I often wonder what my life would have been like if I was not a refugee. On the other hand, what would have become of me had I not spent my childhood in a war-torn country, in a war that seemed to be forever a background to my memories?
Those questions, the “what-ifs,” are not for me to contemplate. I would not be able to change history or be born anywhere but Vietnam.
However, it is not to say that my childhood was full of images of war, atrocities, death, mass graves or miseries. There was happiness and joy. I had loved being together with my siblings, catching the wing-shaped leaves of native fruits in front of my house, running wild with the wind and gathering fallen dead sticks and twigs to set up a mischievous campfire.
Being with friends after school wandering the streets of Saigon, enjoying street food, was enough. It was simple, a few moments to let loose, albeit momentarily. Although in hindsight, there was never a complete picture of happiness or joy with sunshine, laughter and contentment, as peace was an important but absent part of that 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. I had never felt fully at ease. I was never completely carefree.
That was before the war ended. When bombing, gunfire and fighting had ceased. Then peace arrived.
Finally, that missing piece was found to replace the empty space in my picture. Horribly and strangely, other pieces began to disappear. Freedom, then prosperity, dignity and kindness were taken away swiftly. They were replaced with oppression, poverty, degradation and revenge that left peace a lonely part in my peculiar jigsaw puzzle, like a pitiful hostess in an empty house full of ghosts. I could not understand it at all. Without realizing it, what I had wished for dearly had destroyed everything I valued most before.
Perhaps it was my fault that my childhood was scarred. My sensitivity and perception of life was too acute back then. Moreover, they still are now. See, I can taste the sweetness of freedom and touch the holy peace every day, every morning now, then feel alive and complete. Years of living with freedom and peace in Australia has transformed my being to accept them readily but not to take them for granted. The scars are my reminders.
I was born with a photographic memory. Some would have said, “You’re lucky!” Indeed, I would proudly have expanded my chest fully and answered, “Yes, I am.” Even though there were images or memories I would gladly let fade away quietly and set me free. Then I could have pretended that I had once been a child living happily and contentedly in a carefree environment with cute baby dolls to play with during the day and sweet dreams every night. Not in a refugee camp, full of sad stories and images that I could have lived without, where I had spent three months when I was 16.
That morning on the crammed boat escaping from Vietnam, I remember standing on the upper deck next to my mother, clinging tightly to her, feeling dejected and full of shame when the Malaysian coast guards shouted angrily at us, shooing our boat away in disgust. The little riverboat, barely 30 feet long and 10 feet wide, had served its life miraculously attempting to deliver 50 people to shore. It then had to resume its journey to some unknown destination because the refugees were not accepted there.
I stood there and cried. Tears of shame and hopelessness were silently rolling down my cheeks as gunshots fired rapidly in the air, scaring the bunch of battered and wearied boat people away. It was only at that moment I had realized I was a stateless person, a nobody, a refugee.
As a small child, I had never understood the real horror and suspense of trying to escape by boat to sea. I was full of hope and anticipation before my departure. I grew up very quickly during that seven-day voyage. I escaped from my country, away from the barbaric treatment of the communists. I survived a sea full of stormy turbulence and remained relatively unscathed from two pirate attacks.
Then the Malaysian authority refused to let our boat anchor on their shore. I could not understand the coast guards’ language but their gesticulations were enough. I was rejected! An equally devastating feeling of hopelessness had resurfaced, as much as when my boat was rolling madly like a tiny egg in a giant boiling saucepan in the storms a few days ago.
Why must I leave my country? Were freedom and peace worthy of my sacrifice?
Those were the questions that I dared to answer. Without gaining freedom and peace — followed by human rights, dignity and the hope of prosperity — my life would have been a waste. I would have felt miserable being a refugee for nothing. Indeed, I am glad that I have been a refugee once in my life. Mind you, once is enough!
The experience came with a high price. For some, the ultimate price, including death by drowning at sea. Or witnessing family members raped, murdered by pirates; or being stranded for months on an island and becoming a cannibal to survive.
I am lucky that I am here right now.
Back then there were times I thought I was not. I was miserable. Assimilating into a new country with nothing familiar to the old world I had left behind was a struggle. I cringed every time thinking if I had to do it again. It was no fun at all and that added to my lost childhood years. I would love to be 16 again as an Australian, but definitely not a refugee. There were times I thought I would like to keep my old world with me, to go home, or to “go back to your country,” as I was told many times in the beginning by the locals.
It hurt and I cried a lot, being the silly, sensitive person I was.
In hindsight, I now know a refugee must take that obvious path. Just like a book with a prologue, a main story and an epilogue. I must take various paths and go through various chapters to re-establish myself. It was not fun in some chapters, but I think I can differentiate happiness and grief philosophically now!
Gradually, I was accepted and I often reminded myself that I could not possibly be comfortable and at ease in my newly adopted homeland until I acclimated successfully. I was uprooted from my familiar-though-wretched environment and I needed time to get accustomed to my new land to grow stronger. It was not easy. I had to make efforts to stay afloat. There were language, cultural and social barriers that seemed so bizarre to me, probably as much as the locals viewed mine.
There were times I thought I had lost my identity and I tried desperately to retain it by keeping everything the way it was. However, time passes, and so I have evolved. I have become a Vietnamese-Australian to the extent that I cannot go “home” because home is now here. I lost my identity as a Vietnamese, but I have gained a different one.
There were times when that concept was not visible to me. I felt confused. Now, I am proud of my heritage but I no longer need to be a Vietnamese, because I am not living in Vietnam. There is no more pressure for me, and I am glad of my new identity, as I do not want my children to go through my experience. They should not have to struggle with that disorientation. They are Australians. They must feel like Australians with the local language, culture, and social rules even though those are less bizarre to me now.
I would not want my children to feel alienated in their own home. They are Australians, luckier and richer with an extra bonus heritage in their background.
CieCie Tuyet Nguyen was born in Saigon and witnessed its fall in 1975 when she was 13 years old. After continuing to live there for three years under the communist regime, she escaped with her family by boat to Malaysia in 1978. After staying in a Pulau Besar Refugee camp for three months, she resettled in Sydney, Australia, where she has remained ever since. She graduated with a bachelor of pharmacy in 1985 from Sydney University and has operated her own pharmacy since 1989. Nguyen has self-published two short stories and memoirs in Vietnamese, one in 2011 and one in 2016. “Shock Peace: The Search for Freedom” is her first novel. For more information about “Shock Peace,” please visit Nguyen’s website or Facebook page.