In the autumn it might be easier, some of the refugees say. Life will be no easier, but autumn is a time of leave taking, and that, at least, will be familiar.
Theirs had been private lives, ordinary ambitions. In another time, their hopes would have remained anonymous. They would have survived, succeeded by their own lights. They would not have been symbols seared into an image, the Boat People.
Now their stories are filtered through the English of compatriots who themselves arrived here only four years ago, through the needs of their listeners to fit what they have to say into their own theories of Vietnam, through their own desire to be perfect guests. They paint themselves with spare strokes, the calligraphy of commonplace sorrow.
They are ethnic Chinese, the man and his wife. They have only been here a few weeks, and they settle at the linoleum-covered table as diffidently as birds on an unfamiliar branch. They bring tea in cast-off cups; only a few flecks of bright paint still cling to the cheap china.
He is small and nervous. His skin is stretched taut beneath the baggy borrowed clothes. She is six months pregnant. They sit in a room of the Buddhist Congregational Church on 16th Street and tell their story through an interpreter still making his own treaty with the English language.
They had been merchants before the takeover, living in Phan Thiet, in a big house of brick and tile. They had owned two other houses like it, sent shrimp and lobster to Japan and asked the future for the usual bounty.
They didn't leave the country when Saigon fell, they braced themselves. They thought after the first shocks, life would return to its usual course. The communists sent them to the countryside to become farmers.
He talks rapidly, sketching in the story and she watches him as he speaks, the anxiety of those days contouring her face, tying her fingers into a tense bundle on the table. She interrupts him, offers explanations. "They thought it would be better for them if they obeyed right away," says the translator. The communists were dark clouds, threatening but ephemeral. They would go away. A smile brushes her face and she looks to see whether she has been understood. Unconvinced, she turns away.
The first year, the harvest failed. The land had been a field of grass when they arrived. It wasn't gracious to hands unacquainted with the plow. They built a cottage out of wood they collected. They made the roof from coconut leaves. There were two rooms -- one for cooking, one for living and sleeping.
They hid the things they had hoarded, the dowry money for their daughter, the things they had bought to safeguard the value of their savings when the economy collapsed -- medicines, and the cloth for the making of men's suits.
The next year, the rumors began. The Chinese would all be concentrated in one area, they would be sent to the wilderness.At the evening self-criticism sessions, the talk against China grew louder. But seasons are indifferent to politics, and the next harvest was successful. "From the second year," the translator explains, "they felt optimistic. They felt it would get better and better."
The third year there was talk of collective farming. They would be permitted 40 percent of an acre for their own uses. There were rumors that they would have to grow sweet potato and corn. This was a bad sign -- to have to mix sweet potato with the rice meant there would not be enough rice. That was the fear. But that was not where the true dread seemed to lie. Let a thousand harvests fail -- hope rests on the testimony provided by one's own hands. A common farm could not provide that.
The last year, they were told that all the Chinese would have to register. They would have to pay 10 gold bars for each adult in the family. If they paid them, they could leave.
They are not religious people. His father had brought him to the temple as a young man, but they believed in themselves, in what they could do. They believe still. "Now, " he says through his interpreter, "there is no more worry. We have energy, we are hard- working people. We will promote ourselves through our own efforts." Besides, it was a simple choice. "We were hungry and we would get hungrier."
They smile constantly as they talk, as if they were indulging the reminiscences of an uneventful life, the murmur of the wind on a warm evening. No anger or tears -- it has been a long time since it was politic to display such emotions to strangers.
For a stranger -- and that, after all, is all anyone is now -- they tally the lives involved. Ten members of their family boarded the boat to Hong Kong. They have three children of their own, and with them as well came her mother, two nephews "calling her aunt" and a niece and a nephew "calling him uncle." There were hard choices to make. Her father was left behind, and his mother. Her father is trying to get his own passage, slowly selling on the black market the dried whale meat he had stored away.
There are hard histories behind them as well -- other family members missing, lost on other voyages out to sea.
They arrived here in July. He spends his days sorting through the clothing and the furniture that have been donated to Buddhist Social Services, the organization that has sponsored many of the refugees. What he has seen of this country, he has seen from the window of a car as it delivers supplies to other refugee families. With money from his sponsors, he goes to the Safeway and computes the cost of his purchases before he arrives at the cash register, and counts out the money. He knows no English.
The most important day was the day Joan Baez came to sing for the boat people. He went out early that morning and helped to put 6,000 flyers announcing the concert on the windshields of the cars downtown. He worried that no one would come, and he was startled and moved when thousands showed up to "help the poor pitiful people from the sea," those who came for him and for all the modest lives caught in history's riptide.
Sometimes he sits on the stoop in the sun and watches the people; to him, they all look exotic. Sometimes they try to speak to him. He smiles back. Smiling, he explains, is what you do when you cannot say the things you understand, and you can't understand the things that are being said. In some lives, a man's words make very little difference in the ways he will grow old. Or where.
It is a tricky time for the reguees who left when Saigon fell, the ones who have been here four years now. They have barely established their own beachhead. Some are impatient with the new arrivals who are reluctant to take work before learning English, others look to them for fresh vindication -- what they saw as evil has been ambiguity to many Americans, and they listen to the fresh horrors and the tears and the calamities with tempered commiseration. "It was no different for me," says a young man listening to an interview. "It was no different. The difference was that no one wanted to hear it."
Le Thi Thanh Trieu sits at a small table in the apartment in Arlington Towers. A bed, a blanket, a crib, a couch crowd together in the one room. Her long black hair is caught neatly at the nape of her neck.
In between the English cassettes and the TV that shouts her new culture at her, she pulls Vietnam around her like a clock. She thinks of her life there, the voices of the village, the unassuming cycle of the days, "all the time."
In Vietnam, in Kiengiang province, she was a schoolteacher. She taught at the same school after the takeover, but the lessons she taught the children changed, and so did the songs they sang. No longer the traditional virtues, the duty to family and the love of ancestors. Instead, the "love of the party and Uncle Ho, the love of labor."
Her husband had been a district chief in the rural reconstruction forces. He was sent to a re-education camp in another city for three years. Her brother had been in the air force. He was sent to prison. Her father was a local landowner and lanlord. He was put in chains for 11 months before he was put to death.
When her husband returned, he got a job in a factory. Friends fell like leaves in autumn. They killed themselves. They could not bear the shame of their defeat. They blamed themselves. They felt they had not done enough to win the war.
The last long summer, they could think of nothing else but how hemmed in they were, how little of their lives was their own. The places they went, the things they did, the details of each hour had to be reported to their cell leader, to their block leader, to their district leader. This was true for practically everyone in the village, except perhaps the Chinese businessmen.
They wanted to leave. They had no money like the Chinese to bribe the officials. But she had an uncle who was a fisherman, and he had a boat. They waited for a propitious time; they sailed Sep chase sunlight across her face. "There will be no witness," she says softly ,"to her life."
Thanh Ngu drinks a strawberry shake and diligently eats a cheeseburger in the battered Rabbit. He will be a senior at Virginia Polytechnic Institute this fall, studying mechanical engineering. He came to Washington this summer to help Buddhist Social Services with the refugees they are sponsoring.
He came from Vietnam in 1975 with his brothers. His parents are still in Vietnam. On the dashboard of his car there is a small strip of adhesive plastic that says, in raised letters, "Thoi Gian." He is asked what it means.
"I don't know quite how to translate," he says. "It means, 'the time.' It is my reminder to myself that it is the time that will be the medicine for me, that will help to heal."
Vu is a fisherman and a fisherman's son. He stands alone in the backyard of the Buddhist Congregational Church. He is taller than many Vietnamese, his handsome face browned by the sun.
He lived in Nha Trang, a resort town on the ocean that brings a smile to the faces of those who remember it. He lived there with his wife and their five children, his five sisters and his old mother.
The old days were easy days, strung out like lanterns in lazy succession. In the morning they would go out to fish, taking cod and swordfish and sharks from the sea in large nylon nets. They would be back by 2, and in the late afternoon he and his friends would go to the bars that looked out over the water and talk of the day. In the evening they would often go dancing.
When he returned to Nha Trang, after three years in a re-education camp in a different city, it was as if the palette had been washed clean and life in Nha Trang was to be painted in only the drabbest of colors. The fleet had been cut to a third of its size -- there were no spare parts for the other boats, there was very little fuel. The hours were much longer. They put out to sea for 12 hours at a time. Most of the catch was given to the government.
There was no leisure time left. The bars were gone, every business -- down to the street vendors who used to crowd the sidewalk and fill the air with their enticements -- was wiped out. Friends were scattered, separated from one another.
Vu spent his time at sea looking for the best way to escape. Sometimes they would fish in international waters, and he would catch a glimpse of Japanese boats, visible symbols of the world beyond.
Many had already left. The boats that found a safe haven were to send back word.If nothing was heard, it was assumed that the ocean had claimed the boat. From most of the boats, they heard nothing.Many of the boats tried to leave under cover of bad weather, since the officials would be less inclined to suspect them then. But the bad weather exacted its own retribution.
It was not the same as it was for the Chinese. The government wanted the Chinese property and their money and in return they left with the government's approval.
Vu decided to try and make it in his fishing boat. He sailed to a smaller village away from Nha Trang. A group of 48, including his family, was supposed to meet him there.
They got lost along the way. By the time they reached the rendezvous, the tide had turned and he couldn't sail. In the darkness, those on shore took the flashing lights of his boat for a government patrol and scattered. He had turned on his lights and cast his nets so as not to excite suspicision, to make it look as if he were fishing.
His godmother and his cousin were arrested on the way back. He himself could not return to Nha Trang. It was past the hour when the fishing boats were to return. There would be suspicions, he would be questioned. He never went back. He never saw his family again.
In Saigon he convinced a group of ethnic Chinese to let him pilot their boat, one that was capable of holding 250 people. It held 430 when it sailed from My Tho down the Mekong to the sea.
There was a storm. The sheer numbers of people made the boat list dangerously. He packed them into the hold of the boat for better ballast. There were six people to a square meter and there was no room to move. There was no way to get to the food. People had to urinate in their places. The boat was filled with screams. Men and women went mad. An old woman died. People begged to be put off -- they would rather die, they said, than endure the suffering.
The boat leaked. The water pumps broke and it took him eight hours to repair them. He prayed to God to help him. For three days and three nights, he lived minute by minute and was convinced they would drown.
But they made it to Malaysia, and for 10 months he stayed in the refugee camp, alone and without hope that he would ever have a permanent home. He does not think he will ever see his family again.
He says he is not discouraged. But the yearning never leaves him. Three things remind him of home. The families he sees, together in their exile, the cloudy skies that remind him of Nha Trang, and the light of the late afternoon.