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  • They had three choices: the United States, France or Japan.

    After their fishing boat was rescued by a Japanese merchant vessel, my parents, my grandmother, my aunts, my uncles, found themselves in a refugee camp near Kobe, Japan.

    They lived in relative luxury. Most Vietnamese who fled from their homeland, if they survived the pirate attacks, the thirst and starvation, typhoons and whirlpools, languished in Indonesia, in Malaysia, in fetid, crowded camps, with chicken wire fences, with tin roofs, with old rice that soured quickly in the sultry sun.

    My family were hosted with generosity by the Japanese people, taken on tours of the imperial palace in Kyoto, they were given their own private living space. They always had ample food and clothing. They lacked for nothing in material comfort.

    But in spirit, they suffered. My grandmother, my mother, everyone was in a daze, now that the fear of being caught (and imprisoned) and of death, were rescinding, in its place, was a shock, followed by a weary grief, and then the fear returned.

    Exiled. Without a homeland. The future appeared inscrutable, a road that forked three ways, the horizon, disappearing into darkness.

    My grandmother wanted the family to relocate to France. She had grown up under French colonialism, her education had been in French. She understood French culture. Although she was also fluent in English, she had an aversion to living in the United States.

    When she was a graduate student in Ohio in the 1950s, she had had a taste of American racism. Her professors were kind, but she saw how the towns people, in restaurants, the way, the waiters treated the other foreign students, especially from Africa.

    Her friend, an Indian woman, always wore her sari into town, to avoid being mistaken for black.

    My uncles, my aunts, my mother, they all preferred the United States. It was richer, there were more economic opportunities.

    No one suggested Japan. Japan was poorer. Japan was known for its virulent racism. Despite the common racial identity, the shared cultural roots of Buddhism and Confucianism, Japan was never a realistic candidate.

    Being from Vietnam, another Asian mono-cultural, mono-ethnic society based on heirarchy, my family was on intimate terms with the Japanese mind. They knew it was not possible to thrive in such a society as an outsider.

    My grandmother relented. They requested resettlement in the United States.

    And so my fate was sealed. I would become an American.
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