Last June, 31 members of my extended family assembled on Carnival Cruise Line’s poop ship “Triumph” for a family reunion. This branch of the Pham family, which had lived in American since 1975, had not convened en masse since a cousin’s wedding back in the 90s. We booked the voyage in February, two days before a blaze destroyed the ship’s electrical system leaving passengers adrift in the Gulf of Mexico with non-working, overflowing toilets for days before being rescued. The cruise line assured us that the Triumph would be sparkling clean and fully functioning by the time we boarded. We sailed without incident on the ship’s first departure since the floating PR disaster.
As is probably true for most immigrant families who have escaped war-torn countries twice with close to nothing, exile in a foreign land had made ours a tight knit bunch. When the emails starting floating around about the reunion, I was pretty excited to reconnect with everyone. Though language had been a barrier between my family and me, they spoke Vietnamese whenever they gathered while I spoke only English, and though I towered over most of them having had a 6’ 4” Caucasian father, I had felt loved and cozy in my family cocoon where I was playful and jubilant and spent many after-school afternoons playing with my cousins and water skiing with them every weekend of every summer and eating large family dinners together nearly every Sunday.
Away from the family, in the southern suburbia we called home, I was shy and sensitive and desperate to assimilate. I kept my family life separate from my school life and avoided all public contact with Asians who weren’t my family. Fortunately, for most of my childhood, the only other Asian kid in my school was my little brother, who I was going to avoid no matter what race he was. When our family ventured into public, I felt a twinge of embarrassment. I worried that we would be in the way or that we would make too much noise and that these things would irritate someone and make them dislike us and then by proxy dislike Asians. A tiny bit of that unease and shame revisited me as we gathered for the cruise, but rediscovering a family of just plain nice, considerate, kind, smart people who liked to have fun and who cared deeply for one another crushed those qualms.
After disembarking the boat, we gathered at my uncle’s house for one final family dinner before scattering. Three generations sprawled across the living room after dinner to watch a slide show of pictures documenting our family’s history in America and to listen to the elders reminisce about their life in Vietnam and their escape from the North. The details of their stories varied slightly and they deferred to my Uncle who was the eldest surviving male in our family and therefore its patriarch. One family portrait taken in 1958 remained, in which my poker-faced grandmother perches on a seat in the middle holding a baby, my oldest cousin, and her five then-living children and their spouses flank her. They’d rebuilt their lives in the south and everyone still lived together, clinging to one another through the upheaval of continued unrest and then war again, which forced them to flee their homeland altogether in 1975.
I had felt the strength of our family ties as much on the Triumph as I had felt when I went to Vietnam in 2000 to meet relatives for the first time. I found an elderly Aunt who had been left behind in North Vietnam in 1954 when my grandmother and her four youngest children slipped away from their home in the middle of the night to escape retribution by the communists who had defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu that year. In the aftermath of that victory, the communists were killing and torturing anyone who owned land or education and our family possessed both. My Aunt, the eldest daughter, was married at the time and therefore belonged to her husband’s family and was not allowed to leave and did not see her siblings again until 1996 after President Clinton normalized diplomatic relations between Vietnam and the US. She never again saw her mother, who died in America in 1994. I did not speak Vietnamese and my Aunt did not speak English, but we communicated with each other through touch and facial expressions and I felt the profound and chilling power of our shared legacy and bloodline as we visited our family burial grounds and lit incense to honor several generations of ancestors buried there and the old family home that had been divided into many apartments when the communists redistributed wealth in the early days following Dien Bien Phu.
This Aunt had visited us in America for the first time not long before the cruise and had wanted to join us. However, her granddaughter had gotten engaged while Aunt was visiting us and the wedding was set for an auspicious date during the week we’d booked the cruise. We would probably never see her again unless we journeyed to Vietnam. After the cruise, we all agreed that a future family reunion would have to take place in Vietnam.