Chapter 3 Heaven Loud, pleading voices were the first sounds we heard when dawn broke. A beautiful, vibrantly red and perfectly round sun slowly rose above the dark horizon, as our men begged the police to let them come ashore. It looked unreal; it seemed like I was watching a movie, a thrilling Technicolor spectacle. I would have been happier had Dad and the uncles been with us. I was saddened by the desperate look on Dad's face as he waved to us. None of the men looked as if they had slept. The police ignored our men’s entreaties, and glared back stonily. They continued to aim their guns in the direction of the boat. With the language barrier, the police must have thought our men wanted to start trouble. Minutes later, the Head of Police drove up in his jeep and conversed with our representative, Jo Vinh. This time, the man quickly responded to Jo Vinh and ordered his men to go down to our boat. A few police boarded with guns still in their hands. Some entered the cabin as some stood guarding on deck to shoot if our men made the slightest movement. Soon the police who had entered the cabin returned to deck and reported back to their superior. He walked to his jeep and picked up the CB radio. After he finished speaking, he returned to the edge of the pier and spoke with Jo Vinh. From the look on Jo Vinh’s face, I could tell it was good news. His smile and the light in his eyes spoke for him even before he began to translate what was said to him. Dad and the uncles climbed onto the dock. We were so joyful to see them that we kissed and hugged the men tightly. Dad now crouched beside us, awaiting orders like everyone else. “So what did you guys do to the boat last night?” Mom asked accusingly. The police could not understand Cantonese or Vietnamese, so Mom spoke freely. I didn’t care why Dad and the uncles were allowed to disembark. I was happy that they were safe with us. “What do you mean?” Dad grinned sneakily. “I’ve been your wife for many years now. You blink and I know what you’re up to.” “Really,” Dad smiled charmingly, jerking his brows. Mom rocked the twins, Kim and Ngan, back and forth. “It’s obvious these police wouldn’t suddenly change their minds and feel sympathetic toward us… they wouldn’t have risked letting all the men board the pier, unless something’s wrong with the boat.” “Last night, the captain gathered all of us men for a meeting in the cabin,” Dad began as he shot glances here and there. “He told us to bore holes in the hull of the 217; he believed blaming the damage on the Thai pirates, was our only option. He hoped the holes would make the police pity us and not force us to leave the island. With limited fuel and food, torn maps, and a broken compass, he didn’t think we could reach America. Since we would certainly die if we were forced to depart under such impossible circumstances, he said the gamble was worth taking and we agreed with him.” “So that’s what you guys did the entire night? You made holes in the boat?” Mom asked. “Pretty much… and you probably think it would be easy from the look of that crappy boat. You can’t imagine how difficult it was to make even a single hole. Since we did not want the boat to sink while we were still on it, the captain instructed that we make the holes sufficient to let water in yet give us time to leave.” “I’m glad that we’re not forced to leave,” Mom sighed with relieved. “Me too… me too.” Dad took one of the twins from Mom. Jo Vinh announced, “The police have agreed to let us stay on the island until further notice. You are to gather what’s most important and bring it along.” Mom immediately told us to collect water from the puddle near where we had been resting. The huge puddle seemed to consist of rainwater. It looked clean and clear and did not taste too bad. Actually, anything would have tasted marvelous after the lack of fluids we had since the first robbery, when the pirates had emptied out a lot of our water bottles in search of gold. Since then, Mom had instructed us, “Drink as little water as possible. We have no way to know how long our journey will be.” I saw little kids peeing into the other end of the puddle. In my childish disgust, I refused to collect anymore water. Mom came over and asked, “And why aren’t you collecting water?” I told her what I had seen and she
said, “Well, urine won’t kill you but dehydration will… if you draw the water fast enough, there will be no contamination. Go on. Fill the bottles.” I did as I was told. As we were busy fetching water, we watched a rusty ship, which dwarfed the 217, towing our boat away into the distant haze. Jo Vinh ordered everyone to follow him. During our walk, I overheard people complaining about their luggage being searched when they were sleeping on the pier. They claimed that some of their valuables had been stolen. Some griped about losing watches, while others had lost necklaces, rings, earrings, rubies, jade, and diamonds. One father grumbled and scowled with disgust, saying, “My life savings survived two pirate raids yet were unable to escape the hands of the police.” “Just bite your tongue and accept the loss. The bottom line is that we can’t do shit,” a husband advised his wife shrewdly. “We can always make money in the future to buy jewelry. At least, we are together and alive.” But the wife still looked upset. “The police have guns. We have empty stomachs. I wonder who is going to win?” another man said bitterly. Nobody mentioned the theft to Jo Vinh. At least, I didn’t hear my parents talking about hearing anyone complain to Jo Vinh. Even if he knew, there was nothing he could have done anyway. We would have to rely on these islanders to survive… who dared to ruffle their tempers? My family was thankful that nothing was stolen from our luggage; but then again, we were carrying nothing valuable. We just had damp clothes and a few bottles of medicine with us. After a fifteen minute walk, we reached our destination. It was a beautiful spot. On the left side, there was azure water and a sparkling beach of white sand, teeming with crabs. The sky was blue. The sun was bright. Seagulls whirled and called in the balmy air. To the right was a gorgeous rain forest, gaily decked with giant trees and wild flowers and shimmering with the lush, tropical colors of butterflies and birds. We were enthralled. After six long, harsh days since our departure from Vietnam, this was the first time I saw genuinely warm smiles on people’s faces. Jo Vinh told us to settle in and warned us that we were prohibited from wandering, especially into the forest. If we did not cooperate, we would be forced to return to our boat. Obviously he thought we were dumb. How could we possibly be forced back on the boat? Wasn’t the reason the men were allowed to board the pier that the boat was going to sink? Most of the police now rode away, leaving only a few guards to watch us. My family, like most of the passengers of the 217, sat on the soft sand to relax, to breathe, and to enjoy the incredible view. We stretched, chatted, and munched on crackers. Minutes later, the men in our family left to see what they could find on the island. Jo Vinh did not tell us how long we would be allowed to stay, so the adults wanted to be prepared. After Dad and the uncles left, Mom and Aunty Tam began to unpack our baggage. They wanted us kids to spread the damp clothes out to dry. Fong, Kuang and I were dying to swim in the inviting ocean, but we knew we should help Mom first. We opened the luggage: the clothes smelled bad, yet not horrible enough that they required washing. We laid the clothes in the sun. Soon Dad and the uncles returned, carrying big planks of wood found nearby. Each one was about six by six inches wide and six feet long. They dropped the planks down into the sand and the dust flew everywhere, making some of us cough. Dad explained to Mom, “We can use them to make a bed.” So the women and children lined up the planks on the uneven, sandy surface. They were very heavy for us, yet we managed to align all the boards to form one bed. We put up our mosquito net tent, tying the corners with ropes to the trees nearby. Since my immediate family, with six kids and two adults, comprised the larger portion of our group, Aunty Tam and the uncles told us to keep the makeshift house. For their dwelling, they brought back sheets of rusted metal, broken pails, sheets of plastic and wood, and anything and everything they could find nearby. Once they finished unloading their findings, we lined up the sheets of plywood on the ground and set up the mosquito netting. We placed the plastic sheets on the side to use as walls and the metal sheets above for the ceiling. Although the two shelters were simply constructed, they proved durable. Later that night, heavy rain and wind beat down until it sounded as if our roof would collapse, but all we had made remained firm. The noise was disturbing. The rain splashed on all sides, getting us wet. At times, it was impossible to sleep. Cold and frightened by the thunder, I felt chilled to the bone. Thankfully, our home was so small that I was comforted by
the close proximity of my older siblings. I could not imagine going through such a night alone. As with anything in life, I became braver after the first, fearful experience. Soon the lightning, thunderstorms, and raging winds ceased to scare me. Why should I be scared? My beloved family was always beside me. After many bad storms, we learned to enjoy them. We would stay up and chat as we used pails to contain the rainwater, which was saved and later used for cooking. We looked around our home and smiled. Considering the few resources we had, and the family’s lack of experience in building shelters, we had done a magnificent job, without even using a nail! While the men in the family continued to wander around the island in the hope of finding more material with which to furnish our new homes, we tried to beautify our surroundings. We laid our luggage neatly in one corner to conserve space. We used some unwanted wet clothes to sweep sand off our bed and to clean the surface. By noontime it was very humid and we were exhausted, but no one complained. We added more sheet metal to the ceiling, rearranged the plastic sheets in the walls to assure there were no holes, and adjusted the wooden beds so that they were more even. What had been a deserted land quickly became a campground with improvised living quarters springing up around us. Every home had a stone fireplace, and clotheslines made from ropes were tied between trees. The Head of Police drove by with a benign look on his face. He seemed to be impressed with our efforts. He stopped and conferred with Jo Vinh, who was smiling as they spoke. Jo Vinh asked the men to go along with him and the police to bring back food supplies. Our diet had consisted of dried cookies, crackers and Chinese chips for so long that the mere mention of the word “food” made us jump for joy. Dad and the uncles left happily with the other men. After they had gone, Mom asked Phuong, Cong, Fong, Kuang and me to gather small branches with which to prepare a fire. We were thrilled to finally get a chance to explore the island. With great excitement, I walked toward the green, beckoning forest, along with my older siblings and cousins. Along the way, we were utterly captivated by the wild flowers and exotic birds. Instead of collecting tree branches, we chased after the birds and grasshoppers. We had more luck catching the grasshoppers than the birds, so we made a contest out of it, competing to see who could catch the biggest one. We were having so much fun that we lost track of the time. When we saw the men walking back to the campground, we quickly gathered branches and started running. Luckily, kindling was abundant and we returned with enough or we would have been punished. I had forgotten how hungry I was in all the fun, but when I reached home, my stomach was growling loudly. To my great dismay, Dad and the uncles had returned more or less empty handed. They carried only the wet clothing, which the pirates had scattered on the deck during the raid, with some pots, pans and bags of rice. The police had led us to believe we would be given some provisions and food, but instead they had taken the men out to the boat to gather what was left of our belongings. With sad expressions, the men dumped the wet clothes in one pile and stacked the damp rice in another. While the men rested, the women claimed their clothes and pushed to be first in line for the rice. The rice was divided equally per person, with children receiving the same ration as adults. We had the most rice, since there were nineteen people in the family. Not knowing how long we were going to stay on the island, Mom and Aunty Tam used only a very little of the rice to cook porridge. The entire family waited anxiously next to the fire while the meal was prepared. The wood was stubborn; Mom and Aunty Tam’s faces got sooty from blowing on the fire so close to its source. The smoke sometimes was so hot and thick that tears and sweat dripped simultaneously from their faces. Soon the fire crackled and glowed. In no time, the soupy rice was ready. Mom served the steaming rice porridge in damaged cans, bowls or anything that could be used as a bowl that we had found on the island. It was the first hot meal we had had for days. Even though it was nothing more than water and rice, it was the best hot porridge I had ever eaten. The fact that the water had come from a puddle contaminated by urine did not even bother me. The watery rice soup tasted so good that we all went for seconds. While we ate, Dad told Mom as though he were surprised, “The boat’s still in good shape. There’s very little water inside it, despite the punctured hull.” “We’re pretty lucky that boat didn’t sink. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have anything to eat,” Mom said thankfully. “At least we have a hot meal. Anh, Kim and Ngan sure need it. Thank God, the children didn’t get sick drinking the cold milk.”
“I honestly thought that the police were taking us to get food,” Dad said disappointedly. “Same here, but at least we have soupy rice instead of just dried crackers,” Mom looked at Dad. “I guess…” After eating, the adults cleaned up and the children were told to go to bed. Fong tucked in sister Anh, three, and the twins, Kim and Ngan, barely two. They were exhausted, and fell asleep instantly without crying for Mom. Since Fong, Kuang, and I did not have to baby-sit, we lay on our backs and counted stars. The wooden planking was as comfortable as the red mahogany beds we had at home. When Mom and Dad came inside for the night, they asked, “Why aren’t the three of you sleeping yet?” Before we could answer, they ordered us to close our eyes. Since the youngest were asleep they did not shout, but insisted softly that the three of us needed to get to sleep early, in order to wake up early and help them with the chores. When Mom went back out, my curiosity got the better of me and I peeked. She had brought in the clothes that had been hanging to dry. Dad took out a Swiss pocketknife and cautiously unthreaded one side of the collar of each shirt. After doing the same to all the shirts, they removed small squares of neatly folded green paper. I could see them clearly by the firelight. I would later find out that those green papers hidden so secretly were hundred-dollar bills. Dad pulled out a little black pouch from his underpants. He must have removed the bag the night the family had slept on the pier, while he and the uncles remained on the boat. He rolled the hundred dollar bills, cigarette fashion, and put them in the black bag. He handed it to Mom and she hid it inside her pants. When they looked in my direction, I quickly closed my eyes. Suddenly, we heard someone scream. Mom, Dad, Fong, Kuang, and I ran out to see what had happened. Uncle Chu was yelling and cursing. His right hand was covering his forehead, and he was furiously stomping on a centipede. Aunty Tam explained, “A centipede crawled inside his hat and bit him when he put it on.” Dad fetched a stick from the fire and lit a cigarette. He told Uncle Chu, “Remove your hand from the forehead so I can cauterize the bite with the cigarette. It will counteract the toxin.” Uncle Chu stared at Dad as if he were joking. Dad spoke with an air of seriousness, reminding Uncle Chu. “We have no doctors here to go to. We are our own doctors.” The bite mark was small, puffy, and bleeding slightly. When Dad put his lit cigarette on it, Uncle Chu shouted even more loudly. His teeth were clenched so tightly that the veins on his neck bulged visibly. It must have been very painful; tears fell from his face. When the cigarette was completely extinguished, Mom took it from Dad’s hand. She removed the tobacco and placed it on the injured area to staunch the wound and kill the bacteria. As Mom was helping Uncle Chu, Fong, Kuang and I examined the centipede. We had never seen a centipede before and were disappointed that Uncle Chu had killed it. Even though the centipede was badly flattened, we could still see what it looked like. It was about six inches long and a half-inch wide with a dark red body and a lot of little legs. It did not look that scary, but I definitely would not want to be bitten by it. After we flipped the insect over to examine it, our parents ordered us back into the tent to get some sleep. Minutes later, when Mom and Dad came in, my eyes were closed, yet I was still awake. They did not say anything. I wanted to open my eyes to see whether my older siblings were asleep, but I did not want to risk being caught. Soon, the soothing rhythm of the waves on the shore and the ceaseless chirping of the crickets eased my worries and lulled me to sleep. A Glorious Morning Dad, Fong, Kuang, and I awoke early the next morning, in time to see another beautiful sunrise. The gorgeous deep blue sky, the fresh ocean air, the sonorous harmony of birds, wind, and waves delighted us. In my ultimate fantasy, I pictured myself always waking up in such a rich and peaceful environment. We met up with Grandpa Tang, Phuong, Cong, and the uncles. The ten of us went down to the beach in search of food, while the women stayed behind to care for the youngsters and cook more soupy rice. Early morning was the best time to hunt for crabs, as Dad had explained to us. There were blue crabs everywhere. We chased them as they quickly ran back into their little sandy holes. Dad put his right hand into one of the holes. He rapidly pulled his hand out with the crab dangling from his bloody finger. He cursed and flipped the crab forcefully onto the ground. The crab was stunned and Dad put it
in his pail. He bravely sucked the blood from his finger and spat onto the ground. We continued running after the crabs, but after Dad’s experience we didn't reach our hands into the holes. Instead, we gently stirred the holes with sticks so that the crabs would not be crushed. If the crab was crushed, sand would get inside the meat, and since it was too difficult to clean out the sand, we would have to throw the crab away. We were in no condition to afford that kind of waste. Although we filled our buckets quickly, Dad wanted to keep looking for food. The farther we walked, the more crabs we saw. Since our buckets were already full, we did not try to catch them. Then we noticed seagulls eating some fish a short distance away. We ran and scared the birds away. We examined the fish and kept the ones that were fresh, those with no worms inside. Dad took off his shirt and put the fish in it. He wrapped it the way he wrapped our luggage. After tying many knots, he flung it over his right shoulder. On our way back, we saw two fishermen in a little wooden boat sailing close by the shore. They waved at us and gave us hand signals to come over. We walked over. Unable to communicate with them, we just smiled. They probably knew that we were refugees because they did not try to speak either. One fisherman held up a piece of fish meat and gave us hand signals to come get it. They must have seen us picking up dead fish and felt sorry for us. Dad and the uncles walked out to their boat, which floated about five feet above the water. They gave us a few pieces of baby shark meat and a bag full of tiny fish. The meat was incredibly fresh and still dripping with blood. We turned to the fishermen and, with a nod and a wave, thanked them for their generosity. The fishermen smiled broadly. We saw people from other families hauling buckets and heading down to the beach as we came close to home. Dad told Phuong, Cong, Fong, Kuang and me to look. “Laun yun,” (Lazy people) he said. “The sun has already come out… the crabs will already be hiding in their holes if they have not gone back into the ocean. If you don’t want to starve, you better not be like them.” When they neared us, the first words out of their mouths were, “Whoa… where did you catch so many crabs?” “They’re everywhere on the beach,” Dad humored them. Mom, Aunty Tam and Grandma Ho were pleased with the results of our expedition. We handed them the crabs and fish, and headed back down to the beach for our first bath. We jumped into the ocean with our clothes still on. Even though it was cold, we loved it. We splashed water at each other and giggled. Phuong, Fong, and I did not know how to swim, so we stayed close to the shore and watched Dad, the uncles, Cong, and Kuang swim farther out. Cong and Kuang made faces, mocking and teasing the three of us. I was envious. I wanted to be out there with Cong and Kuang, doing what they were doing, climbing on each other’s shoulders and standing straight before diving into the water. I was short, timid and weak compared to them, and I was always reminded of it, yet I did not like being left out. My body ached from wanting to be free like them. Mom came down to the beach to call us for breakfast. Phuong, Fong and I were the first back, since we had stayed on shore. We made faces at Cong and Kuang to let them know they were the true losers, since we would be the first to eat. We rushed over to the fire, on which rested a huge pot. The wonderful smell made my stomach rumble in anticipation. Mom handed Fong and me bowls of rice gruel with crabs. I took a quick sip. It was hot and I had to spit it back out. It burned the roof of my mouth and my tongue. Mom looked at me. “You know to slow down now that your mouth got burnt,” she said matter-of-factly. But I was too hungry. I stirred and blew at the soup. Soon enough the soup was cool. It was delicious, magnificently sweet and the fresh crabmeat substituted for our salt and pepper. It tasted better than any expensive abalone and shark fin soup. After removing all the meat and eggs from the crab shell, I sucked and chewed the legs. Nothing was wasted. It was too good to leave anything over. I was so hungry I went for seconds and thirds. I ate so much that when I was done, I was too full to even stand up and wash my filthy hands and face. In my satiated state, I slumped against a huge tree trunk. Mom, Dad, the uncles, and Aunty Tam all made fun of me. I was embarrassed and covered my ears. That afternoon, Mom and Aunty Tam scattered the bag of little fish on a plastic sheet in order to make dried salt-fish, or anchovies, a common Chinese side dish eaten with rice porridge. The strong smell of the fish
attracted flies. Mom told us to keep the flies away. But, since it would take days for the fish to dry completely, this would be impossible. She understood and told us to clean the fish in the ocean when they were ready instead. After helping Mom, Dad wanted Phuong, Cong, Fong, Kuang and me to follow him along with the uncles into the forest in search of more food. The forest was exquisite. The moist smell of rotting wood and the dank, muddy scent of the jungle reminded me of the first time we had explored the suffocating lower quarters of the 217, where the single men had stayed. The sounds here were very different from those heard on the beach. The screaming of the monkeys, the chirping of the birds, the crawling of the wild animals through bushes and the crackling of dead leaves under our feet made me feel as though someone were watching our every move. I was scared and walked between Fong and Kuang and distracted myself by chatting with my older siblings and cousins about the exotic flowers and birds. Dad stopped to rest near a muddy pond. Kuang noticed small fish swimming in the pond. If there were small fish, there must be larger fish there as well. Since we had not brought our buckets along, Dad decided to search the pond the next day, when we could be more prepared. “Of course,” he said, “We have to keep the discovery to ourselves; if not, our hungry neighbors will beat us to it.” We continued walking until Dad spotted bunches of pennywort leaves growing near some enormous trees. Pennywort is an herb that the Chinese believe cools down the human body. It is beneficial in the summer, and that is also the best time to harvest the leaves. Dad told us, “Pick only the leaves that are heart-shaped, and leave the root intact. This way, we can come back for more.” We did as we were told and collected only the leaves, while Dad went to pee behind some bushes. When he came back, he told us excitedly, “I’ve discovered a well.” But because we did not have buckets with us, Dad wanted to return for water the next day. We raised the lower ends of our shirts, making pockets in which we could carry back our herbs. We made fun of each other since we all looked pregnant. To have more fun, we mimicked the way in which pregnant women walked. Dad laughed hysterically. “Sor gar,” (Crazy) he said. Mom cleaned the pennywort leaves, while Aunty Tam placed a pot of water onto the fire. When the water boiled, Mom dumped the pennywort leaves into the pot. When boiled, the leaves gave off a strong smell. Aunty Tam placed the uncooked rice and shark meat into the boiling water. The resulting soup was delicious. The fish meat was wonderfully succulent and fresh. The combination of shark meat and pennywort leaves gave the soup a subtle, savory flavor. As usual, I went for two more helpings. It tasted too good to give in to feeling full. If the pot had not been emptied, I would even have gone for a fourth. I was so tired after dinner that I went back into the tent to sleep without needing to be told. Far too soon, I felt someone tapping on my back. I slowly opened my eyes to see Grandpa Tang's head leaning into our tent. I knew it was time to do the morning chores. Even though I preferred to sleep a little more, I knew I had to go or Dad would be angry. I tiptoed out of the tent quietly, since Anh, the twins, Kim and Ngan, and Mom were still sleeping. Dad, the uncles, Grandpa Tang, my older siblings, and cousins were already waiting for me with buckets in hand. I thought Dad would be mad at me for being late, and I did not dare look at him. When our eyes eventually met, he smiled. I was relieved, and for once I did not mind being the youngest of the group. If my older siblings or cousins had been late, they would have been yelled at and punished. We walked down to the beach and washed our faces in the ocean. The chilly water was bracing; now I was completely awake. We did not have to brush our teeth, because our toothbrushes had been left on the boat. Instead we rinsed our mouths with the ocean water, assuming the salt would kill any bacteria. Again, we went to catch crabs. They ran fast but not fast enough. We used our sticks to whack at them. Usually the crabs were rendered unconscious or dead. However, some of them were clever; they pretended to be dead but when we grabbed them they pinched us. At first it was painful, but soon I was able to tolerate it. Mom was frightened when she saw our hands covered with blood from the pinches. She wrapped our hands with torn cloth, and told us in her concerned voice to be careful. She would ask us tenderly, “Does it hurt?” Just to make her smile, we would cockily tell her that it was no more painful than a mosquito bite. By now all of us had mosquito bite marks on our bodies.
The most memorable scene was watching Grandma Ho run after crabs. She might have been old but she was spry. Once she saw an unusually large crab scrambling back into the sea. She ran after it and a big wave nearly knocked her down. With her bare hands, she scooped the big crab out of the ocean. We ran over to help her, but she did not need us. She stepped on the crab with her bare feet and mashed it deep into the sand. She cursed at the crab, carefully picked it up, and chucked it into a bucket. We all laughed, while Dad and Grandpa Tang yelled at her for being so crazy, saying “You’re not young anymore and could have hurt yourself!” Grandma Ho walked faster, just like we kids did when we were criticized, so she did not have to listen to their nagging. Turning to us, she smiled. She was courageous, tough, and feisty. We still tell this story today whenever her name is mentioned. When we arrived home, we handed the crabs over to Mom and Aunty Tam. The rice porridge was boiling, just waiting for the crabs to give it flavor. Mom and Aunty Tam cleaned them with as little fresh water as possible, because we were running short. They poured the crabs into the pot and the aroma made me hungry once again. When the meal was served this time I did not rush after, having experienced the burns on the roof of my mouth and tongue. I blew at it, stirred it and soon enough it was ready. Every bite was as succulent and delicious as the previous one. It was becoming my habit to eat until I stuffed myself. I relaxed for a bit until my older siblings and cousins wanted to play in the meadow. Exotic birds caught our eyes. We followed them, hoping they would land on the ground so we could catch them. After a long wait, some birds eventually landed on the ground. We ran after them from behind, but they flew away instantly. My older siblings thought of an idea. We placed a pail upside-down on the ground. We tied a stick to one end of a string, and with it we propped open a space big enough for a bird trap. We hid in the bushes and held the other end of the string, planning to pull the string and snare the birds as they entered. Our trap did not work. The birds were too smart for us. They did not fly close to the pail, even when we used dried salt-fish as bait. We gave up soon after many unsuccessful attempts, and decided to hunt grasshoppers and crickets instead. Grasshoppers were everywhere, and they were easy to catch. Because it was so easy, we tired quickly of the game. Crickets were more fun in Vietnam. When we put two crickets in a bowl, they would fight. We bet money and sometimes snacks on the outcome of their fights. But the crickets on the island were a disappointment. They were larger and had long strong legs, but they were losers. They lacked any fighting spirit. When placed in a bowl, they would only parade around, showing off their beautiful deep bright skin. We got mad and pushed them against each other. It made no difference. They were too civilized, so we just let them go. Mom called for us, so we let all the grasshoppers go free and ran back to the camp. When we got there, Mom handed us some pails and told us that Dad and the uncles had been waiting for us to catch the fish. When they met up with us, Dad was angry. “Didn’t I tell the five of you that we were going to search the pond for fish today? Why were you guys playing in the meadow and making me wait?” Dad wanted a response but none of us dared say a word. Instead we looked at the ground. “Food doesn’t just land on our hands. The next time I say something, you listen. Have I made myself clear?” We nodded and silently followed Dad and the uncles into the forest. When we got there, we set down our pails and waited for Dad’s instructions. Since we had no fishing poles, no one knew what to do. The pond was not very deep, so Dad suggested, “Why don’t we divide the pond into two sections. There’s already an enormous tree trunk in the middle. All we have to do is collect pieces of dead tree branches and add them to the existing tree trunk.” We jumped into the pond and piled up the tree branches as instructed. Then we daubed mud over them, creating a beaver-like dam. We scooped water from one side of the pond to the other. It was not long before we began to see results. We bailed faster and faster until half the pond was nearly dry and we could see the fish flipping their tails. We scrambled excitedly after them. The fish slipped from our hands until we were covered in mud from head to toe. We were a little disappointed to have caught only a few fish. “There have got to be more fish hiding in the mud,” Uncle Dony said. So we searched holes on the dredged side of the pond with sticks. Uncle Dony was right; we did find more fish, but we also disturbed a water snake, which jumped out of its hole. Uncle Dony, who uncovered the snake,
was startled and fell into the mud. Dad, Uncle Yi Jieng, and Uncle Chu ran over to help him. The snake was about two feet in length, at least three times larger than the fish we had caught. Phuong, Cong, Fong, Kuang, and I screamed as we climbed out of the pond. The men chased after the snake, cornered it, and bludgeoned it with sticks. When we went over to look, the snake was dreadfully mutilated — squished flat with blood splattered everywhere. Their furious effort left the men gasping for air. “It’s time to head home. We have enough fish for one or two meals,” Dad said with an air of contentment, though he was still short of breath. We collected our things and ambled home. The fish were black, plump, and very meaty. They struggled vigorously to escape. The adults would not let us kids carry the pails. They were careful handling the fish so that they could not jump out. When we got home, the sun was just beginning to set… the beautiful yellow sun set behind the purplish, reddish, bluish sky. Mom told us to wash up before it was too dark, and too dangerous, to swim in the high waves. The water was terribly cold. By the time I was done, my entire body was covered with goose bumps and my nose was running. For dinner I was handed a bowl of soup. There was very little rice left, so Mom used all the pennywort leaves and made fish soup. The freshwater fish tasted muddy and smelled like mulch. Without the pennywort leaves, the soup would have been inedible. Mom was concerned because we were running short of rice. Dad told her not to worry — we had caught enough fish, if used wisely, to last us two meals. Besides, we could always catch more crabs. He tried to reassure her, but with no success. She continued to frown, telling him, “We’re also short of fresh water.” At that moment, a loud scream caught our attention. We put our bowls down and ran over to our neighbor’s shelter. A centipede had bitten their nine-year-old daughter, who was crying uncontrollably. Her parents talked softly to her, trying to get her to stop crying. Dad went over to the little girl’s father and showed him how to clean out the poison. Dad suggested the same treatment we had applied to Uncle Chu. The little girl’s father lit a cigarette, put a wadded cloth into her mouth, and instructed her to bite on it when the pain became severe. When he pressed the cigarette on the bite, near her ankle, tears dripped wildly from her eyes. She let out a loud scream and in doing so spit the cloth on the ground. Her tortured face and bloodshot eyes frightened me. I definitely didn’t want to be bitten by a centipede and then have a lit cigarette burn me. Painful screams became so commonplace that we heard them almost every night. We decided that we no longer needed to be nosy neighbors and would not go to their homes to see what was wrong. We simply smiled and said, “Oh no, someone’s being bitten by a centipede again.” We went into our tent while the adults cleaned up and made plans for the future. Fong, Kuang, and I disliked it when the adults talked about the future. We much preferred that they told us mythology and ghost stories. The three of us had formed an even stronger bond, since our parents had to devote most of their attention to the younger children, Anh, Kim and Ngan. Sharing our silly secrets, or counting stars, we would never go right to sleep. Sometimes we made plans for what we would do when we did not have to help our parents. We whispered and giggled into the night. One night, I felt something slither across my hand. I jumped up and screamed so loudly that I woke everyone in the family and the youngsters started sobbing uncontrollably. Mom and Dad asked what was wrong, while the other adults rushed into our tent. I told them that I felt something run across my hand. At that, Mom and Dad told everybody to leave the tent so the men could search the room with a lantern. We waited patiently while they searched through our belongings. Uncle Dony lifted up one corner of the mosquito netting. There it was: a dark red centipede, at least eight inches long and half an inch wide. Uncle Dony quickly smashed it with our luggage while it struggled to escape. He used so much strength swinging at the centipede that by the time he was done, it was squashed beyond recognition. Dad lifted the remains and threw them into the fire. Strangely enough, the centipede smelled delicious as it burned, like roasted corn on the cob. Mom and Dad told us to go back into the tent to sleep. But I refused to sleep in the same place. Dad looked at me and smiled. He allowed me to sleep next to him, and Kuang took my space at the other end. Kuang did not seem to be
scared. If he was, he hid it well. I was happy that my folks made the switch and especially thankful that Kuang did not complain. And yet, I was still unable to sleep. Dad must have known I was afraid. He placed his arm on my back. In the morning, Grandma Ho and Grandpa Tang woke us up. Phuong, Cong, Fong, Kuang and I grabbed some pails and headed down to the beach. Dad and the uncles did not join us this morning. The grandparents were there to supervise us. They told us that the men needed more rest in order to conserve their strength to work on the well later on in the day. To my disappointment, Grandma Ho and Grandpa Tang slowed us down. At least with the uncles and Dad around, we could wander off as long as we stayed within sight. Grandma Ho and Grandpa Tang were stricter. Every time we ran off to catch crabs, they shouted and demanded that we slow down, that there was no reason to rush. They were right. By taking our time we learned to appreciate the magnificent scenery. Verdant, fogshrouded mountains surrounded us. The beach, the powdery silky sands, like a blank canvas, with translucent pebbles of various colors and sizes…. clams, snails and crab shells… the tall grasses on the beach dunes, some yellowish, brownish, and harsh for bare soles, some as green as the giant trees in the forest. The wind blew at them… the gentle ocean waves and the distant song of the gulls created mystical music and, even the dead grasses danced with joy. There were logs of wood; some stood on the dunes some on the beach. The red sun, the dark morning sky, and the foggy dew lent an additional air of mystery as the sun cast a bright glow in the azure water. And beneath the crystal-clear water, we could see brilliant fish, dark and graceful seaweed, sea-carved rocks, and bright, exquisite corals. The gulls bathed and danced gracefully in the magical ocean… it was unreal. If what people said was true, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” I would say even if I had a camera and I knew how to operate it to perfection, the captured image would fail to convey, to give justice even if it spoke a thousand words. The individual had to see, experience and feel it himself to truly grasp the masterpiece, to truly understand what I’m trying to express, the sense of peace and comfort I felt. I wished we could stay on this island for the rest of our lives. Slowly, but diligently, we filled our buckets with crabs. As usual, we returned home and handed our catch over to Mom and Aunty Tam. They cleaned the crabs before dumping them into the big boiling pot. In less than twenty minutes, the soup was ready. This time, there was no rice in the soup. I searched and searched but found none. I didn't comment, as I had learned to accept the worst without complaint. Any hot meal was better than nothing. After breakfast, we headed into the woods. Dad had invited his male friends along for this trip. They were happy to hear about the fresh water fish and the well. They kept asking Dad questions, but he ignored them. When we arrived at the pond, the side we had dredged the day before had filled halfway with water. The dam had begun to leak. Dad’s friends jumped into the pond to plug the holes with more mud. Dad had enough help, so he told Phuong, Cong, Fong, Kuang and me to go pick more pennywort leaves. We walked to the same patch, but there were not many left. Our hungry neighbors might also have discovered where we had been picking the herb. They, too, had been cooking pennywort-leaf crabmeat soup. We were forced to hunt for food secretly or we would starve. If Dad had not needed extra men to help with the well, he would not have invited his friends to the pond. We had to learn to be selfish and think of our own family first. When we got back to the pond, we told Dad that we had only picked a few pennywort leaves. He told us we would probably find more nearby. Nonetheless, we were forbidden to search the forest without an adult along, it was simply too dangerous. We yearned to explore the forest by ourselves, yet we did not argue. Instead, we sat and watched the men as they emptied the water from the pond. They seemed to enjoy their work. They laughed and joked and sweated as they scooped water from one side to the other. When Dad’s friends saw the fish flipping their tails, their eyes widened and they grinned broadly. Dad had warned them about water snakes, so they went after the fish with sticks. It was funny to see adults acting like children, slipping and falling and yelping with excitement when a fish was caught. Merrily we pointed when we saw fish. They ran, grabbed, laughed, shouted, swore, and spat. They kicked and stabbed. When they were done, every one of them was caked with mud. They were even dirtier than we kids had been, but they caught a
lot more fish. The man who caught the largest fish bragged just like we kids had. Before we left to check on the well, the adults kicked down the central barricade so that the little fish would have more space to grow. The pond refilled quickly. When we came to the well, Dad tied a rope around Uncle Dony’s waist. Dad, his friends and the other uncles slowly lowered Uncle Dony down. When he reached the bottom, he shouted, “The well’s dry!” One of the men volunteered to go down with some small cans to dig deeper. The two of them dug for hours while we waited. Pail after pail of earth was hauled up, without finding water. The adults kept at their task, showing no signs of fatigue. When Uncle Dony finally let out a yell, everyone gathered around the well. “There’s moisture in the sand,” Uncle Dony said, “It won’t be long now before we hit water.” In fact it did not take long before water was being drawn from the well. It was very dull and dirty. Dad dipped his finger into the water and tasted it. He told us, “It doesn’t taste bad, but we’ll have to wait until the sediment settles for a drink.” The men agreed, and pulled up Uncle Dony and the other man. Dad gave half the fish to his friends. They thanked him profusely for his generosity as we walked back home. Luckily, while we were at the beach catching crabs that morning, Dad and the uncles had gone to the pier where we first landed and had gathered more water from the puddle there. When they handed Mom and Aunty Tam the fish, they had enough water to clean them, but again they used it sparingly. By now I took Mom’s infamous phrase to heart, “We don’t know what tomorrow will be. We must be prepared.” As they were rinsing mud off the fish, Dad told them about the water in the well. Mom and Aunty Tam were delighted. “It’s high time to take a bath,” they said jokingly. They worried about smelling as badly as the dried salt-fish since they disliked bathing in the chilly ocean and rarely did so. They had dampened a face cloth and cleaned their entire bodies for the past few days. We headed down to the beach to wash up. Again, unable to swim, I stayed on the shore with Phuong and Fong. Gathering rare seashells and translucent, colored stones brought me a lot of pleasure at first. Yet, compared to the fun of swimming, this joy faded. I petulantly threw my findings back into the ocean. I was filled with envy as I watched Dad, the uncles, Cong, and Kuang, splash and frolic in the waves. They raced, dove, and swam back and forth as I looked on, wishing I could be part of the fun. As usual when we got back to the camp, dinner was ready. The women had fried the fish this time, in hopes that the muddy taste would not be as pronounced. The fish did taste better, and there was no muddy smell to them. Since we had to share the fish with Dad’s friends, we did not have enough for ourselves. Those of us who were still hungry drank pennywort-leaf soup. Without crabs, rice, or fish in it, the soup was very bitter. But Mom made virtue out of necessity, saying, “Bitter mouth, healthy medicine.” She made us drink two bowls before going to bed. While asleep, I felt someone tap my shoulder. I opened my eyes to see Dad in front of me. He whispered, “Shhh.” He did not want to wake the rest of the family. He grabbed my hands and pulled me up. We walked out of the tent to where Fong and Kuang were waiting. I wanted to ask Dad where we were going, but before I got a chance he told us to be quiet and follow him. We proceeded toward the forest. Only the stars and the little lantern we carried illuminated the darkness. The jungle sounds were spooky, with hooting owls and mysterious howling. I walked rapidly between Fong and Kuang and held their hands tightly. When we arrived at our destination, I noticed that the uncles were already there with a bunch of men, speaking in whispers. Their fire was very bright, so we blew out the light in the lantern to conserve oil. Dad’s friends greeted us as we walked toward our uncles. I did not pay attention to them, as my eyes were fixated on the wild boar they were roasting over the fire. My stomach growled instantly. One of Dad’s friends came over and gave us each a small piece of meat. It smelled extraordinary. It was chewy but tasted spectacular. Dad chatted with his friends and asked, “How was the fish?” “When your family is starving, having something in the stomach is better than nothing,” one of Dad’s friends said smilingly. “I couldn’t agree more,” another of Dad’s friend said as he chewed hungrily at the meat, “When you don’t have food for days, you simply can’t be picky… a rotten egg is treated like shark fins, no?”
They burst with laughter, laughing out loud. Dad got the biggest piece and was the first to finish. I wanted more, but I could not ask because Dad had already thanked his friends and said goodbye. We crept back into our tent and saw Mom waiting for us. “Where have you guys been?” Mom asked in her sleepy voice. “We went for some food,” Dad told her. “Where you find food on such a dark night?” Mom asked curiously. “A buddy of mine found a dog and killed it, roasting it in the forest.” I was shocked. I had eaten dog meat? I was under the impression that I had just indulged in a succulent pig! I stared at Fong and Kuang. They obviously knew that we had eaten dog meat all along, but they had not told me. I did not get mad at them, though. The dog meat did taste exceptional. Besides, my hungry stomach could not afford to be too choosy. The following morning, Fong, Kuang, and I woke up earlier than the adults. We left the tent quietly and met up with Phuong and Cong. But when we got to the beach side, we abandoned our decorum and jumped for joy. We would finally have a chance to explore the beach without the adults! Though unsupervised, we knew our responsibilities. We hunted for crabs as usual, and when the buckets were filled we decided to explore the beach. We walked beyond the point we had been forbidden to pass. There was a pile of rocks forming a bridge that led to the ocean. We ran to the crag and climbed onto the rocks with our bare feet, inching our way out onto the jetty. The heavy waves smashed into the rocks, soaking us. The larger the waves, the more thrilled we were. We walked all the way to the tip. There we sat and relished the breathtaking panorama. There were a lot of snails clinging to the sides of the rocks. We reached down into the cracks and plucked them off. Some snails were quite tenacious, especially the big dark ones, stoutly resisting our efforts to pry them from the rocks. Schools of colorful, exotic fish swam amongst the rocks beneath us. We tried desperately to catch them with our hands but we failed. We emptied a bucket of crabs hoping with a bucket it would yield a better result that we would finally catch some fish. We scooped blindly when we saw fish swim by. But all we caught for our efforts was water. We finally gave up when the waves became too high and the wind too strong. We continued our exploration and saw a tiny wooden boat on the shore, maybe ten to fifteen feet long, a short distance away. It was rotten and weather-beaten and there was a visible hole in it. Being foolish and fearless children, we decided to examine the wreck. As we walked closer, something half-human-half-animal, with horns, bolted out of the boat and into the forest. We were so frightened that we turned and ran as fast as we could. Upon our return to camp, we saw our representative, Jo Vinh, standing there with a huge stick in his hand. He screamed at us for disobeying him. We had invaded the prohibited areas. We ignored him and tittered amongst ourselves, aggravating him even more. He chased us, swearing, shouting, and flailing the stick at us whenever he got near. He was too old, probably in his thirties, and never even got near enough to touch us. When we arrived back home Mom and Dad were furious and demanded to know exactly where we had gone and what we had done. Short of breath, we told them the whole story of the crabs, the rocks, the snails, and the fish. We even told them about the boat and the half-human creature. Finally, we told them about Jo Vinh running after us with the stick. Mom and Dad were concerned, and insisted that we should not hunt by ourselves anymore. To my surprise, they were not as mad as I thought they would be. We showed them what we had caught. As they examined the snails, Mom and Dad grinned, saying, “The snails are big and juicy. They’ll make a delicious meal.” Jo Vinh showed up out of breath and continued to shout at Phuong, Cong, Fong, Kuang and me. He accused Mom of not knowing how to raise us, calling us disobedient children. He definitely chose the wrong family to provoke. Mom screamed her lungs out in acrid retort. She queried, “What do you mean, I don’t know how to raise my kids?” She stood with her arms folded on her chest, and demanded a response while the uncles held Dad back. Dad was extremely angry and seemed ready to physically assault Jo Vinh. Jo Vinh looked terrified and was unable to come up with a response. He must have thought he could do as he wished with us. He did not realize Fong, Kuang and I had grown up independent because our parents had such hectic work schedules. With little time to spend with us, they compensated by being defensive. They could
not stand anyone else disciplining us, regardless of our wrongdoing. Jo Vinh was about five-foot-four, thin, and ugly. He had a big nose, small eyes, and his body was grotesquely disproportionate, with short legs and a long torso. He recognized our need for an interpreter and so he behaved arrogantly. We did need him. He was the only person among us who could speak English. Without him, we would not have been able to communicate with the police. Mom glared angrily at him with hands standing on her hips, “Don’t you ever attempt to discipline my children,” Mom warned him. “If you ever lay a hand on my kids, I’ll make sure you’ll regret it… you’re an interpreter and there your authority ends. Have I made myself understood?” I enjoyed watching Mom set Jo Vinh straight. He had been nosy, and demanding, and had been putting his two cents into the personal affairs of all the families. Many resented him but no one spoke up. Dad overreacted a little. If the uncles had not held him back, he would probably have roughed Jo Vinh up. I would have enjoyed that also. But I was happy with the results when Jo Vinh saw how angry Dad was. He hastily backed away and nearly fell. Staring at the ground, he acted as if he were listening while spreading sand back and forth with his right foot, like a child being disciplined. When Mom stopped yelling, Jo Vinh left with his head still bowed. Mom and Dad then turned to us. They stared and their faces were so red I expected them to start yelling at us also. When they stretched out their hands, I thought they were going to hit us. But instead they grabbed the buckets of snails and crabs. In a grave but caring voice, Mom said, “Be extra careful the next time you go hunting for food.” Mom cleaned the crabs and snails while Aunty Tam placed a large pot of water on the fire. The soup tasted a little different because of the added snails. We did not drink the broth from the bottom of the pot because the snails were so gritty. But they tasted splendid, as delicious as the crabs. We spent our afternoons in the meadow catching grasshoppers and crickets. We saw some wild grasses that were shaped like human hands. The head of each plant seemed to have five, six or seven fingers. Because of its resemblance to a human hand, we named it Finger Grass. We plucked it and played tug-of-war, tying one “hand” to the other and pulling as hard as we could. Being the weakest and the youngest among the older children, I always lost. I was ridiculed every time. I looked for the biggest plants but even that did not help. Then I looked for the greenest ones. With the greener ones, I began to win for a change, and by winning I felt superior. As I became the consistent victor in our matches, I made sure the others acknowledged my prowess. They never liked losing to me since I was the youngest. I was there to make them look good. Although not a sore loser, I did not like being teased unmercifully for losing. Fong was two years older while Kuang was one year older than me, but they seemed to do everything faster and better. They were witty and articulate, talking their way out of trouble when Mom and Dad caught us misbehaving, while I would freeze from fear. Consistently being the last and the weakest got on my nerves. On the other hand, they tended to baby me. They protected me and fought for me. Naturally, I loved them, but I also resented being the underdog. I was the youngest, I had to obey. This was according to Chinese custom: You must always listen and defer to your elders. My position made me contrary and difficult to deal with. I would argue to show them I was tough. I would even do blatantly stupid things, such as nearly drowning in an attempt to show I could swim. I was fed up staying by the shore and determined to learn how to swim. I pleaded with Cong and Kuang, asking them to teach me… I had asked before, but they were more willing this time. They were patient at first, but I was a slow learner and they became frustrated. I swallowed great quantities of salty water just attempting to float. I was angry with myself for being so inept, especially when Cong and Kuang gave up. “You’re hopeless,” they said, giggling. Too proud to beg, I decided that I could do it on my own if I just persisted. I paddled and paddled until I saw something yellow and banana-shaped floating my way. As it got closer, I realized it was human feces. Disgusted at the sight, I swam away. I seemed to be moving swiftly. Foolishly pleased with what I thought to be my newfound prowess, I drifted out to sea, unaware that a riptide was carrying me. I was so far out that my feet could not touch the bottom of the ocean. I panicked and swallowed water. I screamed for help but nobody seemed to hear me. I saw land and used all my strength to thrash back to shore. A big wave surged over my head and forced me under, causing me to swallow more water. Still, I
managed to struggle to the surface. Panicking, I cried desperately for help. My eyesight was becoming blurry. I thought I was going to die. Breakers smashed over me again and again. With no more strength left, I was unable to reach the surface. I felt someone take hold of my hands. Cong swore at me and told me to stop squirming. I felt his arm encircling my neck. His grip was so tight that I choked and vomited. Realizing that he was almost strangling me, Cong relaxed his hold on my neck. Kuang reached us and they slowly pulled me to shore. I calmed down and stared dizzily at the sky. I was so weak that when my feet were able to touch bottom I still could not walk, I had to be carried. Phuong and Fong screamed at Cong and Kuang for having lost sight of me. They argued while I puked until nothing but bile came up. I coughed and cried. My body was cold. I was unable to speak. My teeth were chattering and my body was shaking uncontrollably. Phuong and Fong patted my back and told me, “There’s no need to cry. You’re safe now.” I felt better after a while. They took me back home, where Mom asked what had happened. Fong told her the whole story, and she grew furious. Cong and Kuang were berated mercilessly. I felt bad for them because it was not their fault. I wanted to tell Mom not to blame them but I did not have the strength to open my mouth. “Help your brother into the tent so he can rest,” Mom shouted at Cong and Kuang. I wanted to ask them not to be mad at me for getting them in trouble. Before I got the chance, “We’re sorry,” they said sincerely, “For not watching over you causing you to nearly drown.” They covered me with a navy blanket. After that experience, I became a better swimmer. In less than a week, I was back in the ocean. I was cautious at first, but adapted quickly. I was indebted to Cong and Kuang for saving my life and I worshipped the ground they walked on. **** As we tired of playing with the Finger Grass, we saw some islanders having lunch beneath a grove of trees. They were all eating with their hands. We could smell curry spices, and we inhaled the scent with envy. We had just eaten and yet we wanted desperately to eat what they were eating. The islanders knew we were watching them, and they must have pitied us. They beckoned us over. We went to them immediately. They handed us some of their food. We took it hungrily and thanked them, showing our appreciation by nodding our heads and smiling ear to ear. They smiled back. We were beggars, no different than those kids in Vietnam who waited eagerly for our unfinished meal. When you’re young and hungry, not knowing if there will be food the next day… pride is a word you choose not to know. After all, we were no longer in Vietnam, no longer one of the few wealthiest families on the block… there were no nanny and maids preparing abundant food waiting on the dining table, nor was there any restaurant that would allow us to eat on credit, with the owner coming to our home to collect the money in the late evening. We ran home with three bags of food and showed it to our parents. We told them where we got it and about the islanders’ strange eating custom. They told us that it was customary for people in Malaysia to eat with their hands. The food was excellent. It was hot, spicy and full of flavor. It was so spicy that we had to drink a lot of water as we wiped tears and sweat from our faces. Since we did not have much of this food, Mom and Dad refused to eat any. Mom and Dad told us to eat, insisting that they were full. But how could they be full when we had yet to have a solid meal? From the looks on their faces, I knew they wanted to try it. But no matter how hungry they were, they would only have considered eating it if there were enough for the children first. Dad might sometimes eat the last portion of meat on a plate, but Mom never would. It is from them that I learned about unconditional, self-sacrificing love. But at the time all I knew was that I was hungry and that there was food. Just as we finished eating, the sound of sirens alarmed us. We ran out to see white vans with red crosses arriving at the campsite. We did not know what the crosses represented, or why the vans were there. It had been five days since the passengers of the 217 had been assembled. The representative instructed us to line up in an orderly fashion. He explained that the Red Cross had brought food to distribute. The very word “food” made us happy, and we jumped for joy... even the adults acted as crazy as the kids,
jumping with excitement. Some mumbled and thanked God for His mercy. Despite the admonition to line up calmly, we were less than civilized. We rushed, jostled, and pushed to be first in line. Our family, being the most aggressive, got to the head of the line. Each person was handed a couple of cans of chicken, beef, sardines, and vegetables, as well as bags of salt, pepper, sugar, cookies, and rice. There was never pork, as many Malaysians are Muslim and don’t eat pork for religious reasons. We smiled as we counted our supplies. The adults acted as silly as the kids. They shouted, “Look at this, look at that!” Everything was new to us. We had never eaten canned food before. Chinese people strongly believe that food should be fresh. If meat has no blood, we don’t buy it. But now we were no different than beggars, and beggars could not be choosers. When every family had taken their share, Jo Vinh told us that the Red Cross would come each week with provisions. At this point, all worry disappeared from Mom and Dad’s faces. Everyone clapped and cheered, to show our appreciation for the people from the Red Cross. Mom and Dad grabbed some empty cardboard boxes and put our food in them. Cookies were placed in one box, rice and the rest in another. Although the canned food was heavy, we dragged our rations home in cheerful triumph. We had not heard such laughter, such whooping, for a long while. I’m sure that everyone on the 217 still remembers that day. It was a revelation to me: For the first time, I realized that there were people willing to help others in need without wanting anything in return. I had thought Mom and Dad were the only truly generous people in the world. Back at our campsite, we found a shady spot near our house. We dug some holes and put the canned food in them. We covered the holes with the boxes. In the tropical heat, we were concerned that our precious food would spoil. Surprisingly, these holes in the ground acted like a refrigerator. Even though each meal we had on the Malaysian Island during our first five days had been memorable, I’ll remember this meal in particular for the rest of my life. For the first time in ten days we had rice, meat and vegetables in one meal. We were so grateful. The smell alone was intoxicating, and the food tasted so good that, as usual, I overindulged. After the meal, I still found room in my stomach to force some cookies in. They tasted fabulous, the best cookies I had ever eaten. After dinner, the adults talked about America, as they frequently did. Mom said, “Since the Red Cross is assisting us, the American officials must know that we are stranded on the island. Hopefully, we will hear from them soon.” “I hope so. Can’t wait to leave the island,” Aunty Tam said as she was feeding rice porridge to her infant son, Quy. Every time they brought up America, it made me angry. I still did not understand why they so desperately wanted to go to America. We were enjoying life on the island now that we had food and water. There was nothing to worry about anymore. Fong, Kuang and I hated it when the adults talked seriously. We preferred to retire early rather than sit beside them, listening to their boring dreams. After the support came from the Red Cross, our daily activities on the island were less hectic. We hunted for crabs in the morning for sport instead of for survival. We had more time to relish the scenery and play with the fish near the big pile of rocks. We no longer hunted those fresh water fish. We were no longer beggars with the Red Cross’ support… so we could be choosers. Those fish were nasty; they tasted like mud. We could run after birds, dragonflies, and butterflies, and catch grasshoppers and crickets, play tug-of-war with the Finger Grasses, and swim on the beach. We could wander into the forest to get water from the well and pick pennywort leaves. Life became a dreamy interlude. Seizure While playing in the meadow one afternoon, we heard Mom cry desperately for help. We raced back home. When we got there, Dad was trembling and deathly pale. Uncle Dony, Uncle Chu, and Uncle Yi Jieng were carrying him out of the tent. His teeth chattered incessantly and tears dripped from the corners of his eyes. His lips moved but no words came out of his mouth, and his nose was running. His appearance terrified us. In shock, I held on to Fong and Kuang. I felt a sudden chill, as if summer had suddenly turned to winter. Mom tensely applied bak far zhou to Dad’s body. She lost her composure and cried.
She was always a brave, strong, capable, and self-sufficient person. Seeing Mom and Dad both crying frightened me. I grabbed Fong and Kuang’s hands tightly. The youngsters wailed. Aunty Tam and Grandma Ho tried to comfort them. Mom and the uncles massaged Dad’s entire body from head to toe. Mom stuffed a cloth in his mouth to prevent him from biting his tongue. He was having a seizure. The attack was similar to the episode that Uncle Chu had had, with the same sudden onset of muscular convulsions. Uncle Dony massaged Dad’s hands, Uncle Yi Jieng massaged his left leg, and Uncle Chu his right. Mom rubbed his temples. Grandpa Tang gave instructions on where and how hard to rub. They used the whole bottle of bak far zhou. Slowly, Dad unclenched his hands and opened his eyes. He whispered to Mom that he was feeling better. She smiled, and helped him sit up straight. At that moment, I looked into the blue sky, closed my eyes and thanked God for sparing his life. Mom told Fong, Kuang, and me, “The three of you go and clean the room so your father can rest… place a piece of cloth on the floor so he won’t have to lie on it.” The Chinese believe the earth’s moisture is unhealthy that muscle pain and even arthritis can result from absorbing too much moisture from the ground. Dad rested for two days, after which he felt well enough to join us in our morning chores. It was then that we realized how great a toll the heat and manual labor had been taking on our father. The Twins, Kim and Ngan, or the Wedding Bands In late July, the twins became severely ill. They had contracted chicken pox and were entirely covered with red spots. They cried day and night. Mom was worried because the medicines we brought along had been contaminated with ocean water and we had thrown them out. We were compelled to resort to wild herbs. If not treated, the condition might be fatal. Mom instructed Phuong, Cong, Fong, Kuang and me to go to the field where we played with the grasshoppers, to pick a particular weed. The herb she told us to gather looked like rice wheat. It had burrs that stuck to our clothes, so we named it chi tout mun (sticky head). Besides chi tout mun, we were told to pick some shy grass. It is called shy grass because it closes its leaves when touched. We listened to her description carefully. We went to the meadow and looked for chi tout mun. We searched for a while and came across some wheat with burrs that matched Mom’s description. The stalks were about three feet tall, yellowish, and had thorns that pierced through to our skin and made us bleed. Although we got scratches, we plucked as many as we could and brought them back to Mom. After dropping off the chi tout mun, we immediately headed to the area where we picked pennywort, hoping to find some shy grass. When we got there, we saw a lot of pennywort leaves but no shy grass. We searched anxiously, crushing a number of wild flowers. Having had no luck there, we went deeper into the forest. There we discovered a bunch of blackish brown roots, about six inches tall, with dark green leaves. They looked exactly like what we were after. With great excitement, we picked them without delay. The leaves closed as Mom had told us they would. But it turned out to be difficult to unearth them; they clung stubbornly to the ground. We dug holes around each plant and loosened up the sand. It was a lot of work to get even one. It would have been easier if Mom had wanted the leaves instead of the roots. The older and thicker the roots were, the tougher they were to unearth. Mom wanted us to get the older ones because she believed they would be more potent. Because I was weak, it took me much longer to pull one out. I let my older siblings and cousins do the work. All I did was brush the sand off the roots before putting them into the bucket. When they had finished, their hands were covered with blisters and scratches. Since Mom had to nurse the twins, Aunty Tam cleaned the chi tout mun and the shy grass roots. She placed the stems separately in two pots. Chi tout mun smelled similar to sugar cane while the shy grass smelled like soil. Phuong, Cong, Fong, Kuang and I went to the beach to clean our hands and legs, not wanting to waste any fresh water. Besides, the ocean water was our only defense against infection. It was very painful going into the ocean after getting scratched by the chi tout mun. The stinging made me wet my pants. I blushed with embarrassment as I dived into the ocean, pretending to swim. If my older siblings and cousins found out that I had peed in my pants, I would not hear the end of their teasing. That night, after dinner, everyone was handed two cans of herbal drink. Mom was afraid, since chicken pox
was contagious. The chi tout mun tasted very sweet but the shy grass tasted terrible. It was bitter, dry, and tasted like dirt, but Mom forced us to finish it anyway. She gave us cookies to kill the revolting aftertaste. And because it tasted so bad, the twins refused to drink it. Mom had to feed them spoonful-by-spoonful and sprinkled sugar in their mouths after each one. The herbs proved to be effective. In three days, the redness had gone from their skin. Then Mom noticed that there were lumps on the twin’s skulls. Most of us had lice in our hair at this point. Thinking lice had bitten them, she was not particularly concerned. After a few days, the lumps on the twins’ heads burst and pus ran from the wounds. Mom knew then that the chicken pox was still in their systems. She shaved all the twins’ hair off and cleaned their skulls with the ocean water, hoping the salt water would produce miracles. I peed in my pants washing the minor scratches with the ocean water; I could not imagine the pain they must be enduring. Mom’s eyes were glassy and red, as if she were going to cry. She held back her tears though to show the twins she was strong. If she were to cry, Kim and Ngan would have cried even louder. “There, there, my lovely… you two look so beautiful even with bald heads. Ah, you look like priestesses now… Lord bless, ha ha ha!” I knew she said that to bring on a laugh within the family, and keep her own tears back. And we were extraordinary actors; we laughed and joked around even though the movie genre we were portraying was drama. But we believed humor would captivate the audience more, instead of making them cry during the entire movie. A few days passed without much improvement. Nothing we tried worked. Grandpa Tang advised us to cut the shy grass in half, rub the juice directly on their heads, and mix it with the chi tout mun in a single decoction. Still, Kim and Ngan had no relief from their symptoms. Mom was up with them every night; admirably stoic, she sat with one twin in her left arm, the other in her right. She rocked them back and forth. She begged God for mercy, speaking into thin air. “I have not done any evil. I beg you to spare my two lovely daughters… give them a chance in life. They’re young. They have not committed any sins. They should not have to suffer this much. If you must punish someone in the family, punish me instead. Please I beg of you!” Her eyes were red yet she was brave, didn’t shed a single tear. She knew that her own tears would have terrified her other children. “There, there my lovely… my precious… there’s no need to cry. No one will dare to hurt you. Mommy’s here. You’re safe, so get better already, all right?” And she sang a warm Chinese nursery song: The moon shines brightly. The earth coats with sugar. On New Year’s Eve, We shall gather our sweets. If the sweets smell delicious, We pick sour ginger. If the sour ginger is spicy, We shall, we shall… Mom and Dad were left with no choice. One evening while we rested in the tent, Mom and Dad approached one of the guards. Since they did not know either English or Malaysian, they used hand gestures to communicate. They directed the guard to look at the twins’ heads and showed him our empty medicine bag. The guard smiled, staring at Mom and Dad’s jade wedding bands. They understood what he wanted. Mom and Dad pointed at their rings and smiled in acquiescence, letting the guard know he would get what he wanted if he helped them procure the medicine. Later that night, he came back with a few bottles of antibiotics. Mom and Dad looked at each other and stripped the rings from their fingers. A few bottles of medicine cost them their wedding bands, worth several hundred dollars… and more importantly, the symbol of their love and commitment for each other. If the medicine was a sham, they would have no recourse, but without the medicine, the twins would have died. In sincere gratitude and with huge smiles, Mom and Dad shook the guard’s hand. “Dor jair.” They said thank you as they nodded repetitively. To our joy, the antibiotics worked miraculously. Within days, the sores were healing, and the twins were able to sleep peacefully at night. Before long, they were jumping up and down as they had before. Mom thanked
God for his kindness in healing her children. “As long as I live, I won’t forget the compassion you have shown to the family,” Mom said holding one twin in her left arm and the other in the right. It was nice to see the worry gone from Mom and Dad’s faces. **** Two months had passed. Our lives on the island became more sedentary and secure, a time of peace, happiness, and warmth. Families hunted for food early in the morning and then had breakfast, lunch, and dinner together in domestic conviviality. Usually after lunch we took a siesta in the cool, shady forest. We lounged in hammocks tethered to stout tropical trees. Sometimes we fell off, but we never got hurt because a thick carpet of grass covered the ground. Life was great, and every day was special. If people were to tell me, life is too short and we shouldn’t live the same day twice, I would say it’s true life is short, but if I were allowed to share the moment with the people who meant the world to me, I would look forward to living that same wonderful day twice, three or four times… When Mom and Aunty Tam found the time, they would comb through our hair and pick out lice as though we were a troop of macaques. They would crush the lice between their fingernails. Sometimes we heard a popping sound and we laughed. When this happened, their nails were covered with blood. Cong had them worst and he had to shave all his hair off. His scalp had tiny wells and was bright with blood from his scratches. Other families were even stranger than ours; some of the mothers would chew on the lice and spit them out. Late in August, the Head of Police drove into our camp. We had not seen him since the first few days that we had settled on the island. A bunch of us gathered around his jeep. We muttered amongst ourselves, fearing that we would be forced to leave the island. Our representative, Jo Vinh, told us to quiet down because he needed to converse with the man. They spoke at length and the smiles on their faces made us happy. They laughed and shook hands. The Head of Police jumped back into his army jeep and sped away, leaving behind him a trail of dust. Silently we waited for the news. Jo Vinh announced thrillingly, “There’ll be buses on the island early in the morning to escort us to another refugee camp. The refugee camp will have foreign representatives who will find us sponsors. The sponsors will pay all expenses necessary for us to leave the island and arrange our lives in the city we’ll be going to.” Hearing the news, Mom and Dad, the uncles, Aunty Tam and Grandpa Tang and Grandma Ho were overjoyed. But Fong, Kuang and I were crestfallen, as we had fallen in love with the island. The daily chores were tiresome, but we always found ways to amuse ourselves with our cousins. There was always something fun to do. I could not grasp what more the adults wanted, with their running here and there. On our way home, I overheard people saying, “We’ve waited long enough for this day.” Mom and Dad agreed, and happily began to plan what to bring and what not to bring to the refugee camp. When we got home, we went directly to our room and packed. Mom would not let us keep the fascinating crystals we had found on the beach. “Aren’t you silly wanting to bring rocks to the new campsite,” she said. The women cooked a sumptuous feast. There was beef, chicken, crabs, vegetables, pennywort leaves, rice, and dried salt-fish. It was a very special night. The dinner was similar to the one we ate when Mom and Dad announced to our relatives that we were leaving Vietnam. Even though most of our food consisted of preserved goods, we enjoyed every bite. We talked about the first night on the pier at My-Tho, when we boarded the 217. We laughed and joked about the centipede, running after crabs, picking snails off rocks and digging for clams. Then Dad asked excitedly. “Do you guys recall the lucky day we caught horseshoe crabs and ate the crab roe?” “How could we forget that day?” Uncle Dony responded glowingly. “They had thousands of tiny, tasty eggs, which popped deliciously in our mouths like caviar.” The bright campfire kept me warm, but not as warm as I felt within to share such a memorable and joyful night with the entire family. There was no shortage of laughter and it was infectious. For the first time ever, we had leftovers. We all helped with the cleaning. We washed and dried with torn clothes. We tied all the pots and pans together and wrapped up the cans and bowls. We quickly washed our hands, rinsed our mouths, and went back into our room. We wanted to wake up earlier than our neighbors, to assure that we had the best possible seats.
The sound of the crickets, which used to ease my worries and lull me off to sleep, was loud and irritating that night. I kept rolling around, thinking of all the great times we had had on the island. I could not fall asleep with all the thoughts in my head. I saw Fong and Kuang also tossing and turning. The three of us usually talked when we could not sleep, but that night we were silent. Mom and Dad demanded that we sleep. I closed my eyes.
About the Author The third of seven children, at seven years old, Langelo and his extended family fled communist Vietnam. He arrived in Boston, Massachusetts in the summer of 1980 after surviving a year living in Malaysia’s refugee camps. Langelo achieved his American dream in 1996 — a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering from Northeastern University. He soon discovered that pursuing his artistic dreams brought a deeper meaning and happiness to his life. He began to paint, to write, to dance, after losing his brother in a motorcycle accident. He performs and dances in theaters, exhibits his oil paintings, and is seeking the right representation for his three books, Learning to Breathe: A Memoir, A Blind Step Forward: A Memoir, and a murder mystery Hell: A Place on Earth. He is working on two new books. On January 9, 2007, Langelo opened an art gallery café named Flamepoeira, inspired by his training in flamenco and the Brazilian martial art capoeira. Aside from exhibiting his own work at Flamepoeira, he offers a haven where people can build relationships and exhibit their work. "The sun will shine only if you allow it — dreams die because you let them. Happiness is a gift you have to be brave enough to give yourself.”
Published on Feb 1, 2010