I was a baby when I left Vietnam. I have no memory of the war, or the fact that my family fled the country – leaving everything behind save for whatever bare essentials they could fit into two plastic bags – just 72 hours before we lost our country to Communism.
We were the lucky ones. Through connections with the American Embassy, my parents obtained approval to be airlifted out of Vietnam, but there was a catch. “We only had the papers for the three of us to leave,” recalls my father. “The rest of my family didn’t have papers, but at the last minute, I told everyone to pack and just get in the car.” It saved our lives.
My mother remembers arriving at Tan Son Nhut airport in Saigon with most of my dad’s side of the family – my paternal grandmother and grandfather, my aunt and four cousins, another aunt and uncle, and us (my mom, dad and me). She was 30 years old at the time. I was just 18 months old. Asked if she knew what the future held, she says that she had no idea what would happen.
We were all loaded onto a cargo plane and seated on the floor, separated by rows of ropes. We ended up at a U.S. Naval Base in Subic Bay in the Philippines. Three days later, my mom recalls hearing the dreaded news on the radio: Vietnam, the Republic of Vietnam, the country where I was born and the only home that my parents had known, was lost.
My family came to the U.S. by way of France. They chose Paris first, because an uncle lived there, and second, because they spoke the language fluently. By 1976, however, when it was clear that my father, an architect by profession, would not be able to find work in Paris, our family immigrated to the U.S. We eventually settled in Sacramento, California, just two months before my little sister was born, when my dad got a job as an architect with the state. My parents lived in Sacramento for 33 years before retiring to Southern California, near Little Saigon, home to the largest settlement of Vietnamese in the U.S.
My sister also lives in Southern California, but me? I met the husband when I was 21. I lived in Los Angeles at the time, but when we got married, he spirited me off to Houston, and now, this is my home.
By Mai Pham