on June 13, 2014
Where the Wind Leads, by Vinh Chung with Tim Downs.
Most of the reviews of this book, at Amazon and elsewhere, seem to be addressed to a religious audience. The book deserves a wider audience -- among those more inclined toward the secular, toward humanism, toward science, and especially those with an interest in sociology.
There is nothing in the book that should put such readers off. On the first page of the Forward, written by Richard Stearns, the President of World Vision U. S., Stearns writes:
"All along the way good people, and many good Christians, intervened with a helping hand."
A father is frantically running, carrying his ten-year old son, who is near death, to a hospital in a strange land. A woman stops him -- a stranger. She speaks French, which he can't understand. She hands him a few bills and he is able to take a cab to the hospital. Leaving the hospital, again carrying his weak son, another stranger hands him $5, and he is able to take a cab back to the refugee camp. A stranger tucks a $100 bill into the shirt pocket of a three-and-a-half year old refugee boy who is rushing through the San Francisco airport with his family, and that $100 enables the Chung family to buy food in their new home in America. We know nothing about the religious perspectives of these strangers. We do know that they were good, decent, humane. And there is no religious test that people must pass before they may pay taxes to support programs such as food stamps, subsidized housing, and free school lunches -- programs that helped to save the Chung family.
Anyone who has an interest in "the boat people" who fled Vietnam after South Vietnam fell to the communists in 1975 will find this book enlightening. Who were they? Why did they leave Vietnam? How did they get to the United States? And how did things go for them here in America?
The Chung family is Chinese, with roots in Vietnam going back several generations. They owned one of the largest businesses in the Mekong Delta -- a multi-million dollar enterprise.
When the communists took over in 1975, they confiscated the Chung business, and the Chung home. Over the course of the next few years the Chung's reached the conclusion that, if they remained in Vietnam, they would spend the remainder of their lives in poverty. They made meticulous plans to escape, and departed their community of Soc Trang a few at a time, so as not to attract attention. They went to Ca Mau, where they boarded a boat that the Chung's had bought -- a boat large enough for their extended family, and 16 other families -- a total of 290. They left in June, 1979, just as the typhoon season was beginning, intent on crossing the pirate-infested South China Sea, with food and fuel for only a few days.
On the second day at sea, pirates boarded their ship. After robbing them the pirates rammed their ship, hoping to sink it and drown them all.
On the third day they reached Malaysia. They beached their boat and scuttled it in hopes of not being turned away. When they jumped from the ship into the sea on the Malaysian coast they left behind almost everything, including their shoes. Malay military took them into custody, and marched them for five days from one sandy beach to another. Vinh describes how his nine-year-old sister Yen's tender feet were scorched by the hot sand. During this march their mother (her eight children ranged in age from 12 to twin boys 18 months old) had a miscarriage and was hospitalized for nine days. The family did not know where she was, and she did not know where her family was. She was almost shipped off to France without her family; her family was almost shipped "to an island refugee camp" without her. She was reunited with her family less than an hour before they were removed from Malaysia.
The way they were removed from Malaysia is one of the most awful parts of their experience. The 290 of them were divided and put in four small boats, and were told that they would be towed to a refugee island, a couple hours away. Instead, they were towed out to the middle of the South China Sea -- 20 hours -- and cut loose; abandoned to die. Within hours each boat had drifted out of sight of the others.
On the fourth day of being adrift, they had their second encounter with pirates. This time the pirates didn't try to rob them -- perhaps the pirates knew that they had already been totally stripped of anything of value. The pirates simply tried to overturn the boat and drown them. Two boats were working in tandem, with a rope stretched between them. The rope broke, and the engine on one of the boats stalled. That is all that saved them.
They drifted in the South China Sea for six days, under an unrelenting sun, without food or water, and had essentially given up and were waiting to die, when they were rescued by the Seasweep, a ship sponsored by World Vision.
After 100 days in a refugee camp in Singapore, they at last learned that they had a sponsor -- a small Lutheran Church in Fort Smith, Arkansas.
Without knowing a word of English, and facing ethnic hostility, they began to make a new life in Fort Smith, with the help of local churches and government programs designed to assist impoverished families. For a while four of the brothers had no assigned place to sleep -- it was first come, first served. After the laundry was done, pants went into one hopper, shirts into another, and again it was first come, first served, as the eight sons looked not for what was theirs, but for what fit. Vinh, the author, tells us that none of them ever said, "That belongs to me." When their father, Thanh, decided that they should open a restaurant, the older children dropped out of college for five years and all of the family worked in the restaurant without pay.
This family, working together, was able to achieve "the American dream." The children hold 21 degrees, including five master degrees and five doctorates. Vinh, the author of Where the Wind Leads, is a dermatologist. Yen, the nine-year old girl who had a knife held to her throat by a pirate in the South China Sea, is an ultrasonographer. Another is in science management; another a senior systems engineer; the twin boys, who at 18 months old had been dropped, kicking and screaming, into pillow cases so they could be hoisted aboard the Seasweep, are both optometrists; another is a family physician; another a dentist.
As other reviewers had said, this is a compelling read. Vinh has a great sense of humor, the book is very well written, and while the family's faith is evident, there is no attempt to impose it on others.
on April 28, 2014
While I do love to read for a variety of reasons, there are some books that come along that hit one at a deeper level…these are the books that cut into your bedtime and then into your sleep time as you go over in your head what you just absorbed. Where the Wind Leads was one of those books for me. It’s not fiction, or even a biography, but a memoir. For me, it was also a history lesson.
Where the Wind Leads tells the story of a family – a well-to-do Chinese family – who happened to live in South Vietnam. Through various set-backs and wars, they had managed to prosper, but the Vietnam War which ended with the takeover by Communism, proved to be the one storm they could not ride out.
I grew up during the Vietnam War – living an insulated life as many of us did – we heard of terrible things, of young men killed, of anti-war demonstrations, but we did not hear the story as told by a Vietnamese family. And I’d heard of the “boat people” – those who were sponsored by churches in America, starting over in a new land. But that sentence covers most of what I knew.
Vinh Chung tells the story from a different perspective – as one of the youngest children in a large family, and with the memories of his family to help him. He tells the story of the money it took to bribe officials to leave, the fear of boarding a boat that was barely sea-worthy, for an unknown future, of moving slowly through heavy waves with no land in sight, through pirate-infested waters. And then, when the joy of land appeared, to find it patrolled by unhospitable soldiers, because of the thousands of refugees who had already come. This is a story of hardship and hunger and fear and courage, but as you continue to read, you realize that it’s also a story of God’s grace. For the thousands who tried but failed, for the unbelievable odds against this one family and their overcrowded boat, you cannot miss that God had his hand on them or they would never have succeeded. And even with little knowledge of Christianity, Vinh’s father came to realize that the Creator God was the only One to appeal to.
In a time when we continue to hear nightly news stories about refugees, you need to read this book to understand what the word “refugee” means in human terms. If you enjoy reading stories of God’s grace, of people overcoming with God’s help, then you need to read this book. And if you’re just looking for a good inspirational book, pick this one! You won’t be sorry.
I received a complimentary copy of this book for my fair and unbiased review.
on August 1, 2014
I had a revelation that shook me. When I was a kid, I had such a great opportunity to show love to the Vietnamese "boat people" and I missed it! I only had my own little bitty love, not the never-failing love of Jesus. Not yet. I grew up in a series of very poor neighborhoods and I remember the new surge of refugees coming to live among us. There is either love, or fear. We all chose fear. We were warned by the adults to keep our pets close, the Vietnamese would eat them! We had to stay away, so we didn't catch any diseases they might have brought. Foolish. Senseless. It grieves me now, and what I wouldn't give to go back to 5th and 6th grade and befriend the sweet, skinny, befuddled new kid at school. That young Vietnamese boy had not a friend in the world that I could see.
It shames me now. What I wouldn't give to go back and be kind. Love them and help ease their transition into American life.
They were poorer than us, and that made a mark. Their houses smelled funny, and were crammed to the rafters with their relatives. They were so different from us. If only I'd have known the dangers that kid survived to get to Mr. Deacon's classroom. The deprivation he had experienced that put our poverty into the "living in luxury" category.
To think what I missed; could have learned and turned from. To think what I could have given!
There's a line on page 234 in the first paragraph that says" Prejudice begins with ignorance, and whenever one culture first meets another, there is ignorance."
This book; it's a memoir and it hits home to me because I lived among these people and didn't know a thing about them. They were strong because they had to be. They were sharing and they were a people who thrived in community.
Part of their community- the biggest piece really, was Church. They came to know Jesus on the journey through some supernatural events, even though they didn't know who Jesus is.
On page 247-248 are these words:
"For us, the Vietnamese church in Fort Smith was a community where people with similar problems and needs could come together and help one another; it was a place of learning and spiritual growth; and it was where we learned to serve others and to give back. We were a poor refugee family "fresh off the boat" in America, but we felt blessed to be here and believed we had a responsibility to give back, and the more we gave the more we received. That's a mistake often made in America: we spend our lives seeking to be served, instead of seeking to serve others, and the more we receive, the less we seem to have."
I'm letting you know this book is worth reading because these people's story is worth being told. I had a hard time putting it down. Vinh Chung and Tim Downs did a fabulous job of telling this story. You will be richer for reading it, and maybe more compassionate and generous?
*I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review