Forty years ago today, Saigon fell. It is a date engraved upon the hearts of many Vietnamese people, as well as many veterans. If you were old enough to remember, the images of helicopters, crying people with outreached hands, and flames are forever linked to this date. It is thought of as a symbol of leaving, of endings, and for some, of failure. It has been called Black April and rebranded by those in power in Vietnam as National Liberation Day or Reunification Day. My veterans express regret and sorrow about leaving Vietnam like this, mixed with the relief of being able to go home. Some remain haunted by the images of those left behind, bound by the ghosts of the past, while the diaspora are reconciling the Vietnam they left in 1975 with the changes time, politics and money has wrought.
I am too young to remember leaving my birth country. I was a baby in my mother’s arms when we hurriedly boarded the C-130 that would take us to the refugee camps in the Philippines and Guam. As with all immigrant stories, ours is both the same and different from the thousands of other Vietnamese families that came to the US. The date our family left Vietnam was actually April 26, 1975. My parents, grandmother, aunts and I were blessed to leave on an airplane, compared to so many others at the mercy of the seas who fled on boats, though this airplane had been stripped of all of its seats in order to fit as many people on board as possible.
When we finally arrived in the US, my parents set about making a life for all of us, though they had little resources. My father’s first jobs were working for RCA as a repairman, and for a steel mill where he worked until he retired in his late 70s. Because they had only 1 vehicle, my father would drop her off before the bakery opened before the sun rose, recalling today how hard it was to leave her there in the cold darkness alone so that he could make it to his 2 jobs. She made so many pies, that to this day she refuses to make pies from scratch.
She then did back-breaking work in a nursing home, enormously pregnant with my little brother, lifting and bathing patients. Under the watchful eyes of my grandmother and my mother’s two younger sisters, I learned English from watching Shirley Temple movies and Underdog cartoons, and reading Little Golden Books about Cinderella.
Eventually, our family saved enough money to bring my mother’s two brothers and their families here to the US, but not until almost 20 years later, after reeducation camps and deprivation at the hands of the Communists. I had the advantage of growing up in America, with the constant reminder that I had cousins in Vietnam who were not as lucky, and so I, like so many other Generation 1.5 children, was pushed to succeed though hard work and education by my parents, who had left all they knew and loved behind with the hope for a better future for their children. Exactly 22 years later, surrounded by the entire reunited family, I was married on April 26, the date my wedding was changed to through a series of unplanned and unexpected events. Now 40 years later, as a physician assistant, I am serving some of those same veterans without whom I would not have existed. If not for the war in Vietnam, there would have been no need for a Korean firefighter to come to Vietnam. If not for the American army base where my parents worked and met, there would not have been any seats for us on a C-130 to fly us all away from Vietnam.
Today, as we look back on this date, I was struck by the photos of this baby miraculously unearthed from the rubble of the earthquake in Nepal. Pictures of helicopters, outreached hands, and flames are featured on news stories across the internet. Thousands of families have been separated, lost loved ones and their homes, and the date of the earthquake will forever separate their lives into before and after. And in the midst of all of this tragedy, we focus on the life of one small baby, liberated from the dust and ashes, surviving despite the tremendous odds against it.
We rejoice in this story of life arising from the rubble and ruins because we all share stories of liberation, some more dramatic than others, but no less important in the way that they link us all–from the ashes of a fallen city, to a road not taken, a life left behind, and still we learn to build again. True healing begins with that first turning towards the light of home, which is wherever we make it. This then is the true meaning of liberation, not that spun by those who would have us forget the struggles and the sacrifices of those who reached down and pulled us from darkness to true freedom.
Today I am grateful for my parents’ bravery and courage in the face of overwhelming chaos and tremendous odds. I would not be who I am or where I am if not for all of their sacrifices. I am thankful for all of my family and for the astonishing grace of not having lost a single family member to the war. And I pray for all those in Nepal, that someday, they will look back on these days, and be able to say they are stronger for having survived.
Please pray for the many medical and relief workers as they work tirelessly for all those affected by the earthquake, as well as the family members of Marisa Eve Girawong, a physician assistant who was killed there. If you would like to donate, check out the Better Business Bureau’s website which has a list of charities providing aid to Nepal that meet the BBB’s standards of accountability, as well as InterAction Nepal’s website which can allow you to direct your donations to specific needs, such as medicine, food, or shelter.