SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2015       Personal Memory Ethnographies

Van Nguyen

Get Back on Your Boat and Go Home

family photo         As a playful and social child of just eight years old my biggest concern was playing outside with my friends until the sun went down or the street lamps turned on, whichever came first, unless my mother shouted from the front door to get my butt home for dinner. We lived in California. Although we were about ten miles from the beach, on a perfect summer day we could feel the light ocean breeze kiss our faces as it passed by. The cool, calming air was a treat we all looked forward to in the summer and even the adults enjoyed it as they sat outside and as I played with my best friends. My family moved to this quaint, suburban neighborhood when I was about five years old in the early 1990ís. I remember almost every house had a kid around my age to play with. My two best friends were twin boys. My family and I had just moved into the neighborhood and meeting friends was a difficult task since I didnít speak much English. I was raised in a predominantly Vietnamese household, my parents didnít speak English and school was my only opportunity to the world around me, the world that spoke English.

         As we played outside that summer Chris, Chad and I were full of cheerful laughter. Itís a personal memory for me as I look back at my best friends and sadly reflect that we are no longer even living in the same state. The fun and exciting adventures we had as children will be something Iíll always remember. Every day was an adventure with my two best friends. We hung on trees, rode our scooters or bikes, hid in their dadís utility truck and rolled on the grass trying to make out the figures in the clouds. This was my innocent childhood, this was my world, so blissful and so innocent minded. That is, until the day came that it wasnít.

         It was a hot summer day and I must have been outside playing with the twins for hours as always but on this particular day, the twinsí dad was in a special mood, the kind of mood that took a 6-pack to get him through the hot summer afternoon. The twins and I were playing in their garage and as kids we played with anything we could get our hands on. One of my favorites was the hand tools their dad had lying around in the garage. Iíd pretend the hammer was a sword and we were battling it out for the rights to our imaginary land. In a heated wrestle for the rights to all the land in the world, one of the twins came running towards me with his ďswordĒ or rather a very large ratchet. In the fury, I lost my sense of defense and threw my hammer. It accidentally hit the side of their dadís truck. I heard a loud bang at the exact moment that caused all the commotion between myself and Chris and Chadís dad.

I didnít know what I had done that was so upsetting to a man who was intoxicated at the time, or even what intoxicated meant. I now understand that in his mind I damaged something valuable to him, his truck, and in his state of being at that moment he was more belligerent than usual. I was the target of his rage. The next thing I knew, their dad came stumbling out of the house yelling profanely, demanding who in the Lordís name was playing with his tools. As soon as he realized it was me and not even noticing his boys behind me with said tools, he came thrashing at me with vulgarity that scared me to my core.

ďWhy donít you and your parents get back on your boat and go home,Ē he shouted. His anger and presence of drunkenness is what terrified me the most but his words stuck with me. I didnít understand what he had said to me; I had never come across a situation like this before. I couldnít even translate it to my parents. I even thought it was funny because of course we didnít have a boat and we lived five houses down why would we need a boat to go home? These were my literal thoughts up until someone, my grandma, who is of German and Scottish decent born and raised in East Los Angeles in the 1930ís, had to sit me down and explain it to me.  ďIgnorance is bliss,Ē so the saying goes. This cannot be truer than when we were children. As innocent beings we are unable to grasp the concept of difference among us within society. At least for me this is what my mind was like during my early childhood. This incident left me blissfully ignorant until my late teens when those same words, ďWhy donít you and your parents get back on your boat and go home,Ē rang through me and shattered my world.

         Afterwards I just felt confused because I was born and raised here in America, not too far from where my two best friends, his sons, were also born and raised. How could he tell me to go somewhere I didnít even feel that I belonged? Confusion is what I felt for many years with those words lingering with me throughout my life. Only as I grew older and learned about stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination did I truly understand what he meant by those words. His words left me questioning his and everyoneís view of me when they see me. How does someone really feel, what do they really think when they first meet me? I now knew there was a different perspective than that of the innocence I once had before that hot summer day.

         In the years that followed, I really wanted to understand my neighbor Tomís story and why he felt the need to say such a vulgar and degrading thing to someone he knew nothing about. I can only imagine his thoughts on that day:

          Itís been so hot this summer and working those long hours all I want to do is rest in my chair and sip on my ice-cold beer. Relax, thatís all I want to do is relax. I shouted to my wife Nellie asking her where were the boys, Chris and Chad. She shouted back saying they were outside playing with the little Asian girl that just moved in from down the street. That little girlís parents brought the whole damn family over on the boat. There are a million kids in that Asian family. It reminded me of when I was in Nam seeing all those families and kids in the villages running around in the dirt roads chasing chickens and dogs. Those were times I didnít want to remember and now thereís one living down the street from me and playing with my boys.

         Beer number five and Iím finally feeling relaxed. All of a sudden I hear a loud crash and immediately run outside. ďWhat the hell happened? Who did that to my truck?Ē Of course it was the little Asian girl; I donít even know her name. Sheís here playing at my house messing with my tools and destroys everything. Iím fuming as I shout at in a rage. Maybe itís the beers talking but that damn kid and her family donít need to be here. ďWhy donít you and your parents get back on your boat and go home!Ē As soon as I said it I knew it was wrong but I work hard for all the things I have and her people come along destroying everything. Chris and Chad started crying because I made their little girlfriend go home. They wanted to go to her house and tell her sorry but I told them no.  I donít want her coming back here again.

         The next day I wake to a loud banging on my door. It was my neighbor Norma Jean, a sweet little German lady being not so sweet this morning. ďWho the hell do you think you are telling little Van that she and her parents need to get back on a boat and go home?Ē It was the weekend and way too early for yelling. To be honest I couldnít even remember what she was talking about until she said ďboat.Ē The shouting continued and I blurred most of it out but I knew I was in the wrong. I shouldnít have said that but she doesnít understand it anyway so what does it matter? ďI donít have time for this,Ē I said to Norma Jean and shut the door then went back to bed. 

         Thinking of what he could have felt that day I canít help but consider that it may have been a re-memory of his days in Vietnam. It may not have been anything in particular that I said or did but that I reminded him of a time he didnít want to be reminded of. That loud bang when the wrench hit his truck could have possibly triggered sounds of gunfire that sparked him into a rage that he once had when he was in Vietnam. The person he was today was not the person I can only assume he had to be when fighting a war. And here I am, with my family living five houses down from him. I thought, maybe my presence here had turned him back into someone he left behind in the jungles of Vietnam.

           After leaving Chris and Chadís house after their dad had yelled at me, I sat on my front porch as the cool ocean breeze kissed my cheek as it swayed by through the neighborhood. I couldnít get his words out of my head, ďWhy donít you and your parents get back on your boat and go home.Ē Looking back at it today I know my parents worked so hard to give their six children the life they didnít have back in Vietnam. My oldest sister was born in an internment camp in Indonesia shortly after my parents fled Vietnam. I was their first American born child, followed by four more children. My parents both became U.S citizens in 1990, just three years before this incident of mine. Ignorantly speaking, Chris and Chadís dad Tom didnít really know what he was talking about when he told us to ďgo home,Ē which to him meant Vietnam. In the case of his re-memory I canít blame him for saying this. It triggered something in him that I couldnít come close to understanding but nonetheless my parents were legal U.S. citizens at this point and time.

         Trying to understand where Tom was coming from, he had just come home from serving in the U.S. Army in the Vietnam War. I wasnít able to put the big picture in my ten year old head. In 1980 the refugee act redefined the criteria and admissions for refugees. This act states that the United States will help those persons subject to persecution in their homeland and will provide asylum and resettlement opportunities for admitted refugees (Wikipedia 2015). It was this very act that allowed my parents to enter into the United States in 1983 and gave them the opportunity to resettle in a place unknown to them, but it was the best opportunity given to them that changed their lives forever.

Thinking back to that scorching summer day as I sat on my porch, I miss the tall palm trees that swayed back and forth in front of Chris and Chadís house. I miss the smell of the freshly cut grass that we rolled around in as we played games or looked up at the bright, blue sky. I miss our cheerful laughter as we rode our bikes up and down our neighborhood street even though sweat was running down our foreheads, we didnít care. It was fun, it was innocent and it was our childhood, something Iíll cherish forever.


Return to Personal Memory Ethnographies homepage