Out of the Shadow

Phat Nguyen

Writer’s comment: I wrote this essay as a recollection paper for my English 103A class. At first I got stuck with writer’s block because I couldn’t find any significant events to write about; but later I told myself that I had to start somewhere, so I started to read the news. When I came across newspaper articles about the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, I realized that there were many things that I could say about my life under communism. The news reminded me of my family’s attempt to escape from Vietnam a few years ago. I decided to write about the experience and to use the third person in such a personal essay for the novelty of it and also for therapeutic reasons.
      I imagine that many people will find it disturbing when they learn more about the obstacles that one must face in order to seek freedom, which we tend to take for granted in this country. Even though this essay is about my childhood as well as about communism and police abuse, it is also about what happens when people put money above everything else.
      I would like to express my greatest gratitude and respect for my English instructor, Dr. James Steinke, and my group partners, especially Jeffrey McEvoy, for their time, feedback, and valuable criticism of my writing. Without their encouragement and their generous faith in my abilities, I probably would not have dared to submit any of my papers to Prized Writing.
—Phat Nguyen

Instructor’s comment: For my English 103A sections I’ve arrayed assignments according to where a writer gets material, testing out James Moffett’s observation: “Whether amateur or professional, a prose writer does one of four things to generate the material of a composition. You recollect, investigate, invent, or cogitate. That is, you look back, look into, think up, or think over.” We used extensive journal writing to practice fluency techniques (Phat Nguyen produced over ninety pages by the end of the quarter), multiple drafts, peer group response (verbal and written), and a Boston Writing Project mantra: Fluency >>> Form >>> Correctness for essays of Recollection, Investigation, and Cogitation (thinking over and thinking through).
      Phat, in writing to the various kinds of recollection/reflection topics, didn’t merely report what happened. He drafted into this essay an epic breadth of events based on his memories of Vietnam. The first draft was packed with energy, had unity and authority, but in revising he gave it vividness, flow, depth, even suspense. His four essays, the midterm and the final were also this good—all the more thrilling from someone who had been plunked down into a Cupertino high school at age fourteen not knowing a word of English.
—Jim Steinke, English Department

The other night I had a dream. I dreamed of a boy whom I had known a long time ago, but since then he had disappeared completely from my life. In my dream, I saw him sitting beside my bed and talking to me. He told me about the trip that he had taken with his parents, his two older brothers, and his sister when he was seven years old. He told me how his parents had been victimized by a man who knew about his parents’ desperate attempt to flee from Vietnam, so he took advantage of them.

      “Wake up, wake up, son. We must leave now.” He opened his eyes and looked outside; it was still very dark and rainy. “Where are we going, Mom?” he asked while crawling out of bed sleepily. When they left the house for the train station, it was only four o’ clock in the morning, and the boy thought that his family was going to visit their grandparents whom he had not seen for ten years. The next morning, they arrived in Nha Trang, a coastal city in Central Vietnam, where his father told him that they would stay for a while before going to the next destination. They went to live in the house of an acquaintance near the fish market. Every day they would stay inside the house and would go out only when it was absolutely necessary, especially the kids who now had to learn how to be quiet. They learned how to walk tip-toe and to talk by finger pointing; few sounds were made. Every sound was kept to the minimum so the neighbors and the secret police would not be aware that there were new people in town.
      Around midnight on the fourth day, the boy and his family members awakened again. This time they went with the family of the house's owner to a bus station where they took the bus going northward. The boy was very happy because he was free at last to play as a normal child again. On the way, everybody was fascinated and hypnotized by the scenery along the road, especially the kids because it was the first time they had left the cosmopolitan city for the countryside. Somewhere in the vast darkness, there were fire-flies flying up and down the rice fields to create a whole new universe in which their bodies were stars rotating around a cosmic cloud of earthly fog. The boy felt exhilarated; he wanted to chase after them and put them into a bottle so they would shine like neon lights glowing in the dark. At noon they arrived at a cafe next to an isolated beach about forty-five miles from Nha Trang. As time went by, more and more people came to the cafe. It seemed to him that the newcomers didn’t look like anyone whom he saw on the street around there. They looked as if they had come from a big city. However, he didn’t care about where these people were coming from. He was too busy playing with his newly found friends. But when the clock on the wall struck nine, the whole ambience of the cafe abruptly changed.
      The adults became very tense and uneasy. Everyone looked out to the street in front of the cafe as though they were waiting for something to happen. The boy’s father went outside and looked as far as he could, as if he were expecting someone to arrive soon. Two hours passed, and the people were becoming much more anxious. Some of them even wanted to pack up their belongings and leave; however, the wife of a boat owner told them that her husband would arrive soon, so none of them left. It started raining quite hard. The sound of water rolling down from the thatched roof of the cafe orchestrated with the singing of the frogs in their mating season coming somewhere from the rice field just beyond the highway, and the clapping of ocean waves against a rocky shore seemed to soothe the minds of the people waiting inside the cafe somewhat. Suddenly, a loud, harsh, and brutal voice coming from an amplifier woke everyone up from their sleepy states: “Under the law of the Vietnamese government, you are under arrest for cooperating with foreign governments to organize illegal trips for the enemies of the Republic of Vietnam to escape and to help them in destroying the life and peace of the Vietnamese people.” Inside the cafe, people were frightened and panicking; everyone wanted to hide somewhere, but there was no place to hide. They were running from side to side and looking outside. Words were exchanged abruptly and chaotically. Millions of thoughts went through everyone’s mind, but none of the thoughts was comforting. And what terrified everyone was the thought of standing against a wall blindfolded while dozens of bullets tore through their bodies. Or the thought that, at best, they would be sent to labor camps to work, knowing that the day when they could return home was uncertain. Their cold hands were shaking and sweating. The children were screaming and crying because they didn’t know what was happening.
      Ten minutes later everyone began to calm down after they realized that there was no way to escape. Then the door of the cafe slowly opened and the first man stepped outside raising his hands. Other men soon followed. The police forced them to lie down on the ground and then handcuffed them. One man rose up from the ground and began to run, but he didn’t get very far; a shot was heard. The boy only saw the man’s body jerk up; his blood began to pour down from his back while his body slowly fell onto the ground. The boy closed his eyes and felt dizzy. He wanted to open his mouth to cry, but it was being covered tightly by his mother’s hands. One policeman walked toward the body and turned it over; the man’s eyes were still open and he stared into the dark sky. “He is dead,” the officer said.
      Everyone became very quiet as a heavy melancholy atmosphere covered the whole scene. Then the policemen pushed, punched, and dragged the rest of the people onto the waiting trucks. The boy looked after his father, who later turned his eyes toward them when he was pushed onto a different truck. It was not the last time he saw his father. Three years later he was able to see those eyes again after his father came back home from a labor camp somewhere deep in the jungle. After ten minutes, when everyone had been captured, the trucks left for a prison in downtown Nha Trang. On the way back to the city, no one spoke because all of them were occupied with their own thoughts. Even the children were quiet because of the killing that had just happened. The boy thought about the dead man. He looked like one of the ghosts that frightened him during the nightmares that he would have after listening to a scary story. Suddenly, a cold electric shock ran down his spine as he imagined that the face of the cadaver looked somewhat like his father’s. The heavy rain continued to pour down on the topless trucks. It was extremely cold and wet. The adults were embracing the children in an attempt to warm them. Lightning went through and lighted up the sky, quickly disappearing into the darkness and taking with it the hopes of the prisoners.
      When the truck finally came into the prison yard, all the men and the women were forced into a room where they were ordered to strip off all of their clothes so the policemen could check if there were any precious things that they could take away from the prisoners. Later everyone was escorted to his or her own cell; any child who was younger than fifteen years old would go with his mother, so the boy, his mother, his two brothers, and his sister lived in the same cell. Prior to 1975, the prison held only 2,000 prisoners. However, after 1975, it held around 5,000 prisoners, and it also served as a temporary place to hold newly arrested people before they were transferred to other prisons, labor camps, or re-education camps. At one point, the prison had more than 10,000 prisoners living in it. In early 1977, not many people were trying to escape from Vietnam yet, so there were no special cells for such people. They were kept with murderers, thieves, and other kinds of prisoners.
      The cell where they lived was small, but it already had twenty people living in it. At the end of the cell was a bathroom in which there was no light. Its walls were white, but they looked more brown and yellow because they had not been painted for years. There were two long beds in the cell; each bed was supposed to accommodate ten people. The beds were old and cracked, and every night bed-bugs came crawling through the cracks and bit people. During the first night in jail, the boy didn’t even know where he was; he turned his head many times to his mother and asked her where they were. His mother always told him that they were in jail, but he didn’t believe it. He always thought that prison was an awful and hellish place where bad people were sent to be executed, but then he slowly began to realize that he was truly living in a prison when he saw the police escort handcuffed people in and out of their jail cells. He thought about the bad things he had done and concluded that they were why he had ended up in jail. At night, in his dream, he saw the policemen come in and take him outside to be executed. But before they raised their guns and fired the bullets aimed at him, he was bitten by a bed-bug which woke him up. His sheets were soaked with fear and helplessness.
      He wanted to stand up and walk outside to find some relief, but the thick wall stopped him. Near the top of the thick wall were two small windows which were made even smaller by four thick iron bars. One had to jump up and hold onto the iron bars in order to see outside. From the cell’s windows, if he looked out, he could see the front gate of the prison, and just outside was a street that led to another street running along the beach. He could not see the sea , but he could feel it by listening to the sound of the ocean as its waves came ashore to caress the sand dunes. Sometimes during the afternoon’s nap, he could also hear the enchanting song of the coconut trees just outside the wall as their leaves moved gently in the direction of the wind. He could see himself turning into a pigeon flying away; but somehow, it was trapped and its wings were broken. Freedom was only twelve yards away, to be exact, but it seemed to him that it was ten thousand miles from where he lay in that prison.
      Every day the prisoners woke up at eight o’clock to clean up, and then they waited for lunch to arrive at noon. The food was mostly rice with quite a lot of grains in it. The soup tasted more like salt water with some strips of vegetables swimming in it. However, at the end of the week, seafood was served. It was a luxury to have fish heads dipped in fish sauce. Once per week, the children were allowed to play in a yard in front of their cell. The boy’s brother, who was twelve at the time and the oldest among the children, invented an ingenious way to kill boredom. He created a bed-bug killing contest in which the winner would get a cube of sugar as a reward from the adults. Then at night after dinner, the cell leader gathered everyone in the cell, and she assigned one person to read aloud the teachings of Ho Chi Minh and Marxist Leninists. All of them pretended to listen attentively, but in the back of their minds, they were thinking about what kind of food they wanted to eat when they got out of jail. Or maybe they were planning another escape from Vietnam—a successful one because they were more experienced now.
      Sometimes a policeman came into the cell and asked one of the prisoners about the teachings of Ho Chi Minh. The prisoner always replied that the teachings of Ho Chi Minh were the best and the most advanced philosophical ideas in the world and that he always remembered and reserved a special place in his heart for them. Later, everyone in the prison was invited forcefully by the guards to attend a special seminar given by a man from North Vietnam, who had been in the Communist party for over thirty years, about the technologically advanced lifestyles in North Vietnam, which he claimed had had the highest standard of living on earth since the beginning of time. Everyone was gathered in the big yard in the center of the prison where the seminar was given. As he listened to the man’s speech, the boy felt that he was inferior and much more stupid than his peers in the North. Everyone else except him was nodding as though they agreed completely with what the man said. However, a young man, who had been arrested because he had once worked for the U.S. government, later raised his hands and asked: “I am just wondering, since the North is so technologically advanced, do you have any ice cream to eat?” The speaker answered positively: “Of course, we do! We have too much ice cream to eat, so we can’t finish it. In order to save it, we have to dry it up under the sun.” The whole mass of prisoners broke into laughter. And even though all of them were trying to control themselves, the laughs still continued. The man’s face looked very proud as though what he had said was probably the best speech given in the world. But after a while, a guard from the South approached him and told him something. His face suddenly turned deadly serious, which stopped everyone from laughing. After that day, the brave young man was transferred to another prison and nobody saw him again. Everyone believed that he would be dead soon from the physical tortures of the policemen.
      Around ten o’ clock one morning, after the prisoners had lived in prison for two weeks, a guard opened the cell’s door and let the prisoners come out. They were loaded into a truck and brought to a sandy beach just outside the boundary of Nha Trang. Along the way, when the boy looked out and saw the children playing on the street, he wished he could be one of them. He felt like he hadn’t had a chance to walk on the streets for years. Everything looked new and strange, as if the whole world had changed since he had gone into prison. When they arrived at the beach, they were taken out to the sea where the filming took place. The policemen were dressed in Thai costumes, and they pretended that they had just seized a boat of Vietnamese people. They were jumping from their boat to the prisoners’ boat, screaming and shouting for joy. While they were invading his boat, the boy looked down and saw fish swimming in the crystal clear water underneath him. Suddenly a scary thought moved quickly through his head. He thought that his body was being bitten into pieces by the fish down there. He saw himself struggling hopelessly in the water, trying to fight the fish and gasping for breath at the same time. The salty water entered his eyes, his nose, and his mouth. He could not breathe as he tried to keep his mouth open so the fresh air could enter his lungs. He was screaming and crying as tears rolled down his cheeks. Suddenly, he felt someone lift him up and throw him over the boat’s wall into the deep ocean below. He was diving into the ocean like a broken-winged pigeon. The last thing that he heard before hitting the water was the camera man’s excited, “Excellent! This is an excellent shot.”
      After spending three weeks living in jail, the boy, his brothers, and his sister were released. They were escorted by a policewoman to the front gate, where they met their grandfather. While walking near the entrance, they looked through an open window into the main office of the prison. There they saw the boat owner chatting enthusiastically with the policemen. They called each other “comrade.” The children suddenly understood it all. They felt they hated the man so much. The hatred toward him overwhelmed them. They looked at him through the open window with all of their anger. When the door finally opened, they ran outside with all of their childhood innocence shattered. The boy looked back and saw his mother behind the iron bars waving at them. He waved back at her while the door of the front gate was slowly narrowing. He felt as if he would never see her again. He missed her so much. They didn’t see each other again until nearly two years later.
      That night, a new storm came in from the Pacific; its water poured down the window where the boy sat in a train going back to the city. His grandfather had just told them that their parents had been cheated by the boat owner, who worked for the police to trap people so they could get their money. Their parents had used all of their life savings just to pay for this trip. Now the children would live with him until one of their parents returned home. The boy looked outside into the rain and asked himself over and over again, “How could he do this to us? How could he?” The only thing that the boy saw was the blurring lights of a coastal village slowly moving backward as the train picked up speed. The train entered the vast darkness ahead and carried with it the uncertain future of the passengers aboard.

      Fifteen years have passed. The other day when I walked at night toward Hutchison Hall where I intended to finish my English paper, suddenly I had a strange feeling that someone was following me. When I turned my head and looked behind my back, I saw the boy from the past standing there staring at me. His shadow was faintly cast onto the ground by the moon shining through dark clouds. He was pale and lifeless. He looked more like a cadaver than a human being. I was afraid of him, so I started to run; right away, his shadow followed me. It chased after me wherever I went. I told myself if I could only turn around and embrace it in my arms, it would make me feel stronger and less afraid of him as I confronted him. I turned my back; the shadow was twisting itself and rotating around my body as though it wanted to say something to me. Then I reached for it, and the shadow welcomed me as it merged into my body. We were becoming one whole human being again. I understood him better than ever because he had taught me so much. He told me to move on with my life. He taught me to take my life into my own hands so I could move on freely despite all of its terrifying past, weaknesses, and horrors, and to forgive others who had done harm to me because if I didn’t, they surely would come back and haunt me later.