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Lien Chung

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Lien Chung grew up affluent in Vietnam, but was forced to leave by the rise of the Vietcong and the ensuing war. Her escape was a harrowing and traumatic journey involving starvation and pirate attacks. She was eventually relocated to the United States and adjusted to the new culture with difficulty.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. Please contact Immigration History Research Center staff for permissions not covered by this Creative Commons license.

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I would like to tell my mother's story about her journey to America from Vietnam. She came to America as a young girl, with her family like many others to escape Communism. Coming from a well-off family in Vietnam, along with being the youngest of the 4, she was a very energetic and extroverted child. Throughout the entire journey to America, they lost almost everything of worthy possession. From money to personal belongings holding sentimental value, all was lost. My mother and her family had only the clothes on their backs, each other for support, vital documents, and hopes for a brighter future. This is my mother’s story.

Growing up in the heart of Can Tho, my mother and her older siblings had almost everything they wanted. A grand home filled with silk beds and the best Vietnamese food, freshly cooked by their personal nanny. They were one of the only families in the neighborhood with a working TV so neighbors, along with their children, would come over. Her father, owning 4 different restaurants and a farm was sort of a local celebrity amongst the people. Life seemed grand for the family and during these innocent moments, it was vibrant and beautiful. Everyone was very warm and friendly to each other, but as the Vietcongs became more daring by the day as Communism grew, tensions within the city grew. Many people that lived here had very few options. Either continue to live here in Vietnam, risking their families’ lives, or leave everything behind to start a new life.

The Vietnam War was the major cause of my mother and her families departure of the homeland. My mother recalls, the Communists breaking in at night into their home looking for gold and money to forcibly take as they knew my grandfather was one of the wealthiest men in the village. Most of the family gold was buried by my grandmother under the soil of the farm. With the thieves leaving the house empty-handed, my mother remembers the Vietcongs grabbing her baby brother who was only a 2 months at the time and my grandmother, bringing them to prison for almost 2 years. During that period, my mother, along with her older brother, sisters and father went to live in Ho Chi Minh City with their grandmother. And when those two years were over, her little brother and her mother regrouped with them.

Secret meetings and talks, every night amongst the parents and their friends happened to organize their escape from the country. With no real concrete plan and desperate to escape, they had to rely on fishermen that could sail them and 30 other families away from the Communist Regime. The large boat was not easy to get to though. My mother and her family had to use narrow tunnels, hide in cargo, and swim across murky rivers, avoiding any Vietcongs. On the night of the escape, she remembered villages scorched in flames, gun-fire echoing throughout the night, and the haunting screams of the villagers as their homes were ransacked. The traumatic effects of being forced to leave their home in Can Tho, leaving all personal possessions, including their nanny, still stays with my mother today.

She remembers being as sea for almost 30 days amongst other families with everyone equally starving. During the several days, spoiled fruits and vegetables, dirty water, crumbles of bread was all that was served. She remembers many people dying on the ship from disease or malnutrition. Many being thrown overboard, including babies. On several occasions, the boat was boarded by pirates from Thailand robbing people of their possessions. At this point, her grandmother hid diamonds under the buttons of her clothes and buried other jewelry in Yucca fruits. She told me, people were hiding their jewelry in the big water containers on the boat and when they were caught, pirates would cut the containers open, leaving no water left for anybody and taking the jewelry. The pirates even pulled out gold fillings from several old people’s teeth, including her grandmothers. Several of the pirates brought back young women from the boat onto theirs only to rape them. My mother’s father was in fear for his older daughters but luckily were left unharmed.

The boat finally landed on the shores of Malaysia and she recalls the boat making its way to dock at a rendezvous point for the Americans and Candians to pick everyone up from the boat. Everyone on the boat was escorted to a refugee camp in Malaysia. Each family member went through paperwork, receive vaccines, and take pills to kill life-threatening diseases as almost all the survivors from the boat had carried infectious worms. Her family had the option to start a new life either in Europe or Canada with the wait to relocate of being only 3-4 months but her father already had family in America as they decided to leave Vietnam much earlier before the spread of Communist got unbearable. The wait list for America however, was almost a year. On June 3rd, 1975, my mother and her family had arrived at the Minneapolis airport. They were embraced by my grandfather’s family along with their sponsor to help them adjust to the American lifestlye.


Adjustment to American customs was very hard on my mother and the family. Racism and prejudice was very rampant in American schools and her parents had to start over completely seeking brand new jobs. My mom’s father had to work at Chinese restaurants while her mother worked long hours as a maid at hotels. At first, my mother remembers adjusting to the living situation as they had to live in a small apartment in a duplex. Rooms were shared amongst siblings with her parents having a small room. My mother couldn’t sleep many nights because of this, along with trying to adjust to the timezone. She also mentions, during her youth in America, she had to get use to seeing the amount of food that was sold at grocery stores. Back in her city in Vietnam, it was very rare to see apples, and other types of familiar fruits in such great abundance with cheap prices because only the rich could afford such fruits and many weren’t even sold in markets.

School customs and American norms were also hard, as she did not know an ounce of English, speaking just Vietnamese. Eventually, it got easier for her to adjust to the American life as she made many American friends. It was not the same case for her older brother or sisters however, as they were so much older with Vietnamese culture and language too ingrained. Almost throughout her entire academic career, from elementary to late high-school, my mother was in ESL. As of today, my mother had only told me and my father her emigration story. I was given the permission to share her story with you and everyone else so that hopefully we can learn and grew from the struggles of refugees, asylum-seekers, and immigrants. Thank you for listening.