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  • Writer's pictureWJ Kehewin

Run For Your Life 66 (Content trigger warning for drug use)

My first love was born in the spring of ‘66’ in the middle of an air raid, bombs dropping both near and far, women and children screaming. What should have been a celebration of the birth of their son turned into a deadly game of fleeing for their lives. His mother was weak, hungry, scared, and helpless. His father was yelling and gesturing at mother frantically to “Hurry up! Run!” She ran with her newborn son wrapped in a half meter of cloth, a ration from the communists. High pitched cries frantic with fear and cold pierced the twilight. Luong made his appearance in the world.

As Mother and newborn son lay in wait for the next bomb to drop; stomachs full of watered-down congee, Father vowed to himself that they would escape North Vietnam and go to the land of plenty, wherever that may be, he would take a chance and believe in a power greater than himself. Father couldn’t be sure of where to escape, but he, had heard of places like Canada and Australia where human life was precious and opportunities aplenty. Father even heard that the streets were paved with gold. Father sometimes sat outside at night by the crackling fire trying to conjure up a picture in his mind of a place where the streets were made of gold, flashing and reflecting in the sun.

Luong had the most beautiful face and was often mistaken for a girl. His jet black hair, light complexion , bright eyes, and soft feminine mouth could be advantageous in certain situations. His feminine features were, at times, what kept the family fed during their escape from Vietnam. Some days when his stomach was aching and bubbling from hunger, Luong would awaken early and take fruit and vegetables from the neighbors yards to bring home. On a few occasions, Luong would bring live chickens home, place them in front of his mother and walk away wordless. His Mother would ask him in an angry tone, scowl and all, hands on her hips, where he got the chicken from and he would answer, “Somewhere”, and be off again plotting what he would ‘borrow’ tomorrow.

The Vietnam summer was sweltering, the air sticky and Mother and Father still worked as much as they could, doing anything they could find. Sometimes it was working in the rice fields; plowing or planting the new rice seedlings. One mistake like not leaving enough space between each transplant or not planting them deep enough was a risk of not getting any pay at all. Mother ended up coming home without pay a few times because she had not planted the rice deep enough and most of them ended floating up to the top. Father plowed the fields with oxen during planting season. Working in the rice fields was demanding arduous labor that didn’t pay very much but Mother and Father didn’t have a choice.

Luong and his best friend would ‘appropriate’ fruits, vegetables, chickens when they could. They were quite skilled at climbing trees and makeshift fences but once they got caught taking plums from a neighbour’s yard. They were both beaten with a stick. Back in the old country if you got caught doing something wrong, you would be punished and there wasn’t a thing you or your parents could do about it. Charging people with assault and seeking compensation wasn’t an option. You got what you got and you went on your way rubbing your sore behind vowing silently to come back in the middle of the night to steal all the plums; which is what they did. During the night, the man with the bamboo stick woke up without a single plum left on his tree. The next day, an old bitter dog appeared in the neighbour’s yard: frothing at the mouth when it barked and old enough to have a nasty growl. Luong ended up befriending the dog with chicken bones and bits of yellowed chicken skin, Needless to say, he now could get plums at night, sit on top his roof, legs crossed, and stare at the stars spitting plum pits into his neighbour’s yard.

Father says that being in a communist country; job security was non-existent except for government officials. Father believed that when the government workers like police died: they would die without a clear conscience and be reincarnated as something they feared the most. He would say that coming back as something you were afraid of or hated would be the ultimate punishment. Imagine coming back as a snake if you were afraid of them?

It was Father’s anti- communism views that landed him in jail in ‘70’. He ended up being in jail when his second child, a little girl was born during monsoon season. Sheets of rain poured down over their shack of a house, leaking bitter cold streams onto what few things they had. Mother cried nightly and so did the baby girl; Luong just didn’t cry. He would leave if he heard anyone crying, especially his Mother. Father told Luong that men didn’t cry so he didn’t even like to hear it.

Luong, feeling the hunger gnawing in his gut and hearing his sister’s hungry cries turned to begging in Hai Phong at seven years old. His girlish face would get them cups of rice, a few dong (Currency), candied tomato on a few occasions, and sometimes dried pork, dried shrimp or fish. He was once given six eggs which he took home to his Mother and little sister for supper, breakfast and dinner. Mother asked him where he got the eggs from and he told her, “Somewhere” and off he went to play with his friends.

Father was released in ‘71’, emaciated and angry. He was going to find a way to escape Vietnam. Father watched his wife and young children go without too many times. Sometimes, Father would tell his children that they would be eating flying shrimp with rice for supper. The children would be happy and their eyes would light up in anticipation. The flying shrimp were crunchy, an off color almost army green color and were not flying shrimp, but grasshoppers that Father collected in a field. The family ate a lot of congee which was a poor man’s way of preparing rice. There was an old saying that Father used to tell his children, “When you don’t have enough rice, make congee”. Just because the war ended in 1976 after the Geneva Conference; poverty was still alive and thriving in Vietnam. Flying shrimp was a mainstay in Mother and Fathers’ household and it didn’t take Luong long to figure out that the green

Crunchy corpse on top his rice were not flying shrimp. He was told not to tell his sister or she would not eat it.

In 1980, after another stint in jail for pursuing his views and speaking his mind; a police officer threw Father back in jail. “Just because he could”, Father said. By this time of scrimping and saving and eating flying shrimp; Father had enough dong saved up to leave Vietnam forever and he was going to make sure he and his family would live a good life elsewhere. It was time to execute a plan and this involved his family who were on the outside.

After Mother’s visit to the jail where she once again witnessed Father’s emaciation and sickly complexion she knew just how desperate the situation was. She listened to Father carefully about how she was to dig up the money buried near his Mother’s graves and send their one and only son into South Vietnam to pay for and establish a passage for their escape. Luong was supposed to travel by any means to Ho Chi Minh City in South Vietnam to pay the owner of the escape boat. Father was to be let out of jail for one day during Vietnamese New Year and he wasn’t planning to go back to jail where you were lucky to get a half bowl of congee, bugs and all. Father said that if the guards really hated you; they would spit in your food, in front of you.

Mother sent fourteen year old Luong from North Vietnam to journey to Ho Chi Minh City in South Vietnam. She strapped the money to his waist and tied it up with one of her Ao Yem garments. Ao Yem was a traditional garment worn by Vietnamese women, ranging from bright to more earthy colors depending if you were from the country side or the city. Mothers’ traditional Ao Yem was brown which signified that she was from the countryside. Her Mother had made this Ao Yem for her and now she was tying it around her son’s waist for luck.

Mother packed her son some dried pork in shred of cloth and told him not to eat it all at once and to trust only good people. She also told him that their lives depended upon him reaching Ho Chi Minh City within two weeks to pay Ngoc, the boat owner for their escape.

Luong left the outskirts of Hai Phong with the last of their money strapped to his waist. He was not allowed to take it off for any reason nor was he allowed to use any of it for food or travel. He was to travel by any means necessary to the city of Ho Chi Minh. He began to walk and walk he did for two straight weeks. Sometimes he was invited in by other Mother’s and Grandmother’s to have a meal and a rest. They knew exactly why a fourteen year old North Vietnamese boy was travelling alone but he was told if he was stopped for any reason: that he was going to visit his Grandmother in Central Vietnam. The differences in language between North and South Vietnamese were very apparent and the less he spoke, the better chance that he would survive and make it to Saigon City now renamed Ho Chi Minh City (named after the communist leader Ho Chi Minh).

The Viet Cong, an armed group of South Vietnamese roamed Central Vietnam and South Vietnam looking to start fights with North Vietnamese people; even after the Fall of Saigon (capital of South Vietnam) by the People's Army of Vietnam (North Vietnamese army). April 30, 1975 sees the end of the Vietnam War and the starts a process of change starting the formal reunification of Vietnam under the communist rule. The fall of the Saigon City lead to the evacuation of almost all the American civilians, military personnel and thousands of South Vietnamese civilians connected with the southern government. The new communist order caused the South and North Vietnamese people to despise each other even after leaving Vietnam. Father did not believe in communism, nor did he believe in anti-communism. He believed in humanity and family.

Luong trekked through communist jungles and rice fields sometimes sleeping in those fields hoping a tiger, snake, a police man or angry South Vietnamese wouldn’t happen by and stumble upon him and seal his family’s fate. He was afraid but being the only son and the oldest he knew deep down in his heart that this was his responsibility. Somehow this would always be his responsibility and it would take him into the concrete jungle across the world begging for food again.

One night, under the full moon with his belly rumbling in protest as he walked and walked south; he needed to rest. His legs were aching, his belly empty and he knew he needed to get off the ground to safely rest. He climbed a tree and wedged himself between the ‘y’ of two branches and fell asleep. He wanted to cry but he could not; he had to push forward. He thought about his Mother and sister starving and about how cold they would be during monsoon season. He thought about the last time he saw his Father peering out at him between the bars of his prison cell and remembered just how helpless and hungry his Father looked. Luong did not have time to think about himself. He did not have time to sit in a tree or sit by the side of the road and cry, which is what the child in him wanted to do.

His favourite memory of the whole journey was when a little old decrepit South Vietnamese woman found him hiding in a nearby rice field. She spoke in soft South Vietnamese tones and led him to her shack. By kerosene lantern she rubbed some poultice smelling of eucalyptus on his sore muscles and she bandaged the sores on his feet; she did this without a word. He devoured a large bowl of salted duck egg, salted pork and rice. She told him about her son who was killed while hanging out with the Viet Cong even after the war was over. He was killed in a street fight between North and South Vietnamese boys; barely 15, she explained how he died in someone else’s war. She said Luong looked like her son. He fell asleep with her singing a song about how love was destroyed because of the communism and how some children never came home after the war. The next morning when her rooster crowed, she had congee with congealed duck blood wrapped in a pig stomach casing waiting at the makeshift table for him. He ate like it was going to be his last meal and for the circumstances he was in; it may be his last meal but at least he would die trying and with a full stomach. She asked him what his name was and where he was going, he replied, “Luong and Somewhere”. She stared hard through her one good eye that wasn’t overtaken by cataracts and asked him if he knew his name meant honest. He nodded and thanked her. She pulled out a few dong and said that this was for a meal when her son came home.

Father escaped during Vietnamese New Year. He had gotten a pass to leave from morning til night. He gathered his wife and daughter and they headed for Ho Chi Minh City as soon as he stepped into their ramshackle abode. He told his wife not to bring anything but salted pork. Mother had to trust in her husband’s plans because that was what good Vietnamese wives did no matter how afraid she was. She did not know if Luong had made it to Ho Chi Minh City. She did not know if they even had a passage out of Vietnam but Father did. Father told her that they would be leaving Vietnam as soon as they got to Ho Chi Minh City. Father told Mother that if she cried, that would make him weaker and that it would bring bad luck to them. She stopped crying and told her daughter to stop crying or the police would come and take Father away.

Never was Luong as relieved in his fourteen years as he saw his Mother and Father with his little sister riding on Father’s back. The smiles and joy he felt at the moment when he saw his family coming towards him on the beach was another favourite memory of his. His Mother unwrapped the salted pork and told him to take a big piece. She touched his face, smiled and let her heart finally stop beating so wildly. Father looked in Luongs’ eyes and started to laugh. Father was happy to see his son alive and well, a little skinnier than usual but nonetheless alive. They waded towards the boat.

Sailing away from Vietnam did not make life any easier. There was no communist rule in the ocean but death still sat on the bow waiting. Men, women and children were throwing up from sea sickness, lack of nutrition, and spoiled food supplies. One woman died during childbirth, so did her child. They heard the husband of the dead woman wailing as she and her child were thrown overboard. Reasoning was that after a few days, the smell of decaying flesh would overcome them all and make them all sick. The captain told them all that she was free from Vietnam now as he pushed her and her lifeless newborn over the edge. The splash was heard and everyone was quiet except the man whose wife and child would never know the good life he was trying to take them to.

They arrived in Hong Kong three months after leaving Vietnam. The boatload of people were processed as refugees and given refugee identification. They were in the Kowloon refugee camp. At this time, Hong Kong was still under British rule and refugees or ‘boat people’ were to remain in refugee camps until they were either deported back to their country of origin or accepted by another country as landed immigrants. Father and Mother heard stories of people being sent back to Vietnam and killed. Mother and father worried about this constantly. The refugees were allowed to work in Hong Kong with the proper paperwork and as long as you had a doctor’s clearance that you did not have tuberculosis or any other contagious illness. Luckily Fathers’ family got their medical clearance and went to work in a factory. Mother went to work in a fish plant. Daughter watched other peoples’ children while they were at work. And Luong hung around with a local youth refugee gang who committed various crimes and misdemeanours to obtain money to buy food for their families.

Sometimes the youth gang would pickpocket people. Other times they would beg for money and with Luong’s mistaken identity of being a girl; he could make enough in one day to feed his family for a week. Somewhere inside his mind and heart he was doing what he had to do to be a good son. His family was his responsibility as well was his reasoning. He was tired of seeing his Mother cry and his Father yelling at his Mother to stop crying because they didn’t have enough to eat and were treated like prisoners in the refugee camp. Everyone had to be back at the camp before sundown with no exceptions.

The day they were accepted by Canada through sponsorship of a church was one of the happiest days of their lives. The few days before they were to leave Hong Kong to fly to Canada was filled with worry and doubt. Father and Mother were so happy to be accepted by Canada but they had one more thorough medical examination to go through that would determine whether or not they would be leaving the refugee camp and headed to the streets of plenty. Mother again cried and never prayed before, as hard as she did in those few days.

They lined up outside the medical exam room and went in one by one and went through a battery of tests and questions. They had passed their medical exams and were shuttled to another room to await the proper paperwork. They had never been on a plane before. After spending five years in the refugee camp; having a meal on the airplane was a sure sign to them that they had finally made it out alive and would be given opportunities they never could expect in Vietnam or even in Hong Kong.

They landed at the Edmonton International airport with only t-shirts and pants on. They had heard they were going to a place that was very cold for about five months out of every year but what they experienced upon landing was far from what they first thought. Father and Mother looked out onto the tarmac and saw snow for the very first time in their lives. Father said to mother, “It must be white gold”.

The indifferences of both North and South Vietnamese took to the streets of Canadian cities. It was almost certain that both the North and South Vietnamese would still be at war even in a strange, cold faraway place like Edmonton, Alberta. '107' avenue was called Ho Chi Minh trail by Police; it was a low rental area that seen and housed many immigrating refugees. The deaths of some of Luong’s friends told him that there was still something amiss and something to fight for but he was never exactly sure what he was truly fighting for. All Luong knew was that just because he was in Canada did not stop the South or North Vietnamese from wanting to kill or maim each other.

He ended up losing two of his best friends to senseless violence in which both times he was present. His nightmares every night were very real as he relived the scenes playing over and over in his head. The first time his best friend was shot in the heart by someone from South Vietnam at a new wave party. The second time, he lost his best friend was when his friend had murdered the man who ‘rumour had it’ shot and killed their best friend. Only this time, he lost his best friend because he his friend was now on the run and would be for the rest of his life. His best friend had killed the alleged shooter of his other best friend with a machete. The senseless violence and hatred Father and his family had escaped from in Vietnam had now found new blood to infect in Canada. The South was still mad at the North and vice versa only now you could fight with a full stomach and a safe warm place to sleep at night.

Luong discovered heroin after his Father died of heart failure at 57. Heroin was his medicine that could take him out these moments when he was haunted by the past and scared of the future. Heroin made life seem calmer around the edges and helped him forget every single thing that ever hurt. He fell in love with the numbness that smoking heroin could give him. He struggled with addiction for 14 years, the same age when he first ventured from North Vietnam to the South. The last time his children seen him alive was the Sunday before December 20th, 2010.

Luong died from heart failure at forty-four years old. He left his children behind who never knew the difference between South and North Vietnam. He left his children behind who would always tell stories of how protective their dad was of them. They never knew about the little boy who would dream of having a warm place to sleep and his belly full. All they knew of their father was his addiction and him quitting heroin almost a full year he died of heart failure. His Mother thinks he died of a broken heart. I think he died from too much experience and not being able to let it all out. He was told to be strong and it took its toll on him.

I had a dream of him one night, we were in a car driving and I asked him where we were going, he said, "Somewhere". That is where I want to go one day...Somewhere. Somewhere we are free of pain and grief, when it is our time.

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