"We left with a hole in the boat" - An Oral History
An audio oral history recording that follows the journey of Katalina (Katalina is a pseudonym), who arrived in the U.S. as a refugee from Vietnam in 1975.
Listen: this audio recording follows the journey of Katalina (Katalina is a pseudonym), who arrived in the U.S. as a refugee from Vietnam in 1975. She talks about how she got to the U.S. and her life in the states before discussing different aspects related to the refugee experience.
Annie: According to the UNHCR (or, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), as of 2021, there are over 316,000 Vietnamese refugees in the U.S. (UNHCR). And as of 2019, California remains one of the largest refugee receiving states, having resettled around 108,600 refugees since 2002 (SEARAC). Within California, San Diego is one of the top destinations for refugee arrivals, along with Sacramento and Los Angeles (immigrantdataca.com). Between 1975 to 1979, around 246,000 refugees arrived to the U.S. from Southeast Asia under special and humanitarian parole programs following the Vietnam war. These refugees are considered the first wave of refugees to resettle in the U.S., a majority of whom were Vietnamese.
Annie: My name is Annie, an undergraduate student at UCSD. I recently had the privilege to speak with someone who arrived in the 70s from Vietnam and had her permission to share her story as a refugee in San Diego. She asked to be referred to as Katalina, a pseudonym to retain her anonymity. I want to preface this recording with a recognition of my position as a college student and someone who is not a refugee. Thus, in the rest of this audio, I wish to give space to Katalina for her to tell her own story.
Katalina: I came to San Diego in 1977 from Vietnam in 1975. So, I was one of the first waves of Vietnamese refugees to the US. We never intended to go to the US, actually. I left with my parents and a lot of my dad’s side of the family. So how it started was, for an entire year prior to us leaving, we had a boat ready. And it was supposed to be a food boat to go up and down the Vietnam coast. But in secret, it was the escape boat, and was kept in the harbor. And we didn't know when we were going to leave or if we're going to leave, but it was just in case and everybody else bought seats on the boat, except for my family because my uncle was organizing the whole thing. And the thing is, if you're wealthy enough to buy seats on a boat, then most people who bought seats on our boat, got other seats from other boats and other avenues. Everybody was thinking of multiple ways to escape, right? And we only had one route because we couldn't get to fly out or anything. And we were hoping that South Vietnam would win. So we waited until the last minute.
The day we left was April 29th, 1975. Saigon was declared lost to the communists on April 30, 1975. So talk about the 11th hour! That was as close as it gets. And we left the night of the 29th after dark, and it was this last-minute announcement “saying everybody meet at 8pm at the boat dock, and we're waiting 10 minutes and if you don't show up within the 10 minutes, we're leaving without you.” And it was last minute, so a lot of people who bought tickets didn't get the message. But I think all of those people were able to escape anyway, because they had multiple ways of leaving. So, I contributed. I was a little four-year-old. I carried a bag. We left at night. I think we were afraid of getting caught so we didn't take a taxi or anything. I think we all went on a motorbike and then left our motorbike or something like that. We left in the dark too because when you're in a boat and you're leaving after dark, you are supposed to turn the lights on. So right when we were in the harbor, we already crashed into another boat that was bigger than ours because there's a lot of boats in the harbor. We left in the dark, because we didn't want to get caught and before we even left, we hit another boat and my dad had a deep gash on his leg. There was a hole in our boat, and we used the rice bags to plug up the hole and guess what? We left anyway! Can you believe it? We left with a hole in the boat because we didn't turn on the lights.
Katalina: But we got to international waters, and we saw a floating plank with other boat people waiting there, and so we asked what was going on and they said they were waiting to see if a ship would come by and pick them up. There were already other people there, but we got lucky. So we were headed for Australia, because that was sort of like the closest. Never in our wildest minds did we dream of going to the US -- it was too far. So, Australia, but even Australia was crazy with a hole in the boat - how would you ever make it to Australia? But you think big – aim high and think big. And we got lucky. A US naval ship came by, and it wasn't a rescue ship. Because they were not a rescue boat, it was not their job to pick up anybody and they stopped because there are all these people in the middle of the ocean near this floating plank. And my uncle cut the line, because he was educated in the US, went to school in the US, so he knew English. And he said that if they let our family on, then he could translate for them. So they said yes and we left all of our food and our boat for the people that were still waiting, and we got on because if we stayed in the line, who knows when the next boat would come by, right? Could be days or a week; there was no schedule; this is all…just all random, right? So in that kind of situation, you kind of have to be opportunistic.
Annie: After she arrived in the U.S., Katalina arrived at Camp Pendleton, where around 50,000 Vietnamese refugees arrived on the same day.
Katalina: I remember Camp Pendleton and it was one of the four camps in the US that they opened for refugees and I remember taking outdoor showers. I remember standing in line for food and as a kid, you eat anything; and I remember the barracks – If you ever watched MASH, it was like that – it was these army-like military tents, and you sleep on cots. So, I remember that dirt floor and all that.
And the funny thing was, they didn't know what to give us to eat. They just knew that we liked rice. So, everything they served was with rice. It was like pizza and rice, hotdog and rice, burgers and rice. You know—all American food plus rice, and it was hard for the adults to eat but as a kid, you're not that picky, so I ate everything. I didn't have an issue with it.
So we were in Camp Pendleton for a couple months until we got church sponsors in Minnesota. So then they flew us to Minnesota. I don't think we flew to Camp Pendleton. I think we took a boat to Camp Pendleton. The only time we flew was from Camp Pendleton to Minnesota. So we made it to the US by a US naval ship… But I didn't remember too much except for the big space and the feeling of being a tiny little thing in a big wide ship…
I remember being very hungry, even in the US. After we got sponsors, we stayed with this elderly couple and we were really skinny and scrawny and they thought we didn't eat much so they didn’t serve very much food. There was my mom, my dad, me, my grandmother, and my uncle, who's my dad's youngest brother. And we stayed with them. And I remember wanting more food, but there wasn't very much food at the table at meals. And my mom wouldn’t let me eat more because she would say it was rude because that’s Vietnamese culture, right? If you are a guest at someone's house, you don't want to eat all the food because it's impolite. And so you don't, even if you're still hungry. Even if you can eat everything plus more, you couldn’t eat. We had to leave food at the table even though we were famished. So, because we left food, I think our hosts felt like we weren't hungry, and that we just don't eat much. So it was sort of this catch 22. We were trying to be polite by not finishing up, right?
Annie: Soon after, Katalina and her family rented their own place and spent the winter in Minnesota, but in the spring of 1976, they moved to San Jose.
Katalina: We had friends and family in San Jose. So we packed up in the spring after the snow melted and made our way to California like the Beverly Hillbillies. We packed everything into the car from a spoon to a fork. Everything we owned went in a car, plus five people. Can you believe that? Unbelievable.
Annie: Then, in 1977, she moved down to San Diego. After learning about how she arrived in California, we started talking about community. When I asked Katalina about what it was like to find other members of the community, she talked about how at the time, there was no community, as she, and the others who came in the 1970s, were the ones who founded the Vietnamese refugee community.
Katalina: Well, initially, there was no community because we were the first wave of immigrants in 1975. I mean, anybody that came before that, they were not refugees. They were just coming here to study and that kind of thing, on visas. So there was no community at the time. Everything was really scattered. There were no Asian markets for food. You were kind of on your own. We were kind of in a sink or swim situation.
So the first wave of Vietnamese refugees created a community. The refugees that came in the 80s had a community to come to because the people that came in the 70s would sponsor their relatives who came in the 80s. My aunt got sponsored. So nowadays, my parents have a Vietnamese-like community, a meditation group; they go to temple together, or they meet in each other's houses, eat dinner, and meditate, and that kind of thing.
The refugees that came in the 80s had a refugee community to come to because they were sponsored and by then little Saigon was here. There were… all these shops and stores that sold Vietnamese food and things to cook with. It was hard in the beginning, I don't know how my mom even made Vietnamese food.
Individuals… eventually create a community feel and create festivals. But, that's later on, when things are more stable. In the beginning, you're just—“ how do I know English?” “How do I go to the store?” “how do I find a place to live?” It's a very unstable situation, very insecure. There's a lot of stress. Early birds like us… I think we had it hard because it was sink or swim, basically.
Annie: Even now, Katalina feels like community creation is one of the most prevalent challenges in the refugee community, especially in San Diego.
Katalina: I think building community is a challenge in San Diego, because there are small spots where the Vietnamese people have shops like around El Cajon and University and then a little bit in Mira Mesa, a little bit in Linda Vista – it’s scattered. They didn't centralize. So proximity is a key factor for having a bigger community but they don't have that proximity. It's all scattered into three little areas in San Diego. And just in the last 10 or 12 years, the Vietnamese people created the TếtFestival, which is a really nice way to bring all the Vietnamese people together. Because Tết is Lunar New Year, it's the biggest festival, biggest holiday of the year. So I'm glad they did that. And even before it was also piecemeal, too, because some have made it at Qualcomm Stadium, some did it in Mira Mesa, the community park. So there were two organizations. And then the Chinese people did their own in Balboa Park and in downtown. So I think the challenge would be grouping these organizations together. And maybe it'll be better if they work together on one event, instead of two events separately. Because “one plus one is not two; one plus one is three.” You're stronger together.
Annie: Currently, Katalina is a physician in San Diego. I asked her how her experiences as a refugee inform what she currently does, from career to personal life, and here is what she shared:
Katalina: Medicine has no borders, so I chose a career in medicine to be able to live and work with, and help people anywhere in the world… to help people live better lives, healthier lives. And I've always had a love of the ocean because the ocean brought me here to this country. [I am] deeply patriotic to the US. I always wondered, “Am I Vietnamese American or am I American Vietnamese?” Because when I grew up, I was always trying to walk the culture on the fence. I was always on the fence between both cultures because both cultures are very different. But I've been here long enough that I think I'm more American now. So I would call myself a Vietnamese American now, but maybe the first half of my life, or the first 20 some years, I was more like American Vietnamese: whereas American described my Vietnamese but now I think Vietnamese describes me as an American.
Annie: Aside from talking about the difficulties of her experiences, Katalina also talked about some of the good things that came out of her journey.
Katalina: The positive experience is the resilience, I think it's a precious life skill to learn, and if you learn it young, it becomes ingrained into your personality. And so, I know, because of what I went through that no matter what happens in life, I am resilient. The next positive thing is the ability to live with less, to be able to create something out of nothing. That was a big deal! My parents came here with nothing – penniless – and not even knowing English; try doing that, plop yourself in an alien country, not knowing English and not having a dime to your name. It makes you see things in a different way, to create something from nothing. So I think that's a unique, special byproduct of the experience.
Annie: Finally, I asked Katalina, if there was one thing she hoped people could take away from her story, here’s what she answered:
Katalina: Well, what makes me sad is… Americans being very anti-immigratio. I think my family and I have given way more than we’ve taken, and so I have a personal bias… I'm pro immigrant because I just don't have that same personal experience. I think fear of immigration and fear of refugees using up limited resources is from a scarcity mentality…that is an experience you're supposed to have as a refugee – it’s not an experience you're supposed to have as a citizen of a country where your life is stable. Why do people have that fear? So that makes me sad. And I hope that my story is evidence that there's no need to fear. I have touched many people's lives through my work as a clinician and a non-clinician, and I try to help people who are truly disabled and need help.
I hope that my story will be one of the many stories that will offset any anti-immigration bias that some people may have… because this whole immigration issue is going to be an issue – the world is the same size, and there's more and more people, and there will be political economic conflicts, even natural disasters with global warming, we will have more refugees and more immigrants, rest assured.
Annie: And this is where Katalina and I left off our conversation. While Katalina is just one person I spoke to, her story belongs to the thousands of other similar untold stories about refugees in the U.S., and in San Diego. Like she said, there will always be more refugees and immigrants, so it’s crucial to center and uplift these voices and experiences, remembering that refugees and migrants lead multidimensional lives that do not fall into the mass media depiction of the refugee experience.
And with that, it brings us to the end of this recording for today. A huge thank you to Katalina for agreeing to speak with me and share her story. The artwork that accompanies this recording is done by me. The music used is by Louie Zong, you can find more at louiezong.bandcamp.com. Thank you for listening, have a good day.
“Refugee Arrivals: CIDP.” Refugee Arrivals | CIDP, California Immigrant Data Portal, 2020, immigrantdataca.org/indicators/refugee-arrivals
SEARAC, AAAJ-LA. "Southeast Asian American Journeys: A National Snapshot of Our Communities." 2020.
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “Refugee Statistics.” UNHCR, UNHCR, The UN Refugee Agency, 2022, www.unhcr.org/refugee-statistics/download/?url=7ki6Wy.
Music Credit: Louie Zong, 2020 - https://louiezong.bandcamp.com/album/beyond-the-edge-of-the-world
Art Credit: Annie Tang, 2022