From the Ocean We Come
Santa Rosa, CA
2021, Senior, Creative Writing
“Ba1, where do we come from?”
“We come from the ocean.”
When I was young, my father used to sit me on his lap. His hands would be rough with dirt, clothes reeking of sweat, and the widest smile would spread across his face. We would sit on the steps outside our apartment complex, and he would peel a tangerine for the two of us to share. It was when he came back from his construction job, when the sun dipped behind the hills, and we’d count the cars driving back home for the day.
I loved those days. When my father talked about the ocean, it felt like I was back to a home I never knew. Having been born and raised in America, I never felt a deep connection to my Vietnamese roots, so when my father talked about his travels from Vietnam, something in my heart fluttered. For me, the ocean was the part of myself that I was missing, my missing link.
“We are known as the boat people, Tí Hon2, people who have braved the oceans to get here in America. The ocean is our compass, our guide; it is what led us here and it is our beginning.”
It was after he said this that my father’s face would look lethargic, his gentle features pulled together in a slight frown as he ate a tangerine slice. “I was eight when Saigon fell and the war ended, so a little bit older than you right now, Tí Hon. Back then, I was too young to understand what was happening; all I knew was that we were being evacuated. There’s not much I remember of Vietnam—it’s been too long, and I’ve grown too old—,” he’d always smirk at that part, “but I’ve never forgotten the ocean.”
“What was the ocean like?”
He’d chuckle then, eyes gleaming as he looked down at me. When my father described the ocean, his eyes would shine, his black irises sparking to life in a way I never knew before, and it was as if I could see the waves crashing in their depths. There was always a tender sigh in his words, a longing and heartache.
“The ocean,” he’d begin, pulling me in close and making a gesture with his hand, “held more horrors than comforts. Grandma and grandpa, your aunts and uncles, and I were squished together on this small boat with one too many people. The trip was burdening, the choppy waves rocked us until we became seasick, the lack of space left us without privacy, the lack of food left us starving, the constant spray of saltwater made us nauseous. The ocean would swallow anyone whole if they were not strong enough; it is a place full of ghosts.”
My father would chew on his tangerine thoughtfully, his eyes glazed over as the memories replayed before him. During those times, I often wondered what it was he was seeing. “My youngest sister, your aunt, was six at the time… if she were still here, she’d be almost 30.”
A sad smile would spread across my father’s face and he’d look at me with eyes that held such aching sadness.
“She is a ghost of the ocean, Tí Hon,” he’d say in a whisper, tucking a loose strand of hair behind my ear. “The night she passed away, the ocean was still for once. It was as if it knew it was welcoming another soul into its waters.”
A silence would settle over the two of us after that, and I would snuggle closer into my father’s arms, listening to the beat of his heart. We would sit there for a few minutes, chewing on tangerines as a car slowly drove by.
I would break the silence, asking him, “If the ocean is that scary, why do we come from it?”
He would smile at me, a chapped hand caressing my cheek.
“When we were forced to evacuate Vietnam, I was stripped of all the childhood memories I made there: papaya-filled Saturday mornings, playing with the neighborhood kids, eating banh tieu3 with my siblings, joking around the dinner table while grandma cooked. It was like everything I ever knew was taken away from me, as if those memories never existed in the first place, like a part of my life was erased.”
“But the ocean comforted me. After some time being away from land, the taste of saltwater settled onto my tongue, the crashing waves soothed my ears, the slight rocking of the boat gently lulled me. I remember looking out around me, Tí Hon, surrounded by miles and miles of water on all sides, and in those ripples, I saw my memories pass by. I watched as their waves unfolded my childhood, and for days I would watch as they played out. The ocean gave me a sense of belonging, it reminded me that Vietnam will always be my home. As scary as the ocean may be, there’s comfort in its waters.”
My father would lift me up at this part, carrying me to the papayas he grew in the garden near the apartment.
“When I think of the ocean, I think of my life back in Vietnam, I think of my youngest sister, and I think of the beginning it gave me. We come from the ocean, Tí Hon. We come from the choppy waves, deadly currents, uncharted waters. We come from the cerulean blue of the ripples, the part where it meets the horizon, the soft lull of crashing waves. We are its dangers and we are its beauty.”
By the time he finished, the sun would have fully set, stars beginning to poke out into the night sky. We would go inside our small apartment and eat dinner with my mother and younger brother. The rest of the day would pass by as usual, ending when my parents tucked me into bed.
Just before I fell asleep, I’d stare up at my ceiling, making out the faint shine from peeling glow-in-the-dark stars, and I’d replay my father’s story in my mind. I’d replay it, but this time I’d imagine myself on that boat with him, out in the ocean. I would imagine myself surrounded by water on all sides, listening to the crash of the waves, the sting of salt digging into my bare skin, and I’d dream of the home I never knew.
We come from the ocean.
1Term for “dad” in Vietnamese
2 “Tiny” in Vietnamese, used as a term of endearment
3 Vietnamese doughnut
This piece is one that is especially dear to me. My father is a Vietnamese immigrant who left Vietnam when he was young; he braved the ocean currents and other dangers to come here and start a new life in America. As a person with Vietnamese descent, I wanted to honor that history, that story that has slowly begun to be forgotten. This story is not just my water story, but the water story of my father, my uncles and aunts, my grandparents, and so many others before me. Writing this piece, it made me feel a deeper connection with not just the ocean, but with my identity as well. I uncovered bits of myself I never knew before, and it brought with it a sense of belonging and acceptance.