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WHERE THE WIND LEADS
A Refugee Family's Miraculous Story of Loss, Rescue, and Redemption
By VINH CHUNG, Tim Downs
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2014 Vinh Chung
All rights reserved.
THE STORY BEGINS
This is a story too big for one person to tell.
It's a story that spans two continents, ten decades, and eleven thousand miles. It's the story of a fortune lost and a treasure found, the story of two lost men and three extraordinary women who changed their lives.
My name is Vinh Chung. I was born in a country that no longer exists and grew up in a country I never knew existed.
I was born in South Vietnam just eight months after its fall to the communists in April 1975. But this is not a story about the Vietnam War—this is the story of what happened next, to more than a million people, including my family. For most Americans the final image of the Vietnam War was a grainy black-and-white photograph of an overloaded helicopter lifting off from the rooftop of the United States Embassy in Saigon. When that helicopter departed, my story began.
When I was three and a half years old, my family was forced to leave Vietnam and flee to a place we had never heard of, somewhere in the heartland of America, called Arkansas.
I am a refugee.
My family went to sleep in one world and woke up in another, and more than anyone in my family I was trapped between those worlds. I was born in Vietnam, but I was not Vietnamese; I was raised in America, but I was not an American. I grew up Asian in character but American in culture, a citizen but always a refugee. I had no lessons from the past to guide me, no right way to do things in the present, and no path to follow into the future.
Since I was so young when I left Vietnam, I never really had the chance to understand Asian culture or master the Vietnamese language. I grew up in America, where there was a new culture and a new language to learn, but there was no one to help me because no one in my family had been there before me. We were all lost and had to find our own way in America, and it was hard for each of us in a different way.
We are Chinese by ancestry, born in Vietnam, and raised in the jungles of America. We arrived in this country with nothing but the clothes on our backs and unable to speak a single word of English; my family now holds twenty-one university degrees, including five master's and five doctorates from institutions such as Harvard, Yale, Georgetown, Stanford, George Mason, Michigan, and Arkansas.
But in July 1979, my family lay half-dead from dehydration in a derelict fishing boat jammed with ninety-three refugees lost in the middle of the South China Sea.
How we got from there to here is quite a story.CHAPTER 2
A WORLD ON THE EDGE
Within ten years of my father's birth, fifty million human beings died. He was born at a moment in history when the entire world was about to erupt in a frenzy of violence that left no one untouched.
My father's name is Thanh Chung; he was born in 1937 in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam. When my father was born, an emperor still ruled Vietnam, the nation was still a French colony, and communism was mostly an obscure political theory discussed by radical students in Paris.
It was a world that would soon cease to exist.
In 1937, Japan was already at war with China, Adolf Hitler was about to invade Poland, Britain and France were about to declare war on Germany, and the United States was desperately trying to maintain a fragile neutrality that was destined to fail. The earth's great powers were shifting like tectonic plates, and entire nations were about to be thrown off their feet by the resulting quake. Ancient loyalties were realigning; longtime friends became foes, and former enemies were forced to unite to survive. Chancellors and prime ministers spoke of thousand-year empires and mustered massive armies in pursuit of their dreams. Rapidly industrializing countries lusted for raw materials like oil and iron and rubber and overran neighboring nations to obtain them. All over the world soldiers and civilians alike began to perish in unimaginable numbers, and only a few fortunate nations managed to escape the violence and devastation.
Vietnam was not one of them.
One day, when my father was four years old, he heard the drone of an engine high above him and looked up into the sky to see a formation of cross-shaped silhouettes drifting overhead. They were the first airplanes he had ever seen, but these were no ordinary airplanes. They were Japanese long-range bombers being redeployed from China to air bases in southern Indochina, where they would be within easy striking distance of Malaya, the Philippines, and the Dutch East Indies. When America saw that Japan was extending its ambitions deeper into Southeast Asia, it immediately imposed an embargo that cut off Japan's supply of iron and oil—two resources vital to any industrialized nation. Japan was left with only two options: either withdraw its armies from Southeast Asia or eliminate America's ability to enforce its embargo. Japan chose the latter option by launching a sneak attack against a little-known American naval base, known as Pearl Harbor.
My father was witnessing the beginning of the Second World War.
The next forty years of his life would be a time of unceasing conflict as violently opposing powers battled to decide who would own Vietnam. The Japanese wanted to conquer it, the French wanted to keep it, and the communists wanted to overthrow it.
My father just wanted peace.
The Mekong Delta is a fifteen-thousand-square-mile river delta formed by the nine tributaries of the Mekong River, known to the Vietnamese as the "Nine Dragons." To Asians the dragon is a symbol of prosperity and good fortune, and the Mekong Delta has the very good fortune to possess nine of them. For thousands of years the waters of the Mekong have regularly flooded to deposit layer after layer of mineral-rich silt from as far away as the Tibetan plateau, creating some of the richest soil on earth. The fertile soil and tropical savanna climate make the region perfectly suited for agriculture, which, unfortunately for the region's inhabitants, has also made the Mekong Delta an object of desire for nations all over the world.
My father lived with his older brother and four sisters in the countryside near the provincial capital of Bac Lieu. His father—my grandfather—had two brothers, who also lived in Bac Lieu, and together the three Chung brothers ran a lucrative business. My grandfather was a seller of medicinal herbs and traditional Chinese remedies, while my grandmother sold fabrics imported from Saigon a hundred miles to the north. Business was good for my family in Bac Lieu; and for a family of merchants, when business is good, life is good.
By temperament my father was a kind and gentle boy who adored his father and mother and wanted nothing more than to live his life peacefully in the pastoral beauty of the delta. Unfortunately the peace he longed for was something he rarely experienced.
When he was five, he looked up from his chores one day to see a band of unfamiliar men walking toward him through the center of his village. The men were muttering to one another in voices too low to hear, and when one of them raised his arm to point to one of the houses, my father saw that the man was holding a long, silver-gray machete. The blade was stained red.
No—it was dripping red.
These were the men his mother and father called Khmer—the dark-skinned men who came from unknown villages somewhere to the northwest. My father had heard grown-ups whisper stories about the Khmer, but whenever he asked about them, he was told that he was too young to hear. But late at night his older brother used to tell him stories—stories about the vicious, dark-skinned men who hated the Vietnamese so much that they would use their machetes to hack off their arms and sever their heads and burn whole villages to the ground. My father had always thought his brother was lying, just making up ghost stories to watch his little brother's eyes widen with fear—but now he knew the men were real.
And they were looking directly at him.
He wanted to run, but his legs would not obey him. The men had the eyes of tigers—that mythical, paralyzing stare said to be able to hold a boy frozen in place until the beast devoured him. He couldn't move; there was nothing he could do but stand and wait to be torn apart.
The men gathered around my father and stared down at him. One of the men took a step closer and said something, but my father could not understand the man's words and said nothing in reply. The man cocked his head to one side and studied him for a moment, then raised his machete and pointed to my father's head. My father held his breath and wondered what it was going to feel like to have his head chopped off. Will I still be able to see? he wondered. Will I feel it when my head drops to the ground like a coconut?
The man made a comment to one of his companions, then pointed his machete at my father's left arm and drew an imaginary line from his shoulder to his hand. Is he going to hack off my arm instead? Would it be better to lose my arm or my head? Which one hurts more? He squeezed his eyes tight and waited for the stinging blow.
Then he heard the door to his house squeak open behind him, and when he turned, he saw his father hurry from the house and call out to the men in a frightened voice that didn't sound like his father at all. Then, to my father's amazement, my grandfather stepped aside and pointed to the door.
The men nodded and entered the house one by one, and as each one entered, he bent down and leaned his bloodstained machete against the wall.
My father entered last of all and watched as the men seated themselves around the small room. His older brother and sisters pressed themselves against the far wall and stared, wide-eyed, as my grandmother nervously ladled out bowls of rice and pho and passed them to her husband to distribute to the hungry men.
Half an hour later the meal was finished, and the men departed. As they left, each man retrieved his machete from the side of the house—except for one. One machete was left leaning against the wall, with its bloodstained tip glowing like a torch. My father was fascinated by the machete and reached down to pick it up, but when he did, my grandfather grabbed his arm and jerked him back.
"Never touch that machete," my grandfather said sternly. "Never touch the blade and never, ever move it from that spot."
My grandfather's solemn tone told my father that this was not a command to be questioned. As always, he obeyed, and the blood-tipped machete remained against the wall exactly where it had been left.
My father was too young to understand that his family had just served a sort of Passover meal. The Cambodian angels of death who dined at our house that day had just finished slaughtering a group of communist sympathizers and were passing through my family's village, searching for any others they might have missed.
For more than a thousand years, the Mekong Delta was ruled by the Chinese. For the previous hundred years the French had been in charge, laying claim to Vietnam as an official "colony of economic interests" and growing rich off the sale of its rice, rubber, coffee, and tea. When Japan invaded Vietnam at the beginning of the Second World War, communist leader Ho Chi Minh founded the League for the Independence of Vietnam, commonly known as the Viet Minh. Their initial purpose was to repel the Japanese, but their ultimate goal was to free Vietnam from all foreign oppressors, which led them to hate the French almost as much as they did the Japanese.
The Cambodians who dined at my father's house that day supported the colonialist French and despised the communist Viet Minh. My father's family had been spared a violent death because they were Chinese, and the Chinese were considered a neutral party to the conflict. Neutrality was a blessing, but it was also a difficult and dangerous balance to maintain. By feeding the Cambodians, my grandfather had won their favor—but an act of kindness to the Cambodians would have been viewed as an act of betrayal to the Viet Minh. The blood-tipped machete left leaning against their wall told other Cambodians that the family should be spared, but the Viet Minh would not have felt the same way. No matter what course of action my family took, someone could have been offended, and that meant their lives were in constant danger.
Random violence was a constant danger in Bac Lieu, and after my family's house had been burned to the ground twice, my grandmother decided she had had enough. After all, she was raising six children, and the rural delta was just too dangerous. She began to press her husband to relocate the family near the city of Soc Trang in Soc Trang province, about thirty miles north. They would be safer near a city, she insisted, and there would also be better education for the children there. My grandfather was reluctant to leave Bac Lieu because his business had prospered there, but eventually he relented and moved his family while his two brothers remained behind to protect the family property.
But the violence soon followed them.
After victory over the Japanese, nationalist sentiment was strong in Vietnam, and the communist Viet Minh were hurrying to attack the French before they had time to reconsolidate power. In Soc Trang the French were everywhere; there were French soldiers, French gendarmes, and French bureaucrats, and that made the region a target for Viet Minh attacks. Looting and assault became so common in Soc Trang that my grandfather found it almost impossible to conduct business there.
In the months that followed, things grew even worse for my family. Business slowed to a standstill, and the money they had saved from Bac Lieu was gone. Now the only way they could survive was by selling off their possessions, and the Viet Minh had already stolen the best of them.
Then on top of it all, my grandfather received the tragic news from Bac Lieu that one of his brothers had been killed in the recent uprising. His other brother had vanished without a trace and was presumed dead. This was the final straw in a lifetime of difficulties.
My grandfather fell into a deep depression fueled by alcohol. At times his gloom was so dark and overpowering that he became suicidal. In moments of deepest despondency he would sometimes race up to the rooftop to throw himself off, and my father and uncle would have to hold him back to keep him from jumping and ending his life. My grandfather's depression slowly descended into utter despair, and over the next three years the family could only watch as my grandfather withered like a drying leaf until he finally crumbled and died.
My father was only twelve when it happened.
At forty-one, my grandmother had been left to raise six children all by herself. Her children were poor and hungry, and all that had been left to her was the burned-out shell of a French colonial house. She had no money, no job, little education, and no one to help her. A forty-one-year-old woman with six children had virtually no prospect of remarriage; the only two options for a woman in her situation were servitude or prostitution, and she was too proud to do either. She faced an almost impossible challenge, the kind of Herculean task that would crush most men.
So Grandmother Chung rolled up her sleeves and went to work.
Excerpted from WHERE THE WIND LEADS by VINH CHUNG, Tim Downs. Copyright © 2014 Vinh Chung. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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