by Lupe Fernandez
While getting my remaining hair cut, Ms. N_, the hair stylist at Super De Duper Haircuts tells me she had come to the United States in 1980 at age 14.
On a boat.
“Not really a boat," Ms. N_ says.
She lives in Saigon - renamed Ho Chi Min City - and leaves Vietnam with her Grandmother aboard a make-shift boat. More like raft. The raft is crammed with people and travels with other groups of rafts. Somewhere south-southwest on the South China Sea, the motor breaks down. Ms. N_, her grandmother and the other passengers are adrift off the coast.
A boat of pirates motors close and tows the rafts for a few nautical miles and then leaves them.
Another boat comes along and tows the rafts along the coast and then leaves them.
On and on, past the Mekong Delta, past the Ca Mau Cape, Viet Nam's southern tip, then northwest along the coast of Cambodia until the remaining rafts drift off a coastline.
How long at sea? Five days? Months? Ms. N_ doesn't know. She remembers hunger, thirst and her grandmother.
“Many didn’t make it. Girls were raped. Some drowned.”
At night the rafts wash ashore on a beach.
"They asked the locals where they were and told us we were in Thailand," Ms. N_ says. "Locals told us to go to a church to get help."
Ms. N_ and her Grandmother are interned in a refugee camp.
“People I tell don’t know what hunger is. We had two buckets of water. They supposed to be full but they were not full. They in a hurry to pour it in and it falls out.” Ms. N_ gestures with her hand to show water level in bucket.
"Today I still don’t like to waste food.”
Ms. N_ and her grandmother got out of the camp by having a sponsor in the United States. Her grandmother died after they reached America.
Here in California, she has a husband, also Vietnamese, two grown children and works at Super De Duper Haircuts.
After Ms. N_ relates her harrowing tale, I think, "there's a YA novel here. Or a non-fiction bio. Or..."
There are questions I don't ask. Was she assaulted by pirates? How long was she in the refugee camp? How did her grandmother die? What does she think about today's Vietnamese immigrants?
I would be stealing Ms. N_'s experience for my own gain. Besides, others writers can tell this story better. It's good to know when to back off.
This is not my story. I didn't live it. What was I doing at age fourteen? Thinking about girls at Winton Jr. High.