Among the Boat People
To sleep, to take a risk.
So I used to think in those days, in 1978.
There was only one stairway leading up from the hold of the boat where I was sleeping. The space was huge, spreading out beyond my bed as if I were a mite in a giant shoebox floating on the waves. It contained about 2,000 people, refugees. We lay on big sacks of flour, except for a few people who had cadged straw ticking.
If the boat capsized or became flooded, most everyone would drown trying to get up the stairs.
Our ship was anchored about one mile out from Manila. There had already been one typhoon as we waited in that ship. Before the storm, we were transferred from the freighter to a Philippine naval cruiser. That had kept us safe. But I wondered whether another storm might appear out of nowhere and swamp us before we could get help.
Nowadays, Cantonese friends have called me “pa say,” that is, “afraid to die.” Not complementary and not to be taken literally. It means worrying too much about little things. I confess I am guilty of that, but my worries are not that deep. Not now. Back on the ship, my fear of drowning was wrenching and arresting.
It seemed like every night I dreamed of drowning, then woke up, then drowsed off. My sleep was a chain of nightmares.
Also I worried about my persistent cough. Right now, we refugees had been applying to be accepted for admittance to any country that would have us. Some went to France, others to Canada, Denmark, Greece, Egypt or the U.S. France only wanted families, while Canada was taking single people. Once you were tentatively accepted, you were taken from the ship and placed in a camp on shore. You had to undergo a medical inspection to see if you were fit. If, for example, a person was found to have lung disease, the individual was kept in the camp till it was cured, up to two or three years, or until he or she died.
I was being processed to go to Canada, though it wasn’t my first choice. I had written to my stepbrother, the child of my father’s second wife – in Vietnam polygamy was legal – who lived in New York City. His family had moved to America before I was born. I assumed he never knew about me. Before we left Saigon, my mother made me memorize his address so I could try to contact him. I wrote,
“I’m in a boat in the Manila harbor. You may not know me because we never met. I am your stepsister and my mother told me to contact you. I heard about you living in America. I lost my mother, brother and sister on the sea so I am the only one left. If you don’t want to accept me as a sister, just ignore this letter. I will not blame you. If you want to sponsor me as a sister,please contact me.”
He never wrote back for three months so I felt he wasn’t interested.
I was approached by Denmark. I heard it was a very rich country. When Denmark accepted a you, they sent people to measure your size to give you big, thick clothes for winter over there. But then someone told me that when a man goes out in the street in Denmark, he would be approached by a woman for free sex. I was thinking that if I lived there, my husband would not be faithful because he could get free sex.
Then I heard Canada wanted 500 single young people. I was 24. I registered and was accepted right away. I was waiting patiently to be processed into the camp in Manila, hoping my cough would go away. I got my cold when I had been dumped in the water. The captain who had been contracted to secretly take refugees from Vietnam to Indonesia was too greedy for gold. To get on board you had to pay 12 pieces of gold. The boat was overloaded with 600 passengers. All the ingots were put into the bottom of the vessel. Within an hour of sneaking off the coast, we began to founder. The ship sank and we all ended up in the water. Another ship was close by and a few of us managed to get pulled onto that ship. 200 survived. Some families lost everyone. Young, old, anything.
I’m one like that. Only one left. Some people got crazy when that happened. Can’t sleep, can’t eat, become crazy.
My uncle had arranged for four families to come out on this ship. One family was just a single man. He drowned. A second was parents and two daughters, very religious people. All day as we waited to board, they chanted to Buddha, fingering their beads. They all died. Then there was Ho Jie. I knew her. She was a quiet, shy, 35 year old, who still had no boyfriend. She wasn’t athletic and couldn’t swim. But she survived. She told me she jumped into the water and when she came up, there was a life preserver right in front of her.
My family had four people. My mother and younger brother couldn’t swim so when we went down, I knew they were lost. However, my younger sister was a strong swimmer. She didn’t make it either. Months later, I heard they found her body washed ashore with a crushed skull.
Later, on the boat where we were living, I met a Vietnamese woman who was something of a celebrity. She was on a small boat, one with about 30 people. It sank and everyone but her died. One person. For ten days, she floated on a piece of wood, eating seagulls and drinking rain water. She was 16 years old. They put her on TV and we all talked to her. Everyone wanted to get her to their country.
If you think about it, things happen so fast. Only one night, everything changed. One night you don’t have any friends left. You sit with a lot of friends and relatives. In a few seconds, everybody is gone. Then all the faces you see are strangers. All soaked with water, sitting there, crying. And no belongings either. All the belongings sunk in the water. All you have left is the gold ring on your finger. Everybody was wearing some gold. That’s the only money you can bring out. Everybody was allowed three pieces of clothes, one gold ring and one gold chain.
Before we got on the boat, they checked it. Months after it happened, I kept dreaming of it. It’s really a terrible thing to be swimming in a heavy sea at night, choking on dirty water, with people screaming all around you, screaming like hungry ghosts coming out of hell, all around you and below you.
When people pulled my leg, I kicked them down. Later, I thought, maybe that was my mother. I didn’t want to think about it.
People later asked me how I dealt with the trauma. One woman cried all the time. She lost more family than I did. Her husband, son, parents and husband’s parents all drowned. But I didn’t cry that much. I had made friends on the boat, people who were a similar age, in their twenties, who slept around me. They also lost their family but nobody lost like me. Tiem, my classmate, lost her parents but still had a sister. Another man had lost his wife. Another man lost his children.
We spent all our time together. We slept next to each other, talked and would go up ondeck together where we could watch the waves and the seagulls flying.
I guess when big things happen you either get crazy and kill yourself or become strong. The Cantonese put it like this, “Jurng bey oi been sing lick lern.” (Move your sadness into strength.)
To return to my story, one morning after I opened my eyes, I found a lot of people moving around. The electric lights had been switched on, so it was already 5:30 or 6 am. At 8, we would get breakfast. Our team leaders would go up on deck to get closed pots of congee (“jook”). We each got five spoonfuls.
For the first month, that had been our only food for the day. That was our time at sea, traveling from port to port, looking for a harbor. We first got to Indonesia, but they wouldn’t let us land. In every country, we were either towed back out to sea or approached by a fire boat, which sprayed us with water until we backed away. They said they were afraid to let us disembark because we might have Communists concealed on our ship. Finally, when we were allowed to anchor off Manila and transfer to a bigger vessel, we were given a second meal: a piece of bread for lunch.
I remember the first meal we made off that bread. We were given moldy buns, three or four days old. People complained about the taste and smell, but they ate them anyway. Then we all got diarrhea.
That afternoon, it was embarrassing to see the people lined up in two aisles on the listing ship, waiting to use the toilets, which were simply a portion of the deck closed off with semi-opaque plastic, open on the outside. Once inside, you squatted, pushed your ass between the railings. Having to crouch under that clammy plastic was uncomfortable, but I stood in line with the rest. I was thinking that when I eliminated the bad food from my stomach I would also be eliminating the good jook I had eaten earlier today. And I worried about the men seeing my body profile through leaden-colored draperies. Queasily pushing greasy hair from my eyes, I watched the sea birds slung out against the deeply acquaed sky.
This morning, waking in all the hubbub, my stomach was as tightly balled as a little kitten. I wiped my face with a snot rag. Shaking my head, I began to make my way past the malnourished children and their bedeviled, emaciated mothers.
Starvation is a kind of passion. Like love, it discolors what is visible. My mouth alwayshad a leathery taste, sometimes salty; so that everything I ate was acrid, flavored more by my own stomach’s juices than by the food’s original taste. I found eating stirred entirely new feelings in me. What I ate had no taste, no savor, but it limited the pain in my belly. Eating had a different purpose for me then. Life.
I went upstairs that morning to get a place on the rail. This was a favorite hour of mine, just past dawn, with the sun right on the water’s horizon, its rays lancing out egg-yellowishly, throwing into the upper sky all kinds of purples and grays.
I also liked the rail at night. Not at sunset but later when the sky was fudge colored, not yet pitch black. Then you could see the lights of Manila. In the day, it was too far away but at night the city’s lights were as shiny as red buttons on the beach.
In the mornings, my thoughts would be empty. Guided by the rhythmical v’s breaking against the prow where I leaned, I grew forgetful. Nothing in mind, hearing only, coming distantly from the ship’s bridge, a Chinese opera song as if a theater troupe were passing beyond a hill.
As I walked to the rail that morning I was stopped by one of the Taiwanese sailors that I knew. “Manh Nhi, jaw ten twon jawn jawn lee.” (Nhi, the captain was looking for you.)
“Gee ma?” (What for?), I said.
“Nee gaw gaw gee ye fong ceen ga li.” (You have a letter from your brother.)
In the letter, he invited me to America. It turns out he had bought a new house and changed his address so it took a long time for my letter to reach him.
After I read the letter, I felt a terrible weight descend on me, a weight of possibility and future. And I knew the tremendous joy that comes only once in your life.
I knew, and it was true, when I came to New York City, I would have to fight to survive.
I had gone from one big family to nothing, from never worrying about money to always thinking about money. You cannot look back, though, I said to myself. I must enter the new world. In my heart, I said plainly, “This is your life. You can only succeed, you cannot fail.”