The war was a daily part of me as I sat on the rooftop with my brothers watching the tracer bullets screaming across the blackened sky. I heard my mother screaming for us boys to come back downstairs where it was safe. But nothing was safe. Nothing. . . and I didn’t care. I was a kid. Nothing had the power to kill me.
Then the end came quickly. Too quickly for anyone to grasp. My brother was working at the US Embassy when he sent us word: Saigon was falling. It would be in enemy hands within a few hours. If we hurried to the embassy, he could get us on a helicopter and we would all escape together.
We collected our pieces of gold—the gold that my mother had hoarded for so many years—and hid it deep inside the secret pockets of our jackets. Then we gathered our small bundles of clothing and ran like hell to the embassy.
There were hundreds there. No, there were thousands. Thousands—and more were coming. Everyone was screaming and banging on the gates as they tried to get onto the embassy grounds.
The massive gates were locked and the compound was heavily guarded. Communist guns approached from the south. The American guns jabbed against our faces.
The US Ambassador was at his house, doing God knows what—my people needed to leave. Where was he? Why didn’t he come? My brother, Linh, was inside. I could see him—he saw me. He waved. He came over to the gate. He talked to the guard. We were special, my brother said. We would be allowed inside. We would escape with him to America.
Suddenly, the guards sent my brother back deeper inside the compound. He screamed as he left— “Go to the airport, the airport, airport!” His voice faded and was gone.
My mother, father, two brothers, two sisters and I scrambled to the airport. We knew Linh would be rescued. We would be rescued, as well.
My father was the most important playwright in all of Southeast Asia. If the Communists caught him, he would be killed or sent to be trained in their ideology. We must escape! We would escape!
We arrived at the airport and heard the guns of the Communists as they neared the landing field. The US planes were taking off. We formed a line. We were Vietnamese. We were civilized, after all. Plane after plane lifted off—our chance would come soon. The couple in front of us boarded—we were next. We were next in line. Our plane was coming.
The city fell on April 30, 1975. The couple in front of us was the last out of Saigon. My brother escaped to the United States, but we remained. Linh assured us that he would sponsor us. It would take time, he said. In the meantime, we must struggle and wait and then we must struggle some more.
Time passed quickly and time didn’t pass at all. In September, 1975, I started my senior year in high school, but the Communists didn’t know what—or even how to teach.
In November, my dad was taken away to camp to be retrained. He went back to school. The Communists needed to teach him how to write their way. He had been writing for thirty years and had won every prize and award our country gave. He had even gone to Hong Kong and China. But now—now he needed to learn how to write all over again. The Communists paired him with an up-and-coming young writer to write a play—and each time he wrote a line, he’d say to the young man, “We’ll tell them you wrote this line. I’m an old man, I don’t need to take credit for anything.” The boy ate it up. He was only eighteen. At the end of the training, each play was produced and won all the awards—it was brilliant. The Communists brought the young writer and my dad up on stage to congratulate them and give them their awards. “No,” my father said, “I can’t accept such a wonderful prize. I did nothing. Nothing at all. This young man, this brilliant young man, he wrote everything. He is Vietnam’s future. Let him have the award and let him have the prize money. I will retire now and live quietly with my family.” Daddy came home—and I think he was the smartest writer in all of Vietnam.
Linh had found a good job and saved his money. After seven years, when he became a citizen, he sponsored us—and we were granted freedom to leave our native land. Once we got the news we left everything. Our house, car, furniture, books, photographs, most of our clothing—and it didn’t matter because if we didn’t sell it or give it away, the Communists took it anyway. They even took our dog. We were penniless, but we were free—free for the first time since the fall of Saigon.
We flew to Thailand for a week as we awaited transport to the US. Then we flew to Germany and finally boarded a 747 for our flight to New York. The plane was filled with refugees. None of us spoke a word of English and the stewards and personnel didn’t speak Vietnamese. But it didn't matter—we were free!
After dinner, the cabin attendants went through the plane with headphones and asked for money. We didn’t have any money. We were all poor refugees. We didn’t take the headphones.
Then a movie started—it was a James Bond Movie—Never Say Never Again! We all wanted to see the movie, but there was no sound. The sound came from the headphones. Up until then, we were too stupid to figure that out. The headphones cost money, but we didn’t have any. We started to yell and scream. There was a riot on the plane. Finally the stewards gave us all headphones and we watched the film. We didn’t understand a word that was spoken, but we knew we were Americans from that moment on—we were part of American culture—and even though we didn’t pay for the headphones, we knew we would work for everything we earned in the future.
The movie was fantastic and afterwards we slept for hours. At dawn we reached New York City and one of the pilots spoke to us in French, “Ladies and Gentlemen,” he said, “Welcome to America. I am going to give you a special treat today. Something that we do on very rare occasions. I am going to circle the Statue of Liberty." The plane began a long slow circle as it arched its way down and around the Statue—on our way to Kennedy Airport. We looked and pointed. We screamed. We cried. The lady in the harbor smiled as she held her arm up and waved.
And we smiled back because we, too, were Americans!
by Tri Pham