Monday, June 30, 2014

"Where the Wind Leads" by Vinh Chung (2014)

This is the story of one family’s 11,000 mile journey from South Vietnam to America by way of Malaysia and the hardships; and miracles; they endured during their 5 month trip by land, sea and air. The Chung family was very well fixed in South Vietnam at the time of the war. Hard work and sacrifice had made them the equivalent of millionaires in the rice and importation business. Then the hard times came as Vietnam fell to the Communists.

The book is at once a memoir; a history; and a cultural overview of the differences between Asian – Americans. It’s also an adventure; and in the end it is a love story on several levels as well. In short; this is one helluva book.

Vinh Chung recounts his journey from childhood in a war torn Vietnam; the downfall of South Vietnam; and his family’s flight to America by way of Malaysia. The Chungs’ are a Chinese family, and the story of how the authors’ grandparents amassed a fortune is fascinating enough on its own. But throw in the risk that it took to leave Vietnam; after being stripped of everything they worked so hard for; and you have a riveting account of the immigrant experience in the late 20th century. And it’s not a pretty picture.

Mr. Chung’s parents and grandparents had built a small empire, beginning with literally handfuls of milled rice which they sold on the streets to get money to buy more. And when that became successful enough to require a truck; they went into trucking. But the empire they built was constantly under threat; from either the French, before the Second World War; the Japanese during the war; and the French again after the war. Then the Communists came, and the Americans came after them. Each used the South as a battleground for their ideologies. The result was the downfall of the South when America left, and families like the Chung’s were left to ponder their futures; and in some cases their fates.

Being Chinese also left the family open to certain prejudices. The Vietnamese were never overly fond of the Chinese; considering them to be interlopers. This is one of the most interesting portions of the book, with the author explaining the customs for marriage and the system of honoring their elders. Each child had a pecking order that was never broken. The eldest was the first hope for the next generation, and that child was expected to reach back and give his siblings a leg up in return.

As refugees the family suffered all of the trials attendant to dealing with smugglers and pirates. They were even cast adrift and left to die by the Malaysian Navy after they were stripped of whatever valuables they had been able to smuggle out of Vietnam. The author’s grandmother had secreted gold and cash in the linings of their clothes, as well as in her wicker chair. But when they find themselves adrift with no water or food, the value of life becomes more important than any worldly riches.

It is around this time that his mother has had a vision of a bearded man in a robe who chooses her family to live. She has no idea who this man is. But she remembers the vision. And, when the family is about to expire from lack of food and water, the father calls out to God for rain and it rains. As a matter of fact it rains so much that their tiny boat almost sinks. When he calls out to God again to make it stop; it does. These are the first steps which the family takes toward Christianity, a faith which will later define their lives in America.

Eventually the family is rescued at sea by a ship called the “Seasweep”, which is run by a Christian organization whose purpose is to aid the Vietnamese “boat people.” Eventually the family settles in Fort Smith, Arkansas; where they struggle to acclimate themselves to a whole new culture. Speaking no English, the father is forced to work menial jobs for minimum wage while supporting 8 children. Compared to his former life as an entrepreneur, this was bitter pill to swallow. 

This is also the story of an over achieving family who came to America by choice, under tremendous hardship. And they have lived the American Dream; from bottom to top. The author is a Harvard educated Doctor; fulfilling his father’s dream. The older kids were almost failures in their father's eyes for having only obtained Master’s Degrees!  

Mr. Chung’s account of meeting his future wife; who is Korean; and the struggle they both faced in trying to come to terms with their mutual attraction for one another is simply beautiful. Neither one had ever been kissed before. This portion of the book is truly a love story which will make you smile and remember your own youth.

I highly recommend this book as a way to understand the problems faced by the average refugee. You will come away with a new respect for the “boat people” in general; even as you recall the immigrant experience of your own ancestors and their journey by boat to the “new world.” And, in the end, you will come away with a better understanding of who you are. This is a wonderful, enlightening book.  

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