Since I started this blog nearly four months ago, I’ve written a lot about where my blended family is today and where we’re headed. As I say goodbye to 2015, it’s important to me to look at where my family came from. Long before divorce, long before stepkids and Mark, long before Ethan and Adam, were my parents, the two bravest and most incredible people I know. Outside in front of a market in the Philippines, they gave me life. In that moment, they created their own name for me. What’s in a name? For me, so much.
Thai Phi. Every day as I type out my name, it reminds me that my Vietnamese family fled our home, the repression, the suffering, for dreams of a better life.
My name is a symbol of my parents’ escape from Vietnam, as it joins the two countries—Thailand and Philippines—that took us in before we came to America in 1982.
During the Vietnam War, my father was a lieutenant for the South Vietnam Navy. When the war ended, he stood there on the losing side. Saigon collapsed. The Communist government took over. Schools closed. Many Vietnamese living in the South were forced out of their homes into New Economic Zones located in previously uninhabited mountains throughout the country with no food, no housing, no civilization.
In the midst of the chaos, my parents got married. Three weeks later, they were ripped apart. All officers from the South Vietnamese military had to report to “reeducation camp.” It was supposed to last 10 days; it lasted nearly four months. In that time, my father was tortured. My mother found out she was pregnant with my oldest brother.
After he returned from camp, my dad was angry. He wanted to start a revolt by mobilizing others like him, getting weapons and taking down the government, but with very little money and organization, he got nowhere. More than three years would go by. My parents now had two small boys and were living under constant government surveillance. There was no access to books. They lived in a tiny one-room home. By day, they sold clothes and other goods on the streets, but never made enough for a full life. They wanted more for their children. For that, they knew they had to leave their own country, and they made plans to escape by boat.
“Escape. Escape. Escape. That’s all there ever was,” my dad tells me. He worked each day, earning money to buy a boat. One time the authorities discovered their plan and put my dad in poorly constructed jail built on top of the sand on a beach. In the middle of the night, he dug himself out and got home undetected. He was just another prisoner lost in the shuffle. In another attempt, my family believed they had made it as the boat set out toward the Gulf of Thailand through the Mekong Delta, but the engine sputtered too close to land. All four in my family were captured and thrown in jail. My mother and oldest brother were released in a few days, but my dad and other brother stayed for a month. My family tried escaping again. They failed again. My father quietly remembers one jail stay where a boy was shot in the head right in front of him. “He was only 17 years old.”
In 1981, six years after the fall of Saigon, my parents tried to escape one more time. My father, with his Navy experience, was the boat operator. So in the dead of night, my mother, who was two months pregnant with me, sneaked through the jungle in Kien Giang at the southwest tip of the country with my two brothers, now 2 and 5, to meet my dad.
Their boat met up with a larger one off the coast of Vietnam. While larger, it was still only 18 feet long and six feet wide with more than a hundred other escapees. They got further into the Gulf of Thailand than they ever had before, but again their engine failed.
For days they floated with little food or water. They faced pirates who looted their only possessions and tried to fight off rapists who came for their wives, sisters and children. My mother drank urine so my brothers could have her bottle cap full of water. In a moment of desperation, my mom remembers telling my dad that if they needed to, he should cut off her hand. “There was no water left. The only thing I had to give them was my blood. I couldn’t watch my kids die.” It never came to that. After 13 days of sky and water, they spotted land. It was Thailand. The people near the shore helped them land.
At a refugee camp in Thailand, my father acted as a representative for some of the others who fled Vietnam as they all filled out and waited for their sponsorship papers to other countries to go through. After a few months, my family was sent to another refugee camp in the Philippines, where I was born.
In January 1982, my complete family of five was sponsored to enter the United States. Stepping out of the plane in Pennsylvania, my parents saw snow for the first time. “When we got to America, we finally felt alive,” my dad says.
Those struggles, the years of hunger, prison, and mental and physical abuse, were all a sacrifice of their dreams so their children could have a chance at a real future, to have and to make our own dreams.
My parents are refugees. My brothers are refugees. I am a refugee. My life today comes because our nation looked past the fear of the unknown and saw us as humans who desperately needed more than compassion from afar. We needed help. We needed a home.
Most people don’t leave their countries, their homes, their families, to take advantage of our system or bring down our society. They leave to be part of a culture that gives them an opportunity to freely pursue their dreams. They leave for their children. They leave to feel alive.