Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Jennifer Bissett's Vietnam

Jennifer Bissett

"That Whole Feeling of Freedom"

I graduated from the University of California in Davis in December of 1978. And at that time my parents were living in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. They were working for the Peace Corps. I visited them on vacation and had no plans to leave Malaysia. I just planned to stay there for a while and get to know the place. My background was art and French, and so I had planned to see some of the native art and sort of kick back and relax.
But as it turned out, this happened to be at the height of the influx of boat people into Malaysia. And 1979 really started out with a bang with some twenty thousand boat people hitting the beaches every month in Malaysia for several months. I happened to run into a guy who our family use to know in previous Peace Corps experience in Afghanistan. He happened to be in Malaysia to at the same time and was working in some management position in a voluntary resettlement agency for boat people to the United States.
So when I met him and told him I was not doing anything, he wanted to know if I would work. It really wasn't a very hard decision. On the one hand I was really burned out from school and work and needed a vacation, but I had also just had a month's vacation, so I felt that it was one of the only opportunities I would ever have to directly involve myself in some patching up of Vietnam and that it would be an interesting experience.
I knew almost nothing about Vietnam at that time. Almost nothing. All I knew was what everybody else knows -- what you read in the paper. I had very few peers that actually went to Vietnam. I knew just what the general public knew.
I remember feeling awful about the war. I remember seeing pictures on television. At the time it was a terrible thing and it was another news item and I had no way of relating to it personally, although I thought that it was a very sad thing.
I think that a lot of people wish that America never went to Vietnam, and I thought that this was maybe the least I could do as an American to try to help some of the Vietnamese people who suffered from the war there.
I used to date a guy who was a vet. I think that's probably the closest I ever got to anybody who was there and knew about it. I have since met a lot more people who were there. As I get older I socialize more with people who are in the same age group and who were there and so I hear more about it. And I think especially this fifteen-year anniversary starts to bring back memories.
I think I'm just one of a lot of people who are amazed at how time goes by. Time is slipping by real quickly and fifteen years can be a long time and yet it's still so fresh in the memory.
I went to Pulau Bidong which is off of the north east coast of Malaysia. It's probably so small it's not on the map.
The island itself was uninhabited before the refugees, the boat people.
When I got there I discovered that Malaysia was very ant-Boat People. They really didn't want to have anything to do with this big problem. They regarded these people as communists, which is sort of ludicrous. They also associated the Chinese with communism, period, even though there is a large Chinese section in Malaysia. And they were absolutely forbidding boat people to touch the shore of Malaysia. And yet what are they going to do? People are landing on their shores at twenty thousand a month.
So as a compromise they said, "Okay, there are some uninhabited islands out there. You can stay there." And the U.N. then organized the registration who landed on the islands --there were a whole bunch of them along the coast of Malaysia. Pulau Vidan, in particular, is up near the Thai border, just off the coast. But there were other ones all up and down the east coast of Malaysia. That was where a lot of the boats would come in. Others went to Indonesia; some went to Hong Kong. They went all different directions. I think that one of the major concentrations was there in Malaysia.
The guy wanted to know that night and wanted me to start to work the next day. So I went home, my head swirling, thinking things through. Did I want to be selfish and just vacation? I just couldn't do that, especially when I went down to the office to interview and there were some fifteen or sixteen people busily processing papers and you could see that something was really happening and that hundreds of people were actually getting processed through every single day. It was a really efficient operation.
So I went to work for an agency called the Joint Voluntary Agency. It was some subgroup of a larger Catholic organization. That was managed by a guy named Galen Berry. He was just a great guy. We took our orders from the State Department and we communicated very closely with the State Department on everything. They set up the rules and we followed them. So it was a real joint operation.
Then there were a group of field people who would go from the office to the island to gather information, personal data, bring it back and start the ball rolling to process these people into the United States.
There were various different things that had to happen. It just depended on their situation. The rules --categories or priorities for people going were essentially quite complicated. There was this fat document that we had to learn and relearn every time it got changed. The rules were constantly changing so that the refugees wouldn't say just what you wanted to hear to get in the right category. It was constantly changing. Essentially there were four categories. The first one was a refugee that had a spouse, child, or parent in the States would get immediate passage as a resident alien. That would still take two months to get processed.
The second category was political refugees, Vietnamese who worked for the American military in Vietnam, or American organizations. People whose lives were in danger.
The third category was roughly people who had more distant relatives in the States but were in no political danger particularly. But a lot of these people had relatives who went in '75 and so it was very logical for people to have relatives that already had become citizens. But the more distant relatives got the third cut.
Then there was everyone else. So you sort of could expect to go to the States if you were in the first three categories at some point. It was a long wait because it took a long time to process things. But if you were everybody else, you didn't have a sure chance. If the quota for that year was filled before you got in, you weren't going to the States. The quota changed every year.
Before we went out to Pulau Bidong we'd stay a night on the mainland. Then we'd get food for a week and then load up and take it out to the island and spend about a week out there or five days, and just fill boxes full of papers with personal data. And then we'd load it back on the boat and go backwards until you get back to the capital. You have to fly. It would take a couple days to drive that far. The roads are pretty good but flying was faster.
Thousands of people would come out on the beach to greet us. A boat coming in was always a big deal and there's always something to go out and look at and excitement--something to do. There was a massive amount of people living in a tiny space. I think at that point the population was around eighty thousand and they lived in approximately one square mile on the island.
The people built their own shelters there on the island. It's absolutely amazing--the one thing I was so impressed about was the ingenuity and industriousness of the Vietnamese people. They took nothing and made something out of it. They were not going to be bored, not going to be inactive. They were not going to be depressed. They were just going to keep moving forward and make the best out of it. So they have a lot of energy. But on the island itself, it was kind of like running in the Bay to Breakers, that density.
The sanitation facilities were terrible, but better than it could have been. The people are real conscious of health and they were not from an underdeveloped country. They're educated about things like that, but without certain things -- soap, disinfectant, proper latrines and that type of thing, you run into problems.
The guards on the island carry guns and I'm not kidding when I say that if anybody winked in the wrong direction they would not be afraid to use them. I don't remember hearing of people getting murdered in cold blood on the beaches or anything, but there were many cases where a boat would come in and the Malaysian police would get in their boat and come up next to the boat coming in and tow them right back out to sea and dump them. They just didn't want them to come. At that point I think there were probably shootings and any type of violence necessary to get rid of them.
There were boat wreckages in the water and on the beach all over the place. The big deal was, as soon as a boat would come in, as soon as it hit land, the refugees would jump out and destroy the boat as quickly as possible so they couldn't be sent anywhere on their own boat. So you saw wreckage all over the place, dozens of boats.
A typical boat would be one maybe ten meters long with perhaps two or three hundred people on board. They would be absolutely stuffed to the gills, one square foot of space each. No privacy, no way to get out of the sun and this voyage would usually take five days to a week or more. They had the smallest boat ever to make it there on display. It was just twenty feet long and made it all the way from the Delta to Pulau Bidong.
There was another island nearby Pulau Bidong. It was just a tiny little spot, not inhabited. Actually a lot of the Malaysian police would go over there. There were stories about them taking women over there and raping them and that kind of thing. But it was a private island where refugees were not allowed. Refugees were prisoners on the Pulau Bidong essentially, they were not allowed to leave. They Malaysian police could go to the other islands, but nobody else could.
The mosquitos there were terrible. And there was lots of malaria. While I was there--there was always malaria going on, but there was a cholera epidemic, and a meningitis epidemic.
Pirates would come to the island and come ashore and sell canned food and grains and cigarettes and liquor and just about anything. Most of the people had some of the money they brought with them from Vietnam. And if they got to the island safely, then they could spend it on black market things. But people who didn't make it with money really had to subsist on the rations, which were not too bad -- mostly rice. There's not a lot of protein. There was fresh fruit fortunately. There were coconuts, papayas, and mangoes on the island.
The pirates, the seas, storms and I guess disease claimed--I heard -- half the people that left Vietnam. Half the people supposedly never made it anywhere. But I guess the point there is that a whole lot of pirating went on and the boats were so crowded that it wasn't unusual for them to capsize and a whole bunch of people drown. Sometimes their bodies would wash ashore in the morning.
On the island the refugees set up a watch repair shop. There was a cafe where they had entertainment at night. It was just amazing. This was different from the other refugee islands. These people had spirit. They really did something with this place.
All they had on the island was time. All they had to do was keep track of when their name was going to be called for interview. But nevertheless, they could have just sat there and done nothing. Most of the people spent all day doing something, learning English, there were books and there was a loudspeaker droning on and on all day long with, "Where is the next bus?" "When was the last bus?" "What is your name?" -- English phrases, just droning and droning on the loudspeaker. It was really hard to think over it. In fact that was the first thing you would hear in the morning about six a.m. You'd be awakened by this loudspeaker teaching people English.
The temperature was always around eighty-five degrees, but it's about one hundred per cent humidity. It's really miserable if you are not used to it and if you have to be out in the sun. You get used to it after a while, but you are just always sweaty, always clammy. You never dry off. And that's a problem for diseases and skin disorders.
I only worked for the agency for six months, but I made several trips out there during that time, for five days at a time. They shuttled me back and forth. It was a little bit of a burnout to be out there, because it was so long, maybe a sixteen hour day, trying to get as much in as you could and take out time for meals and sleep and just get right back on it.
Emotionally, it was very draining.
I interviewed the refugees and it worked like this. The person would come in and sit down, you'd have your interview sheet in front of you and it would have a list of all their family members' names and dates of birth and where they were or if deceased. And there were a lot of deceased because of the terrible rate of attrition. A lot people were still getting over family tragedies, separating their family and then losing a lot of family members on the way over. A boat might capsize and with two hundred people on board and maybe three quarters would end up getting back on board or swimming to shore. So many people were lost, it was tragic.
It was our job to ask about each member of the family. We really needed that information to cross reference other family members' records on other islands to unite them. I actually drew up these family trees that were just amazing. Some were huge. You'd find out that so and so had twenty relatives on that island and they wouldn't even know the people were alive. You could then send word to them that twenty of their relatives were down on another island, alive and doing well. So it was actually very useful to them too. But it was painful to be talking about the recent deaths. So I used to tend to listen for longer than most of the interviewers would. But then we'd have to get on to the next person. We had a lot of people to get through.
We talked about any work experience they had, any connection they had to the States at all, any relevant work experience for their new life in the States, and in fact it was like a complete life resume, getting it down on a few pieces of paper. We'd gather all that information and take it back to the office in Kuala Lumpur and start this big wheel turning to get the papers approved. Basically, the U.S. took a lot of records with them in 1975 and it was possible for the State Department to clear almost all of these applicants for resettlement.
People realized that lying would get you disqualified and so there was not a lot of lying. If they were found to be lying they were automatically disqualified, so they didn't want to take any chances on not going to the states. Everyone wanted to go to America and they were going to do anything to get there. Even though they had figured out these categories, they were smart enough to know that they shouldn't try to screw around with the system too much, but just to try to play it straight.
Somebody who was a communist probably wouldn't put that down on their application, so a few things did turn up, but I think during my time there was only maybe one or two that got rejected.
I had personal plans. I had a boyfriend back in the States. I was unsure of what I was going to do when I went over there. I didn't have any plans to stay, or leave, but I think originally I had it in my mind I wasn't really going to stay like two years, or anything. So I think six months ended up being just about the right amount of time to stay. It was purely personal.
It was sad for me to leave in a way because there were so many good people there. I knew the job wasn't done. I realized I had splashed a little bit of energy into it for a short time but then I was gone. There was a pretty high turnover. I think it was pretty much due to burnout. It's really long hours and intense emotional work. Especially when you are processing paperwork and you know the faces behind the paper and have met the people. You want to push those papers through and get them somewhere and you just are compelled to stay there late at night and on weekends. Eventually you realize that you are making a difference.
It's wonderful to see a planeload of three hundred people leave. You really feel like something is happening. It's not a futile organization. I don't know how many tens of thousands of people went out of there.
There are many of them here in this area now. I didn't meet enough people I kept in contact with, although I did meet a lot of people there. A lot of people want to keep in contact and I think that it's a really good urge while you are there, but as soon as they get here, I have my life and they have their life. Tran Thi My Ngoc is the only one I've kept in close contact with. I met her on Pulau Bidong. We are still friends today.
Working there with the boat people was definitely one of the highlights of my life. I felt like I was learning a lot about them.
So how did the fall of Saigon affect me? Well it affected me a lot more after that experience, because I could relate personally to it through people who had been there, and had first-hand experience. Their own stories of leaving Vietnam were incredible, what it took to get out and what they were willing to do. That really put things in perspective for me.
It broadened my knowledge. It definitely made me want to do more work like that. I'm sure that I will do that in the future, not necessarily resettlement work per se, but some type of benevolent charity work. I was getting paid there, I wasn't volunteering my time, but I wouldn't have to get paid to do that again. I would have done it for free, I'm sure. I think the voluntary agency felt they needed to pay people, even though it's called the Voluntary Agency, just because it was such a difficult challenging thing personally and emotionally for the workers.
I felt like I made a difference. I know that it was only a drop in the bucket, but every drop in the bucket adds up. That was the beauty of the job even though I was there for a short time. There was evidence of your own work being done and progress, and it happened every day. You'd see people moving out of the camp onto planes, and that was it. You could tell that you had done something to help that guy leave.
It awakened me to the fact of how much misery and unhappiness there actually is in the world today. It heightened my awareness of just that, and I think that I take for granted my luck in my life a lot less than I did before. I think about how lucky I am a lot. Like every day. I don't forget that any more.
And I should say that today it's not gone. It's still very vivid. I can feel it, hear it, smell it. All I have to do is think about it and I can hear it. There's no particular thing that always reminds me about it per se, but it is extremely vivid and fresh. I forget the names and things like that, but the pictures, I feel that I could have taken them yesterday. It all looks so familiar, I could tell what was down this alley, or that alley. And the sound of the microphone droning out the English lessons and the tinkling of the pots and pans all over the place with people cooking meals and people talking or singing. There were such close quarters that there was always a hustle bustle and a smell of tropical heat and steaminess and you could smell the dirt and trees.
I felt like crying a lot during interviews and felt that I just sort of had to restrain myself because I had an image to uphold for the people that I was interviewing. I was supposed to be the figure of authority that was going to write down the stuff and take it back and hustle them out of this place. I didn't want to be perceived as weak, although I don't think that it's bad to be weak or cry. I just felt that at that moment it wouldn't have been very reassuring to them. They could tell they had my sympathy. I didn't have to cry to show it. Just because I talked to the people and was interested in what they had to say. And I would take their letters and take them back to the mainland even though we weren't supposed to.
Actually I was too overwhelmed for tears, I think. The first time I went out there was just so overwhelming.
I learned a lot in those six months. For one thing, I concluded that if I had been in Vietnam, I certainly would have left. I can relate to freedom and why it is important and why they were leaving and just being on that island where people were prisoners, even though they had left their communist country, the Malaysian government was keeping them prisoners. I was a prisoner there in a way too. I couldn't just do anything I wanted. I had to follow their rules and be careful. Just getting back to the mainland where I was a free person again, really made me appreciate that whole feeling of freedom.

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