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A Living History of My Great-Uncle

The time and place my great-uncle was born had a great impact on his life. In the late 1960s, the Vietnam War started between North and South Vietnam. The 1970s was a time when the Vietnam War was at its peak of destruction. My great-uncle was born in April 1962 in Saigon, Vietnam in a house made of coconut leaves. He grew up in a large family with seven sisters, two older, and five younger. Before the Vietnam War, the main activities were done outside. Children would play hopscotch, jump rope, fold paper boats, fly kites, and bike.

Then the Vietnam War started. Communist North Vietnam attacked non-communist South Vietnam. For a time, South Vietnam prevailed over North Vietnam with the support of the United States. Richard Nixon, President of the United States at the time, sent bomber planes to bomb North Vietnam’s capital and its main port city. Unexpectedly, the path to victory crumbled when President Nixon resigned. Democrats took over Congress and drew all US support away from South Vietnam, resulting in North Vietnam seizing control over South Vietnam. Many South Vietnamese were sent to re-education camps or fled as “boat people” to other countries. My great-uncle and his family were part of the hundreds of thousands of people who fled.

As a young child, my great-uncle loved to bike. He also loved reading comics and watching American shows such as Batman. My great-uncle was almost six when the war started. He moved to a wood house with a tin roof for a short period during the war. His house was one mile away from a bombing site, so his family was forced to flee to the local school which was made of concrete. He began working at age thirteen to help provide for his family.

My great-uncle and his family fled Vietnam in December 1980. All the travel costs were paid by the ICMC, the International Catholic Migration Constitution. Before being sponsored by the ICMC, my great-uncle and his older sister had attempted to escape to Malaysia by boat about a year earlier. Their crowded boat was lost at sea for eighteen days until it was saved by some fishermen. They were taken back to Vietnam. Both journeys, they were robbed by pirates.

Thankfully, the ICMC provided a safe means for my great-uncle and his family to come to America. He was 18 years old when he came. Not many people could get to the United States, but he was able to because three of his sisters were already in America. One of his sisters who had already left was my grandma. The other two sisters had left with Grandma to help her with her toddler children, my uncle and my mom. His journey to America included flying to a refugee camp in Thailand to review paperwork and then stopping at several countries before finally arriving in San Francisco, California. He described the journey as the happiest journey of his life because he knew he was leaving a communist country. He settled with the rest of his family in downtown Los Angeles. My great-uncle is forever thankful to the ICMC.

When my great-uncle first arrived in the US, his first thought was it looked so different than Vietnam. Life in America, as he described it, was very quiet compared to Vietnam. In the US, his family bought frozen food, unlike in Vietnam where all the food was fresh. People in the US usually stayed indoors most of the day. In Vietnam, practically the whole day was spent outdoors. My great-uncle went to college at a community college and got an electronics degree. Now, he has three children, two girls and a boy. He shared an important piece of information with me. “When you see an older person, they will probably have experienced something they haven’t shared. Respect them and learn from them.”

This interview was very interesting and helpful to me. I have a glimpse into my family’s history. I learned more about a historical event from someone who experienced it. It is sad to think of the hardships children during that time endured. I am more grateful now for being born in a free country.

4 thoughts on “A Living History of My Great-Uncle”

  1. Wow, thank you for sharing the story of your Great-Uncle! What a blessing that the ICMC enabled him to feel a war-torn and communist country. And what wise words he shared with you about the right attitude we should have towards those who have lived longer than we have. I wonder if he has ever been back to visit Vietnam since then, and if so, what thoughts and emotions might have been racing through his mind and heart.

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