“Truong Xuan, Eternal Spring”
A guest essay by Kevin D. Pham, a political theorist at Gettysburg College.
We’re honored to share this guest essay from Kevin D. Pham, a political theorist at Gettysburg College. We first met Kevin in Paris four years ago, when he was a graduate student at UC Riverside. We were taken by his magnetic warmth, humility, and broad sense of human experience. Kevin told us about some of the stories that inhabit this piece, such as his brother, a tattoo artist in California, and his parents, refugees from Vietnam. We were thrilled when Kevin agreed to write about his life story for us.
Besides teaching, Kevin co-hosts a podcast with Yen Vu called Nam Phong Dialogues, where they talk about Vietnamese history, politics and social change, as well as Vietnamese American experiences. Perhaps our favorite episode reviews four Vietnamese American books that impacted them.
To this day, my father doesn’t like it when an air conditioner makes a room too cold. “Hey, can you turn off that AC?” he asked as he helped me move into my apartment in the summer of 2020, just before I started my teaching job at Gettysburg College. “Okay,” I asked, “but why?” It was hot outside.
Air conditioning reminds him of leaving Vietnam when he was sixteen—of the night before he lost his country. He slept on the floor of his uncle’s house in Saigon, a house that was “so damn cold,” he said, because of their AC. His family was poor, he explained, so he’d never experienced AC, and was wearing just shorts and a T-shirt. No blanket was given to him.
His parents had dropped him off there because his uncle, Pham Ngoc Luy, was the captain of a cargo ship called the Truong Xuan (Eternal Spring).
The next day, April 30, 1975, the ship took my father and four thousand other Vietnamese refugees to sea as tanks rolled into Saigon, marking the city’s liberation for Communists and its fall for the people trying to escape. My dad’s parents stayed because their eldest son, a major in the air force of the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam, was missing. They couldn’t leave him behind. My dad didn’t know that the next time he saw his parents would be sixteen years later, in the United States.
My parents, aunts, and uncles never talked to me about granduncle Luy. I didn’t learn that he was the captain of the Truong Xuan until a decade ago, when I made the discovery at my grandaunt’s house. We’d go there every other month for cung, a family gathering with ritualized ancestor worship—a Confucian tradition from a millennium of Chinese rule in Vietnam—and lots of food. On the altar were photos of ancestors, cans of beer, bowls of rice and pork belly, and incense sticks in a brass pot of sand. And next to the altar was a bookshelf, on which I found a spiral-bound book, full of photocopies of typewritten and handwritten documents, and newspaper articles from around the world—Sweden, Denmark, France, Canada, Japan, China, and many cities throughout the U.S.—with titles like “Captain of Viet Freighter is Refugees’ Greatest Hero” and “The Freedom Voyage of the Truong Xuan” and “J’ai survécu à l’odyssée du Truong Xuan.” Most of them were about, or at least mentioned, my granduncle. Many featured photos of him.
A few hours after the ship’s departure, I read, rumors spread onboard that the ship would hand the passengers over to the Communists in the North. Believing this, one man jumped overboard to his death. Another committed suicide with a gun. But the ship made it to international waters. After two days at sea, water infiltrated the ship’s engine room and panic ensued. Granduncle Luy sent out an “SOS to every ship in the area,” and eventually a Danish ship called the Clara Maersk, captained by a man named Anton Olson, took all the Vietnamese passengers aboard, gave them food and water, and took them to a refugee camp in Hong Kong.
In a telegram from Hong Kong, addressed “To Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain,” I read Luy’s words: “All Vietnamese refugees who left everything and native land for freedom and democracy respectfully express deep appreciation and heartfelt thanks to his excellency the governor of Hong Kong, people of Hong Kong, for generosity, magnanimity, humanitarian assistance, commodities, starting establishing new life in free countries. God bless you.”
Another telegram I read was addressed to “Her majesty Queen Margrethe II of Denmark,” giving “heartfelt thanks to her majesty, government, and peoples of Denmark. The Captain M/S Clara Maersk Anton M. Olson who save refugees from dramatic situation on May 2nd, realizing Danish long tradition of humanitarian assistance to suffering people. God bless you. Refugee representatives committee. Dodwell’s ridge refugee camp, Hong Kong.”
There were more thank-you notes, including a typewritten letter to Olson in which Luy praises Denmark as a “land of great souls like Søren Kierkegaard, Hans Christian Anderson and Oehlenschläger,” and salutes Olson for doing “what the age-old traditions of sea navigation have always dictated: to respond to distress calls by other ships.”
And I read newspaper articles from the early 1980s about something else: Luy’s political activism as chairman of the National Support Movement for the Resistance in Vietnam, an organization of refugees dedicated to combating the Communist regime in Vietnam from abroad. On a Saturday in 1983, he gave a speech to over a thousand Vietnamese in the auditorium of a high school in Wichita, Kansas. “Our most marvelous weapon is spiritual, from the heart,” he said. “This is a struggle of ours, a struggle of our people, a struggle of our country… I call on your support until victory day. We have to overthrow the brutal Communism to regain our beautiful country.”
As it was for many Vietnamese refugees, hatred of Communism was strong among my uncles, aunts, and parents. Yet my close friends in high school and college self-identified as Marxists. (A high school friend once skateboarded to my house in a hammer and sickle T-shirt; I made him stay outside while I got him another shirt to wear so my parents wouldn’t see it.) It was this discrepancy—the way my family and friends, people I cared about and whose company I enjoyed, seemed to have fiercely opposing ways of explaining the world and what should be done—that got me interested in political ideologies.
In my first semester at Gettysburg, in addition to Intro to Political Thought (where I tell the story about the T-shirt), I decided to teach a course on refugees. What I discovered in that spiral-bound book had given me a sense of duty: I had to share those stories, my family’s and others’. I called the class Refugees and You.
It was a bit of a bummer, of course, to start a new teaching job on Zoom rather than in person, but on the other hand this made it easy to invite both of my parents to be guest speakers for a day each, to tell my students about their experiences as refugees from Vietnam. And when my mom told her story, I ended up learning things I never knew.
She left Vietnam one morning in 1980, after several failed attempts since April 1975. At 5 a.m. she went to a place near a river that led into the ocean to meet fifteen people at a small boat. They waited for instructions, pretending not to know each other. Finally someone brought them onto the boat, and they started cruising toward a bigger one. But first they had to cross a Communist security checkpoint.
The captain of her boat had money at hand, ready to bribe to the police to let them pass. As they approached the checkpoint, everyone on board prayed. Catholics, like my mom, prayed to Mary; Buddhists prayed to Buddha. This was a critical area: they could either escape or go to prison. If the police accepted their money, they’d be free.
The sun suddenly went away. It started raining hard. The police went inside to hide from the rain, so didn’t come down to check the boat. My mom’s boat made it out to sea. After that, she said, “everyone believed in miracles.”
A few days later they encountered pirates, probably from Thailand. The boat had two levels, and the pirates made the men go upstairs and the women downstairs. They made everyone kneel with their hands behind their heads, taking their watches and necklaces. One pirate raped a woman. Another pirate, probably their leader, got angry and shouted at the rapist. Then the pirates gave the passengers fish and water and left. They never touched my mom. She’d been holding a small statue of Mary that her mom had given to her, promising it would protect her. It worked, my mom said. I suddenly understood why she was so religious.
As she spoke, I looked at the other little squares on the screen with the faces of my students in them. Many were in tears. So was I.
My dad told the class about the Mormon family that sponsored and hosted him when he arrived in the U.S., and about how grateful he was to an American boy for convincing him to go on a high school trip to Disneyland. He was shy, and that boy helped him come out of his shell.
My mom talked about a time, not long after arriving in California, when she and her Vietnamese friends were walking down the street. Some young white men in a truck approached them, called them “gooks,” and told them to go back to their country. Suddenly, an old white man burst out of a nearby house, wielding a shotgun and yelling at the boys to “get the fuck out of here!” The truck peeled off and the man asked my mom and her friends if they were okay. He invited them in for tea.
I asked my students what they thought of my parents’ talks. One said that listening to them was “one of the most powerful learning experiences” he’d ever had. Another wrote: “After hearing Professor Pham’s parents’ stories, I was shocked at how much more I could be inspired by refugee stories.” Another said: “Hearing your parents’ story in class last week gave me a totally different perspective on Vietnam. I knew there were refugees after the fall of Saigon, but in every history class I’ve ever attended, no one talks about their experience.”
Indeed. And that’s why I invited my parents.
But my favorite comment came from a first-generation student: “When I was listening to Mr. and Mrs. Pham talk,” she wrote, “I realized I do not know much about how my parents came to the US.”
We often don’t know that we don’t know things we probably should. Now maybe she would ask her parents for their own stories.
Personally, I have no problem with air conditioning, even if it can make a room too cold, and rather appreciate it in July on the East Coast of the U.S. I don’t have the trauma my father or mother have, and this was their aim. They went through great hardship so their children would not.
The day my parents dropped me off at college, my dad gave me a letter. In it, he wrote that he was terribly lonely in those first few years he spent in the U.S., and that every April 30 he would drive to the ocean by himself to watch the waves and, in his words, “hope for a better day.”
My parents are retired now and have more time on their hands, so I got them a subscription to Storyworth. Every week they receive a question about their life by email, and after a year the company will make a book out of their answers. It’s a nice way to outsource my curiosity.
One questions was: “How has your life turned out differently than you imagined it would?” In his response, my dad said that he’d wanted to become a teacher for as long as he could remember. But:
If my dream of becoming a teacher in Vietnam had some chance of becoming a reality, it certainly did not enter my plan when I immigrated to the USA. There were a couple reasons why I didn’t pursue that. One was the language barrier, and the other was more practical at the time. It was economic. We were immigrants, and my brothers had to work all kinds of jobs to support us and send money home. The engineering route was considered the most realistic for all at the time… I did have 35 years of working and mostly enjoyed all of them. I hope that I supported my family reasonably well. My two sons turned out perfect. One even became a professor, and as icing on the cake, Vietnam is his academic focus! One became an artist, doing what he loves.
Through their stories, I’m learning not only about them but also about the world, about events of world-historical importance, about the movements of peoples, and about peoples’ efforts to live with dignity despite the indignities they encounter. Special as they are, my parents are not unique. Their stories reflect those of many other immigrants.
Vietnam is indeed my academic focus—for now—and in my scholarly work and the podcast I co-host with Yen Vu I’ve tried to show how Vietnam, its history and people, offers valuable lessons to people in the West.
And my younger brother is indeed an artist, a successful professional tattooist. My dad used to dislike tattoos, but recently he asked my brother to give him his first: the flag of South Vietnam, overlaid with the date “30/4/75” and a silhouette of the Truong Xuan.
Some Taiwan links
In The News Lens, Michael Fahey explains how changes in Taiwan’s classification system will impact migrant workers. “Handled correctly, Taiwan will acquire the skilled workers it needs in the short term and a more diverse society in the long term. Handled incorrectly, Taiwan risks developing a permanent underclass of foreign migrants unable to fully participate in the economic, social, and cultural mainstream of Taiwanese life.”
At New Bloom Brian Hioe writes of the “long path to be walked” before capital punishment will be abolished. In Taipei Times Maria Wilkinson, the English correspondent at the Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty (TAEDP), looks to the abolition of the death penalty in New Hampshire for clues about how Taiwan’s impasse. If you missed our piece about the pro-prison and pro-death penalty politics in Taiwan, you can read it here.
Book Club: Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s The Mountains Sing
We had such a fun time discussing Orwell’s Roses yesterday. Thank you all for the lively conversation! For our next book club we’ve decided to read Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s The Mountains Sing. Can’t wait! It will be Friday, November 4th, 7 PM EST / Saturday, November 5th, 7 AM Taiwan time. Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org (or reply to this email) if you want to join.
I looked at the linked podcast for the favorite Vietnamese-American narratives and also loved Thi Bui's graphic novel memoir 'The Best We Could Do'. It was my library's community read last year and I was able to see Bui speak on her book during a zoom that was held in place of an in-person event, which was also great.