During the current refugee crisis in Europe, it is said that there are many imposters among genuine refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Yemen, all countries, incidentally, that America and its allies have destroyed. Too many of them are men, it is pointed out, and they're generally not dressed badly enough. Many have smart phones.
When the Vietnamese boat people fled Communism after the Vietnam War, the percentage of men was also extremely high. Many families could only afford the smuggler's fee for a single member, and so often the oldest son would be dispatched on the arduous and perilous journey. It was hoped that this individual might become a stepping stone to get the rest out, or he can send desperately needed money back home. There is always an economic reason behind a refugee crisis. People flee because they can no longer make a living due to a tyrannical government, foreign intervention or evil ideology, not just bombs falling.
France completed its conquest of Vietnam in 1882. During World War I, it brought 92,000 Vietnamese to France to help it fight Germany. Around 30,000 of these died in the trenches. Though most survivors returned home, some stayed to work in factories, and thus, the first overseas Vietnamese community was formed. The invaders are often invaded by the invaded. There are now 300,000 Vietnamese in France. Moreover, nearly 10% of France is Muslim, most of whom are derived from its former colonies of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.
There are Pakistanis in Europe posing as Syrian refugees, it is observed, but if a Pakistani is from a region attacked by American drones, shouldn't he count himself as a war refugee? Of course, this doesn't mean his next address should be in Berlin. He can just move to Lahore. For the last several centuries, however, the West has been busy remaking the rest of the world in its image, and so every black, brown or yellow man is also a bastard Westerner.
The West violates borders, then cringes when its own are ignored. Of course, no one wants to see his society turned upside down. This upheaval could be arrested if only the West would stop wrecking other peoples' homelands, but this won't happen. On a planet of exploding populations, dwindling resources and contracting economies, war will only become more pervasive. Many players, Western or otherwise, will instigate it in all corners of this exhausted earth. Massive refugee flows will be the wave of our near future. The mess in Europe is only a preview, so you better get used to it, and you should also consider the likelihood that you yourself will become a desperate escapee who must risk death to start all over in a strange land. Border walls will go up, but there are always ways around walls. Guards can be bribed.
I'm a refugee, and so are my entire family. My parents became refugees twice. They fled North Vietnam in 1954, then South Vietnam in 1975. By early April of that year, Hue, Danang and Nha Trang had fallen, and there was much panic in Saigon, where I was living. On April 8th, the Presidential Palace was bombed by Nguyen Thanh Trung, a renegade South Vietnamese pilot whose given name actually means "loyal." A bomb hit the terrace, another landed in the garden. I was downtown that day and saw the commotion.
Days later, my grandfather placed my 11-year-old ass on his lap and rather testily said, "Who cares if other people are leaving, you're staying here with grandpa, right?"
Of course, it wasn't my decision to make. My father, a lawyer and ex congressman, had already arranged for his secretary, me and my five-year-old brother to evacuate with a Chinese family. One of their daughters had been employed by the Americans, so they had a way out, but since they didn't want to lose their considerable properties to lunge into the unknown, the parents and younger kids stayed behind, and that's why they could sell three spots to my dad. It was the gravest of mistakes. Within weeks, they would lose everything anyway.
Giving me money, my father said, "Two thousand bucks should last you a year." American bills, I noticed, were less colorful than Vietnamese ones, though longer and crisper. After sewing this cash into the hem of my blue shorts, made of rayon and extremely hot, my grandmother advised, "Whatever you do, don't take these off," and I didn't for nearly a month. I didn't trust the secretary. Later, this cantankerous woman would become my stepmother. Sickly birthed by history, it was a disastrous marriage.
Three of us, then, left with false papers, but no refugee ever gives a shyster about legal niceties. Before being bused to the airport, we stayed at an American compound for four days. Already, Saigon seemed very far away. On the evening of April 27th, just hours before North Vietnamese rockets showering on Tan Son Nhat disabled runways and killed scores of people, mostly civilians, I got on a C-130. No Vietnamese had an idea where it would land. My father was left behind, of course, but I was too dazzled by this strange adventure to even think about him.
The war had come to me only through the media. Open a newspaper and you would see VC corpses lying in disarray. Turn on the radio and you could hear how our side was winning. In the middle of the war, Saigon movie theaters even showed American movies of World War II. Sitting in air-conditioned rooms, Saigonese could enjoy elaborately staged scenes of diving jets, exploding bombs, burning houses, collapses bridges and incinerated cities. They could stare at mutilated corpses and hear the injured scream. On the big screen, Saigonese could be thrilled by a fake war, while a real killing war was raging and outraging about 80 miles from where they were sitting. Yes, I saw plenty of soldiers, tanks, military convoys and sandbags on the streets, and the twack twack sounds of helicopters were familiar enough, but I never witnessed actual fighting. Once or twice I heard the thumps of distant artilleries.
I had been on a plane just once before. A huge military transporter, the C-130 only had a handful of tiny windows and no seats. People were sprawled all over the floor. I saw a kid eat raw instant noodles. When we landed, it was pitch dark and I heard "Guam" for the first time, but this meant nothing beyond the fact that we were no longer in Vienam. Where to go from there, then do what, no one knew.
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