Humanities Core Course Stories

Literary journalism and original research on "war" from the University of California, Irvine Humanities Core Course Program Students

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The Domino Effect of Giving by Alysia Verdin

During the Cold War era, the USA viewed Vietnam as a domino; it was the first in line that could knock down an extensive trail of others.  However, these dominoes were not recreational.  To the contrary, their fall would mean a dangerous spread of communism across Southeast Asia.  Therefore, in 1954 the United States of America, the ultimate defender of capitalism, sent troops to Vietnam in an effort to disassemble the dominoes of communism and secure capitalism. (Eisenhower, Dwight. “Domino Theory”)

The United States’ involvement in Vietnam was a failure.

When the external world forces withdrew from Vietnam in 1973, North Vietnam usurped the South and indeed, the country became communist.  However, the Domino Theory did not occur.  Ironically, an unintended “domino effect” of another sort occurred in the United States.  America’s internal “domino effect” was tipped off by the deaths of American soldiers abroad and consequently led to a range of long-lasting impacts and lessons for their families at home.  Just like a domino, any story of selflessness is destined to survive the passage of time and be passed along the generations because it is fundamental to what we as humans hold on to when times seem darkest.  For my family, because of one soldier, the dominoes are still falling three generations later.

Decades ago in a foxhole on the grounds of Vietnam, my uncle Larry performed a powerful and beautiful act during that captures the essence of what it means to be “giving”.  Although we are separated by time and space, uncle Larry taught that giving means selflessness to a domino line of people including his mother, brother, my father, me, as well as the lineages of the two men to whom he gave his life for.

One act, an act I consider truly “giving”, earned my uncle Larry the Distinguished Service Medal, the second highest honor that the United States of America can bestow upon servicemen.  During a ferocious fight in 1967, Larry threw himself on top of an enemy hand grenade, giving his life so that his brothers in arms might live.  With this sacrificial act, my uncle Larry physically taught us what “giving” is.  This single manifestation of selflessness had far-reaching and long-lasting effects.  Because in addition to giving up his life for the sake of two companions, he also gave up a future of growing old with his brother and with his mother.  He gave his cousin—my father—his first experience of death, and he gave me a profound understanding of what a soldier’s sacrifice means.

“It was like a scene right out of a movie”, my uncle Armando said.  It was a normal Sunday morning, and he and his mother were preparing to go to church when two men in military uniforms knocked at the door.  They informed Armando that his brother Larry had been killed in action in Vietnam, just three months short of his return home.  In a steady and slow voice, my uncle Armando recalls what his mother told him that morning: “The hurt of a mother who has lost a son is a hurt like no other.”  Any parent would agree that they want their children to outlive them; no parent should have to bury a child.

Like falling dominoes, an act of selflessness has far-reaching impacts.  Armando feels that he was robbed of a future with his brother.  I could feel the pensiveness in his voice when he said he wishes they had had the opportunity to bond and make more memories together once Larry returned home.  In letters, Larry would frequently describe in detail the plans that he had in mind for them upon his return.  Larry’s decision to give his own life had a domino effect that continues to force Armando and their mother to also give up a part of their own lives—the portion that was saved for Larry.

This domino effect reached people past the scope of Larry’s immediate family: my father was seven years old when Larry gave him his first experience of a death.  My dad did not understand what was happening at Larry’s funeral service because before that day, he had viewed war as a game; he and the neighborhood kids would play “army” pretending to kill each other hours on end.  They had a glamorous image of war because of the way TV portrayed it.  In a popular show called Combat, my dad recalls watching soldiers fight the “evil Germans”.  In it, “the main characters never died.  Never.  Only the bad guys did.”  For the first time in his life, my father realized that even a good guy could die and that death was not glamorous but instead painful.

At the burial site, my dad remembers hearing the bugles playing “Taps” and the anguished cries of mourning.  The scene that struck him the most was Larry and Armando’s mother who, wailing loudly, threw herself onto the coffin.  My father describes, “She wouldn’t let go; she was speaking in Spanish asking someone in heaven to take care of him.” She was giving Larry to someone else, to the next domino.

Forty-seven years later, Larry’s story continues to teach what true giving means.  When I was in the 8th grade, my father and I visited the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington DC.  The Vietnam Wall, just like Alice Oswald’s Memorial: A Version of Homer’s Iliad, has “a strange, luminous quality” (Logan, “Plains of Blood.”).  The names inscribed on the Wall, “all that life almost [five decades] old, have been reduced to little more than a bureaucracy of death.”  Yet, the Vietnam Wall’s simple imposition is just as moving as Oswald’s quiet way of facing death.  If Oswald calls her Memorial an “oral cemetery”, then I call the Vietnam Wall a physical history of the fallen; it was there that I first learned about my relative.

Although the Vietnam War did not personally impact me, Uncle Larry’s story of selflessness did.  Touching his name and those of the many other fallen on the Wall made me realize that war is a grand-scale story of giving; everyone listed on those granite panels made a selfless sacrifice.  This is something that is fundamentally more profound, powerful, and beautiful than the outcome of any war.  After reflecting, I came to the conclusion that as poignant as the idea that war is the manifestation of death is, the belief that soldiers are the manifestation of giving is a hopeful reminder that humanity is not lost when we reduce ourselves to the evils of war but rather, transcends when times are darkest.

Larry is just one man among countless individuals who, throughout history, have given their lives in the name of defending freedom.  But I don’t think they realized that their selflessness would start a domino effect that would give so much more than that.  They gave those on the home front stories.  They gave us a sense of identity.  They gave us culture, and their histories taught us lessons. They brought us unity during trying and stressful times. They gave us the paragon of what it means to be giving.  My Uncle Larry showed me that goodness is more powerful than the drama and evils of war.


Work cited

Eisenhower, Dwight. “Domino Theory.” News Conference. 7 April 1954.

Spector, Ronald H. “The United States Enters the War.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 22 Apr. 2014.

Logan, William. “Plains of Blood.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 22 Dec. 2012. Web. 24 Apr. 2014.

Oswald, Alice. Memorial: a Version of Homer’s Iliad. New York: W. W. Norton, 2011. Print.

Miss Saigon: The War on Representation

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Wonderful critique of Miss Saigon and the “War on Representation” by Claire Bantilan.

A Reflection on “Miss Saigon: The War on Representation”

Numerous professors during the summer’s first-year orientation program had advertised the Humanities Core Course, stating that it was very challenging but also quite rewarding. I was intrigued by the idea of accessing and assessing a variety of sources, from classic literature to contemporary media. In spite of my eagerness to enroll in the class, one thought still stirred unease in me: that of having to develop my own research project as a first-year student. Ten months ago, such an idea was an impossibility to scoff at.

The Fall and Winter quarters passed quickly, as I was immersed into the Core’s seemingly endless content. At one point, I had almost forgotten completely about the research project that was looming in the distance. It was not until the end of the Spring quarter’s fourth week that reality had hit me, and the disturbance that I had felt before began to slowly creep back. In spite of having gained valuable knowledge from the previous two quarters, I still had very little to no confidence in the project.

My class was given a weekend to fill out a brainstorming sheet, wherein we would list some objects or artifacts we might be interested in. At the same time, we would start delving into the process of research by jotting down some ideas for the analysis. Somehow, that worksheet alone managed to feel like one of the heaviest burdens. I did not know where to begin with my thoughts. When hours of contemplation did not produce results, I decided to distract myself by
exploring my aunt’s CD collection for some old music to listen to. Six weeks ago, it was that very collection that opened the door towards a new path of exploration.

From the very top of the shelves lined with disc containers of all sizes and colors, I pulled out a small, reddish-brown case that had a thick layer of dust on it. Wiping off the dust, I saw a picture of a yellow sun, with brush strokes painted over it appearing to resemble some kind of helicopter and the side of a woman’s face. It was a curious sight. I looked at the logo above the symbol. Miss Saigon.

The name rang out some kind of familiarity. Naturally, I did what any curious individual in the modern day would do, and I searched for the title on Google. Having had past experience working in stage productions, I became very enthusiastic when I read that Miss Saigon was a musical. I came across a study guide that had been released as a companion to watching the show, which included the details regarding the show’s characters, setting, and some behind the scenes information. Learning that the story of the show was set in the Vietnam War, I realized that I could possibly find a topic related to the course’s overall theme of war (Royston). I set out to find a copy of the show’s script, and was fortunate enough to find the scanned pages of the production libretto, complete with the music score and stage directions.

Curious as to whether or not there was a recording of the show to watch while following along with the script, I searched various sites. Unfortunately, I was not able to find any copies of a complete version of the original, premiere show, only a documentary of its production process and a few small snippets of certain musical numbers. I continued browsing, and finally found a full recording of the closing show on Broadway that was posted on YouTube. Undeterred by the video’s inconstant quality, I persisted in watching, and was subsequently blown away by what I saw. I had already taken a fondness of the show because of how it was written like one continuous song, as a vast majority of the dialogue is sung. The show was visually and musically appealing, but its political aspects attracted me the most. One very interesting element of the show was that, due to its setting, it called for a racially diverse cast. I was also fascinated by the way the show had included controversial topics such as prostitution, interracial marriage, and even suicide (Royston).

Immediately, I began looking up more information regarding the show’s background, and ultimately stumbled upon a website entitled Don’t Buy Miss Saigon. This particular website caught my attention, as it was advocating a boycott of the show. This site also became the source of the first quote that I included in my video, from David Mura. The moderators of the website had claimed that people should not watch Miss Saigon because it supposedly advocated false stereotypes while romanticizing various ideas such as war and human trafficking (Mura). Additionally, the moderators were accepting submissions, wherein supporters of the cause could send in a photo and a brief personal story about why they were against the show.

I spent some time browsing through the photos and stories of the individuals who had sent in their information. While I appreciated their willingness to share their personal experiences and I respected their opinions, I had to say that I disagreed with these people. As someone who had managed to watch the show, I felt that these supporters were misinformed, because most were basing their opposition off of summaries and photos found online. In denying to watch the show, they were hurting the credibility of their arguments, while also denying themselves from the possibility of thinking otherwise. From there, I knew that I wanted to do a close examination of the show and its portrayal of the stereotypes that were being criticized.

Every existing adaptation of Miss Saigon, whether at the professional or amateur level, has had different cast members, crew workers, and stage appearances. However, while there may be various distinctions between each performance, the one thing that is consistent and shared between all is the script. Therefore, instead of choosing one specific production or performance to study, I chose to make the script my primary artifact. I began to reread the script while taking copious notes on the story’s details. Recalling that most of the show was sung through, I also began listening to the original show’s recording as a method of better engaging my study. Amidst being absorbed in the material before me, I considered how I would present my ideas coherently on paper. It was at that moment that the thought of a creative project came into my mind.

Because my artifact of study was a musical stage production, something heavily reliant on imagery, I thought that an analysis paper alone would not do it proper justice. The script alone was my primary source of evidence for my work, but I felt as though there was a missing aspect to it. I wanted to give my audience a chance to see portions of the actual productions and form conclusions based on fair, individual perception, something that some of the supporters of Don’t Buy Miss Saigon did not have. Thinking about the possible effectiveness of my presentation, I was also further encouraged to make a creative project when I read that 65% of all individuals were inclined to learn in a quicker and more efficient pace with the use of visual aids (Bradford). This fact alone solidified the motivation I had to create a video.

For the first portion of the creation process, I approached my video project very similarly to a normal research paper. After gathering enough notes on my personal observations of Miss Saigon, I began searching through the school’s online databases to find scholarly articles pertaining to the show. I also collected several reviews and reflections from various journalists who had seen the productions. Reading through all of the documents, I was able to better develop the ideas that I wanted to expand upon. When the writers argued in defense of the show, I examined how their analyses could enrich my own evaluation. When the writers argued against the show, I sought out ways I could challenge their evaluations while fortifying mine. In short, secondary sources allowed for me to discover the strengths and weaknesses of my work.

While other students created rough drafts of their essays, I submitted a proposed outline of what I wanted to include in my video. The outline became a thorough guide that I would follow in writing out a basic script to record. The feedback that I received from my section leader allowed for me to further refine the concepts that I wished to include, and I narrowed down the outline and script to the most concise for I could manage. Once I had completed the fundamental blueprint for my video, I went straight into creating the actual product.

The second part of my creative process for this project was not simple, but I had never anticipated it to be so in the first place. I knew that a visual presentation would not be easy because of the difficulty in finding a recording of a full performance. I would have to resort to using snippets of various productions, which would be confusing from the aforementioned inconsistencies between them. In the hopes of lessening the confusion amongst these clips, I decided to utilize only the videos that involved the original West End and Broadway casts. A positive aspect of this was that two of the principal characters, Kim and the Engineer, were played by the same actress and actor in both opening versions, Lea Salonga and Jonathan Pryce respectively. If I could include enough clips with the two in character, I could some continuity.

It took a solid day to gather enough video clips to begin working on the actual product. I spent two days in total recording my voice for the narration, using headphones that had a built-in microphone in order to assure the best possible quality of sound. Attempting to multitask and record while organizing the clips, I spent approximately three days producing a rough cut of my video; this draft was then presented to my section leaders and my fellow classmates. Through Bantilan 5
conversing with my peers and attending conferences with my section leader, I was able to receive feedback on how to improve my project. Taking notes on the suggestions I was given, I spent another three days recording more dialogue, searching for more video clips to add, and re- editing portions of the existing project. Altogether, the creation of the video took a solid week in order to create a final version of my video.

I chose to start my presentation with some background for Miss Saigon, as I understood that not everyone would be familiar with theatre work, especially not a show that is complex and over twenty-five years old (Royston). I was fortunate enough to find a copy of The Heat Is On, the documentary created to showcase the production of the original West End show. I pulled quite a bit of information about the show’s background from this documentary, and it also included some performance clips that proved to be invaluable.

After establishing the introduction to the musical, I presented my argument by referencing Mura, who argued against the show’s stereotypes, and then including a portion of a quote from journalist Robert Stone, who defended the show’s peculiarities. Through including the quotes, I hoped to give the feeling that the audience was beginning to delve into a deep analysis of the show.

After the establishment of my research artifact and topic, I moved directly into evidence, and planned out a basic chain of examination. Starting at the show’s opening number was an effective way of easing the viewers into the bulk of my project. I began where the show itself began, and studied the prostitutes that were introduced first. Showing their subtle humanity allowed for me to progress towards the show’s protagonist, Kim, who was a prostitute herself. Considering that most of the script focuses on her, I also chose to spend more time showcasing her characteristics, from her backstory to her ultimate demise. I was initially unsure of how to tackle the story of Kim’s suicide, but I decided to acknowledge that it was controversial, but its scandalousness also gave it some realism. Neither I nor the show explicitly condones the act of self-harm, but such antagonism does not mean that it does not exist in the real world.

After finishing Kim’s story, I contrasted her life with the lives of the American soldiers who were present in the show. Similar to the prostitutes and Kim, I focused on the collective group of soldiers first, in order to establish a general theme. In this case, the soldiers were not as heroic as the typical stereotype of servicemen and servicewomen states. When this idea was prominently displayed, I then shifted to briefly mention two of the soldiers who visibly demonstrated their weaknesses, John and Chris, in order to really give faces to this concept, much like I did in mentioning the prostitute Gigi earlier. Tying up my position that the soldiers’ imperfections actually challenged the concepts of white supremacy, I introduced the character that I saw was the full embodiment of this dispute: the Engineer.

The Engineer is a fascinating character because of his Eurasian background and his flamboyant personality act. I had read that there was controversy in the casting of the Engineer in the original productions, but I did not mention them because I felt as though the casting issue did not have much relevancy in my analysis of the script (Henry). Instead, I focused on the Engineer’s characteristic contradictions, and how he was the epitome of one of the show’s effects on its audience members. He felt like such an artificial character because of how outrageous his dialogue was, but at the same time, he was also very lifelike in his actions. Watching the Engineer was confusing, but it also forced viewers to really contemplate about his existence and purpose, which would also allow for a reflection of the entire production.

Once I completed my observations of the Engineer, I felt as though it was time to wrap up my work. I included a reflection of writer Celine Shimizu in the hopes of confirming my ideas of the show’s value in provoking contemplation. In order to make that position clearer, I also offered an example by essentially stating that different viewers can benefit from Miss Saigon in different ways because of how complex and diverse the show is. Wrapping up the final pieces of my argument, I then worked to end on a positive note by promoting how stereotypes are difficult to eliminate, but the show demonstrates that such an action can be done with good efforts. Watching my finished product before submission, I realize now that the video feels very much like a fully written paper with the added feature of a visual component. It follows the standard introduction-analysis-conclusion motion, but it is graphically exhibited.

The video was, by far, the most difficult piece of work that I have ever encountered in my school career. The reason behind this is because I had to somehow combine the process of the research project together with the idea of a visual presentation. I knew that somehow, I had to find a balance between showing my audience my argument and demonstrating the validity of my claims. What felt so special about this project was that I was not only able to practice my research and analytic development, but I was also able to explore another form of learning through artistry. Somehow, I felt as though I was actually able to immerse myself in my topic, and so I became considerably passionate about it. It is my desire to be able to convey that passion, and for the viewers of my work to also experience that immersion. At the end of the day, this project was a struggle, but one that I am immensely proud of.

Works Cited

Bradford, William C. “Reaching the Visual Learner: Teaching Property Through Art.” The Law Teacher 11. (2004): 1-5. Academic Search Complete. Web. 10 May 2014.

Henry III, William. “Memories Of A World On Fire.” Time 137.16 (1991): 91. Academic Search Complete. Web. 14 May 2014.

Mura, David. “The Problem(s) With Miss Saigon (or, How Many Stereotypes Can You Cram into One Broadway Musical).” Opine Season. Opine Season, 11 Sept. 2013. Web. 31 May 2014.

Royston, Peter, and Sarah Schlesinger. The Music Theatre International Study Guide for Miss Saigon. New York, NY: Music Theatre International, 1990. Print.

Schönberg, Claude-Michel, and Alain Boulbil. Miss Saigon. Milwaukee, WI.: Hal Leonard Pub., 1987. Print.

Schönberg, Claude-Michel. Miss Saigon (Original London Cast). Original London Cast. Decca, 1990. CD.

Shimizu, Celine Parreñas. “The Bind Of Representation: Performing And Consuming Hypersexuality In Miss Saigon.” Theatre Journal 57.2 (2005): 247-265. Academic Search Complete. Web. 10 May 2014.

Stone, Robert. “Miss Saigon Flirts With Art And Reality.” New York Times 140.48563 (1991): 1. Academic Search Complete. Web. 10 May 2014.

The Heat Is On. Dir. Nicholas Hytner. Thames Television, 1989. TV Movie.

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Niky Dang


Portrait of my grandfather

By the time my grandfather returned home from the communist Vietnam’s “re-education” program in 1985, he had not seen his home in nearly a decade.

His story is one that has been seldom heard. Online databases provide plenty of information about American Vietnam War Vets and U.S.-centric articles about the Vietnam War, but almost nothing about the very people that the United States had allied themselves with and fought for. It was not until after I had finished my interview with my grandfather that I found an article detailing the experiences of other individuals who had been taken in re-education camps after the fall of Saigon (Do). Reading through them, I realize that my grandfather had perhaps shielded me from the worst of his experiences by giving me a more general account of his “re-education.”

During the interview, my grandfather was backlit by the bright midday sun streaming through the curtains. He had lain down on the couch and made himself comfortable as I sat down on a small stool. As we spoke, his voice was quiet, steady, and calm. His hair was more silver than gray, and I cannot recall if I had ever known a grandfather with the jet black hair I see in old, yellowed photos. He seems relaxed, I remember thinking as I nervously rifled through my papers and prepared to take notes. As though he had heard my thoughts, he assured me that I could ask him about anything I wanted to know. Somewhat assured, I began the interview.

My grandfather’s name is Liem Nguyen. He joined the Republic of Vietnam Navy when he was 20 years old. By the time he was 34, my grandfather had received training from American Fleet Naval Training Centers in Chicago, Pearl Harbor, San Diego, the Naval Station Great Lakes, and in various places all across Vietnam. He also commandeered his own ship—a destroyer escort radar picket ship, or DER. Though he provided support for ground troops during the war, my grandfather tells me he did not see much combat. After tanks rolled into Saigon, marking an end to the Republic of Vietnam, he tells me about the bodies that littered the streets. The Viet Cong had won, but it was a coward’s victory. It is only when he talks about them, the enemy, that I have ever heard my grandfather regard anyone with such contempt.

“The SVA people were enemy number one to them. The Viet Cong wanted payback.” My grandfather’s hand clenches briefly into a fist and then he relaxes.

The Socialist Republic of Vietnam began making announcements that ordered anyone who had been associated with the South Vietnamese government to report to designated areas. From these places, hundreds of thousands of people were imprisoned, taken to what the communist government referred to as “re-education camps” (Do 1). My grandfather may have started out as one of the many people in South Vietnam to be taken to these camps, but he later became one of the few to survive them.

As he begins to tell me about his journey, my grandfather switches freely between speaking in English and Vietnamese. I struggle to keep my thoughts in order as I translate between the two languages and make them into something I understand. Noticing my struggle, my grandfather pauses and allows me to recollect my thoughts before continuing.

“They put us on a small cargo ship filled with thousands of SVA officers. For four days we traveled from south to north. There were so many people that there was no room to sit down on the boat,” he tells me, his weathered hands occasionally rising from his chest as he gestures along with his words. I try to imagine what this must have felt like, and all I can think about are brief textbook snippets about slaves being transported across the Atlantic Ocean when I was learning history in grade school.

After he was taken off the boat, my grandfather and the other men and women with him were forced to travel nearly 50 miles over the course of several days through rough terrain.

“There were no roads. We had to go through jungle and mountain, but sometimes there was a train that would take us. Some people died along the way because they were so tired and the Viet Cong would tell children nearby that we were cannibals. The children would throw rocks at us. They threw rocks and sometimes it would hit someone on the head and they would die.”

He does not name exactly where, but my grandfather tells me that they finally stopped somewhere near the Chinese/Vietnamese border in the north. At this point, he was no longer speaking to me in English. It did not take me long to figure out why.

“They made us do terrible things. Inhuman things. In each building there were nearly one thousand people and a single crate. The crate was used for human waste, and every morning we would be forced to carry it outside and mix water into it. Then, by hand, we would stir the contents of the crate and use it for fertilizer.” 1

My grandfather was essentially at the mercy of his captors and no one was going to save him—least of all the government that had put him there in the first place. Many of the people he knew died from starvation or sickness. Each day, every “student” was given a handful of corn meal and forced into hard labor. In order to survive, they had to grow crops like sweet potato or cassava root, the latter of which can be deadly if prepared improperly. For many, these meager rations were not nearly enough. They would go foraging in the jungle and would often times die from consuming poisonous mushrooms or plants. In the re-education camps, this was merely one of many ways to die. There are no archives, no records, and no official figures of how many had died (Do 1).

“I knew which plants were poisonous and which were not,” he states. “I was in the camp for over six years. After that they slowly started taking us all back to the south by train. These trains were not good trains. Worse than in America.”

He recalls stepping off the train and finding that everything about the place he had grown up in seemed different. My grandfather was different, too, bone-thin from years of malnutrition and backbreaking work that demanded all the strength of his youth.

GP's DER ship

Grandfather’s ship

At the train station where they had stopped, there was a man selling food who mistook the former SVA officials for tourists. He came up to them, eager to make an easy sale, but then learned that these were men who had fought for old Vietnam. His demeanor changed completely. My grandfather recalls that after that, the man could only show them love and gratitude and gave as much food as he could spare.

Even after finally returning home in 1985, he remained under the watchful eye of the Vietnamese government for nearly three years. During that time, the United States had worked out an agreement with the Vietnamese government to allow those who had been imprisoned in re-education camps for three or more years to come to the United States. My grandfather and his family became part of the second wave of Vietnamese immigrants, comprised mainly of those who had been released from the re-education camps, to arrive in the United States (Campi).

When I ask him if he misses the home he left behind after everything that had happened, he smiles. It is a smile that wrinkles the corners of his eyes, a real smile, but a sad one, too.



1These were not his original words, but they closely resemble what he had said in Vietnamese.

Works Cited

Do, Anh, Tran Phan, and Eugene Garcia. “Camp 30-D: The Survivors” Dart Center for     Journalism & Trauma. Columbia Journalism School, 1 Mar 2009. Web. 20 Apr. 2014.

Campi, Alicia. “From Refugees to Americans: Thirty Years of Vietnamese Immigration to the       United States” Immigration Daily. American Immigration LLC, ILW.COM, 13 Mar       2006. Web. 20 Apr. 2014.



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The Brother Who Never Returned by Desiree Lorraine Rodriguez

My audio will be centered on the story of my grandmother’s brother, Michael Leyva. Historically the United States Selective Service war held four different drafts for the Vietnam was. My grandmother’s brother was one of the selected men. It was an abrupt and uneasy departure. Michael’s absence greatly affected the family dynamic of the Leyva family. Michael was the second to the eldest son who as my grandmother claims held the family together. He was full of positivity and undying helpfulness. He was the perfect big brother says my grandmother. However, when Michael returned from the war there were noticeable differences. He was not the same Michael.

The Vietnam War was a widely televised war, it was as easy as turning on the television, and then you could “sit back and enjoy”.  My grandmother was quite familiar with the accessible war footage. One evening while watching the news my great grandfather Mike Senior saw something on the television. What laid in front of him was a map showing his very own son’s platoon surrounded by the Vietnamese. Mike Senior called the family to come and see, right in front of their eyes laid their son’s fate. However by some miracle Michael was able to find a way to lead his platoon to safety. In fact he was deemed a hero and awarded with a purple heart. Not long after he was shot in battle and returned home.

My grandmother and her family looked forward to his return home. Although the Michael that returned was different than the Michael that left. This Michael, the war hero, had war scars. While Michael struggled while he tried to settle back in to the civilian life. He would wake up in the middle of the night and salute, awakening my grandmother and her family. Michael unknowingly had Posttraumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. During this time there was no diagnosis for such disorder so soldiers were left in the ark while they faced the flashbacks, depression, and fits of anxiety on their own.

The brother that I loved dearly never returned from war says my grandmother. Today, Michael lives alone in his home located in Madera, CA divorced and occasionally sees his children. He regularly sees a psychologist and attends VA group meetings. The war has had nothing less than a heavy toll on his life. However, the support from my grandmother and her family has helped him through every step of the way. He is the personification of war and its affects on the individual. Nevertheless he is a veteran whom my grandmother claims to be her hero.

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A Hole in Heritage by Amy Quach


Taken at Khao-I-Dang. This one shows what the living quarters were like (on the right the straw hut). My dad said that if you stood outside the hut you were as tall or taller than the hut. He also said they just gave you a tarp and you had to find material to build the huts (which is why there’s the use of straw on many of the huts).

The feeling of not knowing my own heritage leaves a gaping hole in how I identify myself. I grew up identifying myself as Cambodian, because my family came from Cambodia. However, I never knew why they left the country. I didn’t know my family’s history and that made me feel as if I didn’t know myself. I didn’t feel any appreciation for my ethnic background nor did I know why I needed to call myself Cambodian. I was fine with not knowing why as a child, but as I grew, I felt that I needed to know for the sake of knowing my family history. I wanted to ask why my parents left, but I was prevented by my older siblings, who told me that my parents didn’t want to talk about their past. From then on, guilt held me back because of the fear of making them remember traumatizing events. Now, as a college student at the age of 19, I decided to take the step and ask my dad why.

On a school night in April, I called my dad over Skype and hesitantly asked him in Teochew, my native language, where he was born, hiding behind the fact that I needed to know for a school assignment, because I knew he’d support me for school. At first he told me in a serious tone, “I’ll tell you whatever you need to know.” He proceeded to tell me that he was from Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia since French colonization. From there I asked the core question that I have been wanting the answer to for six years: why did he leave Cambodia.

His response was one of despise. I wasn’t expecting a happy attitude because he must have left for some reason, but I really was caught by surprised with his answer.

During the Communist regime there were no laws, no market (economic opportunity). When they came in, they exiled the people. They didn’t allow you to live at home. They gathered everyone and told you to leave and to keep moving. You didn’t have money, no market, nothing to buy. They just told you to keep moving. Once you reached the countryside there were no houses, no trees, only grass. The government didn’t care if you had food or not. Who wants to live in a country like that?

While I sat typing notes on my computer, I couldn’t help but be horrified by what my dad was telling me. I knew about the Khmer Rouge, the followers of the Communist regime, killing nearly two million Cambodians, but my image of genocide was something like the death camps in Germany during World War II. I didn’t know that they just made their citizens leave their homes without anything to survive and leave them to fend for themselves in the wild.

My dad had originally planned to escape to Thailand with my grandmother and grandfather, but it was over 400 kilometers of walking (because there were no cars at the time) while finding food along the way. At the time, the Vietnam government wanted the Vietnamese people in Cambodia to immigrate to Vietnam. Because Thailand was too far, my dad convinced a Vietnamese family to report him, my grandmother, and grandfather as relatives so that they would be able to enter Vietnam. “They didn’t care for us, but there was market. There was a chance to live. Why wouldn’t we take it?” Four years later (1979), Vietnam attacked Cambodia and there was the threat of being deported to Cambodia. The conflict started over dispute of land. There was a province that had belong to Cambodia but was taken by the Vietnamese.

Vietnam sided with Russia and Cambodia sided with China so Cambodia wanted their land back. Vietnam didn’t want to give it back. There were cars in ’79 so we took one to try to get to Thailand so that we weren’t sent back. We had to cross a forest that had members of the Red Khmer (Khmer Rouge) living in it. We had to travel a day and a night to get through. There was a Freedom Party camp at the border and we stayed there.

At this point, I was absolutely speechless. He had a relaxed posture, as if he was just telling me a story from a book. He sat, leaning back in his chair, shifting just slightly from side to side as if to occupy himself while I was typing down information and he would occasionally side track to find out how I was doing in school. My dad was telling me everything out of free will. I had asked just one question and he was telling me an overview of his life story. Even though I began feeling the hole in my ethnic history disappearing, I was shocked beyond words at what my dad and my grandparents went through just to find a better life. My dad’s tone had changed and the serious atmosphere I felt before became casual. I felt like it was like any other day that I would talk to him, joking about politics and economics, and just spending time to bond.

A week passed and on November 21, 1979, the U.N came to take the weak and ill across the border to a camp in Thailand called Khao-I-Dang Refugee Camp[1]. At the time, my grandmother was unable to walk and they were immediately taken across the border.

They gave us tarps and we had to find wood and other things to build our house. I went to help the U.N once I was across, but my English was ‘bun bun’ (a saying to signify inadequacy). We were there for one and a half years before moving to the Mairut[2] Refugee Camp. It was smaller but the houses were built with wood.


Taken in one of the houses at Mairut (which is pre-built for the refugees to live in. While it is a very simple set up it was enough to house the refugees). My dad isn’t in this picture but my grandfather is in this picture. He is the one on the far left in the front wearing a white shirt. My dad said this was taken when they were about to go to the beach.


Taken outside the gate of the school a Khao-I-Dang. My dad is the one on the far left. He said that the school was built by the refugees that were staying there at the camp.

Two to three months later, his uncle who had escaped to America in 1975, sponsored him and my grandparents. The INS, Immigration and Naturalization Service, interviewed him before moving him and my grandparents to Lum Pi Ni[3] in Bangkok. They lived there for about a month before they were called to file paperwork.

The worker there asked me if I wanted to help them with work. I told him of course. Why wouldn’t anyone not want to help them? After a while, we were taken to Transit in Bataan (known as the Philippine Refugee Processing Center[4]) for training. They taught us about the dollar, how to use it, what a house looks like in America, how to use the bathroom, and how life was like in America. Your uncle would always joke about it saying “who doesn’t know money and how to use it?” Transit was on a hill so I used to go to the top to take pictures. I went with a family friend one time to the capital to spend the day and night before coming back the next day. That day I came back, we were called to take the plane to America. If I hadn’t come back I wouldn’t be in America (he joked and gave a small laugh at the statement).

He was at the Philippine Refugee Processing Camp for about three months before a plane took him and my grandparents to America.


Taken in the Philippines. My dad is on the left, grandmother in the middle, and grandfather on the right. My dad said that they went to a lot of places in the Philippines but this one was the only one with him and my grandparents in it.

“Everything else after that you know about” was how he ended. It is true. My dad told me of his life in America so I knew the rest of the story from there. At the end I didn’t have much to say other than give a small laugh, and joke around with my dad before we ended the call. After the call ended, I sat and couldn’t help but be really proud to call myself Cambodian, because now that identity is connected to my dad and my grandparents’ fight for a better life. While my ethnic history is still incomplete, because I don’t know my mom’s life story and the tradition Cambodian culture, I feel that I can understand my background more now that I know my dad’s history.

Works Cited

Anna. “Bataan Refugee Camp 1980-1995, Philippines”. Remembering the Vietnamese Exodus.     Website.

Rowat, Richard. “Thai/Cambodian Border Camps 1975-1999”. Thai/Cambodia Border Refugee    Camps 1975-1999 Information and Documentation Website. Website.


[1] Khao-I-Dang Refugee Camp was a camp established by the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees for Khmer Rouge refugees and opened November 21, 1979. (Rowat)

[2]Mairut was originally a camp for Khmer Rouge refugees. It was converted into a processing center after 2 years and is located in the Trat province 2 kilometers from the Mairut village. (Rowat)

[3] Lum Pi Ni was a transit camp near the international airport in Bangkok. (Rowat)

[4] The Philippine Refugee Processing Center was a large facility near Morong, Bataan, Phlippines and is the final stop for Indochinese (Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, and ethnic minorities from the three countries) refugees making their way for permanent resettlement in other nations. (Anna)