This is the third installment of a series of “Athenian Stories” from Gazmend Kapllani as a complement to our Greek issue this month. In these short dispatches, Kapllani documents the experience of immigrants living in Athens, one of the most diverse cities in southern Europe. Links are available at the bottom of the page to Kapllani’s other Athenian stories featured this month. —Editors
My name is Youan Tang Hui. I was born in a beautiful country called Vietnam. The world knows it as a country of war and horror. I was born during a bad time. I was eighteen years old when the North Vietnamese invaded our capital, Saigon. I’m from South Vietnam, which was allied with the Americans. I’m one of the ones who lost the war. I also belong to the generation of Vietnamese who grew up with hate. The Northern Vietnamese were taught to hate the “degenerate liberals” of the South and we were taught to hate the communists of the North… And then the Chinese, the Soviets, and the Americans got mixed up in things and left Hell behind. You get used to war because it’s like a drug. There are a few things you learn, if you manage to survive: first, only someone who has experienced the horror of war can understand it; second, the people who die on the front lines are always the poor, never the rich; third, the hatred that war leaves behind takes generations to fade away; and fourth, everyone’s tears taste the same.
When the Americans abandoned us and the soldiers from the North entered Saigon, I was in my first year of university. I saw firsthand the executions, the imprisonings, the expulsions… They called all of us South Vietnamese traitors. I decided to leave before my turn came. That was when Vietnam invaded Cambodia and started fighting with the Chinese. In retaliation against Mao, Ho Chi Minh’s regime decided to cleanse the country of its Chinese minority. They were given a few weeks to leave. I bought fake papers and joined the Chinese, trying to lose myself in the crowd. I had to bribe the border guards with a half kilo of gold, everything my family owned. I traveled for five days, in a sixty-foot boat that was carrying 400 people. We didn’t know if we would reach dry land alive or be swallowed up by the waves. I ended up on the shores of Malaysia. There was a continuous downpour. I was so tired I just curled up and fell asleep in the rain. When I woke up it was still raining. In Malaysia I lived in a United Nations refugee camp where we were piled on top of one another. Everyone wanted to go to America, Australia, Canada. I told myself: “You’ll go to whatever country will take you.” One day they told us that Greece was offering to take some refugees. I didn’t know much about Greece, just a few things about Greek mythology. But those things helped me during the interview. They accepted me. I arrived in Greece, a country that was entirely foreign to me, on July 26, 1979. Then I said to myself: “There’s no going back. You’ve got to start your life all over again from scratch.” I made a strict rule for myself: I had to learn everything. The language, the customs, how people celebrate, what they ate, these strangers to whom my fate would be tied from here on out. And so I learned the “rules” of living as a foreigner. First: you have to have luck. Second: don’t let your luck down. Third: if it was your choice to leave, you have to be clear with yourself that from now on your country is the one where you chose to live. If you don’t get that straight, you’ll never make it.
My luck was Rhodes. That’s where I started out. I don’t know if my life would have been the same if I had started out somewhere else. In Rhodes I found understanding and acceptance, and for the immigrant that means everything. I did every kind of job you could imagine: pharmacist, construction worker, baker, carpenter, barman. In 1987 I came to Athens and worked as the manager of the bar at the Lydra Marriot. At some point, with the little money I had saved up, I and five other Vietnamese decided to open our own business. We started with a small restaurant in Nea Makri. At first we barely made a living. But then we opened a second place. By 2002 we’d opened six restaurants. It’s now the well-known chain, Golden Phoenix. I’m the manager.
I don’t feel like a foreigner anymore. A person’s real homeland is the country that allows him to demonstrate his worth. I’ve been a Greek citizen since 1989. When people ask me about my identity I answer that I’m a Greek citizen of Vietnamese descent. I have three daughters who speak both languages. But my daughters are Greek. When we visit Vietnam, I watch them there, and I can see that they’re tourists in that country. That’s life. What pushes man forward is his ability to change and to accept change. A life lesson: Buddhism taught me that if you can’t forgive your enemy, try at least to understand the way he thinks. Maybe in the end you’ll find that you don’t hate him. Because a person who grows up with hatred will never go forward in life. A society that grows up with hatred for those who are different poisons itself every day.
What does it mean to live as a foreigner, in the end? It means having a second life. The first your parents choose, the second you choose yourself. Future plans? To write a book about the story of my life. “Thank you” in Vietnamese? “Cám ơn.”
The accounts in this series were originally featured, in Greek, in Ta Nea and the Athens Voice and on Gazmend Kapllani’s blog at http://gazikapllani.blogspot.com/
Links to other posts in this series: