The Spaces Between Your Fingers

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I interviewed my mother Tram for this postcard. She is slightly more wrinkled and tired looking than she was in this photo, but she still shares the same determined look in her eyes. This picture was taken on the second day of their journey on the ship. Tram is standing next to her now husband, and my father, Dung, with her arm wrapped around my cousin, Lan Anh. My father’s nephew was not pictured in this photo, as he was the one taking it. Tram and Dung now live in Delaware County, Pennsylvania. Shortly after they arrived to America, they began going to school, where Tram completed a degree in pharmacy, and Dung a degree in architecture. Lan Anh and Du are now both successful, each with their own children. They call Tram and Dung their “second mom and dad” because they protected them and loved them unconditionally throughout those years in the refugee camps.

It was the year 1988 when Tram and Dung escaped from their home country, Vietnam, which was still under terrorizing communist rule and still is today, except less terrorizing. My father, Dung, had been trying to escape for years, taking every chance he got to flee with the other renegades who spoke of any trip that would soon be leaving their city of Saigon. He had taken major risks, going to Cambodia, Malaysia, China, on any ship he could climb onto, in the hopes that he would make a better life for himself. 

            Tram was different. Her family raised her to believe that things could get better in Vietnam, that there soon could be change and growth. But Tram wasn’t so quick to believe that. Her boyfriend had talked about the refugee camps he stayed in and what a promising future he had seen for himself. Dung knew that he had to get out of there—to provide a better life for his entire family. Tram’s mother, Tin, begged her not to go. She told her that if she left, she would never make it and that she would die from starvation or be killed by captors, or the Vietcong. But Tram believed in something much larger than this life that she was given. She could leave her family behind and make something of her freedom. 

            “I hear that there’s a ship leaving for Malaysia tomorrow morning. I’m going with my brother and the kids. Come with me. I promise you it will be worth it.” Tram hesitated to answer Dung, fully knowing in her mind that it would be too risky to leave without her mother’s permission. Not to mention, with two young kids who were barely ten years old. Would they make it through the night? They weren’t even her kids—they were Dung’s sister’s. How could she protect them and ensure that one day her sister-in-law would see her children again? Tram weighed the pros and cons. The idea that one day she could live freely, no longer under communism, no longer against her will, set her soul on fire and told her to go on that fleet. She would be leaving behind her parents and her brothers. If her sister was still alive, she would have told Tram to go. Hell, she would have gone with her. Tram knew what she had to do.

            The next morning, Tram’s mom came in her room to wake her up for breakfast. She was nowhere to be found in the house. “Where is Tram? She was supposed to come home last night,” said Tin, frantically calling her name, fully knowing that there was a ship that left early that same morning. “I don’t know, she’s probably still at Dung’s house. I’d check there.” Tin marched all the way to Dung’s house, hands clenched in fists, needing to see her daughter. “Where is my daughter? She should have been home last night,” she questions Dung’s mom. “They’re gone. They left this morning before I woke up,” Dung’s mother said, with an empty look in her eyes. Tin’s eyes began to fill up. “I told her not to go, damnit! She’s going to die! They’re all going to die, for nothing!”

After a couple of rough nights out on the seas, the kids began to get heavily sick, so Tram did what she could. She held them close and whispered reassuring things into their ears. She was playing the role of their mother, something she knew nothing about, yet it came so naturally to her. They took comfort in her scent, her warmth, and they accepted that she was going to be “mom” for the next couple of years. They didn’t want to, but she was all that they had in this long nightmare that they couldn’t escape from. The waves weren’t very generous. They rocked the ship, sending it up till it stood vertically, arousing shrieks from every man, woman, and child. 

As the storm calmed, the entire mass of people ascended to the deck of the ship. “Fire!” someone yelled. It was Dung. He had spotted a flame, which was a sign that they were nearby an island. “Listen up everybody. I have been on this trip a hundred times before. I speak English and I will negotiate with the refugee officers. If they see us as a threat, they will shoot. All men but reside below the deck. Women and children are only to be seen! They will see you as vulnerable and take us in. Do you understand?” Men who were once pushing Dung around coward at the sight of his leadership. They submitted and listened. Dung stayed on the upper deck along with seventy women and children. He hugged Tram and whispered, “It’s going to be just fine. Trust in me.” He held his niece and nephew close, knowing that they feared just what he feared. That didn’t stop them from risking everything they had for a life they had dreamed of.

The Sweet Escape

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1988
Vietnam

I interviewed my mother Tram for this postcard. She is slightly more wrinkled and tired looking than she was in this photo, but she still shares the same determined look in her eyes. This picture was taken on the second day of their journey on the ship. Tram is standing next to her now husband, and my father, Dung, with her arm wrapped around my cousin, Lan Anh. My father’s nephew was not pictured in this photo, as he was the one taking it. Tram and Dung now live in Delaware County, Pennsylvania. Shortly after they arrived to America, they began going to school, where Tram completed a degree in pharmacy, and Dung a degree in architecture. Lan Anh and Du are now both successful, each with their own children. They call Tram and Dung their “second mom and dad” because they protected them and loved them unconditionally throughout those years in the refugee camps.

Tags: vietnam war
Decade: 1980s
Rating:
Recorded by Leah Nguyen on June 1, 2020
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