In the Tuen Mun area of Hong Kong one recent weekend, a gleaming subway zipped past yachts and shipping cranes. Baby strollers filled the park and teenagers nurtured their smartphones. This was my second time on the island.
The first time was in the 1980s, when my family arrived on a wood-and-bamboo boat that barely stayed afloat. We waited days before the government let us come ashore.
We were among the last refugees out of war-torn Vietnam who eventually won passage to the United States. We settled in Sacramento. These days I read about the flight and plight of Syrians, Pakistanis or Rohingya, and I’m grateful my family’s journey ended safely by comparison. Except it didn’t really end, because only now am I returning to Hong Kong to remember what I can of my one-time home, a U.N. refugee camp.
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Decades from now, Syrians and others may revisit their journeys in the same way, which makes me think today’s refugee crisis will linger with us much longer than we realize, given the president’s second stab at a travel ban this past week.
Others are also excavating the past. While I went to Hong Kong, one friend was editing her father’s memoir of leaving and losing Vietnam. Countless other Californians are back in Saigon, like me, exploring the place they fled. Many of us in the diaspora still have questions about the Vietnam War and everything it touched.
I imagined the refugee camp as squat buildings fenced in with a dirt yard. In reality, my mom said, we all lived in a 10-story edifice and rarely went outdoors. Nearby was a bus stop, railroad, open-air market and river.
With these clues I did a quick online search of Hong Kong camps to see if mom would recognize their names. Whitehead. Hei Ling Chau. Nothing rang a bell. All mom remembered was people called the building “Sun Zich.”
Then a contact in Hong Kong sent my request to the “Facebook gods,” as she put it, and they spit back an address: 1 San Yick Lane.
On a cloudless Saturday I crossed a bridge in Tuen Mun to reach the sandy-colored building at that address, a former factory that became our refugee camp, now reincarnated as a government storage center. Outside, trucks for Nestle and Del Monte took the weekend off, while an occasional worker dragged shipping pallets from one nest to another. A rail line separated the industrial structure from low-rolling hills.
I regretted not coming on a weekday. The area was deserted, except for one person in the building who spoke to me through the door. It felt like that scene in “The Wizard of Oz,” when the doorman bars Dorothy from the Emerald City. But she made it in; I did not.
Not that there would have been an epiphany inside the building. I don’t have memories that might come flooding back. I just have stories, of mom begging for food because of camp shortages; of me getting lost in the stairwell; of refugees crowding onto three-level bunks; of my brother sneaking to the beach, where the waves swallowed his shorts.
But now I have a building, which still stands. It isn’t much, but it’s real. And it’s better than the cliché of an immigrant landing in the United States with $10 in his pocket, climbing the ladder of success. That’s the problem with clichés: you hear the trite immigrant story so often it loses all potency. Like looking at the same word so many times it loses meaning. It is easy to become desensitized, to not realize the misery that elapsed between the time someone escaped Saigon and achieved the American dream in south Sacramento.
Similarly, while we see headlines about boats sinking in the Mediterranean, or tougher requirements to enter the U.S., the refugee crisis stays abstract. But 1 San Yick Lane is concrete. The building links me to a sad period in Vietnam’s history and kept me alive until we reached Sacramento. I am your neighbor, your classmate, the person next to you at a Harlow’s concert or Denio’s flea market.
There are so many like me, people who become a small part of Sacramento’s identity and connect this place to the news that is oceans away.
Lien Hoang is a journalist living in Vietnam, where she writes about Southeast Asia. Contact her at twitter.com/lienh.