Q&A with Don Lao, Author of “I Became the Boat People”

A regular series at The Wang Post, where we sit down and talk with notable Asian personalities. This week, we spoke with Don Lao, who recently published his memoir, I Became the Boat People: A Refugee’s Path to America (Abbot Press, 2014). The autobiography recounts the turbulent events in 20th-century Southeast Asia and Lao’s growing up in a large, entrepreneurial family in the north of Vietnam, the family’s increasingly southward moves until they left the country as refugees, and their establishing of selves in the U.S.

The Vietnam War (1956-1975) between North and South Vietnam, heavily involving U.S. and other foreign players, ended with the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese Army. Although the decades of war had ostensibly ended and the country (split north and south at the 17th parallel during the Geneva Conference of 1954) was to be reunified, the new government set increasingly repressive measures against those with ties to the French, the Americans, or the disposed government and against the Hoa (Vietnamese of Chinese descent), who were highly involved in business and commerce. The Vietnamese who left in steady waves between 1975-1995 were termed “boat people”.

Where were you born, and where did you grow up?

I was born in Tien-Yen, Vietnam. It’s a small town bordering China, 300 kilometers northeast of Ha-Noi, the capital of Vietnam. We moved to Ha-Noi when I was 5 years old and resettled in Saigon a year later. I grew up in Cholon, Saigon’s Chinatown.

vietnam

What was your family like?

It was a typical Chinese family of the 1940s, where three generations lived under one roof. Chinese families are historically large; my grandpa had two wives and eight children, and my parents have nine boys and three girls. I grew up in a close-knit family with loving parents and siblings who all care deeply about one another.

Your birth, to boyhood, to manhood followed a path southward in Vietnam: Tien-Yen, Ha-noi, Saigon. Why?

As our family business in Tien-Yen had been scaled down due to the withdrawal of the French troops (who were our main clients) from Indochina, we moved to Ha-Noi in 1953.

For fear of being labeled as “capitalists” and sent to re-education camps by the Communist regime of North Vietnam due to our family’s running a sizable company that had a business relationship with the French government, my grandpa and my dad gave up everything in Ha-noi, and evacuated to South Vietnam in 1954.

What was your first job?

My first job was with the PX AAFES (the Pacific Exchange of the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, which served the U.S. forces in Vietnam) in Saigon. I worked as an insurance and claims technician and a local national supervisor with six Vietnamese employees reporting to me.

In one of the book’s chapters, “The Fall of Saigon,” you talk about IOUs from the International Commission for Control and Supervision (ICCS) and a paycheck that is “40+ years past due”. This is clearly more about money: why is it important to you?

The ICCS was an international entity established by the United Nations to oversee the Paris Treaty, which ended the Vietnam War. The IOUs are important to me because they are an acknowledgment for playing a part (no matter how small) in such a historic time in Vietnam. As well, it’s a matter of principle for an international entity to make good on its promise to the people it had employed.

Even though the money would’ve been a great help to my family when we arrived in the U.S. – I only had $20 in my pockets – as I said in my book, I’d  donate the money to charity if collected.

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Don Lao (at far right) with family, Vietnam, 1972
(Photo: Don Lao)

You write about attempts to leave Vietnam: in a balloon, and through an attempt on a fishing boat off Phan Thiet. How were you and your family finally successful, and where did you end up?

People tried every means possible to flee the Communist country to reunite with their loved ones. Some of my family and I came up with the crazy idea of building a balloon and launching it from a coastal town to ride the wind out to sea, hoping to be rescued by ocean-going vessels. We were so close, but we had to abort the project because it wasn’t big enough to carry the load of more than one person.

Another attempt to flee by a small fishing boat was detected by Communist soldiers, who arrested some of my family. (We’d split up and agreed to meet at a particular spot, to prevent detection.) They were held at gunpoint and put in jail for two months.

We learned our lesson from the two failed tries and were more careful in finding trustworthy middlemen to ensure a successful escape. We split up in two teams to avoid putting all eggs into one basket: my two brothers went to Thailand in 1977, and my wife Yen and I got onto the Huey-Fong cargo ship to Hong Kong in 1978.

The ship was forced to anchor outside the Hong Kong harbor. Yen was pregnant and in these harsh conditions, there wasn’t enough food to eat. We stayed on this floating refugee camp for over a month.

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Huey-Fong cargo ship, carrying 2,700 souls
(Photo: Kiu Chan via University of British Columbia)

What was a challenge in settling in the U.S., and how did you handle it?

Uprooting your family to resettle in a new country is no doubt a challenge, especially for my parents, who did not speak English. Learning English in Vietnam as a second language, Yen had to take classes to improve her English before she could get a job.

My entry-level job with Aetna paid an annual salary of only $9,600. There wasn’t much left after taxes and other deductions (social security and health care), so I had to take a second job at Target to make ends meet. When my wife was able to find a job, a large part of her paycheck went to the daycare center.

We worked hard and had faith until we were able to get back on our feet, again.

In the U.S., you worked as an insurance professional. What do you do now?

After 33 years of service with the Aetna/Travelers Companies, I retired in 2012. I’m enjoying retirement like a true American! I play golf every week, and we travel frequently.

You mention that Yen said that she’d “never set foot in Vietnam again”. Have you two been back? 

We have not been back to Vietnam because of the traumatic experience of being put in POW-like prisons for trying to flee the country. We were able to reunite with our family in Texas after being trapped behind for three and a half years. All of our friends and relatives have left Vietnam and resettled in other countries. If we do go back, it would probably be a short trip to see the places where we grew up (Tien-Yen and Cholon).

What was your motivation to write this memoir?

When I shared my story with my American friends, they were fascinated and encouraged me to write it down. Also, I want to preserve our family history and pass it on as an heirloom to the next generation.

What difficulties did you encounter in writing I Became the Boat People?

It was quite a challenge to me as a first-time author in memory mining of what had transpired from my birth to retirement. I relied on stories from my mom for details of events that occurred when I was too young to remember.

I took my time (a year and a half) to complete the first draft, and I had a lot of help from my son Steven and my friends in shaping this book for publishing. I revised the draft numerous times until I was satisfied. Feedback from my son and my wife was invaluable in keeping on-track throughout the process. A good friend of mine, who is an English teacher, helped with the final proofreading of my manuscript before I submitted it to the publisher.

I also found out that publishing a book is a long, drawn out process – it took about three and a half months.

But, as I’ve learned many times, persistence and hard work do pay off!

Don Lao’s I Became the Boat People can be found on Amazon or on Abbot Press