I wish I could say I’m a total overachiever and that’s why you’re seeing back to back posts this week. But, the reality is, I didn’t finish my Monday post in time so I pushed it to Tuesday and I typically already post on Wednesdays … so here we are.
Today’s post is pretty special to me and definitely different from what I’ve done in the past.
Growing up my mom would always share stories with me about her life in Vietnam, our family there and how she came to America. It was a story I knew all too well. I shared the story countless times for school projects and with friends whenever the discussion of heritage and family background came up and everyone always found it so fascinating.
While I also find it so interesting, I’m also in awe by it, even to this day. I mean my mother was younger than me and she had to leave her family and her native country behind with virtually no plan and no guarantee of success. I’m 25 and I call my mother just to ask her how to pick garlic at the grocery store or if green beans have to be washed.
So in honor of yesterday marking 38 years since coming to the U.S, I wanted to share her story and her journey on getting her American citizenship.
HOW MY DEAR MOTHER GOT HER AMERICAN CITIZENSHIP
When I was 19, I was a sophomore in college living my best life. I was going to classes, hanging out with my roommates and eating pizza while watching “The Hangover Part II” for the 20th time. When my mom was 19, she was trying to escape the war that was raging on in Vietnam. So on December 6, 1979 to be exact, my mother and her younger sister boarded a small boat with 30 other people trying to escape Vietnam.
To give you some background, my mom has two older brothers, two older sisters and two younger sisters. One of my aunts fell in love with an American soldier and left Vietnam earlier. Her oldest sister and youngest sister escaped on a small boat a few weeks earlier. And her brothers were set to escape after she left, although they never made it out of the country. My one uncle was able to make it into hiding, while my other uncle was captured and spent some time in prison.
In order to escape and guarantee a spot on the boat, my grandmother had to pay five ounces of gold for each child. Our family in Vietnam wasn’t rich at the time and were actually incredibly poor so this wasn’t an easy expense, but it was a sacrifice my grandparents made. On the night they escaped, my grandfather who was a soldier in the Vietnamese army for the south (the side that fought alongside the U.S soldiers against the North) took my mom and her sister to the river to meet the boat.
The one thing she told me about that night that always stood out to me was that she remembered he dropped them off and when she looked back, it was the first time she ever saw him cry.
They were on that little boat for about a week. The funny thing is, my mom and I always talk about how we would never want to go on a cruise ship. My mom specifically always say “The ship may look big to us now, but it’s nothing compared to the ocean when it gets out there.” This is why I can’t even imagine what it would be like to be in the middle of the ocean in a small boat surrounded by other people where all you can do is sit and wait.
During their journey, they came across some pirates. Yep, they’re real and I’m not talking Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean kind of pirates. We’re talking about the ones known to rape and steal.
I don’t really talk about my faith and get religious here on the blog. To me, that’s personal and something I choose not to share. But, listening to my mom’s journey, I’m always so amazed at how God watched over them.
The person leading the boat was my mother’s uncle and he had a gun on hand and started shooting at the ship to show them they were not defenseless and they were able to continue on to safety.
And if you thought we were done with the crazy talk… throughout their journey, the boat ran out of oil. All they had on hand were some cases of cooking oil, which they tried to use to get the boat going. My mother always told me, that when they put that cooking oil in, everyone was quiet and praying and then the engine came back to life.
After about a week, they arrived in Thailand on December 11, 1979. They just so happened to land in front of the mayor’s house. I’m sure you can imagine the crowd that drew when a small boat of Vietnamese refugees washed up on shore.
But, there was a catch.
They were told that the U.S embassy would be notified of their arrival with one condition. They had to hand everything they owned over to them.
Escaping a country in the middle of the night means you aren’t bringing a massive amount of items with you. But, the one thing my mom always remembers is that my grandmother had given her a pair of gold earrings before she left Vietnam. And when she got to Thailand, she had to hand them over. It’s funny because I’m sentimental with the smallest things. I keep every card that has ever been given to me, any dress from a special occasion, even a t-shirt on an important day so I can’t imagine having to give up the last thing my mother gave me before I left, not knowing if I would see her again.
My mother and her younger sister spent three months in a refugee camp. Food was rationed and every morning you had to wait on a long line and each family was given a certain amount of food for that day. My mother started volunteering to welcome the new refugees and hand out food to them because once she was done, she was given more food to take with her.
During her time in the camp, she was given a small statue of the Virgin Mary. She held on to it and it traveled all the way to the U.S with her. A fun fact about that statue is that we still have it to this day and anytime we fly and travel, we always carry it with us.
After three months in the refugee camp, they were notified that a family from Florida wanted to sponsor them to come to America. So on April 9th they left Thailand and arrived in New York City on April 10, 1980. While they obviously didn’t go out to explore the city, isn’t it funny that my mom’s first steps in America were in New York City where she would eventually end up for good?! From New York, they flew to Gainesville, Florida.
The family that took them in was an Italian family with two children of their own. My mom always told me how much she loved them and how good they were to her and my aunt. I remember growing up, the woman who took care of them always used to send cards during the holiday and her daughter continued on the tradition for a while after her mother passed. They stayed with the family for about six months until her first sister who left Vietnam by way of marriage arrived back in the U.S. And so, my mom and my aunt set off for Virginia to reunite with their sister.
In Virginia is where my mom started building a life for herself in America. She attended Petersburg High School, and fun fact my mom didn’t personally know Blair Underwood, but he also went to Petersburg High and was in the grade above hers. He’s in the yearbook and everything! He’s currently on my favorite show Quantico and my mom says he loved the drama club in high school so it’s cool to see how far he’s come.
Anyways, even though she was already 19, she had no choice but to start over. She learned English, got through school and on June 10, 1983, she graduated from high school. Another fun fact, I graduated from high school on June 10, 2010.
While she was in high school, she would baby sit and work at Burger King to help support herself. She was even employee of the month a few times, the Burger Queen if you will, which included your very own happy meal thank you very much. Yes, I am a descendant of royalty.
After high school, her and her sister moved to Denver to be with their oldest and youngest sisters and were there for about three years. She worked at a nursing home and again at Burger King to support herself. It was in Denver in 1985 where she officially became a United States Citizen.
And after three years in Denver, she moved back to Virginia. And in Virginia, she made a huge leap of faith and moved to New York City in 1987, started working at Citibank, had me in 1992 and the rest is history.
The first time my mother returned to Vietnam after escaping was in 1999 and it was also my first time in Vietnam altogether. I’m so close with my mom. We commute to work together everyday and even when I sleep over my boyfriend’s house, we always make sure to call each other to check in and chat so I can’t imagine being away from my family for that long with little to no communication.
I’m always in shock and in awe of my mother and her story because she had to leave everything she knew behind. And not just leave, but escaped in the middle of the night from her war torn country. She came to a country where she didn’t speak the language and didn’t have much to her name and yet she learned and supported herself and made a name for herself.
If I were in her shoes, I honestly don’t think I could do it and frankly with all of our first world problems these days, I don’t think a lot of us could go through what she did. She’s the strongest woman I know and this is exactly why. She inspires me everyday and I work hard for her and because of her.
So I hope you guys enjoyed todays post. This post is so special to me and something I really wanted to get right and treat with care and I hope I did just that.
Thank you very much for reading and I hope you’re all having a great week.