That year of 1979 became the year of the second exodus from Vietnam. The government had tried to organize communal farms in the south, but they produced only years of crop failures. Farmers hid the little bit of rice they did harvest, so that they could feed their own families. Cut off from the rest of the world we no longer had much to buy even when we had money or gold to buy it. With most of the army occupying Cambodia, officials could no longer waste so much effort on road checkpoints, so people could find a way out more easily.
The relationship between Vietnam and China was getting worse every day. Sometimes they were actually fighting each other in Vietnam’s northern provinces. China was pressuring Vietnam to allow people of Chinese descent to leave if they wanted. In places where they had been welcomed and had lived for years, they were no longer trusted. Native Vietnamese called them the “overseas Chinese” in contrast to people who had lived in Vietnam for many generations. We ourselves were somewhere between the two groups, relatively recent as immigrants, but considering ourselves more Cambodian and Vietnamese than Chinese. We had lived here much of our youth and all of our adult life. Where would we go? Anyway, we heard of many other people who were taking advantage of the opening to leave for better conditions. Traffickers began to organize groups emigrating from Cho Lon, on the west edge of Ho Chi Minh City, but the traffickers were charging exorbitant fees. Not long after the emigration became common knowledge, the government began to clamp down, fearing they were losing too many skilled workers, and aware that people other than those who came from China were taking advantage of the chance to leave.
Again we sat at table and talked about the future we could expect in Vietnam. There wasn’t much to look forward to. There was still fruit available for the picking, but more hands reaching to pick it. Fish were available for catching, but more people were trying to catch them. Less rice, and more mouths to feed. I knew what we needed to do, but I would not be able to do it. I was not strong enough. Kia heard and understood what we were talking about, even before anyone spoke the word “leaving.” She announced “I’m not leaving Grandma Tien, and I’m not leaving Go Dau.” We all tried to persuade her that we were only thinking about what was best for each of us, not deciding yet. If we did decide, not everyone would have to go. There was a part of me that was glad that she was stubborn, even as I wondered what her future would be like if she stayed here.
In the end we decided that Kia, Muoi, Mui, Grandfather, and I would stay at Go Dau. Hue and Thin would see what opportunities might be available for the rest of the family to escape through Cambodia. My heart was heavy, but the plan was as sensible as we could make it. We understood that escape was easier through Cambodia. They were in the midst of the chaos following the fall of the Khmer Rouge. The government was disorganized. The borders were as weak as rotten fish nets.
We were most concerned about the boys. Their future in Vietnam was the most unpredictable. The future held little hope for men of Chinese descent to achieve much. They were not even trusted to take a job as a soldier. Most of my family wanted to leave together, but, without secure arrangements, the boys had a better chance on their own than with a large family. They were not subject to the same dangers as the girls would be. Maybe they could pass for Cambodian Chinese, and blend in for a while, if necessary, and find an opportunity to emigrate with some luck. They could use some of the money we had saved to find a boat headed downriver on the Mekong. It was a plan. We had hope that they had a future somewhere.