“A lot of people, including my dad, wanted to stay in Vietnam and make a difference,” Trinh said. “But it was impossible. How could you stay in a place where you were treated as a third-class citizen? It’s so sad. The government was scared of intellectuals. It was scared of my father even though he was only a bloody teacher.”
When Trinh started high school in Melbourne, he spoke no English. He ate mostly rice. Shoes hurt his feet because he had only worn sandals. By the time I got to know him, he had his law degree, had clerked for a federal court judge in Melbourne, and been chosen the Young Viet¬namese Australian of the Year for his work with the refugees. He had been accepted at Oxford to study for a master’s degree in law. His father, after ten years as a bus driver in Melbourne, was teaching again.
So NOW TRINH AND I WERE SITTING at the noodle shop on Rizal Avenue, in the tropical city of Puerto Princesa, listening to Nguyen Van Y and his friends talk about how they had risked everything for democ¬racy and freedom. Van Y held a scrapbook with photos from Vietnam; he turned each page slowly. “Seriously, if Vietnam wasn’t communist, I’d go back,” he said. And another former soldier, Nguyen Van Vui, added, “Es¬caping was dangerous, but we did it for liberty. Just by being here in the Philippines I am making a statement how much that liberty means to me.
But the memories they clung to were a myth. The wartime South Vietnam I had known had been neither democratic nor free. Thousands were imprisoned. Torture was common. Newspapers were censored. Elec¬tions were fraudulent. Religion was suppressed. Antigovernment protests were brutally crushed. Corruption reached scandalous levels. The United States ran “independent” South Vietnam just as France had run colonial Vietnam. I did not volunteer any of these observations. My hosts were good people, and they had precious little to hold on to. If rewriting his¬tory gave them some comfort, so be it.
“We’ve got to get going,” Trinh said after a couple of hours at the noo¬dle shop. “I want you to see the camp.” Van Y lent us his motor scooter, and we headed out of Puerto Princesa along narrow roads that cut through the jungle to the sea and a pristine white beach where a sun¬baked refugee camp had once stood. The camp was emptied and leveled when the United Nations declared the crisis over, but several slumlike barracks remained, inhabited by twenty or so Amerasians. Some of them bore no physical Vietnamese characteristics and looked as American as the GIs who had fought the war. It seemed odd to hear them speaking Vietnamese instead of English. They lived in squat crumbling buildings, drinking contaminated water, sleeping on concrete floors, and covering themselves with cardboard when it rained. Trinh introduced me to Pham Thi Nga, the twenty-six-year-old daughter of a U.S. serviceman she had never met.
“We’re the leftovers of the war,” Nga said. “But what I’d like to know is this: In the United States, you do a crime and go to prison, and one day the sentence ends. For us, this is a sentence. Just tell us how long it will last.”
Of all the war’s leftovers, the Amerasians were surely the most hapless. In Vietnam, they had been taunted and bullied by their schoolmates. In the United States, they had a tough time adjusting. In refugee camps they kept to themselves and did not mix with the pure-blooded Vietnamese. Carrying U.S. visas, the Amerasians left Vietnam in the early 1990s not by boat but in planes chartered by Washington to resettle Amerasians in the United States. The Philippines was to be only a brief transit point. The vast majority of Amerasians made it the rest of the way, to a new home in the United States. What this last group didn’t understand was that a visa doesn’t guarantee a person entry to a country; it only gets him on an airplane, giving him the right to seek permission to enter upon ar¬rival. Because the Amerasians left Vietnam legally, they were required to meet the same standards as, say, an Australian or a Mexican applying for U.S. immigrant residency.
For various reasons, visas issued for the people still stuck in the Palawan ghost camp had been revoked. In some cases, U.S. officials said, their behavior was “antisocial,” which usually meant drinking and fight¬ing; others had medical problems or, like Nga, had committed fraud by providing false information on their applications, often claiming friends and distant cousins as part of their immediate family to make them eligi¬ble for resettlement. The officials wrote “Canceled” across the visas. Case closed.
Unlike Van Y, who could have returned to Vietnam if he wanted, Nga and her friends had nowhere to go. Hanoi would not take them back be¬cause they left under a bilateral agreement with Washington—which wouldn’t accept them because they had been judged unfit for resettle¬ment. The Manila government considered them illegal immigrants be-cause their now-expired transit visas had been valid for only days, not years. It wanted to deport them—but to where?
I asked one young man his name, and he said, “I am Nguyen Van Diem, No. BV-867523.” He had spent so long as a refugee that, in his mind, his name and camp number had become one. Diem said, “I go to the U.S. Embassy and they say, ‘Go home to Vietnam,’ and I tell them, ‘I’ve been trying to do that for four years, and Vietnam won’t take me.’”