Where the Wind Leads by Vinh Chung

Mar 15, 2019

If I know you personally, chances are I've already recommended this book to you. For the rest of you, that's what this review is for.

Vinh Chung, the fifth child in a wealthy family, was born in Vietnam just months before America pulled out of the war and the country fell to the communists. In a matter of days, his family lost everything they had worked for years to build and accumulate--their home, their business, their savings. For three years, they eked out a living before deciding it was too dangerous and crippling to raise a family under such circumstances. They risked everything to leave Vietnam.

But in leaving, they traded one danger for another: they found themselves on a Malaysian beach where no one wanted them, then abandoned in the middle of the ocean, then very nearly capsized by pirates. Eventually, miraculously, they made it to America (Arkansas, to be exact) where Vinh's father took menial jobs to support his family. He ended up foregoing his own dreams so his children (who numbered eleven by the time it was all said and done) could have a chance. And they took that chance and ran with it.

I haven't read a story that inspired me this much in a long time.

I had three realizations while reading it:

First, I guess I knew almost nothing about the Vietnam War. And because this story largely takes place after the war, I still know almost nothing about it. But now I know that I don't know anything about it. And I can also see why it was such a controversial war.

Second, refugees must be in the top tier of brave, heroic, determined individuals. I mean, right? Vinh's family's situation was impossible. They couldn't stay in Vietnam, but they couldn't leave either. And when they finally did leave, they put themselves at the mercy of other individuals and governments and countries, and no one wanted them. At one point, Vinh said, "Once again we were powerless, unable to control our direction or destiny. The Malaysians had the big ship, and we were consigned to the tiny boats; we danced behind them like wooden puppets on strings. They could take us anywhere they wanted, at any speed they wanted, for as long as they wanted and we had no way to stop until they allowed us to." That must be such a terrifying feeling--to know that you have no control over your own life and yet realizing that the only way you can possibly make it to the other side is by giving it everything you have. And I'm not even talking about when they actually finally make it to America. That's a whole other endeavor--finding a job, supporting a family, learning a new language and culture and customs, missing family members who were left behind, encountering racial prejudices, and being relegated to the bottom of the social hierarchy.

Third, hard things are somewhat easier to handle when seen through the lens of a young child. Vinh was a very young child when all of this was happening (I think he was three years old when they left Vietnam). His memories of the hardships and tragedies they faced are very dim. He said, "I have no memory of Bac Lieu or Soc Trang or our little farm with its ducks and geese and pigs. My very first memory in life is the moment I was dropped into that warm ocean water on the beach in Malaysia." Of course, he fills in those details with memories from his parents and older siblings, but because of this emotional distance, some of the atrocities aren't as soul-sucking as they might be otherwise. And I wonder if he kept this innocent filter over the top on purpose so that the story sounded of hope rather than misery. (But still, no matter how you spin it, there are some things, like towing 293 people out into the middle of the ocean and then abandoning them with no supplies, that can't be given much of a silver lining.)

Beyond those things, the book surprised me in two ways.

First, Vinh Chung was quite funny. At first, I thought it was a little cheesy, but after just a few chapters, I found it completely endearing. Also, I was kind of amazed that he could find anything to joke about in such a dark, hopeless situation. Granted, this was written almost forty years after the fact, but still. Some might look at it and think that his humor was inappropriate given the gravity of the topic, but I think it helped ease some of the tension, and also, I think you can't overestimate the strength that having a sense of humor can give you both in the present moment and also after it's all over while you're still dealing with the repercussions. Here are a couple of examples to give you a little taste:"
"One night my mother dreamed she was in the marketplace in Soc Trang along with our entire family. Grandmother Chung wasn't there--it was a dream, not a nightmare--nor was my uncle or his family." (Grandmother Chung may have ruled the family with a bit of an iron fist.)
The humor was a mixture of slap-stick, dry, and sarcastic:
"My father couldn't wait to try out his brand-new rice cooker, but when he went to plug it in, he discovered that Singapore used a different voltage and his rice cooker would not work in America--a fact the merchants back in Singapore had somehow forgotten to mention. Oh well. At least he could listen to his boom box. Oops." 
And second, I was not expecting Vinh's story to have a deeply spiritual undertone. But it did. His whole family converted to Christianity after arriving in America as a result of some miracles they experienced on their journey, as well as a dream his mother received and also the community they found in the church they joined.

Vinh said, "There are times when an apparent coincidence is so incredible and so perfectly coordinated that it forces us to wonder whether there must have been purpose behind it." And it may have been this, more than his humor or innocence, that made this story feel so hopeful. Vinh's family was able to see God's hand in their lives, and they expressed their gratitude for it. They worked hard, they didn't complain about the unfairness of their lives, and they rose above it all in a beautiful, miraculous way.

I hope you'll give this book a try.

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