My brother-in-law, Seth, is a Vietnamese refugee. I wrote his story, A Boy of Two Lands
for the November/December issue of LDS Living. Ann got the cover, darn it 🙂
When Seth was born, the Vietnam war was raging. I was born in 1975, the year that Saigon fell. The U.S. pulled out of Vietnam, taking thousands of refugees with them. Thousands more tried to flee the country, often throwing themselves and that or their children at the mercy of the South China Sea.
Communists took over the country. Children were indoctrinated and taken as child soldiers. Each of Seth’s seven uncles were thrown into concentration camps for a time.
Seth’s mother, Tai, was afraid for her only son. She knew the only way for Seth to have a better life was to escape.
It is estimated that 800,000 Vietnamese made it to refugee camps. The world would come to know them as Boat People. Thousands made it to land, but it is estimated that thousands more never made it across.
Knowing the risks – sharks, cheap canoes not made for oceans, weather, pirates, murder, trauma – Tai put her only child, her precious 8-year-old son on a small canoe in the middle of the night. Seth remembers her last words: “Chung ta se gap lai,” or “We will see each other again.”
Seth was born during the lucky year of the pig. He was “the lucky one,” so surely he would make it. Seth and his Uncle, Binh, set off into the cold ocean water. Twice, Thai pirates invaded. With knives in their mouths, they stole everything except the engine. But Seth and Binh made it to a refugee camp in Malaysia.
There they waited. Who would take a small refugee boy from Vietnam? “We would go anywhere,” Seth said. “To any place taking refugees.”
America answered. There was a family living in Boston. My in-laws had two small boys of their own, but felt like they should do something for their brothers in sisters languishing in refugee camps. They were a young couple with hardly any material possessions, but they had food and roof over their heads, and that’s what the refugees needed.
Heather, my mother-in-law, said it truly was a world-wide disaster. Fisherman couldn’t fish in the South China Sea without bringing up bodies.
Fate shone on the lucky one. Seth’s name “seemed to leap off the page” of the huge bound book of refugees so long it could have been the book of life. This was the boy they were supposed to have.
Heather sent a telegram to Seth and Binh: “Do not worry anymore. Stop. You have a home in the United States. Stop. We are waiting for you. Stop.” She then began to fast and pray.
Seth arrived in Boston, Massachusetts in 1981. One of his new brothers was my husband. The stories they tell of growing up are both gut-splitting hysterical and poignant. My husband can do a Vietnamese accent like no other.
Many years later, Seth saw his first mother again as she lay dying in a hospital bed in Vietnam. The story is quite remarkable, the details too long to write here…you’ll have to read the article 🙂 But I’m really hoping it becomes available on-line soon!
If you walk into many a nail salon, the employees will likely be Vietnamese. I have asked some of these women about their experiences. As they wash, buff, and paint my toenails, they tell me sparse details. Many include small canoes on cold ocean water.
And so, on this Thanksgiving, I have been thinking of the refugees.
On Saturday I heard a man speak about hospitality. And suddenly I remembered how easy it is to help a human being: Give someone a place at your table.
Hospitality and Hospital have the same Latin root: “Healing.”
How easy it is to never get face to face with our brothers and sisters. In the computer age, we can work from home, sit behind computers, hit buttons to open the garage door – we have to go out of our way to interact with people!
We may not be able to travel the world or lead a relief effort. We may not even be able to serve in a soup kitchen. But we can be hospitable. We can offer a piece of bread, a table, a chair. We can offer a place at our table.
We often hold back from inviting others because we think we are “lacking.”
Is our house too small? To the lonely it’s a palace.
Is our house too messy? To the displaced it’s called home.
Is the meal too simple? To those who eat alone, it’s filet mignon.
To break bread with someone is so simple. Yet it can be a holy experience.
In Luke, Jesus appeared to two disciples walking down the road to Emmaus. Their eyes did not recognize Jesus for a long time. It wasn’t until they broke bread together that they recognized him. We will all have our walks to Emmaus. Listen. Pay attention to someone who needs you. We never know who we’ll be hosting for dinner.
Many Thanksgivings have been in our home. It is an awesome experience. When families gather, the feeling of love is so strong. So is the chaos. And it’s beautiful. Strangers become friends. Family becomes closer. We have different personalities, different skin colors, eye shapes, mothers, and fathers. We come from different lands, different walks of life, religions, and experiences.
But no matter who it is, when we sit down across the table from one another, when we break bread, we become a family. “Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigner, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God;” –Ephesians 2:19
And to me, that is the beauty of a meal. That is the great beauty of the Thanksgiving.
Happy Thanksgiving, dear friends. May you have a blessed day!