“NO!” He said with a look of horror on his face. “Because then I think maybe I eat my aunt!”
My eleven-year-old student had just been telling me that he had caught a shark while fishing from the Huntington Beach pier the evening before. I had asked him if he ate it for dinner. I continued to look at him, his eyes wide and far away at the same time.
“Do you want to tell me about this?” I knew that many of the Vietnamese children had endured nightmarish events during their escape from their homeland after it had been taken over by communists.
“We are on boat. Other boat come. We think is good people but is bad people. They take everybody watch and ring and necklace. Then take all lady and girl over to their boat. They doing very bad thing.” he said in a soft voice, now looking down at his toes. “My aunt, she too much pride. She jump in water. Go down. Never come up. I think a shark eat her.”
Terrible things for a child to see.
The children told me many stories of their journeys out of their war–torn homeland. Some were funny but most were horrifying. The dignitaries were flown to safety in the United States, but the rest of the people were left to their own escape plans. Many had to leave a family member imprisoned by the communists. Pirates often assaulted the refugees in their inadequate boats on the open sea. All of their stories had the element of waiting months and months in camps on various islands in the Pacific.
The following are a few of the conversations I had with my new little Americans.
“Mrs. Guinn, in Vietnam I have cow in my kitchen.”
My face registers surprise.
“NO, no. It OK. We have hole in floor. Pour water on. Everything go out.”
“You know how to catch monkey, Mrs. Guinn?”
“No, Sweetie, I don’t believe I do know how to catch a monkey. Tell me.”
“OK. First you dig hole. Very deep. Then put stick and leaf on top. Wait very quiet. Monkey fall in. You put long stick in. Monkey hold stick. You catch.”
“I see. Then what do you do with the monkey after you catch it?”
“You cook. Eat. Is very good.”
“Mrs. Guinn, there are some word same in Vietnamese and English, too!
“Really! What words are you talking about?”
“Pepsi! Hotdog! Same in Vietnam!”
“One night we see lights and think is lands so we go to it, but it big Russian cargo ship! It hit our boat and broke it, but Russian men all sleeping so they don’t get us and take us to prison.”
Later the broken boat limped into a Malaysian harbor.
“The people say we can’t stay, but they will take us to other place. They tie rope on front of boat and pull us. We happy because our boat motor can’t turn on. They take us to middle of ocean and cut the rope. They go away fast.”
“Oh my goodness! Then what happened?” I asked.
“I can’t tell you, Mrs. Guinn. It very bad.”
One sweet little girl told me that her boat came apart and she held on to a board and floated alone in the ocean for three nights before some men on a fishing boat rescued her. She thinks she was five or six when it happened.
She was taken to a relocation camp and five whole months later she miraculously found her mother alive, and in the same camp.
“We run together. We hug and hug and cry.” she told me with tears in her eyes.
“One night on the boat is very stormy. All my rice come out.”
“I go with my uncle. Our boat go down and we have to go on other boat. The man on other boat take us to Thailand. We live there three month. Then they take us to Philippines and we live there six month. Finally I am in United State. I hope my mother and sister can come. My father is in the prison.”
“We are on plane and they give us orange. We never have orange before. My father say, ‘Watch the American. See how to eat it.’ Then we know, don’t eat the skins.”
“I see the lady on the airplane. She have white arm and brown leg. That the first time I see pantyhose.”
One morning a little girl named Mai (pronounced “My”) came to me and whispered shyly, “Yesterday, I became a citizen of United States. My new American name is Cindy.” I congratulated her and began to call her Mai Cindy to ease everyone into the midyear name change. A few weeks later, I held up a sweater and asked the class, “Whose is this?”
An answer came from the back, “That’s your Cindy’s sweater!”
I should have sent this story to the Reader’s Digest.