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Oral History


Published June 1, 2016 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated June 3, 2016 at 9:52 a.m.

"You see, my mother-in-law is a judge, so she's used to issuing orders."

Sitting next to me, my customer, Linh Dinh, chuckled at her own words. She was a pretty, diminutive woman in her thirties, with a plucky, forthright way about her.

The afternoon sky was clear and sunny as we motored north on Route 7 en route to the airport. Fresh air streamed in through our cracked windows, filling the cab with a woods-and-field bouquet. Springtime in Vermont — my 36th, if my math is right — still hits me as a revelation.

"So, that must be hard to negotiate," I said, putting myself in my customer's shoes.

"It was harder when I was newly married, but, with some give on both of our parts, we've worked things out. Things are a lot better, anyway."

"Well, that's good, because when you get married, you marry the whole family. But I guess you figured that out. Is your husband also Vietnamese?"

"No, he's a regular white boy," Linh replied, grinning at her cheeky turn of phrase.

I noticed that she didn't have any accent to speak of. "So, are you second generation? Gosh, I always forget what the phrases 'first' and 'second generation' refer to."

Linh replied, "No, it can be ambiguous. In sociology, I'm what we call '1.5 generation.' That denotes folks who migrated here before the age of 10."

"Is that your field — sociology?"

"Uh-huh. I'm up here teaching on a fellowship. My family were Vietnamese boat people, if you recall that era."

"My goodness, I do. That was the late '70s, right? When Vietnamese people — I guess mostly folks who worked for the old South Vietnamese government or military — fled the country in the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal. I remember this was all over the news for a few years. I'd be interested in hearing your family's story, I mean, if that's something you're comfortable sharing."

"I'm surprised you know about this piece of history."

"Well, I am an old guy," I explained, "and, unlike many of my fellow Americans, I actually pay attention to history."

"OK, then here's a piece of oral history for you. My father had worked for the South Vietnamese military as a driver and a cook. So, after the American defeat and reunification, he knew we were in danger. But getting out wasn't easy without money and connections. Luckily, my grandfather was paid to have a huge boat built in his backyard on the Mekong River, and my father — who was a very social, affable guy with a big personality — cooked meals for the boat builders. And in that way, he secured a spot on the boat for the whole family — my parents and my four older sisters. I was just a baby when this was happening.

"So, after a few days at sea, the boat was intercepted by Indonesian pirates. It was horrific. A few of the young women on board were raped, though, luckily, my sisters were spared. And they stole everyone's money. But my mother, who was a seamstress, had taken the precaution of sewing the family jewels into the clothes we were wearing, so we had a little to start over with when we reached the Australian refugee camp."

"How did you make it to the USA?" I asked. Linh's story was captivating; I reminded myself to maintain good road focus as I took it in. Safety first, conversation second.

"Be patient, we're getting there," she said, her voice rising in mock annoyance. "At the camp, my father immediately opened a makeshift coffee shop, because, as I said, this was the kind of guy he was. After about a year, with the help of some religious organization, we were able to get papers to migrate to Philadelphia, and we settled into the thriving Vietnamese community in that city. And that's where I grew up."

"Did your pops develop some kind of business in Philly?"

"Not so much. He was fixing houses — anything, really."

Linh, who had been breezing along in the narrative, suddenly grew quiet. I glanced over to observe her closing her eyes for a moment, as if to collect herself.

"He died when I was 5," she said, rallying, "and then it was my mother supporting all of us — her now six daughters — on her home seamstress business. I remember throughout my childhood, she was constantly at her machine, sewing away."

"What an amazing woman," I marveled. "Did she push you girls real hard?"

"No, funnily, she didn't. She was never what they now would call a 'tiger mom.' I think we all just learned by her example. All of us went into professional careers, an outcome that pleases her to no end."

To avoid the Shelburne Road traffic flow, I turned east in Shelburne Village. This strategy may not actually be a time saver, but it sure makes for a prettier and less nerve-jangling ride.

"So, this story of your family's escape to America, were those your actual memories of the events?"

"No, not hardly. I was just a toddler. But I've heard the story my whole life. Some immigrants bury their history, not wanting to look back, particularly when the passage contains traumatic elements. But, oh no, not the Dinhs."

Linh laughed out loud. "No, our family tells the story over and over. My nieces and nephews can attest to that. And when I have children, I'll make sure they know it, too."

All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.