She faced pirates, storms and armed guards at sea, but one child of Vietnam confronts her true test only upon escaping to America.
Five-year-old Brooke Luu shivered as she kept her eyes on her mother. There were forty bodies crammed in that fishing boat, each trying to remain silent in the hope that the guards armed with AK-47s would allow them to pass into the night and leave the shores of Vietnam forever.
She watched intently as her mother repeatedly tried to slip a sleeping pill into her infant brother’s mouth so he wouldn’t cry and alert the border patrol. If caught, the women would be sent home, maybe to jail. A worse fate would likely await the men.
Brooke’s mother mishandled the cup of water as she forced the medicine down the child’s throat and the water splashed on him. He wailed as the rest of the passengers grew restless. All she could do was cup her hand over the child’s mouth to muffle the shrieks.
“There was no way around the guards. We would’ve had to go straight through them,” Brooke recalls, three and a half decades later. “All we could do was pray that they would let us keep sailing.”
To reach their first destination—a relocation camp in Malaysia—the Luu family would have to escape Vietnam and contend with the South Chinese River without a compass. Rumors of Thai pirates and their savagery loomed.
All these hardships were for a single hopeful goal: to reach America.
Looking back on that night in 1980 when her family attempted to liberate their way to a new life without Communism, without control and fear, Brooke can’t distinguish between what was real and what her memory has pieced together. She would eventually find a life devoid of fear and restriction, but would find it difficult to discover acceptance in her new country—and in her old one.
“The children of the Vietnam War who fled have been stripped of an identity,” she says. “All because we didn’t stay behind.”
* * *
The Vietnamese people have struggled to forge their own national identity through millennia of political and military battles. The Han Dynasty of China invaded the country and colonized it circa 111 B.C.; it took over one thousand years of failed attempts to gain liberation. Mongolia would later sack Hanoi, but the Vietnamese armies pushed back the foreign invaders. Northern and southern Vietnamese leaders engaged in territorial battles in the sixteenth century, and by 1859, the country found itself under Western pressure and French rule. During World War II, the land was occupied to generate resources for imperial Japan.
The First Indochina War, led by Ho Chi Minh, resulted in the expulsion of the French and brought the Communist Viet Minh to power. Thousands of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians were killed. Just a few short years later, North and South Vietnam would engage in a military conflict that would last nearly twenty years and result in 58,000 Americans deaths.
The number of Vietnamese dead is estimated at nearly 3.5 million.
* * *
Brooke Luu is short; she swears she’s 5’1”, but that seems like a stretch. Her skin is flawless and smooth; she doesn’t need makeup. At thirty-nine years old, she can easily pass for a minor, and is still often asked to show ID when she buys wine. She has a precocious way about her and she always takes responsibility for everyone. Her mom taught her that. She is humble about her achievements, and giggles when complimented. She has her share of expensive purses, but doesn’t often splurge because she feels guilty about unnecessary excess.
Brooke’s birth name is Oanh (pronounced Juan) Luu. She was born in 1975 in the Sóc Trăng province of South Vietnam. Near the southern tip of Vietnam, nearly one hundred miles from Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), Sóc Trăng is one of the poorest provinces in the Mekong Delta region.
“Travel was difficult in Vietnam. Saigon might as well have been thousands of miles away,” she says. “Things were slow-paced and quiet. We were simple farmers, fishermen and village people.”
She remembers her childhood as a peaceful one, oblivious that the regime kept a watchful eye on her village. She lived near a river by which she would play with her older sister and half-brother. All of her clothes were hand-me-downs and she didn’t have any toys, so she would splash in the water and create games with her siblings. The family occupied a humble home. At night the living room became a second bedroom for the children, squeezed within a mosquito net to ensure a peaceful sleep.
To Brooke, it seemed like a mansion. “We lived with the bare minimum, but I didn’t know any better,” she says. “I was a happy child for the most part.”
Brooke came from a fishing family, but her father was a carpenter. Her mother was a seamstress and ran a little store out of the house. Money was often tight, which led to many arguments.
Before Brooke was born, the Luus were thrust into the war like nearly every other family in Vietnam. Her mother had to take care of the kids by herself, as her dad was drafted into the South Vietnamese Army. With no formal training, he was handed a rifle and a canteen and told to fight the North Vietnamese. He returned home tight-lipped. The severe shrapnel scars on his legs spoke louder than he could of how he was almost killed.
“He rarely mentioned politics or the war,” says Brooke.
Years later, when Brooke entered the U.S. Navy, he would laugh when she talked about all the gear she was issued—most notably her combat boots.
“He thought that was great, since he ran around the jungle in flip-flops,” she says. “And he was lucky. Many were barefoot.”
As a little girl, Brooke was shielded by her parents from the paranoia of those who had fought on the South Vietnamese side and now faced repercussions. So when her mother woke her at three a.m. one night and told her to get dressed, she was still trying to make sense of what was happening. She would be traveling to her grandparents’ house down the river. Brooke had never before been to their house this early. She thought it was odd that she was being dressed in brand new clothes. Even her father was there, which was strange because he always had to work. Hahn, Brooke’s cousin and best friend, and a young boy who lived nearby shared the canoe.
Months of planning and everything the Luu family had saved would be wasted if they were caught. The escape mission was secret. Brooke was told to stay quiet at all costs. Everyone in the village, even family members, were suspicious of each other. Brooke’s father and uncle decided to leave siblings and other relatives behind. Some did not have the money to escape; others were thought to be Communist loyalists.
There were no goodbyes. No hugs or kisses. No explanation letters. Just an abandoned house and a moonlit boat voyage.
* * *
When the Vietnam War ended on April 30, 1975, many South Vietnamese fled their homes in fear of Communist reprisals. In the ensuing years, former South Vietnamese military officers and other people qualified as “political dangers” were imprisoned in Communist re-education camps. Soon, the migration of the “boat people” began, as Vietnamese peasants deserted their country in makeshift vessels unsuitable for sea journeys.
Battling illness, hunger and thirst, the refugees were at sea from a few weeks to six months. This was not a journey made for freedom of religion, or a quest for a new land or adventure. For those paddling and rationing food, it was simply an escape without a destination.
* * *
From the canoe, the Luu family boarded a fishing boat that Brooke’s uncle had built. That was his trade, so it was not peculiar for the guards to see his boat sailing at all hours. But a neighbor realized what the Luu family was up to. The woman begged Brooke’s mother to take her young boy. It was not a threat exactly, but now that they had been found out, they didn’t have much choice.
Brooke’s mother struggled to give her infant the sleeping pill. Everyone below the board lay eerily still, and above, the men exchanged pleasantries with the guards. Any noise, any indication that there were people below deck and the boat would be searched. Brooke’s mother covered her baby’s face and rocked him in her arms.
The guards let the fishing boat go about its business. Everyone exhaled deeply when notified that all was clear for the time being. Shortly afterward, they met a slightly larger boat that was docked in the South China Sea and piled aboard. They were forty refugees and growing. Brooke’s father began to curse at his wife when some of her relatives, who were only supposed to drop off supplies and children, climbed into the boat without the required $500 (half to be paid up front and half when they arrived in Malaysia). Brooke’s dad bitterly paid for them.
Another family—the ones who were supposed to bring the compass—never made it to the boat. No one ever found out what happened to them.
The Luus and the rest of the refugees would have to battle the seas without directional equipment. After three nights adrift, supplies were running low and the sea was getting rough. The boat was clearly off course and panic started to spread like a disease.
A European oil tanker came into view, and the men on the smaller boat begged for rescue. But the oil tanker would not permit them to board. Another large storm was brewing, so the tanker did allow the fishing boat to attach itself. The Luus and the other passengers couldn’t do much more than pray to the gods above.
* * *
According to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, only 650 Vietnamese arrived in the country between 1950 and 1974, mostly the wives and children of U.S. servicemen. In 1975, President Gerald Ford passed the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act, which allowed South Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees to legally enter the United States. By 1980, there were nearly a quarter million Vietnamese on American soil, living among foreign people that sometimes referred to them as gooks, chinks, slant-eyes and slopes. Today, there are nearly two million Vietnamese living in the United States, including naturalized citizens and first- and second-generation Americans.
* * *
The storm passed, and the threat of Thai pirates resurfaced. Pirates were aware of the well-traveled passage from Vietnam to Malaysia, and knew that since Vietnamese money was worthless in other countries, escapees were usually in possession of large quantities of gold.
Robbery, though, was the least of the refugees’ worries. Thai pirates were known to kill men and rape the women. Women were often sold into sex slavery.
When they came upon a boat, the rumors were no longer hearsay. Pirates were heading towards them.
“I didn’t know it at the time,” says Brooke. “But my family was scared. The Thai pirates can’t be negotiated with.”
Seeing the pirates, the oil tanker began to make noise and signal. They gestured for the refugees to board. The pirates ceased their advance.
In a way, the Thai pirates saved the refugees’ lives. “It was common for the oil tanker to see refugee boats,” says Brooke. “So they likely weren’t going to pick us up if not for the threat of the pirates. We likely would have been lost at sea—or worse.”
From there, the family was delivered to Malaysia, where they stayed for six months in a refugee camp. Then to Singapore. Then to the Philippines. All the while waiting for some family, somewhere, to sponsor them and host the Luus in their country.
Slowly friends and acquaintances started leaving the camps. Some were sent to Australia, France, New York, Texas. Anywhere was fine with the Luus. As long as it wasn’t back to Vietnam.
The little boy who had joined them on the boat was sent to Canada. Brooke’s cousin Hahn was told she was going to a place called New Jersey.
“Like that, she was gone,” Brooke says. “I was devastated. I didn’t know if I’d ever see her again.”
The Luus spent two years in a refugee camp, living off rations while sleeping under a straw roof that leaked constantly. The children were placed in bunks and the parents slept on the floor. During the day they took English classes, learning words like bathroom, dog and child. Yet no one spoke English outside the classroom. There was no real reason to.
Most families bartered for luxury items. Brooke’s mother would grow bean sprouts, bamboo shoots and lettuce and trade them for blankets and clothes. Meanwhile, her father and older brother sometimes traded away their food for tobacco.
“They couldn’t work even if they wanted to,” says Brooke. “All we did was sit around and wait. Wait for that day they said we could finally leave.”
Eventually, Brooke’s parents told her they would be going to the United States. A family, through church donations, had arranged for an apartment for them. She was told it was a place far away, quite different from where they had been living. She assumed they were going to take a boat, and was amazed when they boarded a plane for San Francisco.
“We were processed like cattle,” she remembers about this first stop on their way to New Jersey. “Haircuts, vaccinations and new names. I was told I was ‘American now.’ I didn’t know what that meant.”
* * *
Brooke’s parents were Buddhist, as were most people from her region. But given all the support shown to them by the local Christian churches in the refugee camp, they began attending mass. Brooke converted when she was nine, and eventually so did all her siblings. Her parents had no objection.
She remembers her first Christmas that winter in New Jersey. She found it very strange to keep a tree indoors.
“I thought it was completely bizarre,” she says. “Until one day when someone burst into our house and just started handing us presents. That changed my opinion quickly.”
Her conversion to Catholicism can be attributed to Evelyn and Frank Zember, volunteers who worked closely with the Luu family, and whom Brooke would eventually call “grandmother” and “grandfather.”
“They did so much for us,” says Brooke. “We didn’t know how to drive. We had no clothes. We had nothing. They did everything for us. They didn’t have to do anything to help, but they did.”
The Zembers, who had no children of their own, spent countless hours at their Catholic church in New Jersey and were responsible for helping to rescue over fifty families from Vietnam.
“You’re put on this earth for a reason,” Evelyn Zember says. “You better make it count.”
The Zembers had traveled to Saigon in 1975, escorting sixteen babies back to childcare centers in the United States and Canada. At home, Evelyn sponsored as many families as she could, including that of Brooke’s cousin Hahn. To be able to see her cousin again was a dream come true for Brooke.
But after experiencing a harsh New Jersey winter, Brooke’s mother pleaded to move to a warmer climate, and her husband obliged. He had family in Florida, and before long, the Luus were on a plane again. But Brooke never forgot about the family that had brought them to the United States and how much she owed them. She travels to New Jersey every year to visit and talks to Evelyn often.
“She’s taught me a lot about being a good woman,” says Brooke. I’ve still got a lot to learn, but seeing her makes me be a better person.”
Every holiday season, Brooke and her siblings receive a card with money in it. “For luck,” Grandma Evelyn always writes. She has never forgotten a single birthday.
* * *
Settling into life in Florida was not easy. Brooke remembers countless instances when her classmates were quick to tease and harass her and her siblings. They would cackle when she mispronounced words or couldn’t read properly. They told her she didn’t belong. She was a foreigner. Not an American.
“American kids would run up to us and make sounds like ‘ching chang chung’ and other noises,” says Brooke. “As Vietnamese, we didn’t fit. So we clung to each other.”
Brooke’s English took time to develop, especially because her parents spoke Vietnamese at home.
She did what her parents expected and began to fit the “Asian student” stereotype. She was in various honors societies and earned A’s in every class. She didn’t play organized sports, although her younger brothers were allowed to. Instead, she did chores around the house, had a job at age fifteen and helped her mother bake on weekends—a family side business.
“I would have loved to have been involved in sports or been more social, but it wasn’t encouraged,” she says. “Education and taking care of a home—that’s the Asian expectation if you’re a woman.”
By senior year, she wanted more. She began to mingle and make new friends. She started going to the movies.
Brooke became uneasy when she was assigned a boy as a project partner by her physics teacher. When he called her house, Brooke’s mother began questioning who he was and shouted at him. She slammed the phone down and told Brooke that boys were not allowed to call.
When Brooke began seeing her first boyfriend at seventeen, her mother was outraged. Not because he was half-white. Not because he had been in some trouble before, but because Brooke was not supposed to be dating. End of story.
She began to sneak around. The rest of the girls in high school had boyfriends. Why couldn’t she? It was around that time that Brooke started to realize that she was American too. She liked music and television. She told her mother she was going to a friend’s house and instead went to a P.M. Dawn concert. She decided she wanted a career and that she wanted to make her own decisions.
“I finally realized that I deserved this just as much as the next person,” Brooke says.
At the same time she would occasionally feel guilty about her neighbors and relatives who had stayed behind in Vietnam. They would not have the same opportunities. The men would likely farm or fish, and the women would be housewives. Education was not a priority there. Brooke would wonder why she had been so lucky to get out.
* * *
Brooke’s parents did not stay together long after the Luu family arrived in Florida. Within four years, the marriage dissolved.
At first Brooke couldn’t understand the reason for their breakup. But then memories started to come back to her: nights when she would lie in bed in their small Florida apartment while her father would beat his wife in the next room. She remembered that back in their village in Vietnam, her father had whipped her pregnant mother while she held a relative’s newborn. Another time, Brooke’s father complained that his dinner was too salty. Her mother made a suggestion that he cook it himself next time. When he threw the dinner and beat her, she fled the house with her youngest son, fell into a sewer and sliced her legs up.
There were other days like that one. Brooke watched it happen and never knew why, or thought much about it. “That is a way some men treat their wives in Vietnam,” Brooke said. “It’s more about being a servant than a partner.”
Her mother rarely spoke about the escape from Vietnam, but it was all her Dad talked about. He would often complain that he had taken a lot of risk for everyone, including and especially his wife’s family, and had made sacrifices, yet no one seemed grateful.
Brooke says it became hard to connect with her father. While he never raised a hand to her or her siblings, he became bitter and blamed the divorce on his wife. He moved to Connecticut. Brooke doesn’t speak to him much anymore.
“I appreciate what he did for me. What he did for all of us,” says Brooke, but she also says he is the one family member who was never able to move on from Vietnam and adapt to life in the U.S. “The rest of us are just thankful that we made it out alive,” says Brooke. “He needs to let Vietnam go.”
Brooke would marry a Vietnamese man with a similar escape story, but she says that is not what made her fall in love with him.
“We actually did not share our escape stories until years after we were together,” she says. “For other people, it is shocking. To us, it is normal. To be in the United States, if you’re Vietnamese, means you likely escaped. It is not, ‘Did you escape?’ Instead, the question is how and when.”
Brooke did not shy away from Vietnamese men despite her father’s abuse. She knew that not all Vietnamese men were violent, and that some American men could be too. She made the decision to have a traditional Vietnamese wedding, where she wore the traditional ao dai dress and participated in a tea ritual.
“It was important to my mother, and I wanted to pay respect to her for all she has done for me,” says Brooke. “And it became important to me, too, because that is a part of who I am.”
She doesn’t have her father’s phone number and did not invite him to her wedding.
* * *
Brooke attended the University of South Florida and earned a doctoral degree in pharmaceutical studies. She has been a licensed pharmacist for eight years and works for a major retail chain. She is one of the most respected and liked employees at her company. Everyone knows that if they have a question, they ought to ask Brooke.
Some of her customers weren’t terribly hospitable at first. She learned that many Americans were still used to seeing an older white male behind the counter. When they saw a short Asian girl there instead, some looked over her head, and some just turned around and left.
“I would look them dead in the eye and say, ‘I’m available.’ And they would just ignore me and say ‘I’m waiting for Craig.’”
Even after all these years, there are still exceptions. Last year, a Hispanic man’s insurance was rejected for a medication that cost $200. He began badmouthing Brooke’s sister, who is a pharmacist at the same location. He hissed and cursed at her in broken English. “You girls, you should go back to your own country.”
They smiled and wished him a nice day.
Not everyone talks to Brooke that way. Lucky, a Vietnam veteran, is her favorite customer. He comes in often to chat with her. He bonded with her when he found out she was stationed in Japan in the Navy. So was he, he said. Back in ’66. Then he want to ’Nam. He likes to tell her stories about his time there. She listens intently.
When she’s busy, he lingers patiently. Craig tells Lucky he can help him. He shakes his head:
“I’m waiting for Brooke.”
* * *
It took nearly fifteen years for Brooke to return to Vietnam. It was something she felt she had to do. She wanted to see her village again. She wanted to see her house. She wanted to find that river she played in as a child and to relive those cherished memories.
In 1993 she was in Japan, fresh out of boot camp, having joined the Navy before college. The Navy promised her a free education through the GI Bill, and she jumped at the offer. Her older sister was in college, and she knew her brothers would follow. There was no money left for her, so a few months after high school, at the age of eighteen, she had enlisted and began her tour.
Her cousin Hahn told her she would be traveling to Vietnam with her husband and convinced Brooke to join them. She wondered how she would be treated in Vietnam. She was once a villager and now was an American service member. Would they embrace her after the My Lai massacre and other brutalities committed by the American military?
“I tried to block out those stories. I don’t know why so many civilians had to die,” she says. “Becoming a soldier opened my eyes that we [Americans] are not trained to do horrible things. But those things did happen for some reason, and there is no real excuse.”
She was warned not to present herself as part of the American military. She figured it would be easy enough to fit in. She looked like them. She talked like them. If need be, she could dress like them.
But she was not one of them. They knew it. And they let her know it too. Her skin was too well kept. Her hair had not been damaged from the harsh sun. Her Vietnamese was flawed. She had money to buy things.
She was a “Việt Kiều”—Vietnamese in DNA only, because she lived elsewhere.
“I was made to feel like an outsider. They knew right away. Some looked at me in mystery, others with envy,” says Brooke. “I wasn’t disappointed I took the trip, but it wasn’t what I expected.”
Children in the street would beg for money. Brooke and a relative dropped some Vietnamese change into the metal cups of the poor, only to be swarmed by little ones clanking their mugs. After Brooke declined and searched for an exit, she was cursed at and ridiculed by the children. “I tried to help as many as I could, but there has to be a line,” Brooke says. “You can’t help them all, right?”
Finally, she boarded a boat and made the journey to her old village. It was a very long trip. The roads were not really roads, just broken-down paths. The boat pulled ashore and she found the river she’d once played in.
It took a while before she recognized the “bridge” that she used to scale to get across a stream. In reality, it was just a piece of beaten wood. She walked toward her old house, which she heard was given to a government official as soon as her family abandoned it. She saw the sewer hole that her mother fell in. She saw her neighbor’s house. Her family’s home was not nearly as big as she remembered. It looked as if it could fall apart at any moment.
Brooke circled it, processing. She said nothing. She didn’t stay long.
She stumbled upon a green brook that she splashed and laughed in as a little girl. It was more mud than water. She couldn’t even see through it. She scanned for the towering coconut trees she remembered, only to find a few puny ones. The riverbank looked diseased.
In truth, nothing had changed in Vietnam. Everything was exactly the same as it had been years earlier. It was just that her memory had cleansed the river, had grown the trees to the heavens.
She boarded the boat, ready to cast off from her village and head back to her aunt’s house. In a few days, she would be back in Japan as a member of the U.S. Navy. She stared at her village as she sailed back out to sea. She missed home already. She couldn’t wait to smell it and touch it and taste it. She yearned to be back.
America. Florida. Home.
* * *
Matt Huynh is a Vietnamese-Australian artist based in New York City. His comics and sumi-e brush paintings are available at MattHuynh.com.