Audrey - How did Mr. Luong get the idea of leaving Vietnam and coming to America?
Luong - After 1975 the victorious Vietnamese Communist Party forbade commercial activities. A few years into Communist rule, the living costs had gone up contrary to our savings. We are a large family and feared that our wealth could one day be depleted - seeing our assets dwindling at this rate, our future survival would surely be problematic. And then we saw our neighbours and relatives leaving the country one by one...
Audrey - Which countries did they choose to head to?
Luong - When we left the country, no one could have predicted what the final destination would be.
Audrey - So you didn't know you would end up in America then.
Luong - Yes, nobody had any idea in the beginning. And it wasn't until later that some countries' government permitted asylum seekers to arrange for their relatives to join them as immigrants.
Audrey - Did Mr. Luong have friends or relatives in the USA back then?
Luong - Some friends had arrived and settled down in America, earlier, but they couldn't sponsor our immigration visas as we were not direct relatives.
Audrey - So when you decided to leave Vietnam, you didn't foresee the USA to be your final destination…
Luong - Right. Many boat people succeeded in fleeing Vietnam only because they sailed out to the high seas and were rescued in time. The especially lucky ones ran into US Navy patrol vessels and got to America directly. At that time (around 1981) some neighbouring Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand and the Philippines had set up refugee camps where we stayed and awaited developed countries to take us in. We would go to whichever country accommodated us, not necessarily America. But the USA was considered the largest host country during that time, opening its doors to asylum seekers whose application was rejected by other countries and hence stranded.
Audrey - So in Mr. Luong's family of five, how old were the children back then?
Luong - Oh they were still young!
Audrey - Could they remember how it was like when they fled Vietnam?
Luong - They had no idea of what asylum meant! But were just doing what they were told. Little did they realize what a precarious adventure it was to undertake!
Audrey - Did you need to sell your possessions and make other logistical arrangements in preparation for your journey?
Luong - Had we done that, we would have run a high risk of being detected and arrested by the government. At the beginning (of the exodus) the state police maintained strict border control and kept a close eye on the citizens' activities, so any suspicious behaviours (such as the conversion of possessions into cash) would be immediately noticed.
Audrey - Then did you need to save up for this journey? Were there any fees to pay or palms to grease?
Luong - Some residents living in the coastal towns owned fishing boats. They would come into cities in search of would-be asylum seekers. There were also organized smugglers who swindled the asylum seekers out of thousands of dollars, vanishing after receiving the down payment. Who dared report them to the police? A lot of refugees were deceived this way. Even for the relatively lucky ones, it was a great challenge getting from the capital to the coast due to the "hukou" system: Every resident who planned to leave their district needed to register with the local government and apply for a permit. Someone who applied for departure to a coastal city without a convincing reason would immediately fall under suspicion.
Audrey - How old was Mr. Luong back then?
Luong - I was past my forties.
Audrey - By what (transportation) means did the Luong family leave Vietnam?
Luong - Of course smuggling. But we didn't start out directly from HCM City; instead we passed many provinces and reached the coast in a roundabout way. Through the journey we had had to pave the way for the next stop and pre-agree on the smuggling fee, measured in gold by the gram, which was required per head. Our smuggler was introduced to us by a friend and therefore more reliable. He was from Cambodia and owed my friend a favor. To reciprocate he helped us gather news and let us know as soon as he got wind that a boat was due to leave the country. Given how reliable this guy was - he even proposed arranging the logistics for us - I decided to flee the country with his help.
Audrey - How many people were on the boat aside from the Luong family?
Luong - They were many! More than 60 people were crammed into a boat that measured hardly more than ten meters - how dangerous was that? The boat was not new, but an old wooden one. The smuggler settled us in a safe house and picked us up during a pitch-dark night when it was safe enough to set sail.
Audrey - How many places did the Luong family pass through before arriving in the US?
Luong - We passed through many places stop by stop!
Audrey - "Stop by stop"…did you need to sleep over at refugee centres on land? Or did you mostly stay on the boat?
Luong - We slept at pre-arranged hostels and boarded the boat the next morning to continue our journey.
Audrey - I assumed you still didn't know that your final destination would be the USA back then?
Luong - Of course not! During that time all you focussed on was the thought of leaving Vietnam; you had no idea where you would end up. The lucky ones managed to enter refugee camps as soon as they went ashore and got granted visas by countries such as Australia. The remaining refugees had to wait for host countries such as America to determine their fate.
Audrey - So the boat sailed from Vietnam to the Philippines through the South China Sea. How about the journey from the Philippines to the USA?
Luong - Many neighbouring countries had set up refugee camps along their main ports and representatives from various countries were stationed there. They interviewed the asylum seekers. If the interview went smoothly and asylum was granted, the country’s representatives (say the UK) would then issue immigration visas -the same applied if an asylum seeker would like to go to, say, Australia instead. After asylum was granted we still had to wait at the refugee camp and could only leave after all documents had been processed and a flight arranged.
Audrey - So how was it decided that you would go to the USA in the end?
Luong - We still had no idea! We rode on that small boat that was little more than 10 meters long, had more than 60 refugees crammed in, and which would fall apart if a wave washed over us - It really was a hazardous journey!
Audrey - Did the Luong family stay in the Philippines for a short period of time?
Luong - During that time the Philippines was a refugee transit stop. As soon as an asylum seeker had been granted immigration rights by a country he would be transferred to there to await the visa and flight for departure.
Audrey - So did the Luong family apply for the US visa in the Philippines?
Luong - That happened in Thailand, which was the first processing center we entered. Generally speaking, refugees who landed in Thailand were taken in by America. So we waited there for a while, conducted the interview with a representative from the US embassy, got granted asylum, stayed in the processing center and completed the related paper work. Once that was done the US embassy issued us the I-94 (the "temporary green card") and sent us to the transit stop in the Philippines. As we waited for the departure flight we could even attend an English language course there! Finally our turn for the flight came. The embassy told us where and when to meet, and brought us to America.
Audrey - So how long did the Luong family stay in Thailand and the Philippines respectively?
Luong - About a few months in total.
Audrey - Wow, did it take as long as a few months?
Luong - Of course! Even a green card takes a few years to process, let alone documents for people in our situation! A few months would be considered fast!
Audrey - So how was life in the transit stops of Thailand and the Philippines?
Luong - Not a worry! Every day we were given food to cook ourselves.
Audrey - So were there no more worries, now that your life was taken care of?
Luong - Right. The moment our boat was saved from the sea, our situation had already started to improve. Life at the transit stops was not as comfortable as back home, but we got to stay at the refugee housing that was set up temporarily to accommodate us.
Audrey - Then the Luong family departed from HCM City, arrived to Thailand along the sea route Southwest of Cambodia, then flew to the Philippines before departing by flight to the USA?
Luong - Yup! Even before our arrival in the US, a local church that was assigned to us had already found us a large enough a place to stay. They also helped us apply for welfare and schools for the children. After all these initial arrangements have been made, the rest was up to us. With a flat and the children's education taken care of, we went for a medical check-up and officially started our new life in the USA.
Audrey - Could Mr. Luong please describe in detail how you felt upon arrival in the USA? Since this symbolized a new beginning!
Luong - Oh I felt very satisfied! The government had taken care of all aspects of our lives, not only our accommodation but also financial needs.
Audrey - Was the welfare sufficient to sustain your everyday life?
Luong - Of course. The amount might not have been enough for an American, but more than sufficed for Asians like us. At that time a pound of chicken sold for a mere 15 cents! Do you want to know how I felt? One day after work I felt hungry and passed by a hot dog stall, which charged 99 cents - no I correct myself, 75 cents - per hot dog. I was just about to get one when I glanced over to a nearby supermarket and saw on the advertising how much they charged for one pound of chicken. I said to myself, why don't I spend the money on five pounds of chicken meat instead, to be shared with the whole family? Thus I changed my mind and bought some chicken.
Audrey - And hence starting a satisfying and prosperous life ever after?
Luong - Right. The children started school and the adults stayed at home. The lazy ones subsisted upon government welfare but the harder working ones had the option to find a job.
Audrey - With your level of English proficiency during that time, did you experience any difficulties?
Luong - Because we were from a relatively well-off family, we took part in English language courses arranged by the local community while still in Vietnam. But if you don't practise what you are taught all effort would have been a waste, and I only managed to speak some broken English with all that I had learnt in Vietnam. That said, during the transition period in the refugee camps the local government had taken the initiative to set up English classes for us to pass our time.
Audrey - So you already possessed some fundamental language skills by the time you arrived in America.
Luong - Yup! With a lack of practice and the onset of old age, I still couldn't speak fluent English. But it was enough when the locals understood what you wanted to say and vice versa.
Audrey - So did the church also arrange the Coney Island accommodation for you?
Luong - No, we started out living in Queens. At that time the church assigned whichever accommodation they saw fit to the asylum seekers.
Audrey - So the church first arranged for you to settle in Queens; how did you later decide to move to Coney Island?
Luong - Having lived in Queens for a while and with the children starting their education, I started looking for a job.
Audrey - How long did it take you to find a job? And did you move to Coney Island because your job was located there?
Luong - Job search depends to a large extent on your luck. During that time many Chinese went to look for employment in Chinatown. What jobs could you find in Chinatown? Mostly kitchen help [i.e. dishwashing]. But the hourly wage was such a rip-off: back-breaking work at a rate of $2 per hour! Would you do it? But it was the only way out for many immigrants who had no other options. I have a friend who had washed dishes for more than ten years on this kind of hourly rate because he had no education and skills.
Audrey - Was this the only way out? Just toiling on?
Luong - But I wasn't like him. I didn't end up washing dishes because, with the financial aid from the government, we could have subsisted without a job; add to that the food stamps we received. I think at the end it mostly depended on you: Do you want to improve your living conditions by getting a job? Do you want to strive for an independent life? Thinking back on the owners of the Chinese restaurants: We are all the same people, why were they so exploitative? So we were refugees, but we were merely looking for a way to fill our stomach, plus business at the restaurants was not so bad as to justify an hourly wage of only $2 or $3. The transportation alone cost 75 cents one-way, so $1.50 would have had to be deducted from this meagre pay every day!
Audrey - What a rip-off! So what was your first job like?
Luong - My first job? I got it by sheer luck. After the failure at Chinatown I realized how difficult it was to look for a job, so stayed at home, subsisted on government welfare, and passed time by attending some free English language classes which were recommended to me by the church. One day on the subway I chatted with a Spanish speaking man seated beside me. I tentatively asked if he was on the way to work. He answered yes and asked if I was looking for a job? Of course I said yes. He then told me of a place where I could find work. "Get off at 23rd Street and walk to either 6th or 7th Avenue, where you will see a long queue stretching five to six blocks. Join the queue and you will get a job."
I went home and considered it for a week, then decided to go and have a look. True to the man's word, I saw the long queue on 23rd Street and joined it. When it came my turn, the security at the door asked, "Do you have a referral letter?" "No." "How about an appointment?" "Nope." Upon hearing this, the security gave me an application form and instructed me to fill it out at home and mail it back without the need to come back personally. My instinct told me that this must be a gesture of dismissal: He was sending me back when so many people were queuing for a job! So I threw the application form into the garbage bin when I got home and hoped to get something elsewhere.
Interestingly enough, I ran into another Spanish speaking man on the subway one week later. I asked him the same thing and got the same response. Not only that, but he told me he got his current job at the same place. When I told him about my experience he asked, "Why did you fail?" I then explained my lack of referral letter and appointment. He answered, "This is a piece of cake! Go into any church, tell them you are looking for work and ask them for a referral letter, they will definitely help you!" I did as I was told and really managed to obtain the referral letter. Armed with this document I joined the queue again. This time I was sent to the second floor and instructed to complete the application form. As soon as I submitted it I was interviewed. The manager who interviewed me gave me a shock! He looked at my application and said, "What a fool - the monthly financial aid from the government should be more than sufficient to cover your daily expense - why trouble yourself with a job?" My instinct told me that he was testing me, so replied that I didn't want to rely on government subsidies but rather get a job and achieve financial independence. At my answer he gave me a smile and an offer immediately; we completed the registration process for the work permit and union membership on the same day.
Audrey - So was your first job office work? Or was it something else?
Luong - Of course not office work! How would I have ever managed to get office work with my broken English? I might be able to pass a Chinese proficiency exam but would definitely fail the English one! Actually my first job was quite a big deal - I was hired as a janitor at the World Trade Center. Guess how much I got paid per hour back then [which was about 30 years ago]?
Audrey - I guess about $8 per hour.
Luong - Wow, how did you manage to come up with this figure? At that time even secretaries were paid only $3!
Audrey - Really?
Luong - Of course - we are talking about 30, nearly 40 years ago!
Audrey - So I guess….maybe I shouldn't guess anymore! What was the actual hourly rate?
Luong - So you have given up? Actually your guess was pretty close to the actual figure: On my first check the hourly rate was stated to be $9.66. Imagine the surprise I got when I received my first check! It must have been my leaving a rather positive impression upon the hiring manager. I kept the stub of this first check until Hurricane Sandy, when I had no choice but to throw it away due to water damage.
Audrey - What a pleasant surprise with the hourly wage though! How did you move to Coney Island then? After all it is quite some distance from the World Trade Center.
Luong - That's right. By that time we had saved up some money from my job. One day I read in the newspaper that the government has built a few residential blocks in Coney Island, costing as little as $80,000 to $90,000 for an apartment of 4 rooms; the down payment was low enough. So I thought, since this is within our budget, and given the reasonable mortgage rate of 5% per month, we may as well buy a place instead of paying a monthly rent. So I went to the Chinese American Planning Council to apply but all forms were given out. As I walked out of the office feeling disappointed a lady there suggested that I go to the real estate office in Coney Island directly, as they might still have some application forms left. So I went there a week later and sure enough, there were still application forms! So I submitted my application immediately. To boost my chance of my application being granted I put everything in, including my overtime pay. In the end I paid $100,600 for our flat whereas others paid slightly more than $80,000 only - I still remember this amount very clearly! With this purchase we moved to Coney Island.
Audrey - What year was it?
Luong - Sometime in the 80's? I have forgotten…oh, it should have been after 1985, probably around 1990.
Audrey - Do you like life in Coney Island?
Luong - Of course! With our own flat we no longer had to worry about monthly rental payments. Our children were all at school, with the eldest entering high school already; all this I consider the sweet fruit of our hard labor. One day we attended a party and made friends with the security director of the Kaufman Studio in Astoria. He told me that the studio was hiring. Granted the hourly pay was not as high at my present job at the World Trade Center, but with their regular culling practice my job was not all that secure, so I asked if the studio also fired its employees regularly? He answered, "Your job will be there as long as I am there!" Seeing how helpful he was my luck must have been pretty good! I then asked if my wife could also join me for work at the studio and got a positive response. With the relatively low living expenses and reasonable pay, our lives have been improving day by day till now.
Audrey - What type of work did you do at the studio? Was it security?
Luong - Nope! I was in the maintenance team.
Audrey - So in this way you continued on the path to a prosperous and satisfactory life…I assume that Mr. Luong has already retired?
Luong - Oh I have retired for a long time!
Audrey - Apart from taking care of your grandchildren, what else does Mr. Luong do these days?
Luong - Nothing special - we go on vacations, take care of our grandchildren, read the newspaper, go to the community center.
Audrey - Happy days!
Luong - That we managed to come to America is no mean feat!
Audrey - For sure! And I believe that your children have already established their own families?
Luong - Yeah, they now have their own careers and families.
Audrey - So each member in your family is enjoying a stable life. What an encouraging success story!
Luong - Yup! Apart from hard work, a lot of this is due to parental education. It was important to impart the essential knowledge about hard work and striving for success when they were still young. When they returned from school they had nothing to do so used to gather around the dining table (see how many chairs we needed just to seat the entire family!) Back then I was working during the day; when I came home from work I asked them to sit at the dining table and revise their homework. I told them, "Your parents have not a single penny; now that you have the chance to go to school, the future is in your own hands. Help each other and don't just idle around!" In this way I imparted the right values to my children and encouraged them to strive for success.
Audrey - Now that you have settled down in America, have you considered sponsoring relatives back home to join you here?
Luong - Oh my relatives have long fled to other countries.
Audrey - Oh so they are all living overseas?
Luong - Yeah…I still have a sister in Vietnam but she doesn't want to come over.
Audrey - Then she is determined not to leave Vietnam?
Luong - Right.
Audrey - Then why didn't she want to leave Vietnam?
Luong - Because life back home has also improved in the meantime.
Audrey - What an interesting story! Many thanks to Mr. Luong for sharing it with us!