FCAAHP (Fairfax County Asian American History Project)
By Jackie Bong-Wright
A Vietnamese Journey to Freedom
In 1978, I finally settled down in Falls Church, in Fairfax County, after three years of nomadic life in four countries and four different states in the U.S.
When the North Vietnamese Communists took over South Vietnam in April of 1975, I fled my country. I was a widow with three children under 10. Earlier, the U.S., our ally in the ten-year Vietnam War, had cut off aid to Vietnam and left us unable to defend ourselves.
As Chairman of the Board of the Vietnamese American Association (VAA) and its Director of Cultural Activities, I knew that the Communists would not leave me alone. They regarded the American “imperialists” and their “lackeys” as their number one enemies. My late husband, Nguyen Van Bong, leader of South Vietnam’s main opposition party – The National Progressive Movement – had been assassinated by the Vietcong in 1971, a day after accepting the position of prime minister of South Vietnam. I had become a widow at 30 with three children under five. My younger brother, a lieutenant in the South Vietnamese army, was executed at point blank by the Vietcong in 1965. My elder brother, a colonel, died in prison in the North of malnutrition and mistreatment in 1978. Thousands of family members, colleagues and friends suffered the same fate.
So, though I had only a $20 bill in my pocket, I felt lucky to be able to escape. It was mid-April 1975.
With the help of American friends at the U.S. Embassy, I was driven clandestinely to Saigon airport, ushered onto a C-130s American plane and flown to Clark Field Airbase in the Philippines. After four days at the American officers’ dormitory, we were flown to Guam with hundreds of other Vietnamese.
We slept on cots under tents freshly set up by Marines while others cut more trees to set up more tents. We stayed there two weeks, wearing second-hand, oversized clothes from th Red Cross, and shared make-shift showers and portable toilets. I had to register as a maid, under the American “household help” category, to be able to reach the mainland at Camp Pendleton near Los Angeles.
Hundreds of us were given bunk beds in tin barracks and thousands were put under tents. I volunteered to make announcements over loudspeakers every morning and evening at the camp’s Information Center to the thousands of refugees who came looking for lost family members and friends. During that time, my children played with other children their age under the supervision of parents who were happy to care others’ children as well as their own. My children felt like they were in summer camp all day long.
After having moved like bohemians to three countries and two refugee camps in seven weeks, I was fortunate to be sponsored by Sanford McDonnell, the CEO and Chairman of McDonnell Douglas Aircraft in St. Louis. Nestled in their large house, we lived in a normal family atmosphere and a peaceful and serene community for two months.
But fate sent us then to the Washington area, where we lived in Old Town, Alexandria, for ten months, sponsored by former friends who had served at the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam.
I tried hard to find a job — sent resumes, scoured bulletin boards, and replied to ads in the Washington Post. At interviews, I was usually told that I was either overqualified or under-qualified. I didn’t know how to type and had no previous experience working in the U.S. I needed a chance to get a start so I could acquire some work experience. If employers were looking for some one with experience, how would I ever get a job? It was a chicken-and-egg puzzle for me, looking for work in the land of plenty.
My identity was printed on two small pieces of paper: my social security card and an I-94 form from the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The I-94 listed my status as a “parolee,” the technical term for some one who is neither a citizen nor an immigrant. To my great consternation and anxiety, I found in the dictionary that I was “a person who has been released from prison on parole.” I looked up the word parole and read: “the release of a prisoner whose sentence has not yet expired, on condition of future good behavior; the sentence is not set aside and the individual remains under the supervision of a parole board.”
Starting my new life from scratch was not easy. I reflected that I had worn many hats in the space of three months: Chairman of the board and director of a prestigious center one day, then a refugee the next, later a “domestic” on Guam, and now a “prisoner under close examination.” No wonder I couldn’t get a job offer.
I started to develop fatigue and depression during that time of unemployment. I was affected by the traumatic moves from Saigon through three refugee camps to St Louis and then to Washington, within a span of four months.
Finally, friends told me to volunteer at the Indochinese Reception Center, an information and referral office helping refugees find jobs in the area. Two weeks later, I found an administrative position at a vocational school in Washington. I interviewed refugee applicants and placed them in courses they chose – keypunch, secretarial, accounting or TV and radio repair.
In Washington, I met Lacy Wright, a casual acquaintance in Saigon when he was at the American Embassy there. We went out, fell in love, and got married in mid-April 1976. That date ended exactly one year of refugee and parolee life for me, but it was also the start of a new cycle of nomadic existence. My horoscope seemed to be under the sign of the meteor, zigzagging from one corner of the earth to the other.
The children and I accompanied Lacy to Milan, Italy, where he was assigned to the U.S. Consulate General. We enjoyed eating Italian food, going to concerts, and, once, watching the famous Pavarotti perform at La Scala, the world’s most famous opera house.
After two years, we returned home. We wanted the children to be rooted in the American way of life and to get an American education. We lived in Falls Church for seven years, where our children went to Jeb Stuart High School. This was the height of the Boat People refugees’ influx, from 1978 to the mid-eighties. I volunteered at the school and was elected PTA treasurer. I was ready to learn the American schooling process and to be involved in community service.
During that tense period, my children, holding American citizenship and bearing “Wright” as their last name, were mistakenly considered “boat people.” They told me they were insulted and asked to “go home” to Vietnam. They also saw the real boat people being beaten up nearly every day.
I myself was approached at a shopping mall by an American lady who told me, “You and your people came here as parasites for me to pay taxes for you and give you welfare money. You are nothing but a burden to our community. Just go back where you belong.”
Proud to Live and Die in Fairfax County
Lacy was working at the Department of State in Washington, and I volunteered as an interpreter for boat people in Virginia who had been evicted from their apartments for overcrowding – that is, exceeding the number of residents that the law allowed. The hundreds of thousands of boat people who arrived from first-asylum refugee camps in Southeast Asia presented a huge challenge for the government and for American society.
An article in the Washington Post about the boat people described my work in helping to resettle them as well as the difficulties they encountered. Tom Davis, then Mason District Supervisor and later a U.S. congressman, called me and offered to help. He became the first official to support local programs to assist the refugees. After he was elected to Congress, he passed many bills in support of the Vietnamese and Asian community before retiring last year.
In 1980, the U.S. Congress passed the Refugee Act, which provided funding for voluntary agencies and private organizations to resettle the refugees. I received a grant to study counseling and help boat people refugees adjust to their new environment. On graduation, I interned at the Northern Virginia Family Service in Falls Church.
During my tenure, I created a support group that met weekly at Knox Presbyterian Church and provided food and clothing. I rented townhouses for the large families in the complex adjoining our office, and got American friends on weekends to carry furniture and donate kitchen and bathroom items. I also found the refugees entry-level jobs.
At the end of my six-month internship, I was hired as a case worker at the Department of Social Services in Fairfax County. I helped hundreds of refugees get public assistance and health care. In Alexandria, however, the need was for people to assist those refugees who did not fit within the system. They were wandering the streets, unable to speak English or to find their way around.
At that point, I decided to establish a non-profit entity called Indochinese Refugee Social Services (IRSS), and opened a shelter for those who were falling through the cracks. I contracted with the Department of Social Services for funding to provide services not only for the boat people from Vietnam, but also for refugees from Laos, Cambodia, and Afghanistan.
Afterwards, I wrote proposals and received federal and state grants to provide the refugees with lessons in basic English and with vocational training. I also worked closely with the Department of Employment to find jobs for hundreds of refugees in hotels, restaurants, poultry plants, and factories. The Department of Education gave IRSS funds for bi-lingual tutoring after school hours in math, social studies, and science at six middle and high schools in Fairfax County. I was the Executive Director of IRSS and supervised the three projects.
I was among the first Vietnamese refugees to become naturalized American citizens, and was proud to cast my first vote in the 1980 presidential elections. A year later, the fellow workers, colleagues and friends who had volunteered with my organization nominated me for a national award.
The U.S.-Asia Institute wanted to raise the profile and status of Asian-Americans by honoring those who had made a significant contribution to American society in politics, the arts, business, architecture, and social services. I was the newest naturalized American in a group of awardees that included the famous Anna Chennault as well as Maya Ling Lin, who designed the Vietnam War Memorial. I invited Laotian, Cambodian, Chinese and Vietnamese social workers to the ceremony so they, too, could be recognized.
Other mutual assistance associations were formed to help resettle the refugees, and I saw that it was time for me to let younger people lead the effort. I had always wanted to understand why the U.S., the most powerful country in the world, lost the war in Vietnam. So, at age 41, after my children had left for college, I applied for admission to the Georgetown School of Foreign Service as a candidate for a Master of Sciences in International Relations.
The wounds of war were still deep inside the American psyche, and they were inside me as well. Feelings of guilt, anger, frustration, and humiliation were alive in both of us.
Upon my graduation in 1984, my husband was assigned to Bangkok, Thailand, and then to Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, and Brazil, his last post. I worked during these years at different U.S. embassies interviewing visa applicants. I also raised funds for the annual Marine balls and for local charities. In 1989, the mayor of Kingston, Jamaica, presented me with the key to the city for my work in supporting Jamaican schoolchildren and orphans.
Then, in Brasilia, in November 1995, I saw on CNN former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who had presided over the escalation of the Vietnam conflict, proclaim to the world that he had fought the wrong war. He even went to Hanoi to apologize for his errors of judgment and the “terrible mistake” the U.S. had committed, having known early on that the war was un-winnable. If that was so, his critics asked, why did he continue for so long, letting millions of North and South Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans die in vain?
I couldn’t sleep that night, and went to my computer, starting what became a book three years later. It was about four generations of my family going through four wars in Vietnam. I called it Autumn Cloud – From Vietnamese War Widow to American Activist. My autobiography was published in 2001 by Capital Books of Leesburg, Virginia. We held book launches in ten states as well as in Jamaica, Australia, China, the Philippines, and Paris.
In 1997, Lacy retired after 30 years of diplomatic service in Asia, Europe, the Caribbean, and Latin America. We went to live in beautiful Lake Barcroft in Falls Church. I observed that the Vietnamese Americans in the Washington area had prospered, and thought it was time to urge them to participate more actively in the democratic process. I established the Vietnamese American Voters Association (VAVA) in Virginia and encourage Vietnamese-Americans to register to vote. I was active in the League of Women Voters and began reporting regularly on the Vietnamese community for Asian Fortune News.
In 2000, my volunteers and I registered more than two thousand people to vote; and, four years later, for the presidential elections, around 4,000. For these civic activities, The Washingtonian Magazine named me a Washingtonian of the Year 2003. That year, I produced my own radio program “Women Today” for Vietnamese Public Radio. A year later, I was the producer of the Vietnamese Public Television program “News of the Week,” discussing U.S. and international happenings.
I was also a founding member of the Ethnic Coalition of Virginia (ECVA), teaming up with Asian, African, Hispanic, and Middle-Eastern associations as well as the NAACP to organize six annual Candidates’ Forums in Fairfax County. The objective was to allow Virginia candidates to present their political platforms so minority constituents could make educated choices when casting their votes.
At a certain point, I became a Community Outreach Specialist for James Lee Senior Center in Falls Church. My job was to encourage older Asians to attend exercise, yoga, QiCong, Tai Chi, line dance, and other classes. The objective was to get Asian-American senior citizens out of the house, combat loneliness, and promote mental and physical health. I was able to register hundreds of them, and was asked to replicate the same outreach program at other Fairfax County senior centers.
One day I happened to see a performance at the Center by the Cameo Club, which comprises former contestants for the title of Ms. Virginia Senior America. They urged me to enter the Pageant. I would show that Asians participated in community activities, share my Asian cultural heritage and, especially, combat the stereotype of Asians as primarily Medicare and welfare recipients.
To the great surprise of my family, the Vietnamese community, and myself, the six pageant judges not only gave me the Community Service Award, but also crowned me “Queen of Virginia.” Their stated criteria were personality, charm, conversational ability, poise, grace, internal beauty (as evidenced by a contestant’s philosophy of life), and, finally, evidence of some talent (mine involved performance of a traditional Vietnamese dance). My philosophy of life was: “Success is not how high and fast you go to reach the top, but how high and fast you bounce back when you hit the bottom.”
Then I set my sights on a wider horizon. Human trafficking in the world had become so rampant that, in 2004, eBay advertised an auction of Vietnamese teenage girls, at a staring price of $5,400. My civic awareness expanded, and I began working closely with the Trafficking in Persons Office (TIP) at the U. S. Department of State, created to fight the trafficking of humans for labor and sex. This 21st century modern-day slavery now accounts for more than $25 billion a year in illicit business, exceeded only by arms and drug dealing.
Of course, I was interested in Vietnam. According to UNICEF and Vietnam’s Ministry of Justice, as many as 400,000 Vietnamese women and children had been trafficked overseas since 1990. That is around 10 percent of trafficked women and children worldwide. Alarmed by that fast-growing industry, I started writing articles, and, in 2006, organized the first Human Trafficking Conference at the U.S. Congress.
Congressmen Tom Davis (R-VA) and Jim Moran (D-VA) were the co-sponsors of that public awareness conference, which discussed the themes of prevention, protection and prosecution. I invited national and local officials, international experts, NGOs, community-based organizations (CBOs) and the media to debate these heated issues. In 2007, I organized another conference – this time on the legal, labor and human rights implications of human trafficking — at Chapman University in Orange, Cal. Last year’s conference was held in Harrisburg, Pa., on the “Rehabilitation and Reintegration of Trafficked Victims.” Recommendations were sent to the UN, Congress, the Administration and, especially, to Vietnam to take action.
This year, I started producing a television program in Falls Church on SBTN-DC (Saigon Broadcasting Television Network) Voice of Voters, a Vietnamese-language cable outlet with a national audience of over 275,000 viewers, including some in Canada. I interviewed experts to inform the Vietnamese public on local and national elections, congressional issues, and the domestic and foreign policies of the Administration.
My new life started 33 years ago in Fairfax County, where I saw my children grow up in a peaceful home with a loving husband, far from the war-torn country I left. My Vietnamese compatriots and my family had blossomed. Now, we continue to contribute to a nation to which we are grateful. We want to pay tribute to the generous Americans who changed our lives for the better.
Today, a new beginning awaits us. We are approaching our later years with a sense of assurance. We are proud of the United States as our adopted country, and happy to have made our lives in Fairfax County.