In the water off the coast of Saigon…what is now called Ho Chi Minh City there was a young girl who was nine years old and her cousin Mae was 12. I am Iris. The young girl is my Mother and this is our story…
Sing Na Li is my mother. Her American name is Naomi Li. She is forty-nine years old. She owns two nail salons and has worked seven days a week since I can remember. We live in a nice house with four bedrooms and two and a half baths. My mother said this could never be imagined in Viet Nam. She has never been home again. She has never seen her Mother and Father since that day when her father handed her over the bow of a boat with her cousin to a woman from our village area. Grandfather had only enough money to get one of us out. As his only child he chose my Mother. She has made a good life she says with no regrets. She always said, “ Iris, you must not look back. You must always look forward. You must always be brave.”
I am not as brave as my Mother. I have an easy life. I want to be brave. I want to be like my Mother. I just graduated from a well-known University in Texas. I am an engineer. Naomi is very proud of me…
In the spring of 1975 the People’s Army of Vietnam were coming. They were sighted in the highlands of north of Saigon…Grandfather told my mother that she must go. He said, “I will die here in my body but you will take my dreams and my heart with you. You will go to America and you will give me many grandsons and granddaughters. I will not let you suffer in the way that is coming.”
Naomi did not understand everything Father said to her but she knew that she must obey. Her Mother never cried and she spoke very little. There was always a sadness in her deep set almond shaped eyes. Mother’s eyes spoke to me. They said women must be the strongest.
Soldiers with guns were everywhere. I was just a little girl but I had only known war. I could not tell who were the friendly soldiers and who were the enemy. I remember seeing an American soldier once and upon his helmet he had written “Welcome to hell.” I remember another sign written across the big building with the American flag and someone had written on it in my own language, “The gates of mercy have closed.”
I did not understand these words. My grandmother, who was very old, told my mother, “Do not be afraid my dear little one. You will be strong. You will live for all of us. They cannot hurt us if you live and that is what Mercy is…to live.”
The end came very quickly after years of shelling, starving, and never sleeping well. I had never known a time in my life when there was not war. We lived in an area of the city that had not been bombed but there was no electricity or running water. Many people were sick and many people died.
On April 28th, 1975 I was put upon a big boat, which I now know was one of a South Vietnamese navy vessel. There were thirty or so of these vessels crammed into the Saigon River. My cousin and I were so scared. There were so many people crowding onto the shore…I have forgotten a lot of it. People were stepping over us to get on the boat. At some point a man picked me up and put me in a corner of the boat with my cousin and told us to hold on to the railing and do not let go. Two days later President Minh surrendered unconditionally. I know that this is what killed my Father even though he died in battle.
After many days, I don’t know how long, we arrived in Guam. We stood in long lines and were processed to enter the United States. We were checked by a doctor and put in another line. Long gone were the rice and fruit Mother had given me.
I felt excitement mingle with fear as only a nine year old could. I longed to see Father, Mother, and Grandmother but I feared returning to Saigon. After many days we were placed in a city of tents as there were many children. We played and were given food and cots to sleep on. After what seemed many days Grandmother’s niece whom I had never met came and picked us up. We flew on a big airplane to Texas. That was the beginning of my American life.
Many Americans died for me and many other Americans said that they lost the Vietnam war but as for me, my brothers and sisters and my Mother Sing Na Li they did not lose. They won. They won it for us. I am a Vietnamese American. I am Iris. I am brave. I am an example of Mercy.