The Beginnings of a Vietnamese Refugee’s Life

ngày 5.02.24

Translated by Vuong Thanh, 2024

He lived with a vitality that rose within the realm of illusion, as if he were a stranger. He lamented the loss of his youth, so he rarely acknowledged that he had crossed the halfway point of his life! He wasn’t afraid of aging, but he didn’t want to accept it. Having achieved nothing substantial, yet becoming old, is something he finds quite pathetic! He often joked with friends and acquaintances, declaring that he would never be over 50! Anyone who heard him would be puzzled before he explained, “After 50, it will be 49, then 48, 47… 40, then back to 41, 42… and so on!

Perhaps in the fierce war of the past, he couldn’t live to his fullest, but live a loose life like many others. He lived a life that people often considered exemplary, disciplined because he willingly played the card game of ‘eat it all, fall back to nothing.’ This meant that if fate dealt him a good hand, he would accomplish something in life and surely wouldn’t die suddenly. He worried about building a future before the hurried departure of friends each day; he endeavored to nurture the future in the desolation, ruin, and brutality of war…

He thought, ‘If I have to die, I should choose a heroic death with integrity to repay my parents for giving birth to me, and to leave my loved ones with affection and pride.’ So, in any military unit, with any type of aircraft, he charged forward willingly. He never refused when friends asked him to fly, even when busy with personal matters, family affairs… wherever, whenever, he always heard the saying, ‘Flying like that is an easy way to ascend to the altar.’

A typical example is a friend with the same first name but a different last name, who used to be in the same unit, living nearby. Friends occasionally gathered together to know they still had each other. Every time, the conversation was mostly about everyday matters, very little about new things; the old stories were everyone’s common knowledge, but somehow always sounding fresh! This friend always took the opportunity to remind those around him that in the past, when he was infatuated with his current wife, she often asked him to fly like that… And so, his youth continued to float with the clouds, with the wind, with the sun, with the rain across the Southern skies of Vietnam…

Oh, the calculations finally scattered abruptly, following the rushed procession of sad refugees, without a word of farewell; not knowing where they were going, where they would end up on the afternoon of April 29, 1975, amid the resounding explosions of bombs, amidst extreme chaos! So sudden that there was no time to bring along the loved ones, just 45 minutes away by Honda motorcycle from the airport! Fortunately, he “fell but did not fall into nothingness,” and this “fall” added more bitterness, more pain when he realized he had to live a life of exile, in a distant land, leaving behind a homeland torn and shattered; leaving behind deep attachments, and numerous debts to friends! The paths he had traveled since the disbandment were truly filled with hardship and adversity. He was fortunate in a miraculous way to have picked up his two younger brothers who were studying in Saigon – they were brought to the bachelor’s quarters in the airport the evening before – and their English still need a lot of improvements.

After a few weeks in the Eglin AFB refugee camp in Florida, he and his brothers were fostered by an American lady in San Antonio, and they were sponsored out of the refugee camp on a Saturday afternoon at the end of May 1975.

The old lady who fostered him was the wife of a late US Air Force Major during World War II. She lived with her divorced middle-aged son in an old brick house. The income of the two was the rent from a few acres of farmland combined with a meager pension! In her, he saw a very rich woman in terms of a precious heart. He had met and become acquainted with her since the days of learning to fly in this country in the fall of 1969, amid the excitement of youth and the full enthusiasm filled with future and dreams within reach, proud to be one of the chosen children of Vietnam. The situation now was completely opposite! Meeting her again in the role of a refugee, a defeated soldier with shattered dreams!

He bowed his head and shed tears over those futile thoughts. He was a tough guy, or at least pretended to be, rarely shedding meaningless tears; yet since the end of April until now, tears seemed to flow endlessly! He looked at her with a mixture of affection and a hint of bitterness in his troubled thoughts, thinking about the allied friends who had turned their backs on his people!

On the way back from the airport, he recognized the familiar old routes, the interweaving highways, with I-10 stretching into the distant West of the vast United States, much like the uncertain life that lay ahead for him and his brothers! Occasionally, he sighed, a puddle of sadness surged like the vast oceans beneath the wings of the aircraft on the refugee journey! He wished for some reason that would allow him to cry and relieve the heavy burdens within his soul!

On Sunday morning, he and his brothers followed the old lady to church! She said she would introduce them to people in the congregation who might offer job opportunities! Although he had mentally prepared himself to start a new life after leaving the camp, he was still taken aback when he heard the words “job opportunities.” Since when until now, he was only familiar with phrases like “going out, going to school, going to the military, going flying.” Now it was the familiar word “going,” but with the word “job” in front and “opportunities” following! “Job opportunities”! This phrase felt like a painful confirmation to him! In the depths of his soul, there was something strange and bewildering! He silently said, ‘That’s it, a lifetime of ups and downs!’ His tears threatened to fall again! Oh, homeland! Oh, beloved ones! Throughout the ceremony, he sat contemplating the internal battle, occasionally muttering the three words ‘job opportunities’ like a madman! His two younger brothers looked lost.

The ceremony was over, but why were they still sitting quietly in one place, as if many eyes were fixed on them. He was disoriented and didn’t know what his two younger brothers were thinking! All three were at a loss, not knowing how to handle the situation, when the old lady approached them, bringing with her a middle-aged white man with blonde hair. She introduced both sides and they hesitantly kept shaking hands until finally they realize hat, starting tomorrow, Mike would come to their house to pick them up for a house maintenance job.

Mike assured him that he just need to work as an assistant to a handyman and that he would only work part-time and be paid $2/hour! The old lady was joyfully excited, while he mumbled his thanks awkwardly. In his mind, numbers were being calculated rapidly: “$2/hour makes $16/day, or at least $320/month when converted to about 1,000 Vietnamese dong for each dollar… whoa! The figures were unprecedented in his entire student life and in the career of a Vietnamese Air Force pilot!” He felt a bitter taste in his mouth, his eyes suddenly blurred. Looking at his brothers and at himself, each in the only set of clothes they wore during the chaotic escape, it seemed like a fleeting moment of joy had come and gone in a hurry!

In the refugee camp, they were also given old clothes, and they managed to pick a few outfits that were passable but still baggy. Therefore, whenever there was a chance to be presentable, they still had to wear the only set of Vietnamese clothes, although worn, it held immense sentimental value! The old lady noticed his hesitation and quickly intervened, telling Mike that he was probably “shy” and naturally not talkative!

7 o’clock the next morning marked a new day, a new chapter in his life. He obediently did everything that Mike indicated; he worked diligently and quickly, even though there were times when he truly shed tears – it was just one month, but it felt like a thousandfold separation, a drastic change in life! From sweeping the trash, cleaning toilets, assembling window frames to painting and sweeping… everything! Whatever Mike wanted him to do, he could do immediately and Mike seemed very satisfied!

In the afternoon on the way back, Mike raised his thumb in front of him and said, “You are good, you are number one!” He awkwardly smiled in gratitude, but deep down, he thought, I could still fly all sorts of airplanes, let alone this kind of work!’ He turned towards the window, seemingly engrossed in the surroundings, but actually trying to conceal his teary eyes! He was starting to feel frustrated with how quickly his tears came, how excessively sentimental he had become!

To avoid sadness, he started practicing martial arts in the backyard every evening after work. One day, John suggested taking him to visit a martial arts school near their home, and he eagerly agreed. Not knowing what John said to the teacher in the office, he was warmly received. The teacher, a third-degree black belt named Guidry, a white American in his early 30s, seemed gentle in demeanor. Before leaving, Guidry hinted that he was welcome to come and train at any time, and gave him a free martial arts uniform without. This generosity touched his heart!

So, after a busy day at work, he walked to the martial arts school in the evening to forget about life’s troubles. After a week of diligent training, the teacher suggested that he assist in teaching two evening classes, one class per day, each lasting 1 hour and 15 minutes. He would be paid $10 in cash each week. Nothing could be more joyful – he not only had the opportunity to train but also earned some money!

After teaching for a week, an incident occurred! There were two long-time coaches at the school – an African American with a second-degree black belt and a burly Mexican with a first-degree black belt. Perhaps feeling that he was a newcomer, they were confrontational and challenged him to a friendly match! He had sensed their unfriendly eyes from the moment he joined the school.

He quietly told the two that he didn’t like the trainers to fight in front of the students. Both of them dismissed his concerns, stating that here, even the teacher and students sometimes sparred, not to mention that they were trainers; moreover, it was also a way to guide the students! He expressed his reluctance, but the two kept insisting. Honestly, he was not afraid of a fight because in the past, he had been one of the four pillars of the Northern Shaolin School in Phu Nhuan, and had once fought on the free-fighting arenas from Saigon to Da Nang. Not to mention, he was also a ranked Tai Chi Dao player of Tan Son Nhat Air Force!

He said that he want to only have a friendly sparring session after being encouraged by the boss. (He thought the boss probably wanted to test his skills!) In friendly sparring, the intention is not to intentionally injure each other. However, the unruly Mexican guy aimed to hurt him, charging in like a bull without any technique, and even punching directly at his face! If he hadn’t been quick and nimble, he would have taken a nose hit for sure. He skillfully used his legs to easily dodge the attacks, like a cat playing with a mouse, making the Mexican guy furious after a while of futile striking the empty air. He stopped and asked, “Are you practicing Tai Chi Dao or Boxing? In Tai Chi Dao, you’re not allowed to punch in the face!”… But perhaps the Mexican didn’t understand his English, so he kept attacking with his old-fashioned moves. He had to give in because he saw that this opponent’s abilities were not on par with the green belt martial artist from Vietnam, and moreover, he was of a lower rank. But the current situation couldn’t be prolonged any longer… He told himself that if he didn’t strike harder, the guy might not respect him. He stopped and warned again as if… explaining the matter with the whole class before teaching the other guy a lesson in etiquette! Waiting for the guy to charge again, he didn’t dodge anymore. Instead, he lifted his left leg to use his knee to block the opponent’s force, his left hand striking directly at the opponent’s face while at the same time placing his left leg down, and his right leg moving as fast as a 360-degree fan… if he hadn’t been considerate and reduced the force in his legs, using the instep instead of the heel, the guy would have been knocked down for sure. Nevertheless, his nose got hit! The whole class applauded! Before the Mexican guy could react, the black American guy shouted:

– Why did you just say not to punch in the face in Tai Chi Dao, but you did it?

– It’s clear that it was my leg technique that hit him, why do you say I punched?

– I saw you hit his face before you turned around!

He turned to ask the boss:

– Guidry, what do you think?

– Maybe you were hitting too fast, so I’m not sure.

– You punched my nose!, the Mexican said.

– Do you want to review the leg technique just now?

He asked with a smile.

Before the Mexican guy could answer, the black guy spoke up:

– I want to try your leg technique!

Seeing the tension, he looked at the boss with some hesitation, and saw him nod and say:

– When sparring, don’t let the atmosphere get tense!

– Can’t you hear, Larry! He said to the black guy, seemingly provoking him.

The black guy didn’t say another word and adopted a defensive stance. His eyes with more white than black, stared at him without blinking. He assumed a defensive posture and shouted with a loud “ki-ai” to showcase his martial prowess and startle everyone. The black guy quickly launched a powerful attack. His legs moved quite smoothly. He resolved to be more cautious and used evasive techniques to probe the opponent’s fighting style.

Strangely, these guys learned Tai Chi Dao, but they used their hands like boxers, and their kicks didn’t go higher than the chest! Nevertheless, its reverse kick with the right leg was very fast, but the left leg was rather limited, only kicking weak low kicks! He often rushed in with a series of punches followed by a reverse kick but; each time he kicked low, he would retreat to a defensive posture! When the black guy kicked for the third time, he raised his left leg to absorb it, and the guy winced in pain, not having a chance to retreat before receiving a straight reverse kick to the chest, falling back. Everyone exclaimed and then applauded. Fortunately, he had reduced the force, and the black guy had a chest guard; otherwise, it would have been a disaster! He reached out to help his opponent up, but the black guy ignored his hand, getting up on his own. He apologized for the accidental kick! Guidry stood up, the three shook hands, and the training session ended. The black guy shook hands by etiquette, but with fierce glaring eyes.

After class, Guidry held him back. He thought something was up. However, Guidry just said he really liked his fighting style, especially his attitude. Nevertheless, he should be careful. Guidry asked him if he would compete in Houston next weekend. He said he would go with the martial arts school, and Guidry would cover the $20 entry fee for both forms and sparring. At that time, $20 was a significant amount for him (gas was 40 cents/gallon; cigarettes were 15 cents/pack). He hesitated, but Guidry insisted and said he wouldn’t deduct it from his weekly pay. He thanked Guidry and left.

At 5:30 in the early morning on Saturday, everyone gathered on the 15-seater bus, departing immediately to make it to the 10 AM opening! From San Antonio to Houston, with more than ten martial artists of all levels, including two grandpas. Throughout the journey, the three didn’t exchange a word!

The first time participating in a martial arts competition in the U.S., he wasn’t afraid but felt excited! On the bus, Guidry explained the competition rules. The bus only stopped for gas and restroom breaks, yet it was already past 9 AM when they arrived! Guidry told everyone to get their own food at the venue. He found the prices too high, so he didn’t eat and went to a quiet corner to relax.

The competition took place in the morning. The competition venue was a basketball court at the University of Houston, and it was crowded with participants. Many people came from various cities and neighboring states. His black belt group included the African American guy from the same school! Waiting for his turn took almost until 1 PM. The judges were two Korean masters and an African American. The results were: the Korean got first place, the white American got second, the black guy got third, and he… got nothing! He always felt discriminated against by the Koreans, so despite being upset, he just accepted it. The African American guy tilted his head, shrugged his shoulders, and gave him a smug smile. He came over to shake hands with the guy and sincerely congratulated him as he walked away with the trophy!

It was nearly 5 PM when it was his turn to compete. His group consisted of 12 people, in the weight class of 130 lbs-150 lbs, and ranked from 1st to 3rd dan. The Mexican guy was in a different weight class, but his African American friend was in the same group. Thanks to Guidry providing sufficient food, he easily won the qualifying round, defeating his opponent 3-0. In the second round, he faced another African American guy. The guy only know how to use his hands. The African American guy’s technique was to circle around the opponent, occasionally rushing in with a jab to the chest and then stepping back. He didn’t have time to react before the referee stopped the match and awarded a point to the guy! It seemed ridiculous to him, and before he could figure out what to do, he was attacked with a series of jabs!

Oh my! Fighting without using kicks was a disaster! Just one more point and… the battle would be over! If not careful, he might lose just like the recently ended battle – with unfair judgement.! He thought he had to act quickly! Losing in such a ridiculous way would be embarrassing! His opponent was predictable, so… as he lunged in, he stepped his left foot across, and before the guy could pull back, he gave a full-force spinning back kick to the guy’s head. The guy fell down unconscious! He was disqualified for intentionally causing injury (uncontrolled contact). Guidry vehemently protested, but to no avail!

While the African American guy from our side made it to the finals, fought in the triangle, and received third place, he sadly laughed and shook hands to congratulate the African American guy (who tightly squeezed his hand), at the same time the Mexican guy received second place in the heavyweight group. In total, the martial arts school brought back more than 15 trophies, while he simply smiled. Both the Mexican guy and the African American guy were friendly to him throughout the way back. He simply thought they might be enjoying his misfortune! The whole car was lively, filled with laughter and chatter. Guidry and everyone consoled him with winning lottery tickets!

After returning from the trip to Houston, both the Mexican guy and the African American guy became friendly to him. The African American guy sincerely thanked him for not challenging him the previous week, unlike the African American guy in the tournament. The Mexican guy didn’t say much but often asked him about techniques. His class became more crowded, attracting some female Mexican students. He reminded himself, “Even though I lost the match, winning friends are worthwhile!”

And the days and months continued on its indefinite course, with temporary joy from the martial arts school!

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