Wherever you have refugees, you have vultures who feed off them.
–Kuan Ying, quoted in Lady Borton, Sensing the Enemy: An American Woman among the Boat People of Vietnam [101]

Three worlds collide in this memoir by a more or less Quaker (“I’d never joined a Quaker meeting” {59}], Lady Borton: the world of Vietnam (Quang Ngai)  where she spent two years, 1969-1971, working with AFSC; her life as a school bus driver in rural Ohio where for years she had tried in vain to write a novel about Vietnam; and her six months on Pulau Bidong, West Malaysia as a project director for Vietnamese refugees.   She went because “I felt I needed to shake my introspection. I wanted distance from books and I thought the six months might provide perspective. Or maybe, if I were honest, I’d say I fled.” [16]  She herself was descended from Quaker boat people of three hundred years before.

The refugee camp had such areas of concern as the following: education, administration, engineering, language interpretation and translation, security, labor recruitment, social welfare, sanitation, and health.  [25] “As an administrator, I didn’t write memos, letters, feasibility studies, and project assessments in quadruplicate. Instead I ran errands. And I listened.” [35]

She took a hard look at what is happening to the refugees, either on the high seas, or at the camp.  “I checked on eighty-three new arrivals, among whom were twelve women and girls who’d been raped by Thai pirates. One girl was nine years old. [37]  “No one knows how many boat people never made it. The Vietnamese said more drowned than landed. Some Malaysians stopped eating fish; they said it tasted of decay.” [62]

She was honest, too, about her own weaknesses, like wanting to leave: “Much of the time I was tired and when I was discouraged, which was often, I counted the months until my departure in August, wishing for silence and someone to hold me.” [40] “Monika and Jim’s obsessive work frightened me, drawing me back into that destructively compulsive drive I’d felt when trying to write. With them I felt like a recovered alcoholic surrounded by soused drinking buddies. I never learned what drove them so; and they never learned what drove me.” [45] “A heaviness began to press on me. I wanted to be elsewhere, anywhere else but on that island and in that stark room with its cell-like walls and its louvered windows with bars made of glass.” [154] She recorded her anger as well, directed here at a  supercilious European mouthing off on how messy the Vietnamese are:  “You overstuffed rodent, I thought. Why don’t you go clean your plate in some chic restaurant?” [163]

Unsurprisingly, the boat people left Vietnam because of “the Communists.”  She heard one refugee lament the Communists: “The Vietnamese Communists are cruel. They give only three kilos of rice per person per month when an adult needs twenty-one. There’s no gas for motorcycles nor batteries for radios. And there are no jobs to make money to buy anything.”  Lady Borton reflected, “I nodded, knowing that there in the crowded hut on Bidong I’d never be able to explain how American dollars had created a market among Vietnamese for Western consumer goods unavailable before the war and unaffordable after.” [66]

I wonder what her views are now of “worthy victims.”  Just last night, I was perusing Eddie Adams photos of the boat people, which  were evidently used for U.S. propaganda purposes.  How was her book first received?

As the author would admit, six months of an American’s life—its hardships and aches—is nothing compared to the boat people’s or the Vietnamese who remained in Vietnam and attempted to start a new life under impossible circumstances. In the last chapter, she wrote “…I felt as if Bidong had cured me of a long, painful illness. I was ready to go back to America.” [175]

This book helps me try to visualize what a family  I met in the 1980s may have gone through.  As Tho said: “When we arrived on Bidong, I felt jubilant. Now I understand that Vietnamese like me must scatter over the earth. Our country is lost to us. This island is our last Vietnam.” [73]

Thich Nhat Hanh has said, “Plum Village is everywhere.” So, too, is Vietnam, as you can see on South Grand in Saint Louis, Missouri.


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