Swimming in Saigon

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When I was five years old, my family moved to Saigon, Vietnam. Depending on your politics, or your view of history, we moved there for noble purposes. My father worked at the U.S. Embassy, and we were his dependents. It was safe, was the intended message to the world. American diplomats and their families were welcome, the war was over, nothing to see here.

I was five. My sister was a toddler and would not really learn English until she returned to the U.S. in 1975. My family lived in a house surrounded by a metal. We were protected, 24/7 by armed guards who slept a lot, but remained at their post at our front gate. We ate lavishly, learned only to drink water that had been boiled for sterilization, and attended The American School of Saigon, where I learned about Dick and Jane. We swam and swam, in the big, beautiful pool outside the U.S. Embassy. You have probably seen pictures.
I’m writing this not to share my idyllic childhood of papaya for breakfast. I’m writing this because OUTSIDE our gate, there were makeshift huts, vendors, beggars. Less than five feet from our front gate some days. I remember a mother with a deformed child who camped there regularly, their eyes dead inside their dusty, broken bodies—some adult told me, about the child with no hand, “sometimes they do that to their children to make people feel sorry for them.” We got a puppy in Saigon, because we had gone to the market one day and my mother let her guard down—she bought a meat dog. There were snakes for sale, very much alive, but with their mouths sewn shut. Mixed in, of course, were cultural norms I didn’t know—snakes with mouths sewn shut can’t be that much more horrific than modern day slaughter houses—but I saw no mercy. They were people without choices, without hope. What the fuck was I? What the fuck was my family? We were fucking lucky is what we were. Five feet of dusty street stood between me and the child with the severed hand, five feet and the randomness of our births.

When word came that Saigon would fall, I was finishing first grade, late March 1975. Our class had just finished reading Charlotte’s Web, which I remember because I had to leave the classroom when Charlotte died—I had not learned to cry quietly yet. Both my parents were sick, one with appendicitis and one with amoebic dysentery, but we had to get out of the city, so my mother got out of her hospital bed, came home to us, where we packed our bags and left all that dusty suffering behind. We left our fish tank behind, burbling away in the living room, its colorful inhabitants oblivious to their imminent starvation. As we left for the airport, my mother emptied her purse entirely, giving every little bit of money she had to our house keepers and nannies (of course we had servants—we were Americans, after all) and cried as they hurried home to their villages, to their own babies, to more war.

I’m saying this because when I read the headlines about refugees, I feel I’ve seen those refugees. I feel so profoundly ANGRY when Americans say shitty things about refugees—I am careful not to broach the subject with my friends who love the wall. Go look at some real live refugees. You have done NOTHING to earn your life here, your life of Walmart, and confederate flags, your smug this is MY country mantra. I certainly had done nothing to earn my own place by the pool in Saigon where, in later news clips, you can see thousands of people waiting for that last helicopter out of Saigon—it’s the same fucking pool. You were born where you were born—it’s nothing more interesting or complicated than that. So have some mercy, for the love of God. Maybe get a little pissed about the babies in cages. Go smell what OUR government is doing to babies and their parents—their parents who love their babies enough to risk everything. Thank God you never had to choose to cross a river with a baby on your back, hoping that kindness waited on the other side. They don’t want your country. It’s mercy they’re after. Have some.

I am a mom who drives a lot and listens to audiobooks when I can. I love a good story.

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