My Parent’s Journey to a New Life
As a child, I enjoyed story time at night with my parents. Throughout my life, I’ve heard all kinds of stories, ones about Hmong history, about my culture, scary stories, funny stories, and historical ones.
But the story I admire and love most is the amazing story about my parents trying to escape from Laos to Thailand so they could reach freedom. During that journey, they made so many sacrifices and hard decisions. This was a story that was kept hidden and when it was shared with me, it brought tears to my eyes (and still does).
This is the story of my parents’ journey to freedom.
My parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins all lived under one roof in a village in Laos near a big road, close to a military base. One night in 1975, when the Vietnamese communists had won and taken over much of Southeast Asia, the family was up late trying to decide what they were going to do.
Some were saying to run for it, but others didn’t just want to run blindly and not know where they were going. So the whole family concluded that everyone stays and whoever wants to leave can leave in the morning.
I don’t really know much about the Vietnam War. All I know is that the war started because of the spread of communism. The Americans were trying to stop communism and they asked the Hmong men to help them fight. After a couple of years, the Americans realized they weren’t going to win this war. They retreated and so did all the soldiers that fought with them. After that happened, many people had to choose whether to stay in Laos and live their life in fear, or escape with everyone else to Thailand.
The next morning came, and there were Vietnamese communist soldiers everywhere, patrolling and unwilling to let people leave the village. There were guns pointing in all directions and big green tanks rolling through the village.
My mom was scared and had no idea what was going to happen. She thought in a split second, guns would be fired and bodies would be lying all over the village. My parents and other relatives hid inside the house. My mom remembers the shouting and chanting from the soldiers.
They said, “Don’t leave my brothers. We love you. Don’t follow the enemy, the Americans. Stay with us and we will love you. If you go to America, you will meet poverty because they won’t love you like we will. Stay, don’t follow them. This war has ended and the land is at peace. Stay, don’t leave.”
My dad did not want to stay at all. He wanted to leave because the Hmong army leader, General Vang Pao, had already left. But my dad knew it would be hard to leave and also, my parents were poor and couldn’t make the trip. They had to stay and save up money because they would need the money to bribe the Lao fisherman and guides to help them escape.
My parents were always trying to escape, or were thinking about it, but they weren’t financially set yet. Not just that but when the communist soldiers took over, they assigned two soldiers to each family or house in the village. Those soldiers were responsible for keeping track of the families so they wouldn’t escape.
Those soldiers did everything with the families in the village. The two soldiers shared chores with my parents, ate, slept, and practically lived with my parents and everyone else in the house. No one had any privacy, which made hard it to escape.
My parents stayed in the village from 1975 until 1983, for eight years. During those years, the communist soldiers began to take and steal from the villagers. They took big portions of the crops that were grown by villagers. Not just that, but they made the land hard to farm because they killed plants with chemicals overnight, which I think is evil. My parents’ crops were good and fresh one day, and then suddenly, the next morning, they turned yellow and dead. One night, my dad stayed at the farm house to see what was causing the crop failures, and he saw what the communist soldiers were doing. My dad got caught in some of the chemicals and he got sick, so sick that he almost died. Those chemicals killed many crops but the soldiers were still expecting their portions from each of the families in the village. Many families began to have less and less crops for themselves.
When my dad recovered from the chemicals, he started to buy cows at a cheap price and then brought them to the larger cities, and sold them at higher prices. He started to save up along with my mother. It had been a couple of years already since the soldiers took over the village, so they didn’t keep a tight watch anymore.
My dad was able to travel and he found a trustworthy guide who showed him a safe way to Thailand. The deal and promise was made.
My dad paid the guide and the guide promised to take my parents and two sisters safely to the Mekong River.
When my dad was told to prepare for the journey, he was excited but sad. He told my grandpa that he had found a way to freedom and for my grandpa to get ready to leave. But my grandpa was old, and he still had his own dad there as well, who is my great-grandfather. My dad is the youngest son, without a mother because my grandma died when he was only five years old, so all this made it harder for him to leave my grandpa.
One night, while the soldiers were asleep, the guide came and gave the signal to get ready to go. My dad did not get to see or say good bye to my grandpa. It was a sad, quiet escape in the middle of the night. My mom says she can still remember the heartbroken look on his face, as he turned to look at the house one last time.
Two of my uncles and their own families also went on the journey with my parents as well. My dad carried a bag of rice and a child inside a bamboo carrier. My mom carried a pot filled with cooked rice and a bottle of water, along with a child on her back and a child in the womb. My aunts and uncles packed the same things as well.
On the first night, they had traveled far and deep into the Lao jungles. The guide led them around the villages that were under communist control. On the second night, my mom had to cook rice and fill up the water bottle again. When they came near the villages with communist soldiers, they sat down and rested until the guide found the way.
It was hard to keep walking because of the heavy loads they were carrying. My mom told me the baby she carried and plus the rice pot was so heavy she could hardly keep up with the rest. She could feel the weight on her shoulders even when she took the load off. My parents had huge red lines that sunk into their shoulders and skin.
On the sixth night, the guide gathered them into a little village alongside of the Mekong River. The guide helped my parents find a Lao fisherman who was willing to take them to Thailand. Each person had to pay one silver bar, which here, equates to a lot of money. My parents had to pay four silver bars to get on the boat. The boat ride was risky because some of my dad’s relatives paid a Lao fisherman, and when he took them to the middle of the river, the fisherman dumped them in the water after stealing their belongings. There were lots of stories like this. A lot of people who tried to cross the river died because of boats tipping over, drowning, or being shot by patrolling soldiers. Many people were killed and tossed in the river like nothing.
Luckily, my parents and the rest of the group didn’t get tipped over. They made it safely to the other side. My mom and everyone else waited on the banks of the river while my dad tried to talk to the mayor or leader of the area to sign my parents’ papers. These papers stated that you were refugees from the war. They help you travel easier and prevent you from being sent back to Laos. The mayor was furious and screamed at my dad to go back and not come into Thailand. My dad stormed out and told my mom and the rest to go.
As they were walking along the road, a big army truck came by and stopped in front of them. A short, stubby man came out of the passenger side and grabbed my dad by the arm. He asked my dad if my dad was Hmong and then the man told my dad that just yesterday, some Thai officers caught some Hmong people and sent them back to Laos after taking all their money and goods.
My dad and everyone else were lucky to have met these guys. They loaded everyone into the back of the truck and went straight to the base. There were Thai officers searching everywhere for my parents like crazy! The Hmong-Thai officer hid my parents and the group in the bathroom for the whole day. My mom told me they were so thirsty they drank the water that was used to wash urine and feces.
Outside the safety of the bathroom, the Thai officers were circling and going back and forth in the area of the Hmong-Thai base. When night came, the Hmong-Thai soldiers loaded my parents and everyone else back into the truck and took them to a refugee camp called Ban Vinai.
When they arrived, the mayor or leader told my parents this place was nicer and simply asked if my parents had any relatives that were already living in Ban Vinai. My dad’s uncle was living there, so he took in my dad and everyone else.
My parents stayed with my dad’s uncles from June 1983 until March 1985. They stayed for about two years, but Ban Vinai was no longer registering people to come to America, so my parents moved to another camp. My dad registered the family to come to America. The two requirements were: not wanting to stay in Laos or Thailand and you had to know where you wanted to go in America. My parents got on the plane to San Diego, CA. My parents were happy to be heading towards freedom, but sad too because they left their friends, their family, their homes. My parents cried, knowing they may never see them again. But they knew at least they were going to a place where they were loved, wanted and appreciated. After all their struggles, they were finally going to a land of freedom, of opportunities, and privileges.
The story of my parents’ journey to the U.S. inspires me to do my best in life and everyday things. They worked hard, sacrificed so much, just for a better life for my siblings and I. Their story reminds me of how important my success in the future will be, and that inspires me to work hard to achieve it.
This story was previously printed in Issue 2 of The kNOw, a Fresno youth magazine published by Pacific News Service/New America Media. For more information: theknowfresno.blogspot.com.