Vietnamese-American Binh escaped a Communist-seized Vietnam in 1979 and now lives with his family in New Jersey. On May 28, he shared with us the details of his stunning journey, from Vietnam to Indonesia to America, from refugeeism to acculturation to a modern-traditionalist lifestyle.
Serena: I know you’re from Vietnam, but can you describe what life in Vietnam was like for you before you came to America?
Binh: I came to America in 1979, and life had changed drastically before I came to America. I left Vietnam in 1979, but the Communist party had taken over in 1975. My dad was a soldier in the Vietnamese government, so they had parents in the military before the communist takeover--we couldn’t go to school. So we had gone back to working on a farm, and from 1975 to 1979, we didn’t have the opportunity to go to school except than working on a farm. So my mom decided to take us out of the country and escape America.
Serena: Did the Vietnam war, the ending of the Vietnam war in the early 1970s, did that have very significant impact on your life and Vietnamese society at the time?
Binh: Oh, yes. Big impact. Being a kid before 1975, the war had, how should I say this--it’s very painful. There are many pictures that I’m not sure if I should say it, but I’ve seen a lot dead bodies, executions, all kinds of stuff like that as a kid. Very, very horrible stories. It still traumatizes me because of that. Whenever I see a country at war--Syria, any other country, for instance--it brings back memories of when I was a kid during the war. That was, yeah, it’s very, very painful. Big impact on a kid, no doubt about it. So, very, very sad stories.
Serena: Wow, I get that. Well, I don’t, but, that must be very terrible to live through.
Samantha: Well, I understand that we might not want to press on that subject. So, I think we’ll move a bit forward in time, to when you were growing up in Vietnam amidst the Communist takeover. Other than the fact that you weren’t able to go to school, were there any major societal changes you witnessed, maybe on both a community and a national scale?
Binh: Yes, the way that Communists ran the country was completely different from a free country. Each house, they ration everything. Each house would get a certain portion of rice, each house would get a certain portion of meat, a certain portion of fish. Everyone had to go to work. So in 1977 there was a drought, and since we were only a rice-growing country, we didn’t have much else around, and everyone had to eat other food to survive. So before 1975, life was very easy. We didn’t have to think about there not being food. We focused on going to school and study. After 1975, all we focused on—parents, everybody—about was how to survive.
Serena: Oh, wow, so that’s clearly a huge change.
Binh: Big difference, of course.
Samantha: So let’s move into when you immigrated to America—why and how did that happen? You can share as much or as little as you want.
Binh: The process of escaping Vietnam was actually—my mom would have more details, but it was very difficult, even for a kid. My mom tried three times before I could get out of the country. So the first time, we had to pay, and they would take gold or currency. I don’t know how much, but there was a really large amount of money she had to pay for people to take us out of the country. But they weren’t successful, so she lost a lot of money. The third time, she sent only me and my brother out, since my grandma got sick and she had to stay back. So only two kids, like middle school kids, were getting out of a country. She sent us on a boat, and seven days later, we arrived at Indonesia. The journey was also very difficult. When we, on the first few days, our boat didn’t have any food--we got on a boat with no food. And then on the first or the second day, because of the patrol boats on the ocean, this other boat couldn’t deliver any food, so for the first two days, we pretty much stayed hungry.
On the seventh day, we got to Indonesia, but the Coast Guard didn’t want us to get out of the country. They wanted us to stay at bay. After the second night, the captain got the idea that we to leave the boat, and the thing we did when we got out was all destroy the boat. So that the Coast Guard couldn’t chase us out again. But we got there. This island, in Indonesia back in the day, they had a lot of coconuts. The grass was really high, just a different lifestyle completely, altogether. But we’re lucky that our dad was in America already, so he had the payroll ready, he got the message from my mom. So we stayed in Indonesia for two and a half months, then we were able to go to America.
Serena: Oh, wow. That’s a really long time! So, Indonesia was also under Communist rule at the time, right? Under Sukarno and then Suharto. Did that impact you at all, or were you separate from politics in Indonesia at the time?
Binhh: Yeah, we were actually separate from them at the time. Vietnam refugees were getting a lot of attention. So they didn’t really bother us, they just let us stay there, and we got paperwork done, and we’d be fine.
Serena: Oh, okay. I see. So, once you did arrive in America, what were some of the biggest differences you noticed?
Binh: From just a kid’s observation--I was thirteen at the time--Vietnam is a tropical country. It’s around 90 to 100 degrees all the time. And when we got to America, it was October, it was snowing. It was flurries, maybe not so much snow, maybe half an inch? But we didn’t have money, I was wearing shorts, T-shirts, and flip-flops. I was on a flight from Indonesia, it was 7 or 8PM at night, they didn’t let my dad know. They didn’t let him know we were arriving. So we were standing in the airport, in shorts, freezing, and we didn’t speak English. So we were standing there--luckily he had signed the paperwork there--so we showed him the paperwork and he called my dad. My dad’s car pulled up an hour later. And as we walked outside the airport, we saw snow. So it was like, wow, this is really cold (laughs).
Yeah, so then we got home. We stayed home for a couple days, I don't remember how long, a couple days. My dad bought us clothes, got us ready for school. The difficult part for us was that I hadn’t gone to school in many years--two years. So we kind of skipped that whole part of school, and then I think I was going to eighth grade, my brother was older than me he was going to tenth. But the way that America works is that it had ninth through twelfth graders in high school. So my dad decided to enroll me and my brother together in ninth grade, so we could help each other to study together.
So, it was kind of difficult, because, you know, you hadn’t been going to school in many years. And there’s all these American traditional songs—anything about America, we didn’t know. Baseball, football, sports that the kids played, we didn’t know. Roller skates—they were popular back then—all kinds of stuff we didn’t know. Completely different. So that was the big difference, yeah.
Serena: Oh, wow. Sam, did you want to ask anything?
Samantha: Yeah, I’ll jump in with a question. So, I mean I think for Serena and I’s parents, they both came here around age thirty-ish, maybe? So I was just kind of curious that because you were thirteen, which is so young, do you think that almost made it easy in a way? Because you didn’t have to realize the magnitude of what you were getting yourself into, by moving to an entirely new country? Or do you think it’s because you were young, and some what inexperienced, that it just made it more intimidating and difficult to adjust?
Binh: Actually, that’s a very good question. I think the younger you come to America, the easier it is to adapt. My brother was only two years older than me, and some his friends were three or four years older, but they had a hard time adjusting to American culture. So being twelve or thirteen years old, it was easier for me to learn English and sort of adjust to American culture.
Serena: that’s really interesting. So the next question is more related to later events in Vietnam. I know that following economic reform and the lifting of trade embargoes and, I’m not really sure if democratization is the right term, definitely that kind of economic reform. How have those changes in your home country influenced your life and your priorities?
Binh: So, Vietnam is the country that I came from. I say that I do pay attention to it, but in terms of government, I don’t really pay much attention anymore. I think partially because I have very limited influence in Vietnam, so I can’t really do much. But from an observation, as a tourist, when I went back to Vietnam, I saw that it had changed a lot because of the economic rule. They had relaxed rules, the people have a lot more freedom than back in 1975. Between 1975 and 1980, they had a lot of songs that weren’t allowed to be played. In 1977, they changed the name of the biggest city, which was Saigon, to Ho Chi Minh City. And if anyone used, even mentioned Saigon, you’d get in trouble back then. You might’ve been put in jail. But now everybody just says Saigon--nobody says Ho Chi Minh City. It just reversed back to the city we had before 1975. So the rules are there now, but they don’t really limit freedom that way.
Samantha: So Serena was asking about, I guess, your political attachment—lack of political attachment, I guess, as you answered. In terms of culture because, again, I’m so fixated on thirteen year-old thing—this is the first time I’ve interviewed someone who’s come here that early—do you feel like a cultural bond to Vietnam? And do you try to actualize that in your life in America, or is that still somewhat removed from you?
Binh: Oh, definitely. I still consider myself Vietnamese 100%. You know, we participate in Vietnamese culture--Vietnamese new year, which is the same as Chinese New year, we try to speak Vietnamese at home (well, we try to convince our kids to speak Vietnamese), we continue to eat Vietnamese at home. So, definitely, Vietnamese culture is carried on within the house. We grew attached to it, and we go back there a lot for vacation. The culture is there, but maybe because I came here too young, the political attachment isn’t there--or maybe it’s because I’m not a good politician.
Samantha: And when you do go back to Vietnam now, do you feel disconnected at all?
Binh: Well, I do feel different. But it’s not like I’m not attached ot it, but it’s more like I’m comparing what my experience was forty years versus now, to how much the culture has changed and now. The tradition was still there but because I think the people there are a lot more educated than before, they somewhat like America--the younger generation travels to different parts of the country to work. In the old days, they all stayed together in one big family, kids would live in the small town with their family. But now kids are moving out for college--let’s say kids are now going to Boston or New York or Chicago for school, they get a job there and they want to stay there. So the kids in Vietnam, they can also go to school and get jobs in Saigon. It’s very much like Vietnam.
Serena: So, I guess we can kind of begin to wrap up. So everyone kind of dreams of a future where everyone’s equal. With regard to your own ethnicity, what does this vision look like to you?
Binh: Well, equal to me means freedom. It means the individual has the flexibility and the ability to do whatever fits that person. So let’s say my daughter grew up to become a firefighter, right? (laughs) Thats her choice, that’s her freedom. There shouldn’t be any roadblocks to prevent her being a firefighter. They wouldn’t say “Oh, because you’re a girl, because you can’t be as strong as someone else, you can’t be a firefighter.” And that’s true, because firefighters can do different things, right? Because limitations shouldn’t enable a person to or not to do whatever they want to do.
Samantha: (laughs) Yeah, I think that’s something we’ve seen a lot in previous interviews as well. I think someone else was talking about how in America, kids have the freedom to do whatever they want, as opposed to maybe China. Do you think your life in Vietnam has affected your parenting significantly?
Binh: In a way, I’d think so. I think tradition in both China, Vietnam, in all these countries--tradition sort of limits your potential. It depends on your culture, right? A lot of the time in Vietnam, they say that after a girl gets married, they should stay home and work for the home, don’t work outside anymore. I think the culture that the family grew up with kind of communicates something into the kids that way--this is how things have been for the past 100 years, this is how they should be for the next 100 years. That culture says girls do this, do that, kind of define what the person should be. America is different. So, if you live in Vietnam, there’s a good chance you’d be impacted by that kind of environment. So the culture would make a big different in America, and I’m sure it’s the same anywhere else.