The Florida sun had descended and left a deep jet-blue sky littered with sparkling stars. We were in our vacation home’s warm pool, my dad and I with my husband and our 10 year-old and 6 year-old daughters. My mother had taken my 2 year-old to bed.
As my dad came up from his pool-length swim, he shook the water off and gazed over to my daughters. They were splashing around with the pool floaties we had bought for them on this spring break trip. He waded over to me and began telling me the story of the floaties. You see, my parents (and so many other fellow Hmong families) came here to the USA during the early 1980’s as refugees. After a horrific war in Vietnam where the Hmong aided the US, the Hmong were hunted after the US pulled out. To escape persecution, they left the remains of their villages and traveled miles at night through the jungles of western Laos in hopes to find some safety in the neighboring Thailand. But in order to get to Thailand, they had to cross the mighty Mekong River that divided the two countries. The Mekong can be three quarters of a mile wide. Many Hmong do not know how to swim. Especially at night, quietly as to not alert soldiers. And that’s where the floaties came in. My father said only the families that could afford the floaties had that luxury. And even then, it was reserved for the elderly or children. That evening as we watched my children pull and spin each other in that Florida pool, he talked about the process of blowing up the floaties and tying them onto a string. He talked about how his hands shook and how his body was so numb with fear he didn’t recall if the river was cold. He talked about how as he was the only member of his family group that was able to swim, he pulled his mother, my mother, and a nephew across the river in the dark. He talked about how many families didn’t make it.
He talked about families getting shot at or drowning and making it to the Thailand shore with only 1 or 2 members. Or just 1-2 limbs.
He talked about families that swam for miles and miles to reach the same shore they left.
He talked about how babies had to be drugged up so they wouldn’t make any noise. And how many of those babies never woke up.
He talked about how men surrendered so their mothers, wives, and daughters wouldn’t be raped.
This is a story I have heard so many times before growing up.
But it was something in this instance that made it all the more…real. Raw. Gut-retching.
Here I was sitting in a heated pool on vacation with my oblivious children and…my parents and so many others had gone through this traumatic, heartbreaking experience.
So that I could sit here in a heated pool on vacation with my oblivious children one day…………………………………
And I have never felt more foolish. More thankful. More humbled.
And in awe of my parents and my fellow Hmong people.
Until next time,