Editor’s Note: Nina Trieu Tarnay lives in Manhattan Beach, California, with her husband and three children. The views expressed here are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
Out on the water, the smell of diesel mixed with the ocean salt, the sound of the engine puttering along was slightly louder than my mom’s muffled cries. I recall being terrified and wanting to cry, but knowing I shouldn’t, I clenched my teeth and fought the urge.
It took a while before I realized I was in pain. I had cut my foot running across the beach. The throbbing in my foot was the same tempo as my heartbeat, pulsating, lulling me to sleep.
When I woke up in the morning, I felt so seasick I could barely lift my head. The night before felt like a nightmare – I thought I would wake up in bed next to my mom with my grandmother and my brother in the other room.
My brother. It all started to sink in at that point. We had left my little brother behind. My dad and two older brothers were on one side of the world. My little brother and grandmother were on another side of the world, behind us. We were in the middle of the ocean, drowning – at times – in my mom’s tears.
What if my parents hadn’t had the courage to leave their homeland?
It’s been 46 years since the Fall of Saigon and 43 years since my family fled Vietnam by boat following the war.
As a child, I thought our story was “normal,” nothing unusual, just your everyday journey to America. It wasn’t until I became an adult and a parent myself that I grasped the enormity of what my own parents had done to provide us with a better future. Not just my future, but by extension, my children’s and hopefully, one day, my grandchildren’s.
Whenever I think about my family’s story, I ask the same questions: Would I have been able to make the same decisions my parents did? What would have become of our lives had my parents not had the courage to leave their homeland?
I’m always met by the same answer – I don’t know. All I know is the decisions they made then led me to where I am today. It’s been a long journey, one that began with them but undoubtedly continues through me, and then my children and theirs. It’s our collective American story.
I hope when people hear stories like mine, they don’t think of it as “an Asian or Vietnamese immigration story” but as an American story. My family and I are as American as the Pilgrims who came to this country in search of religious freedoms. We are as American as the Germans, Italians, Polish and Irish whose names are memorialized on Ellis Island. The “American story” does not belong to one culture, one race. It belongs to those of us bold enough to seek a better life for our children and open enough to accept that others want the same. Our American story continues to be written by the next wave of immigrants.
‘In case one group didn’t make it’
After Saigon (now known as Ho Chi Minh City) fell to the People’s Army of Vietnam and the Viet Cong in 1975 and the last of the US forces left the country, my dad was captured and sent to what was known as a “reeducation camp” – where he remained for about two years. My dad rarely spoke about the roughly two years he spent in prison, but while he was there, he decided that his homeland was no longer home.
He and our mom planned our family’s escape shortly after he was released. We decided to travel in two groups. Stories of whole families perishing together at sea had become more common. My parents decided to divide our family into two, in case one group didn’t make it.
The mass exodus of Vietnamese Boat People began a few years after the end of the war, when people like my parents realized there was no other way out and staying meant there would mean no meaningful future. More than 700,000 Vietnamese fled by boat. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimates that between 200,000 and 400,000 boat people died at sea.
In preparation for the escape, my family traveled to a fishing village to wait until we were given the time and location to meet the smuggler who trawled along the coast picking people up under the cover of night. My father and two older brothers left first. As we found out later, they were fortunate to be rescued six days later by an oil tanker.
My mother, younger brother and I were to follow in our dad’s and older brothers’ footsteps nine months later. At the time, I was six years old and my younger brother was only two. But our escape didn’t go as smoothly.
On the day we were supposed to leave, we were told the trip was compromised and canceled. My mom was instructed to meet at the boat late that night to retrieve our personal items.
I recall being awoken by the sound of my mom climbing out of bed. I started to cry and told her I didn’t want her to leave me. Since my dad and two older brothers had left, I never let my mom out of my sight.
To quell my cries, she told me that I could go with her to get our things, but I had to be quiet so I wouldn’t wake up my brother and grandmother. I grabbed my slippers and followed her out the door.
As we approached the beach, there were muffled conversations and the sound of running feet. We were swept up with a small group of people and ushered along. The next thing I knew, we were on a small boat, heading away from land.
‘No one knew if and when we would ever see him again’
Later, my mom told me that when she arrived to pick up our belongings, she had been told to get on the boat or go back and be captured. She said she remembered being frozen with fear and indecision.
I asked her: If I hadn’t gone with her that night, would she have gotten on the boat? She said she definitely would not have. Because I was with her, however, she started to worry that if she turned back, my brother and I would be captured along with her. It was a frequent practice to imprison whole families who tried to escape, to increase the amount of bail money captors could squeeze out of other family members. So she got on the boat, with me.
We were at sea for almost six weeks. The plan was for our little boat to hug the coastline and seek asylum and refuge from neighboring countries. Despite landing many times on neighboring shores, we were not welcomed or rescued. We were leaving during the height of the Boat People exodus. Refugees were considered a burden. We were repeatedly given supplies and towed back to sea, instructed not to return.
We finally came upon an oil tanker, where we were rescued. Shortly thereafter, we were taken to a refugee camp in Malaysia on Palau Tengah. My mom and I spent four months there before we were granted permission to join my dad and older brothers, who were living in the US. My excitement was dampened by the fact that my little brother was not with us. No one knew if and when we would ever see him again.
Our transition from ‘refugees’ to “Americans’
We arrived at Los Angeles International Airport on December 29, 1979, moving into in a small apartment with my aunt, her husband and their daughter. All eight of us – my parents, two older brothers, aunt, uncle, cousin and me – shared a two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment. My parents eventually saved enough to move into our own place, one with enough room for all of us, including my little brother whenever he reached us.
A year and a half after my mom and I arrived in the US, my little brother escaped with my dad’s older sister and her kids. We were all reunited at last! Three different dangerous trips – it was a miracle we all made it. Our family was complete when my younger sister, Annie, was born in 1982. Annie’s birth came to symbolize our roots taking ahold in America. It marked our transition point from “refugees” to “Americans.”
Even at a young age, I knew not everyone made it. My dad’s younger sister and her three kids escaped the same way we did, but they were never seen or heard from again. They would forever be a reminder of the dangers and risks that immigrants are willing to take for a better future.
The dangers and risks our families were willing to endure and undertake then are no different from what the families at our southern border face today. I know the desperation those parents feel. I know the confusion, fright and pain the children feel.
I look at my three children and wonder what lengths I would go to to protect and provide for them. How bleak must our lives be for me to set them adrift in boats or drop them over border walls or send them in the hands of strangers into futures unknown? No parent takes these questions lightly, but I know there isn’t a sacrifice we parents won’t make or a risk we won’t take for the chance of a better future for their children.
The task of unraveling the “whys” of these mass exoduses and the “hows” of the solutions are daunting, but this isn’t the first time in our history where we’ve faced these issues. This is the way our country has grown and evolved – through waves of immigrants seeking a better future and in turn, creating a better future for our country.
I challenge us to look at the children and families seeking refuge today and seeing beyond current circumstances. Those children grow up to be people like me, your fellow American.