That night, mom, when the hurricane blanketed our house with reservoir waters, did it feel like that evening in 1978? Back then, you were 22, packed anything you could eat or sell, and walked to the shore of a Danang beach. You boarded a fishing boat headed anywhere except Vietnam. I wonder, what was in your bag? Did you pack enough snacks and underwear? Did you ever step back towards grandma’s shuttered candy shop? Were you scared?
You never told me about the full journey from Vietnam to Houston, but I know slivers of the story. One day, in Galveston, we stood on the seawall and looked into the opaque waters. It’s scary, you said, being on a fishing boat for days, surrounded by nothing but infinite ocean. Once, you and I boiled water for a package of ramen. You laughed thinking of grandpa, standing portside, heating seawater for his bowl of noodles. He didn’t need salt, you said with amusement.
Before each first day of school, you would buy me a pair of Lee Jeans. One August, you proudly showed me the logo tags that I loathed to feel against my skin. You sewed those on in a Hong Kong factory, you told me. You were able to make a few dollars for boxed char sui fan lunches as you waited to be sponsored by a brother in Texas.
That night, when Harvey drove the floodwaters up to your ankles, I called you past midnight. I was 2,000 miles away, uncertain if what I read was what you were living. The voice that picked up the phone was not the one that had once lulled me to sleep singing “Que Sera, Sera”. It shivered in tone, perforated with muffled splashes of you scooping away water with a cup. An abrupt electric pop severed one of your sentences. What’s that, I asked. You had to go, you said. You still haven’t told me what that sound was.
Hours later, through articles and our hurried conversations, I pieced together tatters of your escape. At sunrise, you put a few bottles of water and some valued papers in a bag. With our dog in your arms and a lifejacket on your chest, you left the house, walking into waist-deep water. As you waded, a boat found you, pulled you from boundless floodwaters and offered to steer you anywhere except home. I’m still waiting for the rest.
I wonder, what will we eat or see or touch that provokes the next scrap of story? The whirr of a boat engine? The feeling of wet shoes? The smell of salt? Will it remind you of that night in 1978? Mom, were you scared?
Editor’s Note: Houston is home to a significant refugee population, many of whom fled from their home countries over the last 50 years. In the 70s, the refugees were Vietnamese. In the 80s, they were Central American and Cuban. Today, many of the refugees are Syrian, Iraqi and Afghani. A lot of them fled their countries by boat. In 2017, during Hurricane Harcey, a lot of them were rescued by boat. This includes my mom.