From age 12 to age 18, I lived in a dark pit of confusion, fear, and uncertainty. Saigon, Vietnam.
In 1975, communist forces from North Vietnam steadily advancing in South Vietnam, including the capital city of Saigon. I didn’t understand much about war and government back then, just that my father was the Security Chief of the Bureau of Armed Forces in the Vietnam People’s Armed Forces. By late April of that year, the TV news showed daily stories about how the North Vietnamese Army won this or that battle against the South. Everywhere we went in the city, people cried and argued. They lost all their money, lost their homes, lost everything. Some even lost hope and committed suicide. I did not understand. I would listen in as the grownups whispered about acquaintances and neighbors who killed themselves—people we once passed on the street. Why? No one explained why. Every night came the deafening booms from explosions that crept closer and closer. The city looked like ruins, buildings and homes destroyed, rubble littering the streets.
We feared we would lose the war when our president called for all armed forces to go home to their families. A few days later, on April 30, the explosions finally ended. South Vietnam officially surrendered. The North seized Saigon, and the presidency changed hands…
The troops captured South Vietnamese soldiers, including my father. They arrested him and took him to a prison in North Vietnam, leaving my mother to raise four children on her own.
In 1980, five years after the Vietnam war ended, my father suddenly showed up at our front door. He’d been released from that horrible prison. I had just finished high school and planned to go to college for a degree in business. Dad pulled me close one night and whispered in my ear. “We can’t survive here,” he said. “You need to leave,” he told me. He had already made a deal with a local fisherman to get me out of the country, along with other refugees fearing persecution from the new government. I would travel on a motor boat, along with about twenty others.
In mid-February 1981 when the day to fight for my future came. At 18 years old, I carried the weight of my family’s future. I left Saigon and my sweet home. Somehow, I wasn’t scared, at least not in that moment. An amazing sense of strength came over me. Perhaps, it was genetic. I am the fourth generation of the Nguyen family kings, which ruled under the domination of French conquerors . My Great-Grandfather, Nguyen Van Tuong, was the Mandarin Prime Minister under the Nguyen dynasty from 1824-1886. Or maybe I just didn’t realize the true dangers that awaited.
Soon, Dad took me to Can Tho, a small city west of Saigon and then to the river. A small boat about 20 feet long had docked there, and about twenty of us gathered. We were heading to Pulau Bidong, a refugee camp in Malaysia. I would have to be brave and complete the journey alone…
Three days later, we had reached the island. A few smaller boats carrying Vietnamese and Americans circled our boat and helped push it onto the shoreline. “Welcome to Pulau Bidong,” someone shouted. We got off the boat one-by-one. I felt so dizzy that when my feet touched land, it seemed I was walking on air. After everyone disembarked, we all stood together and watched the boat that had carried us to this new world finally sink. Just minutes passed before the water overcame it. We made it just in time. Leaders on the island later told us that ours was boat No. 46 to dock on the shores of Pulau Bidong.
They guided us to an office where we met workers for the United Nations. Surprisingly, they all spoke Vietnamese very well. I gave them the information my father gave me about his service record and my aunt’s whereabouts in the United States. We filled out paperwork.
I didn’t know how I would make it on my own, but somehow I knew I would. I had to. Authorities in Pulau Bidong used information my father left to contact my aunt in California. Soon, I was among a group of former boat people departing the island. From Pulau Bidong we journeyed to Kuala Lumpur, the capitol of Malaysia, and stayed there for a few weeks.
By June 1981, I was boarding a plane for the long flight to San Francisco. I couldn’t believe the next phase of my journey had begun. I had to travel this leg of the journey with no family or even close friends. When the plane landed, I looked out of the window at a beautiful landscape, just like the America in the movies we watched back home. We waited for a few hours then transferred to another plane bound for Los Angeles.
I deplaned and walked into a huge airport where thousands of people loaded down with luggage moved swiftly to their destinations. I walked slowly, uncertainly, wearing a big nametag on my chest and hoping to spot my aunt through the chaos. She saw me first, from far away. She ran over and gave me a big hug. Soon sponsors from USCC (United States Catholic Charities) stood with us and welcomed me, too. From then on, I promised myself that I would get a good job, start a family.
MY “AMERICAN DREAM” BEGINNING. I went to beauty school and earned my license to become a nail technician and aesthetician, then got a job at a salon in Azusa. Later I became an esthetician and earned a reputation as one of the best in the city.
AT TWENTY-FOUR years old, I became a citizen of the United States. Then I met a man and married him. He was my first love. I got pregnant and had our daughter in 1987. I named her Anna. In Vietnamese, her name is Van An, which means “peaceful cloud.” My life had been so hard that I hoped the name would bring luck and success for my daughter.
I loved my daughter and enjoyed being a mother so much. With my baby in tow, I explored Disneyland, Hollywood, and Redondo Beach. I took her to Chuck E. Cheese’s every weekend and practiced learning shapes, sounds, and numbers on toys I bought for her.
Three years later, I gave birth to my beloved Queena on April 22nd, 1990. We were so excited to welcome our second child. To me, this was my American Dream. I had a job and two lovely daughters of my own, both healthy and with a promising future. Their eyes glimmered like stars when they smiled. They played together, dancing and laughing. They were happy. As a mother, that’s all I wanted, for my girls to be happy.
CALIFORNIA’S ECONOMY PLUMMETED and by 1993, I separated with my husband because we just couldn’t make our differences work. I was thirty-one years old with two girls. Single motherhood had never been part of my American dream, but I accepted my new reality. In October, I and my girls moved to Maryland. Few months after I arrived, I wound up getting a job nearby, at a nail shop in Silver Spring, Maryland. Soon, I was the Number One nail technician of all fifteen in the shop. A few months later, the owner asked if I wanted to partner with her at another location she hoped to open soon in the mall. I agreed.
Now, I not only had a job, but I was the business owner I always wanted to be. My first business, Nail 1st, had opened in Marley Station Mall in Glen Burnie, Maryland. Days could be hectic as a single mother, but with my business taking off, I soon felt the freedom of happiness. I bought a single family home and a piano, I enrolled the girls in a private Christian school where they soaked in the foundations of their faith and began to plant those seeds in their mother; it was my dream come true.
Then, when it was time for Anna to go to college, she settled on a school she had researched in Lakeland, Florida, called Southeastern University. I wanted her to be free to explore, to attend the school of her choice. Still, I couldn’t stand to be so far away from my little girl. If she moved to Florida, so would Queena and I.
QUEENA WAS 16 when we moved to Tampa, Florida, not far from Anna’s new college. She settled in, making new friends at her high school and learning the traditions and culture of the area. The University of Florida was one of the most popular colleges in the state and she decided that she wanted to become a Florida Gator more than anything.
On February 8, 2008 she got home from school and ran straight for her laptop. At four o’clock that afternoon, UF would electronically notify accepted applicants. A complication with logging onto the school’s busy website slowed things down and Queena tried anxiously to find out, but couldn’t. Two hours passed before she got an email from the school that began “Congratulations!” A week later, she got an official letter by mail. She smelled it. She kissed it. She skimmed the lines with her fingertips. “Mom,” she said, “this is my world, my future… I am going to sit at the top of a glass building in a high-rise,” she said giggling. “I will travel the world with the newest fashions. I am going to be a world famous designer.”
I was so proud. In Queena’s college acceptance, I felt my own journey come full-circle, too. It was the journey of a Vietnamese refugee who survived her war-torn nation and fled safely here, to the United States. Despite my own the struggles on the boat and the island, the disappointments, I had reached that point in life that every mother strives for: I could look back and say I raised good children and now they were destined to live out their own dreams…
But then, something horrible happened – I suddenly lost a loved one as I knew her and experienced an unwanted life-changing event.