Courtesy of Hannah Nguyen.

In southern Vietnamese culture, it is common to refer to your siblings based on their birth order. The rankings start with “hai,” which means two, so the oldest sibling would be __ hai, preceded by either “chị,” meaning older sister, or “anh,” meaning older brother. To reference younger siblings, we use “em.” Translations for this piece: hai = two, tư = four, sáu = six, tám = eight. 

Step 1: It’s May 12, 1958, when you are born. You are the eighth child, with four older sisters and three older brothers. Your name is Nguyen Hoang Hung, son to a dad who is a teacher and a mom who stays at home but sometimes helps her brother-in-law at his herbal store. You get along best with your older brother whom you call “anh tám,” since he’s the closest to you in age. By the time you are born, your eldest sister will already be 17, your second eldest sister will have died when she was eight or nine and your eldest brother will have passed away when he was young, but you won’t remember specifics because you weren’t even born yet.

Step 2: Your sister whom you call “chị tư” takes you to the Christian elementary school every day, and you spend time after school playing with anh tám because there aren’t many neighborhood kids to play with. You enjoy playing with your dogs in the evening and sleeping in your mom’s bed at night.

Step 3: By the time you are 18, you start worrying about escaping your home country. Your anh sáu has already embarked on his journey before you, so now, you’re going alone. November 1980 is when you’ll have to try for the first time. At night, you make your way to a set location along with other hopeful citizens to be led by a person who will take you to the boat. No one will show up. You do not return home, so instead, you go to a farm in the Rạch Sỏi village, staying at the home of your parents’ acquaintances, where you go from a city boy to a farmer boy. You do what they do: fishing, planting rice and yard work.

Step 4: Across the next five months, you make five more unsuccessful attempts. After every failure or false call, you return to the farm, but you have to blend in, so you pick up smoking and drinking even though you despise it. 

Step 5: When April 1981 comes around, you leave for your sixth try but before you can make it to the boat, the police start chasing you and the others. It’s nighttime so it’s hard to see. You try to hide in a ditch, but it doesn’t work; an officer grabs you by the shirt and beats you and jabs you with the butt of their gun in the ribs and stomach — an experience so painful and traumatizing that you will still have nightmares about it when you are older and safe. 

Step 6: For about two months, you are in a labor camp. Your head is shaven. Little scabies start to take over your body, and it hurts to sit or sleep. Every night you eat cabbage soup which, too, traumatizes you to the point where, in the future, when your wife cooks it for dinner, you eat it only to make her happy. 

Step 7: You are let out of jail because there is not enough room for the new incoming prisoners. You go back to the farm until August of that year where you return home to your parents and anh tám because the rest of your siblings are on their own journeys. Your father knows a man who needs extra help at his pharmacy, so you go there to work. From 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., you are at the pharmacy — aside from lunch when you bike home and your father teaches you English as you eat. You sleep at the pharmacy, too, because your parents fear that you will be caught if you go out at night. 

Step 8: On April 27, 1982, you leave the pharmacy for your seventh, and finally successful, attempt. After staying at a set location until the night of the 28th waiting for the boat, it comes and starts making its way deeper through the water. On the morning of May 1, you and 70 others go from the fishing boat onto a Norwegian ship carrying liquid natural gas. You are on the boat for six days before the boat comes to port at Chiba, Japan, on May 7, 1982. After going through the immigration office, you get on a bus for 24 hours that takes you to Nagasaki, where refugees tell officials what country they want to go to; they are then split off to different provinces accordingly. You choose America, so you stay for two weeks before heading to Seto City in Aichi Prefecture for the next two years in a refugee camp.

Step 9: After two failed attempts to leave because of insufficient paperwork, you leave for a different refugee camp in Tokyo to learn Japanese and to show that you can be a working member of society. It’s 1984 now, and you spend the next two years working, studying and meeting new people.

Step 10: In 1986, you somehow get tuberculosis. You start coughing up blood so you are sent to a hospital somewhere in some mountains. You’re here for almost seven months, further delaying your departure to America. You’re the only young patient here, surrounded by old men soon to pass. You start feeling pessimistic, as if you were sent here just to die. But your biggest takeaway from this experience is meeting an old man. The nurses say you changed his life. He becomes noticeably happier when you arrive and start talking to him. He tells you everything about his life leading up to that point in time but dies soon after your departure from the hospital. 

Step 11: On April 13, 1991, you are 33, and you finally step foot in America. You live with your oldest sister chị hai and her family in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. You start taking classes at the General Motors Institute, which is now known as Kettering University, but this is another challenge you have to face. Because your English isn’t as good as your peers’, you spend all day and night in the library. From your seat, you see others relax and play football outside while you’re stuck trying to rewrite the essay that you originally failed but were given a second chance at. During classes, you have to ask other students to take notes for you because you cannot keep up with the professor as he lectures. Your nights become your mornings as you struggle to learn a new language and adjust to a completely new culture and lifestyle.

Step 12: In 2021, you are happy and healthy. You’ve built your life up through literal blood and sweat. You live in a nice home with your family for whom you are their sole provider. You have time to build your model airplanes and go on bike rides with your wife every evening. You retell your story to your daughters often, remembering more and more every time you tell them stories. They love hearing them because they’ve never seen you talk so much about anything else, but your youngest daughter feels guilty every time she gets mad and raises her voice at you because she knows you’ve been through more than she ever will. She tears up when she thinks about the pain you went through. She tries her best to understand why you are the way you are, why you never show that you’re sad, why the only emotion you really show is happiness. She wants you to know she loves and appreciates you even if she never really says it. 

MiC Columnist Hannah Nguyen can be reached at hannahnn@umich.edu.