Although the Vietnam War ended four decades ago, wounds are yet to be healed. My most fearful memory about the Vietnam War was on April 30, 1975, the day when South Vietnam fell to the Communists. I remember that day four soldiers were killed in front of my house; anti-tank rockets hit their tank. Although the tank was immobilized from the first blow, it did not catch on fire and explode until the second hit. The smell of human flesh burning and the sound of human screams have haunted me for years.
The end of the war led to over a million Vietnamese fleeing the country. The first groups of dissidents were lucky enough to be able to leave Vietnam on airplanes and merchant ships, while later groups had to use small fishing boats to make their flight to freedom. These groups have come to be known as “boat people,” and I was one of them.
I left Vietnam at the end of 1980, on a small boat with other 33 people, to begin an unknown adventure to search for freedom. The first night, I recall that Vietnamese coast guards fired at us; we got caught, but they let us go after they took away some money. On the second day, we finally reached the international shipping lanes. We felt safe; however, this feeling did not last long, as I remember a pirate ship was approaching us. Fortunately, the pirates only took away jewelry and money that they found. We were so afraid, because we knew Thai pirates raped women and killed men. In numerous cases, pirate also took women and young girls away. Many of these women were found later throughout Thailand as prostitutes; they were sold to pimps.
The following day, due to lack of good storage containers, food and water supplies were contaminated with salt and became useless. The weather was extremely hot, and the bright tropical sun hung motionless above our heads. As the temperature rose, we lost more water from the bodies; our throats were dry, parched, and sticky with salty spittle. On the fifth day, a strong wind shook our boat violently; the high dark blue wave tilted the boat from side to side, back and then forward. I remember people began to call upon to their gods to save them; this was not help. Whether or not we lived or died, the sea did not care. Thirty-three more human souls in her watery grave was such a small contribution when she already had hundreds of thousands. I did not remember how long the storm was. I was completely exhausted with fatigue and hunger, and my vision became blurry. The next thing I remembered, I opened my eyes and saw many strange faces; we were rescued by a fishing boat.
I arrived at Songkla’s refugee camp in Thailand on the second day of the Lunar New Year 1981. Five days later, I was reunited with my childhood friend. She told me the horrible things that happened to her. Pirates repeatedly raped all women and girls on her boat. Sitting on the beach on an quiet evening, my friend and I reflected silently on our trips across the South China Sea. I did not know what to say to comfort her, but I was deeply sympathetic.
Four months later I was transferred to Bataan Refugee Camp in the Philippines, while my friend left for California. Ten months later, I was allowed to resettle in Dallas, Texas. Immediately after arriving in the United States, I encountered many challenges such as culture, language differences, and prejudice. Having come into this country as a foreigner, I was able to contemplate this society somewhat as an outsider, but perhaps, I remained as an outsider longer than I wanted. I felt humiliated whenever I said something that people could not understand, and when kids in high school made fun of my accent and my looks. I felt insulted when people asked me to repeat what I said. The inability to express myself impinged upon my social life and as well, my academic life. In spite of the difficult and sometimes unfair treatment, I have truly enjoyed being in the United States. I was able to endure and to manage finishing college and graduate school with degrees in biomedical science.
In 1988, both my parents passed away on the same day. This was the major loss, because I lost two of the most significant people in my life. Every one has at least a special memory about the past; some are memorable, however, my past was not pleasant one. Sometime I do not understand why thing happened to me the way it was.
In 1995, I left the biotechnology industry to enter the classroom as a teacher. Why do I want to become a teacher? I believe that I can be a role model and make a positive impact on students. As a former refugee and an English language learner, I have received plenty of assistance from schools, teachers, and nonprofit organizations. My teachers went the extra mile to help me. I feel that I owe a great deal to this country and my teachers. I have always wanted to be a teacher to repay my debt to America and to honor my teachers. I want to help students who are “average” or at-risk, like I was to succeed in school and be admitted to colleges and to achieve the American Dream.
Email is the preferred method for initial contact. I am a teacher. I turn off my phone during school hours. Thank you for your understanding and consideration.
Tan M. Lam