This Chapter is about my older sister, Kiều Hạnh, and her perspective. She remembers a little more than my younger siblings. Yes, my parents were pretty busy having children one year apart. My father wanted a boy so they kept trying until they had one.
At home, Hạnh was our boss when Mai Hương, our oldest sister, was not around. I followed her everywhere we went. She was my partner in crime like Hiếu was with Huệ and Mạnh with Chí.
To prepare for the trip to America, our mom bought Chinese names and IDs. The new Chinese names became our new names and identities for our trip. My mom shared with Hạnh her Chinese name in case anyone asked. Hạnh did not know about our parents’ plans. She was told that we were going to Grandmother’s house. Our maternal grandparents migrated to America in 1975. We assumed that we were going to our paternal grandmother who was still in Vietnam. Little did we know that our true destination was our maternal grandparent’s home in America.
“All of you have a new Chinese name.” our mom said. “We are pretending to be Chinese. I want you to be very quiet and do not speak. If you talk, they will know that we are not Chinese. We will be captured by the policeman. They will take us away and we can’t leave for Grandmother’s house.”
Obediently, we replied, “Yes, mom.”
Hạnh and the older siblings were sitting in a separate cubby hole. Inside the hole, people were crammed in like sardines. The Chinese lady sitting next to Hạnh was pinching her and pushing her for space. The smell was horrible. The air was filled with a mixture of throw-ups and old stale fish that was once there. Once on the ship, we were told that we were going to America. However, Hạnh was not worried or scared. As long as she was with our parents, she knew she was safe.
Drifting in and out of consciousness, lemon juice was squeezed into Hạnh’s mouth while she was half asleep. She remembered thinking “Hmm, phở would be so good right now.”
Land at last
After four or five days drifted at sea, we finally docked at an island. Our mom made the best meal that we had ever had. Our dad cut a large container out lengthwise and our mom poured the rice porridge into the container. Each of us was given a spoon and we went to town. The porridge disappeared in a matter of seconds. It was a simple porridge consisting of a little rice and lots of water. We savored the last drop and the last piece of rice from the container.
The island we stayed on was beautiful and clean. The first few weeks, we slept on the big palm leaves on top of the cardboard. That was heaven. Hạnh remembered having fun exploring the islands. She was glad that we were able to spend time with our parents. It was like a long vacation. In Vietnam, we hardly see our parents. They were always at work.
Regrettably, Hạnh couldn’t remember all the memento details of what she did on the island. “After my fourth kid, my long-term memory of our trip to America faded. I am afraid, the kids occupied my brain power most of the time these days.” Exclaimed Hạnh teasingly.
Again, as all the other siblings shared, her saddest time on the island was when we had to leave for America without our dad. She was in tears and was afraid that she may never see him again.
Flight to America
Hạnh did not know what to do with the toilet on the plane. The seat was so high. She climbed on top of the toilet seat and squatted. She went to the bathroom and used water to wash. Next step, how do you dump the waste?
There was a lever against the wall. She lightly pushed the lever wondering what it was. A loud suction noise came out. It startled her. Immediately, she let go of the lever. Hạnh was too afraid to continue to push the lever. She was afraid that the toilet hole will create a vacuum effect and it will suck her into it and out of the plane. She left the lever alone and the toilet filled with her waste. Hạnh left the bathroom looking guilty and hoped that she wouldn’t get in trouble with whoever worked there.
At the airport traveling from gate to gate during the transfers, we ran up and down on the escalators. We had so much fun discovering the escalators. Hạnh, the other siblings, and I were mesmerized by the strange webbed feet women walking in some kind of shoes that made them really tall. These American women were different. Their feet were definitely funny.
Strange American Culture
When we arrived at our maternal grandparents’ home, Hạnh was asked to take a bath. It was freezing cold outside. She shivered at the thought of having to take cold showers. “It’ll take forever to heat up the boiling water.” Hạnh thought to herself.
In Vietnam during my time of growing up, we did not have instant hot and cold water. The weather was hot all year round so taking a cold shower was refreshing. If we want hot water, we would have to boil it ahead of time.
Hạnh was led into the bathroom. Mai Hương, our oldest sister, showed Hạnh how to turn on the hot water. “Wow, the water is hot.” Hạnh cried out in amazement.
“We don’t have to boil the water after all.” Hạnh thought to herself. “America is great!”
Mai Hương introduced to us our very first pizza. We all loved it. It had an interesting taste. The cheese was something new to our diet. We knew of cheese but never had much of it before in one sitting such as in Pizza.
Our aunt made us some chocolate chip cookies. Initially, we did not like the chocolate because it tasted bitter. Chocolate was an expensive item to have in Vietnam when we were younger. It was an imported candy. We were not exposed to chocolate until we came to America. It took several tasting attempts before we were acquired to the flavor of chocolate. Until this day, chocolate is still not my favorite. However, it does grow on me. I love M&M. I do prefer chocolate chip ice cream over other ice creams.
At least ½ hour every day at school, we learned extra English. A guy
named Eric was assigned to Hạnh as a guide to show around the school.
He was such a nice person. She liked him. Some days, Hạnh remembered
smelling his peanut butter breath when he talked to her right after
Hạnh wondered, “How is Eric doing now? What is he up to? Perhaps one day, we can look him up and say hello.”
Mr. & Mrs. Ray was a couple who belonged to the church that sponsored our grandparents. They were very nice to us. They took us to church and bible schools every Sunday. They wanted to take our parents as well. Being Buddhists, our parents declined the invitations. Our parents agreed to allow the children to attend church as long as we were not baptized until we turn 18. Our dad wanted us to be exposed to different religions. At the same time, he gave us the option to choose when we become of age.
A few months before our family left Pekin, Illinois to move to Texas, the Rays would take us to breakfast every Sunday after church. We enjoyed the breakfast with them very much. We appreciated their kindness and looked forward to every Sunday to be with them.
Final Thoughts of Kiều Hạnh
Hạnh is always there for me or any of my brothers and sisters no matter where we are. She was truly my best friend when I was growing up. I followed her everywhere she went. Like I said earlier, Huệ had Hiếu, Chí had Mạnh, and Hạnh had me as her shadow.
Hạnh graduated with a degree in accounting. She is married to Hiếu Ngo. They have four bouncing and precocious children, two boys and two girls.
Hạnh is a proud and happy stayed at home mom. She is taking on the challenging task of homeschooling. It requires lots of patience and perseverance. It has many challenges and also many great rewards.
Hạnh’s wish and dream is to transcend her legacy and the love of Jesus Christ onto her children. I am proud to say that she is doing a wonderful job being a mom and a teacher. She is building a great foundation for her children.
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