Thursday, May 31, 2007

Mayday, Mayday, Mayday

Twenty eight years ago, May 25, 1979, my family left Viet Nam and became boat people that attracted the world's attention after the Fall of Saigon in April 1975. After five days, we survived the storm that almost sank our boat and landed in an island called Karamut in Indonesia. (I searched for the correct spelling but the listing of islands in Indonesia did not produce any similar spelling.) Compared to others, we were fortunate that we did not encounter the pirates. I did not know that we were among 160,000 of Vietnamese boat people who were part of the exodus of refugees floundering in the South China Sea in rickety boats during the year 1979. We became the symbols of people who suffered oppressions, willing to face the trials of life and death at sea, so desperate for freedom that we were willing to risk everything for a chance of a better life in an unknown country.

Originally my parents wanted to send me and my youngest brother, VL out of the country. I was eighteen years old and VL was eleven. We could not gather enough gold to pay for the passage of the whole family. The plan was once VL and I safety resettled, preferably Australia, we would try to help the rest of the family get out of Viet Nam. My maternal grandmother would not want my other sister CH and brother TL to leave because of their physical disabilities, she thought they would not survive the journey.

I learned from Wikipedia that the word Mayday derived from the French - m'aidez, meaning "help me". It is an emergency code that always given three times in a row. I imagine the following distress call sending from our boat "Number 059" My Tho - (According to my Mom, #059 was assigned to another boat by the officials but that boat encountered problems. The officials re-assigned #059 to our boat and My Tho was the port where we would depart.)

...... Mayday Mayday Mayday

.........This is Number 059 My Tho

......... Position - somewhere in South China Sea or Pacific Ocean
..............Nature of distress - our boat is sinking, filling with water, up to our knees, the pirates are chasing us and the only engine is dead.

.......... Aid required - immediate assistance

.......... Number of people on board - about 200 people - we have no naval equipment. No lifevests, no lifeboat.

....... Over

I don't remember whether there were any passing ships. After three days, we were terrified that no one would find us and we could be left to die. There was no coast guard to launch lifeboats or helicopters to rescue us. There was no nearby ships that would be willing to divert course to assist. By 1979, saving the Vietnamese boat people was no longer a glamourous act. Public sympathy from the international community was lessen. Media coverage of people in crowded boats in open sea with no place to go had become old news. Countries such as Hong Kong, Thailand and Malaysia could no longer handle the massive daily arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees and demanded assistance from potential resettlement countries such as Canada, Australia, France and particularly the United States.

Listening to the BBC on the radio, we learned that Singapore, Taiwan and Japan would not allow the refugees to land. Passing ships that picked up refugees were not able to unload at these nearby countries. I realized now why we were threaten at gunpoint by the Malaysia coast guard to get to another port even though our boat was damaged by the storm. The Malaysia did not want their country to be swamped with unwanted refugees and declared that Vietnamese boat people would be shot if trying to land.

Twenty eight years later, part of the boat journey is still fresh in my memory but the details had become blurry. I wonder if it is old age or I am just trying to forget that it really happened. Perhaps it was just a nightmare and that I was not one of the people screaming for help "Mayday, mayday, mayday", watching the giant wave rushing towards the side of our tiny boat and no one responded.

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