Powerful tales give voice to a time of shared suffering
Carina Hoang is proud to have been labelled a 'boatperson', because she credits the experience with having shaped her life.
The Saigon-born 47-year-old said it made her stronger, more compassionate and more resilient than she would otherwise have been.
It also led to her first book, Boat People: Personal Stories from the Vietnam Exodus 1975-96, which is being released this month.
Boat People is a powerful collection of testimonials by 38 people with direct involvement in the flight of some 1.5 million people from communist Vietnam.
Most are former boatpeople, including Hoang. The rest had jobs that brought them into close contact with the boat people.
Hoang, who lives in Perth, Australia, is clear about why she produced the book.
'The number one reason was to preserve history,' she said. 'Number two was to provide information for future generations of Vietnamese, so they understand this is part of their heritage. And number three was so other people, who are not boatpeople, could gain an understanding of what it was about, what it was like for these people back then.'
Hoang was 16 when she and sister, Mimi, 12, and brother, Saigon, 13, left Vietnam in a 25-metre boat packed with 373 people, including 75 children.
After a traumatic, eight-day voyage during which they were fired upon by the Malaysian navy and chased by Thai pirates, they landed on an uninhabited, insect-infested Indonesian island. They were there for two months without food or medical supplies before UN High Commissioner for Refugees staff came to establish a camp.
In the meantime, to survive, they had to forage for jungle fruits and gather sea animals and shellfish from the shallows. Many people died, mainly from malaria and diarrhoea. One night, Hoang recalled, she helped to bury a dead baby who was 'cold and stiff like a doll'. After 10 months, Hoang and her siblings were accepted by the United States, where she later gained Bachelor of Science and Masters of Business Administration degrees.
In 2006 she moved to Perth with her husband, Robert, and daughter, Chiara, now 11.
Hoang said she was 'amazed' by the stories contributed to the book, which she is distributing through her website.
'Part of me feels sad and I wish it hadn't happened to them; but I also admire them and have respect for their courage, and for being where they are today,' she said. 'At the same time I reflected upon my own experience and thought I was very lucky.'
She believes this is the first such book to also include the stories of foreigners who experienced the exodus, whether by rescuing boatpeople, helping them in the refugee camps, as media representatives or in some other way.
'To hear their perspectives is very important to us boatpeople, and very refreshing,' she said.
She hopes the book will enlighten readers about the 'layers of suffering' boatpeople endured, including separation from loved ones and journeys that often involved pirate attacks, hunger, thirst and storms.
'You endured all that, then you suffered in the jungle and in the refugee camps, as you waited to be accepted by another country,' she said. 'Imagine living day by day without knowing who is going to accept you. You just sit and wait with nothing to do, 24 hours a day.'
Thankfully, that struggle is now long over for Hoang, but she will never forget her origins. 'I am no longer a refugee, but I am a boatperson, and will always be a boatperson,' she said. 'I am proud of it.'