When the country is divided between the Communists and the corrupt regime of the South Vietnamese government, the United States becomes involved, with the war escalating and causing collateral damage to the countryside and its inhabitants. When South Vietnam finally capitulates, the family is directly affected by the Communist victors, losing their home and possessions. Indeed,
Cungdiem's mother is forced into an arranged marriage with a South Vietnamese soldier.
Part of the family successfully escapes by boat, and Cungdiem's parents attempt an escape on foot through Cambodia. After their capture and release from a remote prison, they attempt an escape by sea, where they suffer storms and pirates. They spend time in refugee camps in Malaysia and the Philippines, until finally they reach the United States-where the struggles continue with turncoat sponsors and school bullies.
Follow this family history as they struggle and eventually succeed, becoming educated and successful and accepting their new country with patriotic fervor.
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They Left Us BehindThe Story of a Young Girl's Family and the Struggle to Reach America
By Jack Freeze Cungdiem Tang
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © Jack Freeze and Cungdiem Tang
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMEKONG DELTA
I was called Cungdiem, and this is my story. It begins with my great grandparents Ngo Thi Dai and That Van San. They were united through an arranged marriage by their Chinese parents, recent immigrants from China. A small farming village called Phu Loc in southern Vietnam was where they settled around the year 1900.
The village was ideally located in the rich farmland of the Mekong Delta where the Mekong River enters after meandering for 2800 miles from the plateau of Tibet. Upon reaching the delta, this River of Nine Dragons splits into numerous branches that spread throughout the region. Phu Loc is twelve miles from the South China Sea as the crow flies, and it lies along National Highway One between the towns of Bac Lieu and Soc Trang in the Soc Trang province. Saigon could be reached along this highway by traveling around 150 miles to the north.
My great grandparents brought their Chinese culture with them as they easily settled into the small town of two hundred residents, mostly of Chinese descent. Fortunately for us, we can now claim to be bilingual, having the ability to speak Cantonese as well as Vietnamese – not counting English of course. People will argue though whether Cantonese is a unique language or a dialect of the Chinese language. I think it can be viewed in two ways; it is either a dialect for ethnic and cultural reasons or a separate language because it is unintelligible with other variations of Chinese. Oh well, the main thing was that we could understand just about everybody that came along.
Aside from the ethnic connections to the townspeople, the area was an abundant "rice bucket" and "fruit bucket" with coconut, longan, and mango trees, thanks to the waterways that provided the nourishing silt from neighboring countries to enrich the soil. Of course, they had their foreign occupations, every country wanted this bountiful land.
The French especially! It wasn't fair! Just before my grandparents arrived, French Indochina was established in 1887 with Cambodia and three Vietnamese regions; Tonkin in the north, Annam in the central region, and Cochinchina in the south. Laos was added in 1893. Two years after they arrived, the capital was moved from Saigon to Hanoi. The country was in turmoil. Even though the monarchy was preserved, they were only figureheads. French authority would control and implement the policies under this façade. And to add insult to injury, all of the provinces except Cochinchina would be French protectorates. Cochinchina would be ruled directly.
My great grandparents had to be wary when protecting their culture. France was imposing a policy of adoption rather than relying on one of association where native rulers could keep their culture and hierarchy while making policy. The French Revolution principles of equality, liberty, and fraternity, would now be applied to the colonies. So Indochina would be "Frenchized" with French as the official language of the government. The Indochinese were going to be turned into Frenchmen!
Resentment throughout the country resulted from the conflicting values and customs of the French as compared to the traditions of the Indochinese. Small towns like Phu Loc depended on the tradition of group problem solving and decision making. It was not easy for my grandparents to not be involved in local politics as the wave of French individualism swept in to local governments. French influence was having a devastating effect on local society and it was a bitter pill to swallow for the newly arrived immigrants.
But life goes on! In the summer of 1930, they were blessed with the first of two daughters and they named her Thai Thi Tuyet. She would grow up to be a beautiful, kind, and intelligent woman. Of course she would, she would become my grandmother!
In spite of the Vietnamese mutinies in the French army, Japan's occupation during World War Two, and now the guerilla war being fought by the Vietminh, my great grandparents managed to live a fairly normal farming life and were able to provide for my grandmother's education. The tuition costs, difficult entry requirements, and transportation problems to the nearby town of Soc Trang were overcome and Thai Thi Tuyet was entered into college there in the fall of 1951. Her major would be the French language which would enable her to find work more readily, perhaps in the government or teaching profession.
Our young first year student adapted well into college life. She was well organized and disciplined so her class attendance and homework studies followed a strict regimen. But being young with a great love for the outdoors, an appreciation learned from her parents, she would venture out during her spare time for long walks along the trails and canals that divided the emerald colored fields. In the more dense areas, the thick palm groves on each side of the canals would almost overlap to form a canopy of shade as the sampans would be rowed along underneath by a lone farmer as he stood there in his Ao ba ba and conical hat. These clothes were very functional for work and play. The silk shirt was long sleeved and buttoned down and split at the sides at the waist, making two flaps. In front were two pockets at the bottom – very popular and colorful! At other times, she would pass groups of women bending over and harvesting rice in a paddy field while others were gathering rice stalks into piles. When they noticed her, they would all rise up and wave with a friendly greeting. The ravages of the incessant hillside guerrilla war had not reached these unassuming people even with the French colonization and the Vietminh.
The first semester had been easy for grandmother. She already knew the basics of her courses from her rigorous training at home and the local school. But spring time had arrived and April would bring the blossoms and bird migrations. Her walks would now include a search for the popular Asian Koel, a member of the cuckoo family of birds. They would be easy to spot being 18 inches long with a long tail. The male is blue-black with a red eye while the female is dark brown with white streaks across the body. Grandmother would quietly listen for the melodious song of the male, a repeated "Koo-Ooo" during the breeding season while the female would respond with a shrill "kik-kik-kik". Her favorite bird was the red-headed crane with nearly a six foot wing span. These birds were almost friendly, sometimes landing on the sampans several at a time. The skies would also be darkened at times with the huge flocks of nearly 800 species of birds seeking sanctuary from the northern winters.
She always insisted though, that her most enjoyable excursions during that time of year were her visits to the Hoa Phuong trees to enjoy the flamboyant blossoms that were now thick on the branches. They represented the many happy and sad school memories of the past year. So, in Vietnam, the flower is also known as "hoa hoc tro" or the student's flower and it blossoms just at the end of the school year as a signal to enjoy the days of summer.
While standing before the bright orange and red blossoms one day during her final semester before graduation, she noticed someone walking along the path toward her.
"Chao ba Co," he cheerfully said as he waved
"And hello to you too," she smiled.
"May I share the beauty of your view?" he continued while approaching her. My, how elegant she thought as she noticed the handsome features of the young man. She had seen him on campus so she was not concerned about having a pleasant conversation. In fact, she intended to enjoy it.
"Oh yes, the beauty of the flame tree belongs to everyone. Come join me."
He then slowly bowed his head and said, "My name is Huynh Van Nhan."
"And I am Thai Thi Tuyet from Phu Loc," she replied.
They would meet many times near these trees and discuss their studies, their families and their future. And the relationship had become serious by the time the school semester had ended. But graduation would end their ability to visit each other, so Nhan expressed his love for her and proposed marriage.
This turn of events was quite a shock to the Thai family. They resented the fact that she might marry and move away immediately after graduation. They had hoped that she would help support the family with a decent income now that she had an education.
The Vietnamese custom of a marriage proposal required that the man should take his parents to the home of the girl's family and make a formal proposal. So Nhan, being the gentleman that he was, arranged for his family to meet the Thais. The young bride to be was very nervous when the Huynh family arrived in Phu Loc. Would she be embarrassed or would her family be unfriendly? She need not have worried and perhaps she should have given more credit to her parents.
They welcomed the visitors who were well known as a proper and prosperous family. The marriage was arranged and Tuyet would now be known as Huynh Thai Thi Tuyet, and happily so.
A short two years later, my grandmother decided to apply for a teaching position at a local school in Phu Loc. She was accepted and began to teach during the day while trying to help her husband develop a restaurant business in the evenings. In addition, they considered opening a billiard bar. But more importantly, their main concern, and in fact their dream, was to have a family. Now would be a good a time as any. Most of the small villages throughout the countryside were controlled by the Vietminh guerrillas and the people wanted independence. They had been slaves of the Chinese for a thousand years and were now slaves of the French, you might as well say that, for a hundred years.
To sustain local support, the Vietminh Youth league consisting of organized teenagers, would travel the regions and teach the populace about patriotism and independence. Communism was not discussed, only the rich heritage of Vietnam and the strength of the people.
Besides, the center of the revolution in the Mekong Delta was hundreds of miles to the north at Ben Tre although occasionally Vietminh guerrillas could be seen walking by Phu Loc. There was a pride about them and they wore their rolled up straw mats across their backs as badges of identification. Sometimes while passing a village they would sing the "Mat Song of the Resistance"!
The war was concentrated around the larger towns where French blockhouses would be attacked by the Vietminh. Then the French would retaliate by raiding villages along the coast to destroy everything in their path. Artillery would be used along with planes that would bomb and strafe the people. Survivors would then flee to the mountains.
Stories would be told by friends farther north about bodies lying everywhere after a raid. One girl had been burned by napalm and all that the villagers could do was gather around the dying youth at night while her body glowed with phosphorus in the darkness.
How could my grandparents maintain a normal family life with the country in such turmoil? It must have taken strength and faith to endure. Yet in the Spring of 1952, they welcomed their first born, a girl named Thu Hoa. Since Vietnamese culture put family pressure on having a boy, the next year they had another baby and it was a boy. Oh how they celebrated! Nearly the entire town joined the party.
One could tell the background or affiliation of the guests by the clothes that they wore. Some of the people employed by the French were wearing European suits and dresses along with the university students. Other folks, mainly the revolutionary or Vietminh supporters, expressed their allegiance in black. But most of the rural guests remained faithful to their national dress and wore simple pajama-type shirts and trousers – a kind of silent opposition to French colonialism. They consisted of a snug collar while buttoned down on the left side to the waist. The female dress would flow from a tight waist down to the heels while the male clothes only extended to the knees. Blue was the popular color. The younger women wore an Ao Yem, a square cut piece of cloth over the front tied with strings at the neck and back. Red and Pink were popular for festive occasions such as this. The whole affair was a kaleidoscope of colors.
The ever popular Nem was served which consisted of pork, pig skin, fresh sliced garlic, and black pepper in grape or banana leaves. Other dishes of heavy amounts of rice, herbs, and vegetables were served with a minimum of oil and meat and that was used only as a seasoning – a most healthy and delicious meal. Especially after having consistent daily portions of noodle soup with vegetables and fish sauce eaten out of your personal "Pho" or bowl. For dessert, tea was served with O Mai, a dried apricot along with Banh Khui, the traditional cake made of a rice ball flavored with green bean paste, pork, and spices, all on a plate of cabbage leaves or cudwood leaves found along the edges of the rice fields.
Politics and insurgency were soon forgotten as the revelers enjoyed the merrymaking and attention shown to the new infant boy. Music complemented the feast with sweet, soft, haunting Vietnamese melodies. They floated along like a gentle breeze caressing the flowers of a tree in springtime. One could imagine the slow moving blossoms swaying back and forth with the rhythm of the music that blends so well with the sweet and gentle nature of the people. The young family was so happy, they had a girl and a boy which made the grandparents quite satisfied. The family name would flourish! But it was not to be. One month later, the infant contracted an unknown disease and perished. Grandmother Tuyet was devastated!
Not only was she sad over the loss of her child, but the cultural pressure by the husband's family for a male child to carry on the name could result in their desire for Nhan to remarry if Tuyet could not have a male heir. And medical tradition at that time placed the blame on the woman regardless of the husband's health.
Tuyet was not to be discouraged! She loved Nhan very much and wanted to please him and his family if it took several pregnancies. Yet, in the back of her mind she knew that he could remarry without her consent and bring the woman into the same household while she remained there. So they began to plan for another child in the Fall of 1953 knowing that Tuyet could still help to support the family by teaching French. Especially since the French Army commander, General Henri Navarre had now created a permanent base at Dienbienphu in spite of the loss of popularity for the war back home.
April 1954 arrived and the family was blessed with another girl. They named her My Lien while Nhan became more desperate for a boy. The women all fawned over her and were quite taken with her dark complexion and cute little button nose. Meanwhile the in-laws continued to put pressure on Tuyet and she agreed to keep trying even with the business demands and household chores. However, she was no longer sure about teaching French. Since March, General Vo Nguyen Giap and the Vietnamese Army had surrounded the French Army at Dienbienphu with the last position falling on May 7, one month after the birth of My Lien. The family now wondered about how much of a culture shock the country would experience.
The very next day, May 8, the Geneva Convention opened and France with an unpopular war on its hands, agreed to full independence for the northern half of the country under the Vietminh leadership of Ho Chi Minh. These Geneva Accords also guaranteed that a nationwide election would be held in two years for the purpose of reunification.
By July, most of the Vietminh forces had left the South and regrouped in the North above the 17th parallel. The French and their Vietnamese compatriots would move southward. The Accords also allowed for civilians to cross the line and one million North Vietnamese migrated to the South. These included Buddhist monks, Catholic citizens, and anti-communists since the Moscow trained Ho Chi Minh would now impose the Communist movement on the northern people.
So both North and South Vietnam would experience a culture shock. In the North, the totalitarian Communist government would impose harsh restrictions and demands on the people. In the South, the Buddhist religion would be revitalized and the Catholic influence would become noticeable.
Excerpted from They Left Us Behind by Jack Freeze Cungdiem Tang Copyright © Jack by Freeze and Cungdiem Tang. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1. Mekong Delta....................1
Chapter 2. Phu Loc....................27
Chapter 3. Can Tho....................41
Chapter 4. Saigon....................57
Chapter 5. Cambodia....................75
Chapter 6. Rach Gia Bay....................93
Chapter 7. Malaysia....................115
Chapter 8. Los Angeles....................135
Chapter 9. Fort Myers....................153