Although worlds apart geographically and culturally, there is strong kinship between Cuban and Vietnamese refugees here in the U.S. Both have had to courageously escape a murderous totalitarian dictatorship in order to offer the hope of freedom and liberty to their children. Between Cuban and Vietnamese exiles, there are millions of stories documenting the courage and determination of our parents and grandparents who risked everything for us and worked tirelessly in exile to provide us with a better life.
These are stories that must continue to be told forever so future generations will never forget how lucky we were and continue to be. And whether they originated in Vietnam or Cuba, they all sound familiar to us.
Dreams of My Father, From Vietnam to Grand Central Station
In our thatched house deep in the Mekong Delta, we listened to the banned Voice of America, the volume low.
My father died three years ago. For months after his death, I had a recurring dream in which my entire family, my mother, siblings, aunts and uncles were together for a crawfish boil, Cajun and Vietnamese style. Amid the revelry and drone of the back-porch fans, I would see my father. But my euphoria would vanish as I realized that he, looking lost and out of place, was dead and should not be there.
Born in 1927 in Hue, Vietnam, my father took part in the nationalist resistance against the French occupation, serving in a reconnaissance unit. During one mission a bomb exploded, killing many. My father was taken prisoner and his parents were informed that he was MIA. For a while he was even mistakenly declared dead, and a sheet of paper commemorating his ultimate sacrifice for the country is one of the few possessions that have followed us over the years.After he was released, my father moved to Saigon. He pursued many avenues to earn a living, and eventually founded a successful import and export company, trading auto parts. During the late 1950s and 1960s, he traveled to France, Holland and around Asia for work and pleasure. I have pictures of him from this period—white shirt, sleeves rolled up, standing next to the Eiffel Tower; or in a business suit, leaning against a car, trench coat over one arm, a cigarette casually dangling from his lips. Upon my arrival, his fifth daughter, in the early 1970s, my father was at the peak of his career, happily married with six children, a generous sponsor to many friends and relatives.In 1975, the civil war in Vietnam ended. Under the new regime, my parents were classified as capitalists. Overnight, the auto-parts company was shut down. The government confiscated my parents’ home and properties, save for some personal belongings. With unconcealed bitterness, my father reminded us that he had once been lauded for his selfless dedication to the country.
After a few years of living in limbo in Saigon, we were relocated to the countryside, less than 60 miles away but decades back in time. Located deep in the Mekong Delta, our leaf-thatched house partially perched on stilts, with one side open to the water. I spent many afternoons fishing, surrounded by chickens, ducks and other farm animals, vying to claim whatever catch I pulled up.
There was no electricity, no running water and no easy access to or from our house. At night, we listened to the Voice of America, with the volume almost inaudible since what was on the radio, not to mention music and books, was banned.
During those long nights in the countryside, my father regaled us with stories of his travels and exploits. I desperately wanted to go to these places, to experience these adventures with him.
By the early 1980s, seeing no future in Vietnam, my father orchestrated our clandestine escape. After many failed attempts and close calls, we managed to board a small fishing boat. We traveled with more than a hundred people packed into a space intended only for 40, and from the first day there was a shortage of food, water and other necessities.
Escaping the suffocating crowd, I found refuge in my father’s lap on the top deck. Soothed by the fresh air, we watched dolphins spiraling in and out of the water. Excitement erupted at dawn on our fifth day at sea when birds were spotted flying far off in the horizon. We were near land.
After more than a year in refugee camps in Malaysia and then the Philippines, we settled in Port Arthur, Texas. My father looked for work, but it was difficult to find a job because of his age, his shaky French-accented English and the local sentiment. Undeterred, he started a small sandwich stand, selling hot dogs, hamburgers and Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches.
Throughout my middle- and high-school years, I worked side by side with my father, doing homework during spare moments. In long winter afternoons when customers seemed as rare as Texas snow, he would take a nap in the cot between the bathroom and refrigerator. I would be on the phone with friends, stewing in the caldron of teenage drama. At 7 p.m., when we closed for the day, my father and I walked to the market nearby and shopped for the next day.
Amid the never-ending work and constant money struggles, I understood that only education held the key to a better future. When I was accepted into a good college, my father was overjoyed.
Until college, my father and I strived together and shared in success and failure together. When I graduated, my future and its possibilities beckoned only me. And so, before I got married, before my income might not be considered solely mine, I wanted to give my father the small sum that I saved from part-time jobs during college. Without saying much, my father accepted the gift. In the later years, my husband and I together offered him presents of money, but each time he refused.
A few weeks ago I had another dream, different from the one of the family gathering. I was standing atop a staircase in New York’s Grand Central station. Leaning against the railing at the bottom of the steps was my father, in his business suit, trench coat on his arm, and of course the cigarette dangling from his lips. So handsome and young, he looked up at me and smiled. I flew down the steps and into his arms. There, I was soothed by his familiar scent and embrace. I took his hand and together we went to all the city places I had wanted to show him.
Ms. Ngo Usadi lives with her family in Basking Ridge, N.J.