Citizens’ Journal is proud to present the Coming to America series of immigrant related interviews conducted by Ventura resident Dr. Kathleen S. Roos. CJ publishes a new story each Sunday. These stories describe what life was like in their native country, the whys of wanting to come to America and what they have found here. It is the hope of each interviewee that those born in America, who have not had these experiences may reflect on what it means to be an American by these immigrants. Many have risked their lives and their families to come to America. Some have had an easier road, but the desire to be free, to make choices and what it means to become an American is a thread found throughout these interviews.
In current news today look at the young man Enes Kanter, the Boston Celtics basketball player speaking out about human rights and comparisons to China and the companies who do business there! He is from Turkey and Muslim and his family is paying a price for his decision to speak out. He is also taking a lot of heat from others here in the U.S. to risk his career to take such a stand. A very decent guy who makes a great example to Americans. He is well-known and appreciates the U.S. and our freedoms and deplores the atrocities in China and other parts of the world relative to abuse and lack of human rights. Most of these interviewees are not well known, or famous but their stories matter. All the varying perspectives of the interviewees are presented. Each one is their own story.
For the Citizen’s Journal readers who want to go back and view previous interviews we have included a list of those already published which can be located through the journal’s search engine box by typing in Coming to America, and the name of the Country. These include interviews from Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge through Cambodia: The Next Generation (installments 1-3), Oaxaca, Mexico (4), Santiago, Chile (5), Aligarh, India (6), Santiago, Cuba (7), Cambodia: years later told by an American dental professional (8), Jalisco, Mexico (9), Bagdad, Iraq (10), Bulacan, Philippines (11), and United Kingdom (12).
This week’s installment CJ is presents Mark Lai’s story from Saigon, Vietnam. Future interviews will include; Plauen, Germany, Rimmanapudi, India, Great Urswich, UK., Helsinki, Finland, Tehran, Iran, North Korea, Riga, Latvia, and Dr. Roos’ story from her travel and experiences.
Interview with Mark Lai October 15, 2021 Kathleen S. Roos Ph.D.
Hi Mark, tell me where you’re from and about your life growing up.
I am from Saigon, Vietnam and I was born in 1964. Growing up in my country, I recall that in 1972 it was the New Year in Vietnam. My father was carrying me in his arms and we were running away and men were shooting at us. They pointed guns and they fired at us. They were the communists; we were lucky we were not hit. I remember we were actually being fired at. My father cradled me in his arms and ran and got me inside a safe place. The Vietnamese Communists did not know where we lived or where we were. They could not track us.
Tell me about your escape from Vietnam?
The Communists took advantage of the New Year where there was a lot of confusion. This is when they were trying to take over our government. America was there and stopped them. Our new year is in early February.
I have seven brothers and sisters. My sister came to the United States in 1969 and worked for the US government so that made it
easy for her to get to the U.S. Before that time my father tried to escape from Vietnam with my second sister and
brother. My sister got to Thailand and the rest of us were turned back. They could not make it.
Did you travel to other countries prior to coming to U.S.?
No but my other sister made it to Thailand.
What were your experiences in school, college educational system in your native country?
Going to school before 1975 was harder than school here (in USA). We had to work very, very hard. I finished high school in Saigon. Saigon was a big city so there were a lot of students in 1975. As I said, my sister worked for the U.S. government and she had papers so she could leave Vietnam. When my father was trying to escape in 1975, we came to the Embassy and we saw the helicopters taking people off the top of the roof of the American Embassy. My father said he wanted us to get out but we were just too little and so it would not be safe to climb the ladders to the top of the tower to get us out. I came to the United States in 1982 and I became a citizen in 1987. Having my sister here was a great benefit and she sponsored us.
Mark, how do you perceive the U.S.A. today as compared to when you first came here?
We had to bribe many officials to get out even with my sister’s connections. That was the only way to move the paperwork forward. You had to pay bribes to government officials. We had tried to get out earlier in the 70s. My dad and others planned on an escape in a fishing boat. This was the method a lot of Vietnamese used to escape Vietnam at this time. They were caught. The fishing boat was confiscated by the Vietnamese communists. They investigated the boat and found a great deal of food and supplies. The boat was designed to handle about five fishermen so they wondered what was going on. They knew we were trying to escape with all the supplies that was beyond the capacity of the boat. My brother did not make it out. The government found out we were trying to leave and they stopped us. We know that someone tipped them off. It’s the only way that they knew about the boat. We were not threatened but they did seize the boat and asked a lot of questions. For my father it was scary.
Vietnam is a beautiful country, the life there was simple, not complicated. The government with the Communist takeover made it very hard to live. They wanted to control everything. They controlled the food, they controlled how many people were allowed into your home even to visit as a guest. They controlled how many people could live in your home. I know when my father escaped with me from the communists’ firing rifles at us, he went into a safe place like a church. I am not sure; I was very young.
I was brought up Catholic in Vietnam and I’m a practicing Catholic in the U.S. today. The Communists tried to limit our religious practices. It was not like that in Vietnam before the communists. Things were much freer, much less complicated. With the Communist party in power, you could not do anything. You could not say what you
wanted to say. You had to be very careful if you said something against the government he police would come and charge you and put you in prison.
The U.S. is a wonderful place with wonderful people. My wife and I are thankful to be here. I cannot explain the difference between going through what my family and I experienced in Vietnam with the Communist takeover and what it is like living in the U.S. The Communist knew everything about you. That is what scares me about what’s going on here today. The Communists knew everything, they would talk to other people about you, they would pry into your private life. I think this is what is happening in the U.S. today. It’s just like Communism in Vietnam.
I asked about the guns and if they were confiscated in Vietnam.
My observations are when we watched television, ‘they’ don’t say anything bad about Biden but when Trump is mentioned all you hear is all this negative stuff. It makes no sense to me. The balanced news reporting I used to see here seems to be gone. Growing up I know people did have guns but they were taken away. The communists were very sneaky in their language to us. They twisted everything making things confusing. They told us we would be safe and they wanted us to collect all our gold and all our jewelry and all our wealth and put it in one place. My father, as well as others, knew this was just not right. Why would they want us to put all our wealth in one place? People were so fearful that they threw their jewelry and their money out into the street. I never understood. They were tricky about their language they said it was just to collect money so it would be safe.
I asked Mark about Healthcare System in Vietnam.
It was horrible! It was just horrible. There was no real medicine. If you went to a clinic, you would get one pill. That 1 pill would be for cancer, for a stomach ache, for an earache. it would be that same one pill. That was the medical help you got. Herbals was the only thing available that most people practiced.
I asked about the religious freedom in Vietnam.
Most of Vietnam, 80% is Buddhist and about 10% are Catholics. The communist tried to limit all religions. What I like most about the U.S. is the freedom. You can actually enjoy listening to the kind of music you want. That surprises you right? You couldn’t do that in Vietnam; you couldn’t listen to the type of music you like to listen to. You had to listen to what they selected for you. I so enjoy listening to the kind of music I like; enjoying the kind of food I like. In Vietnam you cannot listen to American music.
I asked Mark what he misses about Vietnam
I guess I miss a lot, though I was very young. I don’t want to go back there now. I don’t want to go on tours because then you’re just a tourist. There’s a lot of homeless and vagrancy. I just don’t want to experience that now. I would not be a Vietnamese in Vietnam. I would be a tourist!
I asked Mark what he likes most about the US
I like the U.S. a lot. You can enjoy life and have many opportunities, very unlike communist countries. In Vietnam if you were wealthy or educated or wore glasses, or if you were a high military rank or high grade in the police, you would be arrested. You would be taken to prison and spend prison in the mountains where it was freezing. Or you would just disappear. My father-in-law was in prison for 10 years. He was in a Mountain Prison. They took him because he had a high military rank. He worked from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. and only got one rotten potato to eat every day. The prisoners starved. They only fed them potatoes, not rice that we are accustomed to. Most of the potato was rotten. Any living animal or creature that walked by was killed for food. It didn’t make any difference what it was; it could be dogs, cats, rats or any wild animal and it was eaten. They were starving. Even when the Communists did provide us food in the cities, it was things that we did not eat. They would give us oatmeal or flour. We in Vietnam don’t eat oatmeal and flour. We didn’t know what to do with it. We eat rice and that is our main source of food.
I asked Mark what similarities and differences he sees between other countries and the U.S.
You have to understand thousands of people tried to escape Vietnam to get to a better life, to get to freedom, to get an education in 1979. During that time frame, 99% of Vietnamese died in the ocean, they risked drowning in the ocean by escaping on small boats just to get away. Just to get away from the communists. I am a lab technician and I understand Medical and Public Health. Medicine is very good here and it is a world apart from Vietnam. I look back and see people from Vietnam trying to escape communism the same as I saw the Afghanis trying to escape from Afghanistan holding onto an aircraft. That was just like we Vietnamese holding onto boats, most of us drowning. My father-in-law was in that Mountain Prison in Vietnam for over 10 years. All would risk death just to leave. I saw that again and again when I watched the Afghanistan photos. The communists would limit your food. You might get a 5 lb. bag of
rice. That’s all you would get most of the time. They would give you potatoes, no meat, oatmeal as I said things that we just don’t eat.
Here (in U.S) you have everything. Your choice of food, supplies, opportunities, education, jobs. People born here just don’t seem to get it! I see that changing now and it scares me.
I asked about Vietnam protecting its borders.
Mark laughs. The only people wanting to get into Vietnam now are the Chinese. They’re taking over and they come across the border without much problem. Many of the street names in Vietnam have been changed to Chinese names. I don’t think the Chinese are just trying to take over southeast Asia, I think the Chinese are trying to take over the whole world. That is what I believe.
I asked about instances or experiences that happened in the U.S. that were different than Vietnam
I have to say seriously when I first moved to the U.S. I moved to Kansas. It is a wonderful place with wonderful people. Everybody treated us with respect. There was no racism. We felt no animosity towards us being Vietnamese. My wife is from Vietnam also and we are very glad to be in America. We enjoy the education system. I see it as a very good system. I am very good at math and I am challenged here. In Vietnam, they did not allow me to take math. When you went to school the government chose what you would study unless you were very good or exceptional, then they would let you take math. I was not allowed to take math even though I am good at math. In Vietnam everyone wants to study math. They know that will help them get ahead so it’s very strict and limiting. It seemed very strange that they would not let me take math. The government discouraged me and other students. Students were forced to take majors they didn’t like or they didn’t want. So, few studied.
I have not seen racism in the U.S. I did not see it when I came here. The people are friendly in the U.S. I must admit we wanted to go back to Kansas from California. We just found the people extremely nice in Kansas. They’re very cordial people. People are nice in California but it’s not the same. It’s not as close and family oriented. We always planned to move back to Kansas. My neighbor there would actually come out and help me cut the grass even when I didn’t need him to. He would come every week to help me cut the grass. People are just friendlier in Kansas than they are in California. We wanted to go back for a long time but now my wife and I have family here in California. We definitely enjoy the warmer weather and it would probably be tough to go
back now as I sold my house in Kansas. This is our home. People in California are pretty aggressive and almost crazy, unlike the people in Kansas but as I said we found good people and this is our home.
Editor: Anne Albaugh