me some spending money. At that time I was on my own. I came to the U.S. in January and my brother came in April and then my aunt moved to Louisiana nine months later and not long after he went to Louisiana with her. She sold the house and I moved out. I was working part time and supporting myself in an apartment [and going to school full‑time at 17 years old in sixth grade. I was twenty‑one when I graduated. I was always two and a half to three years behind. So the Bishop pretty much picked up my tab. He paid everything and once a month he ‘d send me $100 to $200 for spending money. Good thing he was around to help me out. I think of myself as a lucky guy. There was always somebody looking after me, looking over my shoulder. I was working part‑time at Maine Medical Center for a while, probably five years ‑ all through school Cheverus was extremely nice to me. I was well‑respected. I was getting really good grades. I was always the honor student. I made the National Honor Society. And when you’re a senior they will recognize you in some way. I became the Physics Student of the Year so I got the national award ‑ Physics Student of the Year. So I finished high school there. And because of the way that we [my girlfriend] were going, I was going to one school and she was going to another school I think she went to Boston to go college and I decided to move south to my brother’s in Louisiana. I wanted to go down there and give it a try. So I went down there for nine months and I hated it! The school was fine. The school was Loyola University, it was excellent. I enjoyed it a lot but I just could not handle the weather and also the fast‑going life down there. You know coming from Maine all the way down to a big city like that. At that time I considered myself a Mainer, a country boy. I fit right in when I came to Maine but not big cities. I’m not a fast‑going person. When I went down there, that’s where I met my wife [Mai~! My freshman year in college I was making a copy and she was there. I was certain that she was Vietnamese. So I waited for my turn to make my copy and then we started to talk in English. I knew she was Vietnamese so I think I said “hi” first in English and then we started to connect so we just talked. But then it was pretty much talk; at that time I didn’t think it was love at first sight. She attended the same school so we always saw each other and we had a little Vietnamese community down there. And then I had to apply for a work study job. I worked as a residential assistant in the dorms there. So my boss said “Well, would you like to go down to this place and pick up some signs for me?”. He wanted some signs for an upcoming event. I went down there and there she was making signs! I couldn’t believe it! And then because I really wanted to talk to her in Vietnamese but her parents came from an area that had a different accent so I think we misunderstood each other several times and then we decided to communicate in English And then it all began from there. Pretty much down hill from there.
But after my first semester there in Louisiana I wanted to go back home [to Maine but I wanted to give it another try. So I did go back to Maine for one month just during the semesters. Oh, yea, home was Maine to me then! So I went back down there again [to Louisiana] and it didn’t click again. School was fine, love was okay, but the city and the people for some reason it didn’t click. It just didn’t impress me. So we kept a long distance relationship. I would see her once a year or twice a year because at that time her parents wouldn’t let her go anywhere. We weren’t even engaged then. Vietnamese is different. You don ‘t say “Okay, I’m going to go see my boyfriend “.l! No, that’s a no‑no. And she’s from a really strict Catholic family. So we kept that relationship going for four years. I completed my four years of college] and she completed her four years. I completed my last three years in Maine at St. Joseph’s College and majored in Business Administration with a concentration in Management. I went for Physics first at Loyola University but when I moved back to Maine I wanted to go somewhere close to home because at that time I was living in Windham. I didn’t want to go to Orono. Then reality hit. Physics wasn’t as easy as I thought. It was getting harder and harder. High school was a piece of cake for me then. After a couple of years it became such an easy thing to do. But I pretty much got really good grades. But when I got to the college level there was reality there. No, I don’t think I can handle that. In 1985 I was twenty‑four. My real age now I’m thirty‑one. My id. is 29. I was born in 1963 but when I got to Singapore people started a rumor, or the rumor started way before I got there that if you were over a certain age limit in the U.S. you could not go back to school. So I decided I told the people there [in Singapore that I lost all my paperwork and I was born then go. And she accepted the job in Maine and moved to Maine and we had separate apartments then. She started working full‑time twelve days after I did.
So I believe we flew back to her home to propose to her. It’s a Vietnamese way. It’s all pre‑arranged. My family, at that time my family was not here yet, my aunt had to go over to her house and they pretty much proposed. It’s not like they just show up, they have to make an appointment and bring certain traditional gifts to make the proposal. My aunt said “I’m representing Khanh, and we’d like to have your permission to have Khanh marry your daughter”. So that was it! Pretty much the adults did the talking and not the kids. So if her parents said “No, sorry!”. That’s it; you don’t say okay we’re going to pack up and leave, so what with you guys, we’re going to go. It’s wasn’t like that. So they gave us permission to get engaged and we exchanged gifts and I gave her the ring. And we didn’t set the date then, we wanted to wait for an occasion that we could all be together. She has a very big family and she wanted to wait until we found a good occasion where her sisters would come home from Houston. So we set up a date and we got engaged in September and we were married the following February 24. We wanted to get married on Valentine’s Day, February 14, but it was a Wednesday. So we couldn’t do that; we had to do it on a weekend. So we got married and then we finally moved to Augusta [area]. We left our apartments there [in Portland area] because we couldn’t live together. Even though at that time we were engaged we couldn’t live together. I’d sneak over there once in a while, off the record! So, we started to live together after we got married and we moved to Chelsea because it was such a hassle traveling to Portland daily. And we ‘have been in Chelsea ever since and that’s pretty much it! And we had our son March 10 of this year ‑ Duy Joseph Vo. We named our son after Joseph Moran [an executive at CMP] because ever since I started working for CMP he was pretty much like a father figure to me. And his wife, they were extremely good to me. So he was pretty much like my guardian angel for all these years. And I discussed pretty much everything with him ‑ personal problems, professional problems, or anything at all, I would go talk to him. So when we found out that my wife was pregnant, I asked him, I said “Joe, if it’s a boy, I’d like to name our son after you”. So we named it after him. My middle name is my son’s first name. My full name is Khanh Duy Vo and my son’s name is Duy Joseph Vo. One funny thing, even though we’re Vietnamese, in the Vietnamese culture it is an insult to name your kid after somebody that’s older than you [Joe is much older than Khanh]. Or, it also is an insult if I call you by your last name or if you were to call me “Hey, Vo”, that’s a no‑no. It doesn’t matter to me now because I do that everyday now. I don’t believe in that stuff. That was the second one. The third one, you call me by my father’s first name, it is also an insult, it’s like a curse. But we’ve been in American long enough to pretty much put the two cultures together. We see which one is good, which one is bad, which one is different and we just follow our own. We make up our own culture; the multi‑cultural or bi‑cultural~
The happiest day of my life has been becoming a father. It was different. Because at that moment I realized how painful it is to bring a life to the world. When I saw my son there I felt pretty much like going back to CMP and I wanted to buy a rose and give a rose to each woman at CMP. You have to go through all that to bring somebody into this world. And I think it’s pretty much probably the happiest moment in my life to see my son there healthy. And again, believe me, once in a while I still think of this. In the Vietnamese culture if your first born is a boy it’s a big blessing It’s an even bigger deal if your son is the first bom of the family and happens to be a boy. It didn’t happen to me because I have an older brother. But my first born is a son and it’s the first bom on my father’s side. In our family we have two boys and three girls. The attitude is “so what” with the girls. It’s not that bad now, it’s okay, all kids are kids. But the oldergeneration will sometimes look at it as a big deal to haveyour first bom a son. It’s stin out there but we [Khanh and Mai] don’t believe in that. If it’s a boy it’s a boy, if it’s a girl it’s a girl. My parents have accepted the American ways very little. First of all, they’re older, in their sixties and in the U.S. for only two years. They’re beginning to accept the differences but it’s still a big deal to them that I had a first born son. It somewhat made my brother upset because to them son is a big deal to them and my brother is older and he’s married but he doesn’t have any kids yet but he’s planning to have one in the near future, I think.
Right now my future plans are just trying to be a good father. I don’t think I am there yet but I’m trying my best. I think I’m doing a really good job as a father so far because my son is too early to do things with. Even though I hold him and hug him all the time and kiss him all the time. Even when I’m really sick I still hold him, I still hug him. I think it’s too early to say that I’m a good father or I’m a bad father. Let’s say when he’s two or three if I don’t do things with him then I’ll say “Yea, I am a bad father”, but it’s too early.
My father was a good father. But you have to understand that fathers back home ‑ there’s no communication channels between sons and their fathers. Maybe there is but it doesn’t matter if you’re right or wrong, as long as you’re older you have more authority, period. Or if you’re a boy. Even though I’m the middle hd of the family, because I’m a boy I got more privileges. I could go out. My father was a carefree person. He was a quiet person. I know that he has a drinhng problem. He drank before Saigon feel but he drank a lot more after it became apparent that he couldn’t make a good living anymore. He was depressed. He lost his job and the new [communist] govemment would not trust him anymore because he had worked for the old govemment and he started drinhng a lot more. He still drinks now. The good thing about it, if he were still living with my younger sister’s husband, my sister is divorced now ‑ she doesn’t live with her husband anymore, her husband was also an alcoholic and they [father and sister’s husband] get together and drink an the time. My parents live with my youngest sister now in Alabama and I’m still praying to the Lord that one day my father win stop drinhn& You don’t go up to your parents and say “You’ve got to stop drinhng now~”. I tried to do it in a positive way to say “Okayyou can drink but there are times thatyou should not drink.”. They have a little garden now so he spends a lot of his time gardening, growing vegetables and so it takes away from his drinhng time. I’m hoping that will be a good retirement plan for him. It’s very hard for them to be here; a big culture shock. They don’t communicate the language. They can’t understand what people are saying even though my father went to private schools an his life and was raised in a well‑to‑do family. He spoke French fluently but after twenty years if you don’t use it, you forget. English he can read it slowly and can understand it but still it’s not like he can go out and talk to people in the neighborhood. So my folks are “hanging in there”, let’s put it that way. Sometimes my mother wants to go back home [to ~etnam] but she thinks “It’s totally different, it’s not the way I was brought up.”. It’s been tough for them but I can see now that they’re beginning to mingle more and understand the culture. My father is a worry‑free person, he doesn’t care where he lives. My mother well, I haven’t heard from her recently that she wants to go back home anymore. Just once in a while when she’s depressed or things don’t go the way that she wants them to go. I don’t hear that as often as I used to so I think they’re beginning to blend in. So they have another next twenty, fifteen years [of their life], however long they have left but I’m hoping that they win be happy. I know they are. I know inside they are happy because all five kids are in the U.S..
I’ve been in the U.S. Iong enough to see big differences in cultures and sometimes I have a hard time dealing with the old retnamese way of thinking. For example, if your baby is beautiful, cute, or healthy to them you are not supposed to say it. Cause if you say that the devil win come and take the baby away. And they do, not as much anymore since I got married and my brother married, but they sometimes believe that the wife should stay home and be housewives and the husbands should go out and make the money. But after seeing me and my wife being so independent, myself being away from home for so long and my wife away from her fami~ and we always do things together, and my brother just got married last year and they’re pretty much the same, they always do things together, and so my parents are beginning to see it’s not the old way of thinking. You know, they say ~to Mai] you should be in the back seat so that’s kind of degrading to women overall. But I don’t blame them because that’s the way they were brought up. And my mother was the same way, she never had a job except when she had the restaurant because she had to, to feed the fami~. She always wanted to stay home and look after the kids. So I don’t blame them for the old way of thinhng. It’s just the way that they were brought up; cultural differences. And I want to make this point perfectly clear ‑ no culture is better than another. It’s always something different. The best that we can do is to know each other and try to work it out.
Respect for elders is a big deal in our culture. Especially if it’s the Chinese New Years. The first day of the lunaryear, the oldest son or daughter would go to the [paternall grandparents and say “I wish you a year of health” and the grandparents would give them money in a red envelope ~red signifies happiness]. That’s whyfirecrackers and Chinese restaurants are red. And an the kids do that and then the next generation of children do that. If you’re the youngest you have to do a lot of wishing but at that same time you’re going to get a lot of money! I didn’t experience that with my grandparents because they had already died. But I Stin remember doing that with my parents. The second dayyou go to your mother’s side. No other holiday is bigger than the Chinese New Years.
Christmas is okay but they celebrate in August in the lunar calendar which is September or October in the Western calendar. The start of the moon season, where kids win go around the neighborhood with different colored lanterns celebrating. I thinkAugust is the month that win rain a lot in retnam which win provide a lot of water for rice so it’s like some type of appreciation to the god upstairs who provided us with water and good rice and an that.
My dream is to have a healthy, good family. Probably two or three kids. Money to me is no big dea~ If I make money I spend it. If I don’t have it I don’t spend it. Sometimes I borrow it and I spend it. But again, I don ‘t think it brings happiness. In some way, yea, material things but to me living a happy life, making myself happy, makzng other people happy. Making other people happy makes me happy. It doesn’t matter wherever I work I always think of people first. That’s my personality. I love people. I win go far out of my way to make other people happy. I’m not going to follow my parents footsteps of putting…I don’t think they put a lot of expectaffons on us, but it’s the culture that you “should do this oryou should do that”. I’m not going to do that. I’m just going to let my kids grow up that way that they want to go off to do whatever and be whoever they want to be. So if they’re happy, I’m happy. And my wife, of course, stay healthy. Stay in Maine. Live in Maine. I know I’ve had a hard life and I don’t think the road ahead of me is going to be any easier. I think keeping a positive attitude helps. I think I get my strength because I’ve lived through the hard times now so I know what it’s like to live in difficult times. So I say, this is heaven. It doesn’t matter where you live you have to find opportunities. I know opportunities are out there but opportunities won’t come to you. You have to go find opportunities. Right now, what I’m thinking of that might make life hard is job security and the world itself. The crime rate not gettfng any better. I think Maine is becoming like Boston especially in the Portland area. I don’t know, I think it’s many, many factors but I tend to overlook those and just look for the better things. You know, if it’s broken and you don’t fix it, it’s not going to get any betterso the only thingyou can do is go forward.
If I were to pass one thing on to my son it would be “Don’t rely too much on people”. The only person that can helpyou is yourself. Help yourself first. I would ten my son or my kids that Dad and Mom didn’t have a good start. She had a rough life. Her parents came over here with seven kids and they had to go through a very tough, tough period of time to bring the kids up and they should be proud of them. An their kids are well educated. Her father worked two or three jobs to bring up his family. So she didn’t have a good start. I didn’t have a good start. Sometimes Ifeel like saying this to my son y he were a little bit older ‘lwen even though we didn’t go through good times, we’re doing okay now and we want to give you anything that we have so you don’t have to work for through that”. But then I say well maybe I should step back and let my son or my kids experience some hard times first. Because if I give them everything that we have now, they’re not going to know how to react when they come to face reality. Reality is that everything is difficult before it becomes easy. So I want them to experience life first before they experience happiness. I think before I got married I was like my father, a worry‑free person. Now as a parent and a husband I think I plan more than before I got married. She’s a big help. She’s a very structured person. She will follow through the book. I tend to override her thinking once in a while but overall I think she’s doing a tremendous job in trying to straighten me out. I’m dead serious. If we weren’t married, I think I’d still be living in an apartment here and there, not having a house. But again, I think that is only material things. If you work hard you get it, if not you won’t. I tend to think of the intemal self more so I think I’d still be the same person whether I married her or not. I’m always the same person throughout. But I think we’re beginning to experience the reality that we’re doing okay financially. We’re not out there struggling to pay the bills. But still we’re really thinking of the future. But I think I’m the same person but my way of thinhng is more conservative now. I think about the longer future not just the short‑term.
I don’t believe in war. I don’t believe in killing people. But I do believe in freedom. Sometimes it takes something to achieve it. Sometimes we fight to achieve freedom. In my case, I took a big risk. I escaped from my country not knowing what I was going to encounter. So that’s one way of achieving freedom. In a way I feel sorry for the people who went over there [during the ~etnam war~ because it’s like you come to my house and try to find things in my house. You’re not going to do it. I know my house, I’m going to hck your butt. Because I know how to get from one room to the next. And I think it was lack of planning and lack of thinhng I think they had good intentions but they were carried out wrong. They wanted to achieve democracy for us. The U.S. govemment was asked to go over there by the South retnamese govemment as some type of advisors, not becoming fully engaged in war. And I believe it just took the wrong tum and became deadly. So again, maybe there was a better way of achieving peace but they just didn’t know how to get it. I give American soldiers a lot of sympathy for going over there and I believe the majority of them were asked to go over there, not that they volunteered to go. If eel really sorry for them but at the same time, let’s not forget that the number of Vetnamese people that were killed by the U.S. soldiers were ten or a hundred times more. So I say well, I feel sorry for you but you have to understand that my people were killed too. We were affected even more. Many of our family members were killed either by accident or whatever. So let’s not forget that war win kill both sides or even innocent people. I feel bad that it happened but I can’t dwell on it even more. Many of our family members were killed either by accident or whatever. So let’s not forget that war win hn both sides or even innocent people. If eel bad that it happened but I can’t dwell on the past. I think Ho Chi Minh had good intentions. I don’t think he wanted to have a Western country. I think that he wanted just one country, a communist country. But I think the govemment who carried out his win pretty much screwed it up. The people were like us, just following orders. I don’t have any bad feeling about the people in the North. Those who gave out orders on both sides are the ones that I have a hard time trying to forgive. They probably did a lot more hlling than the U.S. I think they hlled their own people intentionally and I think the U.S. did it out of frustration.
Another of my dreams is someday to become a goodwill ambassador who win go back to retnam to help rebuild it. In my opinion, doing such things win help the two nations heal the wounds and eventually become close friends. It’s time to forgive, forget and move on…
I hope they change the name of Ho Chi Minh city back to Saigon. I think they’re in the process of changing it back because of Westemers coming back to ~etnam to invest so they don’t want to use Ho Chi Minh. I love that they are doing this. The war is over and it’s time to move forward. You just can’t hold back and say I went to ~etnam and it pretty much affected my life and an that. I do have a lot of sympathy for those people. But the overall war is gone, it’s done and in the past now. Let’s move forward ‑ pretty much that’s my thought.
My country is getting back on its feet and I’m happy. I think IU go back to visit ~etnam in the next five, ten years or so. And again, because all family members are here now in the U.S., I don’t have a strong urge to go back right now. My wife and I were talhng about, we were just fooling around, about where I want to die or where I want to be buried or whatever. First of all, I want to be buried in Vetnam I said because I was bom there. That’s my home land, my mother land. I want to be buried there. If you cannot afford to fly my body home then if you could just cremate me and just spread the ashes an over the country. If you can’t do it yourself ask someone who’s going over and have them just open it up and pour it in the river…probably the same river that I took when I left ~etnam. But I really, now don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with being buried in the U.S., that’s maybe where In end up, but if she can do it, if I die before her, bury me in Vetnam.
It’s been a pretty interesting life I guess. My wife says “It’s that damn old story over again”. But I don’t think so. To me it is really a story. I’m still writing it right now.