review: Anita Paddock
By Vinh Chung with Tim Downs
Thomas Nelson Publishing Co,
353 pages: $23
Where the Wind Leads is a memoir told by one of eight children whose parents fled South Vietnam in 1979. The Chung family was Chinese by ancestry but born in Vietnam. They owned a large rice mill and were worth millions by today’s standards. When their country fell to the Communists, they believed they could adapt to a new government like they had before when various political regimes had taken over. But that didn’t happen. They lost their fortune and fled to a small farm that was eventually confiscated by the Communists.
When they realized they had to escape, they became part of the huge influx of boat people who sailed into the South China Sea with only the clothes on their back. They knew that over 200,000 people had already died on boats, but they had no other way out. They sewed jewelry into secret compartments of their clothing because their money was worthless. But those jewels were stolen or bartered for food and soon they had nothing.
The Chungs made this desperate journey with eight children — among them a child not yet four and a set of infant twins — aboard an Asian fishing boat that held 290 people. One of the biggest fears was being robbed and killed by pirates, and if they survived that, they faced terrible living conditions aboard the ship and treacherous seas.
They survived that initial voyage and landed on a beach in Malaysia, but the Malaysians didn’t want them, and the Chungs were shuffled to several camps until they were towed out to sea and left to die. They were packed shoulder to shoulder, with no food or water. On the sixth day their boat was rescued by Seasweep, a ship staffed by the Christian relief organization, World Relief USA. The Chungs were treated kindly and well fed. “The meal went past our stomachs and directly into our souls,” the Chungs recall.
From there they were taken to a refugee camp in Singapore and waited to be sponsored. Because there were so many in their family, they were the last to get a call. Finally, they were notified that Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Fort Smith, Arkansas was going to help them start a new life. They flew into Fort Smith and were greeted by a welcoming party that took them to their new home.
The house had three bedrooms and two baths. It felt like a mansion to them. Their refrigerator and cabinets were stocked but the food was unfamiliar to them. For six months they lived there for free, and then they moved to an apartment complex where other refugees lived.
Mr. Chung worked at local factories, and the children enrolled in school. They knew no English, and their clothes were hand-me-downs. Eventually they bought a small house in Barling, but they felt more isolated there. They did attend services for Vietnamese at Grand Avenue Baptist Church and enjoyed the fellowship and teachings of Jesus.
Their biggest fear was that they would do something wrong and would be sent back, and so the family fearfully walked a very narrow road, afraid of unknowingly disobeying a rule.
Even though author Vinh Chung was three when he left Vietnam, he found it difficult to adjust to a new life in Arkansas. His memoir is easy to read, and it’s easy to find yourself ensconced in their lives. He tells what it was like living in Fort Smith, and how his family opened a business, Chungking Chinese Restaurant, on Rogers Avenue, partly as a way to keep the children out of trouble by working in the restaurant when school was dismissed.
Vinh played football for Northside High and excelled in math. He met his future wife at Governor’s School, was admitted to Harvard, graduating from Harvard Medical School. He now practices medicine in Colorado Springs and is on the board of World Vision USA. His story is inspirational indeed, and it’s told with great joy and love for family, teachers, and friends. There are pictures that illustrate both the hardships and joys the Chungs experienced. He quotes one Vietnamese proverb that I found especially applicable to this story. It is “When you eat the fruit, remember who planted the tree.”
This is a book that should be read by everyone, particularly those of us who call Fort Smith home, the home we share with these brave people from Vietnam.