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Tu Biet - Farewell Forever

  • Anh Vu Sawyer and Pam Proctor Authors of <i>Song of Saigon</i>
  • 2003 3 Mar
  • COMMENTS
Tu Biet - Farewell Forever

Chi Huong, Chi Huong! Open the gate! It’s me, open up!”

Because of a twenty-four-hour curfew, which had just been imposed a few weeks earlier, we regularly kept the gate of our family compound closed and locked. Now someone was banging loudly, clamoring to get in. For some reason, he was calling out Chi Huong, or “elder sister Huong,” the familiar name of our nanny.

“Who could it be?” asked Mother. “Don’t open the door!”

Still the gate rattled, and the male voice shouted again. “Chi Huong—the gate—please open it!”

“It sounds like Master Phong,” our nanny said.

“That’s impossible,” retorted my mother. “Phong’s in America.”

At the very mention of my brother’s name, my sister, brothers, and I rushed out the door to our house and up to the gate, where my very bedraggled brother Phong was standing outside, grasping the iron bars.

Nanny opened the gate, and he quickly slipped inside the compound, where we crowded around him in awe and excitement.

I barely recognized him. When he had left Vietnam nearly eight years before, he had been a skinny teenager with a sophisticated veneer of slicked back hair, tailored designer jackets, and luxurious Yves St. Laurent ties. Now he was a grown man, strikingly handsome, well fed and brimming with confidence. His hair was so long it nearly brushed his shoulders. And in his tight Levis and denim jacket, he looked every inch an American.

My mother took one look at him and almost fainted. “Why did you come home?” she asked with a look of fear in her eyes. “You were safe. You had life. Why are you here?”

“I had to come,” he said. “I tried to write. I even tried to send a telegram. When I couldn’t reach you, I hopped a plane to Guam and then got a lift here as a volunteer on a Red Cross helicopter.”

The urgency in his eyes riveted our attention and rendered us speechless as he continued: “You must leave the country immediately,” he said. “There is no hope left. The only chance you have is to get out with me, because now
I’m an American citizen.”

For a long while, nobody said a word. We just looked at him, unable to speak, as the enormity of what was happening to us began to sink in. Then all of a sudden, we broke into smiles and started tittering with giddy laughter. 

“Yes, yes,” we all agreed. We would go tomorrow to the American Embassy, as Phong had said. He was an American now, a citizen, and that meant everything would be all right. He was sure of it.

The next morning the house took on an air of celebration. It was as if someone had flicked a switch, turning the stark and scary darkness of our lives into an incredible burst of light. With Phong in our midst, we felt hopeful and safe, filled with expectation about our future life in America. Here was our savior, the bold rescuer—who had been born, appropriately, in the Year of the Tiger—who was going to bring us to the promised land.

For breakfast, our nanny spread out a feast: delicate crepes known as banh cuon, filled with savory meat; sticky rice with coconut milk; lemon sauces; tea; and the ubiquitous pho, the noodle soup that is a Vietnamese staple.

How Nanny had managed this repast, I’ll never know. No shops open or stores were open where she could buy such goods. Our only sources for food were the black market and whatever we could scrounge from our neighbors by bartering from house to house. But Phong was Nanny’s oldest charge—she had practically raised him herself—and for her young prince, nothing but the best would do.

I gorged myself on the banquet, paying more attention to my stomach than to the serious conversation between my parents and Phong at the other end of the table. But soon breakfast was over and before I knew what was happening, Phong hustled us out the door and managed to flag down an open-air minibus to take us to the embassy.

Although it was dangerous for us or anyone else to be out in the daylight, as we traveled along I saw our friend Quang riding on a motorcycle. I waved at him happily. We are going to life—we are going to our future, I thought, smiling to myself.

Even after we arrived at the embassy and saw thousands of others who had gotten there ahead of us, my sense of euphoria was undiminished. We waited outside expectantly as Phong maneuvered his way inside the building to talk to an official. But when he emerged an hour later, he looked strained and defeated. “There’s no way we can do it,” he said, shaking his head. “They say they are only taking American citizens.”

We looked at each other in astonishment, not knowing what to do next. Mother was the first to speak. Mustering every ounce of courage she had left, she gave her oldest son a direct order: “I want you to leave us,” she told Phong. “Go back to your American wife. Don’t waste your life for us. You’ve done all you can do. You have a chance to live—take it. Take it now!”

There was a finality in her voice that brooked no opposition. We all knew that voice, and whenever she was in the command mode, we knew better than to contradict her.

Phong looked at her, then at Father, and at each of my siblings, one by one. Then he looked at me. His eyes were filled with pain and yearning.

“Go, please go,” I begged him, touching his shoulder lightly. Tears streamed down my cheeks, and my body heaved with sobs. Next to me, my sister Diep, eighteen, and my brothers Hai, nineteen, and Chanh, thirteen, were drowning in despair. My older sister, Tram, [age?], escaped this awful moment only because she was studying in Germany. Just my parents and Phong remained stoic.

When Phong could bear no more, he turned on his heels and ran into the embassy, afraid even to look back.


From Song of Saigon:  One Woman's Journey to Freedom.  Copyright © 2002 by Anh Vu Sawyer and Pam Proctor.  Used by permission of Warner Books, Inc. 1271 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020.  All rights reserved.

Anh Vu Sawyer was born in Saigon, Vietnam.  She is a speaker, writer, and high school math teacher.  She continues to do humanitarian work through REI-Vietnam, an agency that provides medical and educational aid to Vietnam.  Among her many achievements, in 1999 Anh helped organize a public health project for 1500 children in a commune outside of Hanoi.  The project has been hailed by Vietnamese Ministry of Health as a model for the nation.  Anh Vu Sawyer lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado, with her husband and three children.

Pam Proctor, a former senior editor of Parade, is the author of seven non-fiction books, including:  Love, Miracles and Animal Healing, with Allen M. Schoen, D.V.M; Looking Good at Any Age, with dermatologist Amy E. Newburger, M.D; and The Joy of Living, with "Today Show" personality Willard Scott.

 

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