Continuing Perspectives’ week of Vietnam War commentaries, Lauren Vuong and her family fled Vietnam after the communist victory. Their harrowing escape by sea and ultimate rescue left her with a lifelong sense of gratitude.
37 years ago, I arrived in America, an 8-year-old Vietnamese refugee. We landed in Seattle where I saw snow for the first time. Everything was clean, white and light-filled. I thought we were in heaven. The first American I met was a little girl with blond curls and blue eyes. She looked exactly like a cherub. I was convinced we were in heaven.
My family’s journey to America is not so different from that of the Middle Eastern refugees today. My father, a member of the South Vietnam regime, was imprisoned for 4 years after the war. As a child, I was reminded daily that he was a traitor, that our family did not belong. Our persecution was ceaseless. There was but one option — escape.
We planned an 8-day voyage to the Philippines. We had two days of good weather. The rest are now a blur of the awful smells of human waste, the constant churning of my stomach, vomiting until I thought I would die. I remember the black walls of water that threatened to engulf our small wooden boat. I remember hunger and thirst so great they twisted like ropes around all my organs. During that time, 120 ships passed us by. None stopped.
On the 10th morning, the skies cleared. We had no food or water. Fuel was dangerously low. Landfall seemed impossible. Miraculously, a ship flying the U.S. flag approached. We were rescued.
Since that day, the image of the giant behemoth flying the American flag has become synonymous with life and freedom. I dedicated most of my adult life searching for the captain and crew who saved us. Their actions made me believe in American generosity and the conscience of the human spirit.
I was a child of war. I am also the beneficiary of extraordinary compassion. Having both perspectives, I know that compassion heals war wounds. It is the seed that cultivates a future worthy of believing in.
With a Perspective and gratitude, I’m Lauren Vuong.
Lauren Vuong is an attorney in San Francisco. This November, she and her family will travel to New York to meet for the first time the surviving captain and crew who rescued them.