Palo Alto Weekly 15th Annual Short Story Contest
1st Place

The Journey: May 1975

by Jamie Beckett

About Jamie Beckett

In her former job as a newspaper reporter, Palo Alto resident Jamie Beckett had the opportunity to interview some entrepreneurs who had been refugees. One of them came from Vietnam.

"When he told me his story, I was blown away," Beckett said. "I didn't know people had to escape. Beckett, 43, said she was a teenager during the Vietnam War and was not aware of all the struggles the Vietnamese people went through.

After the interview, she was inspired to learn more about things Vietnamese-American. She studied the history of Vietnam, read books and watched films. Eventually, she began writing her own stories.

Her winning piece is the second of seven fictional stories about the Nguyen family, a clan who made their way from Vietnam in a refugee boat.

"Each story tells a piece about leaving and resettling," she said.

Beckett, who worked for the San Francisco Chronicle as a business and general assignment reporter and Peninsula bureau chief, says she's really always wanted to be a fiction writer.

Fiction, she says, is "so freeing. It's based on what seems emotionally right for the story." But she adds that her ability to write in newspaper style means she's used to writing every day and enables her able to write sentences that are short and to the point.

Also, she says, she applies the sparing use of quotes in news stories to her fiction writing, using dialogue as "punctuation."

Hailing from Philadelphia, Beckett moved to California in 1988 and is now the managing editor of an external Web site at H-P Labs in Palo Alto.

She lives with her husband, a reporter for KQED radio, and enjoys gardening and writing on her laptop computer. "I can't sit at my desk," she said.

She is still very interested in learning more about the Vietnamese community in the United States and can be reached by e-mail at [email protected].

--Elizabeth Lorenz

The food my mother gave me is in the sea. I am hungry, but there is no more to eat.

The boat is so crowded there is no space to lie down and sleep. The air is heavy with sea water and the sweat of many people. My father says we cannot go back. Vietnam already is far away, he says, and we cannot go back.

We are going to America to live, but that is not my home. I am eight years have no home. There is no more food.

The first morning, my mother gave me some chicken to eat. The boat was rocking all the time, and the food smelled sharp and sour like the ocean. I took a bite, and then my stomach was coming up to meet my tongue.

I could not chew. I spit out the meat. I closed my eyes and did not look at the water, and I threw the chicken away.

Binh! Binh! Bad boy! Stupid boy!

I did not know what I did wrong, and I began to cry. My mother struck me She slapped me through my thin blue pajamas. Then she was crying, too. I still did not know what is wrong.

I am afraid. I am afraid of America.

My whole life, there was a war in my country. There was a war, and there were Americans.

The Americans were trying to help us, my father says, but they are like water buffalo in a flower garden. So big and clumsy.

The Americans are taking us on their boat. Every day, the helicopters land on the boat and spill out more people. Then the Americans push the helicopters into the sea to make room for more people. Now there are too many people and there is no more food.

My whole life, there was a war in my country, and my father was a doctor for the broken people. He would not let me come to see the people, but once I saw a lady blown up. She was old like my grandmother, and she was walking in a place where my mother says there used to be green stalks of rice. There was a boom and her body went in the air.

I ran to see. I fell over her arm. It was far from her head and her feet The blood made a puddle in the dry dirt. My sister Mai wanted to see, but I would not let her. I could not find the other arm.

There was a war in my country. We lost the war and we had to go in the helicopter to this boat. For four days, I had some rice and soup. Three more days there was nothing to eat. My stomach is so hungry it is crying.

Five of our family are here. My brother Diem, who is First Son, is not. We do not know where he is. My grandparents are in a hole in their garden. Flies are in their eyes and mouths. My sister Kieu is on another boat.

One night, my parents are asleep and I am not. Like birds, they hunch over their feet, heads tucked under their arms. My older brother Luong and I squirm through the bodies. We go from one end of the boat to the other in the heavy night, looking for food.

We find a banana, black and soft and sweet, near a sleeping old woman, but my brother says the ancestors will be angry if we take from an old one. He is Second Son, and he is responsible for our family with Diem gone.

The banana is all we find. We return to our parents as hungry as we left.

Last year, a fire burned our house and the houses of our neighbors. I was not burnt, but I saw a man with no nose and no ears. The fire ate his eyelids, and his eyes could not see anything. A baby was crying because the burning was on his skin and he could not get it off.

Mai followed me when she was not supposed to. She saw the man, and she would not stop screaming.

We built our house again, and this is the house we left behind to go on the boat. I wish I could go back to our house. My father showed me the American country on the map. One American state is bigger than all of Vietnam. I will be so small in there.

Every day, it is my job to go with Luong to get our water from the Americans. Only a little water. Every day, we wait a long time until the water man gives us something to drink.

Our family gets one cupful. My mother dips the edge of her dress in the cup, and we take turns sucking from the cloth. This makes it last a little while. I am always thirsty.

This is all we get. The day after we did not eat the banana, Luong asked for more water because we are so many. The man would not give it to him. Everybody is thirsty, the man says. He has a gun. His nose is red. His arms are pink with long hairs, yellow in the sun.

The water man's voice has loud, sharp edges. This trip is taking too damn long, he says. I think he is angry at me, so I run away. Luong laughs and says I am a baby. Americans are hungry, too, Luong says. I am afraid of America. The Americans do not want us in their country. The water man does not like me. He will throw me in the sea or he will shoot me. I have seen a man shot. The blood spurted red from his neck.

I am not sick anymore, but there is no more food. The ocean is grey with white peaks. In the sun it is silver like fish.

I think about my brother Diem and try to remember what he looks like, but already I cannot. This makes me afraid he is dead. Sometimes, I hear my parents talk about Diem, and I see my father cry.

I watch the ocean. I would like to drink the ocean. My mother says we cannot drink this water, but I do not understand. I think I am going to catch on fire if I do not get more water.

The sun is hot on the boat. Sometimes I crouch and try to use the big people for shade, but beneath the bodies the air is thick and hard to breathe.

My mother tells me to lie still to keep cool. I try, making my body flat next to Mai, whose breathing is so light is it like she is not breathing at all. She is very small, only five years old, and I think if she cannot get more air she will die.

I put my hands underneath her to lift her. She begins to cry, and my father takes her from me. He gives my sister to my mother to hold, and he strikes me on the face with a hot, quick slap and tells me I am a crazy, bad boy.

The place where he hit stays warm. My feet are hot and my head is hot. Fire is burning me, I think, from the inside out. Soon I will glow like firewood and scream like that fire baby in my village.

I creep away from my family to the edge of the boat and look over it. I am so thirsty, and there is so much water. I press one foot against the side of the boat and reach for the rim. In Vietnam my legs were sturdy like small trees, but here they are soft like rain.

I am so thirsty. I pull myself up, and then I am flying, falling into the cool, dark water.

The water strikes me, sharp and stinging. The people are looking at me and waving their arms. The water pushes me down. I float up, and it pushes me down. It is stronger than me.

I come up but swallow only water. It is bad water like my mother said. It pushes into me, and I swallow more. The water is making me heavy. It is making me heavy so I will sink. I think it is wanting to eat me.

A round cake falls in the water. I want to eat it, but the water presses me down and will not give me the cake. The water presses me down, and the cake is gone. Then I see it. It swims to me and I take it. It is hard and stiff and not a cake, and I am sad, but I hold it to keep the water from pushing me.

The cake does not want me to have it. It is jumping around. I hold on, but it jerks hard and swims away. My arms reach in the water. The water is cold. I cannot find the cake. I open my mouth to call to the cake and the water comes in.

It is bad water making me cough. I am heavy and cold. The cake has gone away. The water is trying to eat me. I think I will let it.

A man is swimming in the ocean. It is too cold for swimming. He is not my father. The man is pushing the water. His face is in the water. His long arm reaches around me and pulls me. I am so cold and heavy, but he is pulling me.

He pulls me to the cake, and then I am flying in the air with the cake, and I am back on the floor of the boat. Faces are all around me. My skin tingles and is not on fire anymore. Hands press on me and water spills out. Hands and water. My father's hands. My mother cries, holding Mai tight. Luong is crying, too.

Soon my chest is not so heavy and the air is back in me. My father wraps a blanket around me. He drapes another blanket over me. The water man stands near. He is wet and shivering, but he has no blanket. When he leans down to see my breathing, his water drips on my face.

Whoops. Guess you're wet enough, he says. I am not afraid of the voice.

The man reaches for my hand and pulls me up so I am sitting. His arm is pink and wet. The yellow hair is flat and brown against his skin.

The man fills a cup with water. He gives me the water, and I drink it all.

From the judges

This compelling first-person story takes the reader on a well-plotted spiritual journey.
--Kim Silveira Wolterbeek

"The Journey" takes us on a small Vietnam boy's painful journey--it is convincing, unsettling, close to the bone. The writer uses language that is spare and carefully chosen, to convey the world as Binh sees it. The story is remarkably well-structured--this moment in his life reveals so much about the family and the immigrant experience.
--Ellen Sussman

The writer of "The Journey: May 1975" does a fine job of capturing the thoughts and fears of a young Vietnamese boy as he makes his way to a new life with the remnants of his family. Heart-warming without resorting to melodrama; pure and hopeful without being saccharine.
--Tom Parker

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