Lori Wong escaped Vietnam to become an American

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 13, 2011

By David Freeze
For the Salisbury Post
SALISBURY — Young students at Partners in Learning Children’s Development Center know they are taught by a high-energy teacher named Lori Wong. However, few of the children or their parents, and just a small number of the school’s staff, know Wong’s story.
While glad to be a teacher, Wong is even happier to be an American. She is especially proud of the freedom she can exhibit every day. It’s something Wong says she will never take for granted, and something she traveled a long road to secure for herself and her family.
In post-war Vietnam, there was no freedom. Once the Americans had gone, the North Vietnamese changed life for everyone.
Towns and cities were choked with fear. Residents had experienced a difficult time during the war, and daily life continued to deteriorate rapidly. North Vietnam had formally taken over Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital city, on April 30, 1975.
That began the odyssey of Lori Yu Wong.
By 1978, Wong was 13 and living with her five siblings and parents in Saigon. Her family had explored the possibility of escaping, as had many other Vietnamese. Wong’s uncle had arranged escapes for people able to pay in gold. The currency used in Saigon had become virtually worthless since the communist takeover. All possessions were taken, and personal bank accounts were controlled.
People were killed for defiance. If caught trying to escape, they would spend years in prison. After two failed escape attempts, Wong joined her oldest sister and brother as they finally made their escape with their uncle. They ran across a field to a boat.
Wong and her family just wanted their freedom, but no one knew how much they would have to endure to win it.
The boat was a small fishing vessel, only 25 feet long. It was not designed for ocean voyages, and had no food, water or life jackets. One hundred and fifty people crammed together below the deck, with no room to stand and little to move. No one could go on deck because they might be seen before the boat cleared Vietnam’s territorial waters.
It took three days to clear those waters. The stench was terrible, as the escapees vomited regularly and there were no bathrooms. Some died and were thrown overboard. Few had extra clothes, so most remained in the same ones that they wore when the trip began.
Thai pirates were a constant threat. Each passing boat was feared as possible danger. People threw meager belongings overboard and swallowed jewelry. Eventually when the boat was robbed, pirates terrorized those on board and threatened to kill them.
Wong and her family completed the voyage, reaching freedom at a refugee camp at Pulau Bidong, Malaysia. Wong’s parents and three sisters arrived on another boat. Several thousand refugees lived on the island, and necessities were in short supply. Her family built a house out of rice bags and a plastic tarp, using pieces of trees as studs. They used wooden planks for beds.
Prolonged heavy rains threatened the flimsily constructed house. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees supplied minimal food rations, so refugees often ate tree bark. Though most water had to be brought to the island, Wong’s family dug a well and learned to screen it with rocks. Long treks into the mountains provided firewood that could be sold.
Wong’s family persisted through 18 months of hardship on the island.
Eventually over a 13-year-period, more than 250,000 Vietnamese refugees came to Pulau Bidong.
Delegations from U.N. sponsoring nations such as the United States, Canada, Australia, France and Germany helped refugees with final settlements. Wong, along with her brother and older sister, received sponsorship by Gospel Light Baptist Church in Salisbury and arrived in July 1980.
Eventually, their parents and other sisters also were sponsored by the church and joined the rest of the family in Rowan County. The London family served as hosts to Wong’s family, whose marginal English made life a continued struggle.
“My first English teacher was a dictionary,” Wong recalls, “but we did do well in math.”
By 1984, they had done more than that. Both Wong and her sister Amy graduated from South Rowan High School with honors. They became U.S. citizens in 1985. Along the way, she became Lori Yu Wong.
“It certainly has been a privilege and honor to be a naturalized citizen,” she said.
Gray and Dora London embraced the Yu family when they first arrived. Sons Mike and Steve were like brothers. Wong remembers her first Christmas.
“We didn’t celebrate Christmas in Vietnam. The Londons gave us a catalog and told us to circle what we wanted. None of our family thought that we would get anything, but come Christmas morning, it was all there, just like what we had circled.”
Wong said the London family “made us feel at home during a tough time. I thank them for that.”
Wong now speaks four languages fluently and can converse in two more. She excelled at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College and graduated summa cum laude from Catawba College with a degree in early childhood education.
She has been married to husband Tommy Wong for 25 years. Tommy is Chinese and was also a refugee. Son Kevin is 17 and goes to Carson High, while 12-year old-daughter Sarah is at Southeast Middle School and 10-year-old daughter Ada is at Knollwood Elementary.
Wong originally taught More at Four in the Kannapolis schools and now does the same for Partners in Learning in Salisbury.
Wong suffered through a long and painful journey to get here and said she’s thankful for the destination.
“In the U.S., I was able to fulfill my dream. I appreciate my freedom, but am glad that my children didn’t have to experience the same quest,” she said. “I do hope that they value what they have in this country. Don’t ever take life for granted. Despite how hard we had to work to survive, I say it was all worth it.”
David Freeze is a freelance writer.