True Immigrant Tales: Vietnamese Boat People

[In 1979, tens of thousands of Vietnamese boat people, many of them actually Chinese, fled the communists in flimsy, overcrowded boats. Many drowned or were killed by pirates, but several hundred thousand reached refugee camps in other countries. Here is one refugee’s story; he came to the U.S. in 1980 at age 17.]

“Our boat was kind of lucky, ‘cause 70 percent of boats get captured by Vietnamese Coast Guard. That day there was no moon. It was totally dark and so luckily we make it. After one day and one night we get out of the control of the Vietnamese. Now we know we’re free! Our boat was 30 feet long and about seven feet wide and, totally, we had about 103 people. It was so crowded, almost like a fish can, you know? Can you imagine?

Rescue of Vietnamese boat people
      Rescue of Vietnamese boat people

“There was only enough water for one cup for each person in one day. So we rarely drank the water for, if we don’t have water, we’re going to die in the sea. The first day everyone got seasick. Nobody got used to it, the kind of high waves and ocean. So everyone got seasick and vomited, but by the second day and the third day, we felt much better.
“We kept going straight into the international sea zone and we met a lot of ships. We tried to get signal for help. We tried to burn our clothes to get their attention. We wrote the big S.O.S. letters in our clothes and tried to hang it above the boat. No matter how we tried, they just passed us by. I think they might feel pity for us, have the good compassion, but I think they’re afraid their government going to blame them because the law is, if you pick up any refugees in the ocean, your country got to have responsibility for those people. So, finally, we so disappointed because we got no help from anybody and our boat is now the only boat and we have only 3 h.p. motor.
“We have too many people and the wave is extremely high, about five feet. It is so dangerous. You can see the boat only maybe like one foot distant from the sea level. But we got no choice. We decide to keep going straight to Malaysia. The fifth day, the sixth day, we saw nothing. The only thing we saw is water, sun, and at night the stars. It’s just like upside-down moon. And the sea is so dark. It’s like dark blue. If you look down into the water, you had the feeling like it invite you, say,           “Go down with me.” Especially at night, the water—it’s black, like evil waiting for you. Say, “Oh, 103 people, I was waiting for you. Come down with us.” We kept going, but we don’t know where we’re going to be, if we have enough food and water to make it. We don’t even know if we’re going the right way. We just estimate by looking at the sun and the stars.
“The sixth day we saw the bird and a couple of floating things, so we are hoping we are almost come to the shore. We had some hope and we kept traveling one more day, the seventh day. That day is the day—our water—we have only one more day left. And the gasoline is almost gone. And we saw some fire, very litter fire, very far away. And we went to that fire. One hour, two hours. And, finally, we saw that fire offshore drilling platform of Esso Company. Everybody’s screaming and so happy because we know at least we have something we can turn to. . . .We know we cannot go any further.

Boat People Memorial in Australia
Boat People Memorial in Australia

“Most of the women and children in my boat are exhausted, and some of the children unconscious. Some of the children had been so thirsty, that they just drank the water from the sea. And the water from the sea is terrible. The more you drank, the more you got thirsty. And the children, starving, got a bad reaction from the seawater. We all got skin disease and exhausted, but the Esso people took us in their boat to the refugee camp in Malaysia.”

[Read about immigrants in the 1890s and the Ellis Island personnel who processed them in the historical novel, Guardians of the Gate.]

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