By: Margo Chui
My mother was never very verbal about her experiences in Vietnam. I would always ask her, and she would tell me “Don‘t ask questions. You will get yourself into trouble.” Or sometimes I would ask her not knowing she is busy and she would respond with “Mo see gan” (no time), Which made me extremely curious. Why was it that she could not find the time to tell me about her past? She had the time to watch her Chinese soap operas or gossip on the phone with my aunts and grandmother, but no time to tell me about herself?
It was not until one night after my father had left for one of his monthly get-togethers with his brothers that I finally knew the truth. We had hot pot that night, and my sister and I were sitting around the table talking about something on MTV that we had seen earlier that day. My mother asked if we enjoyed the dinner and we said yes. We thanked her for the meal because hot pot was a special meal in our house. Out of nowhere, I asked her a question.
“Mommy, tell us what happened in Vietnam.” She looked at me with a quizzical eye.
“Yeah, you never tell us anything,” my younger sister chimed in. “Tell us about how you came here.”
My mother sighed. “We left Vietnam because of the war. You already know that your Grandfather died in Vietnam. Soy goo and duo goo (our two uncles) were already here in the States and we were trying to get here by boat, but first we had to go to a camp somewhere else. On the way over, our boat was attacked by pirates.”
“PIRATES??” My sister and I looked at each other, confused. The only pirates we knew about were the ones from Pirates of the Caribbean. We thought she was confusing one word for another like she usually does.
She continued, “They came onto the boat and stole everyone‘s money, then went down under the boat and broke the engine so we could not leave. After they left, we were stranded there for a few days. We saw an American ship. I think they were the Marines? Navy? I do not know. They came up on board and we thought they were going to fix the boat. But they just left us there.”
“THEY LEFT YOU IN THE MIDDLE OF THE OCEAN?!” I was extremely shocked. “Wait, where were you going?”
“We were on our way to Malaysia to stay in the camps for the refugees,” her eyes seemed to glaze over as she remembered one of the most tragic moments in her life. Meanwhile, my sister and I grabbed some more shrimp and threw them into the hot pot. “Since the boat was still not working, one of your uncles went under with five other men to fix the engine. So we were back on our way to Malaysia. We were sleeping against the side of the ship, next to a hole. Your uncle was sitting next to the hole to make sure we would not fall off. We all fell asleep, and when we woke up he was gone.”
I started to tear up because I knew where this was going. I knew before that he had fallen off the boat, but I did not know how. “We looked around the boat for him, but could not find him. We finally arrived in Malaysia and we were waiting for everyone to get off the boat. We waited on the shore for him to come back, but he never came.” Her eyes started to tear up. She grabbed one of the napkins from a stack of napkins that we usually take from restaurants. “He fell off when we were sleeping.”
“Was no one else awake? Were there no life preservers? No one could have saved him?”
“It was dark, and the boat was loud. Nobody could really tell what was happening.” My mom knew how to hold back her tears. My mom cried for years. She kept saying, “I should have been there, but I was inside the boat house, taking care of your younger sister.”
My sister and I looked at each other, and I stared at the hot pot. The shrimp we threw in were ready to be taken out, but I was not hungry anymore. I could not believe this was the story. I now knew why she never talked about her past. I could tell just from that one story that it hurt her to talk and think about it. It was a memory that would never go away. One that she would like to never have happened, but also one that she knew she had to keep for forever. Before this story, my mom told us a lot of stories about the uncle that fell off the boat. He was talented and he could look at a bag, a shirt, a dress, or pair of pants and go home and make that same piece of clothing to the stitch. He learned different languages on his own and taught them to his younger siblings. It makes me sad to think I never got the chance to meet him, because through my mom‘s eyes, he seemed like a hero.