Linh was 24 then. But she had to take a decision that would have daunted someone double her age or experience. She had to decide whether to take the boat.
She was Vietnamese, but of ethnic Chinese origin, a Hoa. For centuries turbulent changes in regime in China had pushed thousands of migrants in Vietnam, and in early twentieth century the exodus rose with the civil war in China. The Hoa community was diligent and enterprising, and in time prospered in trade and business. Both North and South Vietnam declared interest in integrating the community in Vietnamese society but at an onerous price: they had to adopt Vietnamese names and abandon their culture.
Now, in the summer of 1979, Linh had nothing to keep her back in Vietnam. There was no future for her or her three year old son except dire poverty and social ostracism.
The only alternative was to flee the country illicitly, in an unsafe boat run by coyotes, and pay an extortionate price for a nightmare journey. Accidents and drownings were common; so were skirmishes and violence. Pirates robbed and raped migrants, regularly and mercilessly. And at the end waited an uncertain future: nobody knew which country would accept them, or even what shore they would be able to reach.
Linh knew night boarding was the safest in eluding the port police but, physically, the most dangerous. There were narrow planks one had to balance on to reach the cavern of the boat, and people had been known to fall and drown. With her delicate frame, Linh had to balance both her child and the small bag in which she carried an extra pair of clothes, some water and dry food. She teetered cautiously along the plank and reached the boat. It was already packed to the gills with fleeing men and women. No matter, the coyotes kept adding more passengers, until, in the corner she had found, her child had to crane his head to breathe.
Three months later, unlikely as it was, Lynh’s dream came true. A New York church group offered sanctuary and support for Lynh and her son. The Christmas of 1979 brought them the promise, not just of safety, but also of a different life.
The US shores awaited Lynh, doubtless with huge challenges, of learning a new language and adjusting to a different culture, but also with the assurance of security and freedom. She could choose her life. Her son could be the man he wanted.
Linh paused in her narration.
I looked at her and wondered about the hundreds of other desperate women and children, ready to risk all for the chance of a new life, and the obduracy of our prejudices that want to close the door and raise a wall.