Today marks the 32nd anniversary of the fall of Saigon, Vietnam, to Communist forces. I commemorate this event for its impact on my own life. As a young college student in 1985 I found myself immersed in Sacramento’s exploding community of Vietnamese refugees. We were classmates and friends. They invited me to their homes, their parties, and their magnificent weddings. At school they helped me with math and science, and I helped them with English and other subjects. I remember admiring the Vietnamese engineering students who carried their huge black and yellow calculus books around campus, and thinking to myself “I’ll carry one of those books someday.” Sure enough, after much struggle with mathematics, I did carry one of those books and met my future wife in Calculus-II. Deo gratias.
I learned much from my Vietnamese friends and their families. The men were masculine, the women were feminine, and the children were innocent; they had large extended families and the children respected their elders; they tended to be religious and pro-life; they listened to classical music; they had incredible work and study habits; they were polite, well mannered, and dressed conservatively; they were anti-communist warriors; they loved America and were proud defenders of the West. In short, they provided me with a standard of “normal” where American culture was failing miserably.
Although politically pro-Western, they were deeply loyal to their homeland and seemed always to be plotting a triumphant return to Vietnam. This loyalty of theirs inspired, in me, a loyalty to my own homeland that I had never really felt before. Doan Van Toi, a Vietnamese exile and author of “Vietnamese Gulag”, ended his book with an exhortation for native-born Americans to renew their love and appreciation for their own culture. He, an outsider, could see the beauty and strength of our civilization, but he was disappointed to find that most Americans took it all for granted and seemed dangerously indifferent to the treasures they inherited. I’ve taken his words to heart.
The Fall of Saigon was an unmitigated calamity. The bloodbath was just beginning. After South Vietnam fell, so went the dominos of Laos and Cambodia. A wave of diabolical persecution swept Southeast Asia. Millions perished attempting to escape the fanatical cruelty of Communism. My father-in-law was himself imprisoned for four years in a secret re-education camp where he was severely beaten and tortured. They told him – falsely – that his wife had married a communist official, but he never believed them and his family never stopped looking for him. He was eventually released, but spies were everywhere, his family was in perpetual danger, and he was always in fear of being arrested again. As an officer in the South Vietnamese Navy he had acquired some maritime skills. In 1981 he launched a rickety boat, in the middle of the night, into the South China Sea and sailed for the Philippines with his own family and several others. By the grace of God they were rescued by a Filipino fishing crew before the pirates could get to them.
Above the Buddhist altar in my wife’s family home is a grainy, shadowy photograph of what appears to be a female figure in the sky above stormy waters. This mysterious Lady was observed by thousands of refugees as they sailed across perilous seas. The Buddhists think she is a goddess of some sort, their divine protectress. Not long after the photo was taken, in a crowded refugee camp in the Catholic Philippines, a young Vietnamese Buddhist girl was asked to play the Blessed Virgin Mary in a theatre production of the Nativity. Little did she know …
They say that every cloud has a silver lining. The dark, evil cloud over Saigon on April 30, 1975, generated a silver lining that now shines brightly throughout the world in the lives of many Vietnamese exiles and their families – especially one family I happen to know, in far-away northern California, whose members are particularly blessed.