Call Us Refugees
By Don Hettinga

Don HettingaCalvin English professor Don Hettinga ’76 also volunteered to teach English to refugees in the summer of 1975. He was assigned to Fort Indiantown Gap in Harrisburg, Pa.

“I went in with strong anti-war sentiments,” Hettinga said. “This put faces and personal stories on the politics, which had been too easy for me. One of the first things we did was process people; their stories were overwhelming. These were people who had to make instant decisions to walk away from their life, their culture, or risk life under North Vietnamese rule.”

Prior to his volunteer assignment, Hettinga had spent part of the summer watering a golf course. “Coming from Calvin and watering a golf course and hearing their stories was incredible. Hearing about being lifted in cargo nets up to ships and having to watch a child fall through the nets and drown — that’s the type of story that I heard.”

Hettinga wrote of his experience upon his return to Calvin as a senior. In his piece “Call Us Refugees,” he said, “When there are faces to plug into the theories, when we are immersed with 15,000 people — people with names, people with visible tears, people who have left families and every material possession because they felt an immediate threat of Communism — the situation is confusing.”

“Calvin learned a lot from these students,” Hettinga recalled. “We learned that politics aren’t as tidy as you want them to be. They helped us see our own culture in a different way. Our community was enriched by their presence.”

Call Us Refugees

I

Morning steals upon Indiantown Gap like a gentle surprise. There is no noticeable sunrise. The sky is a low but comfortable grey. Mist sneaks up the valleys into the ancient bosom of the mountains. The enigmatic vapor crawls over the moss green tree trunks, slides through the green furred cover of the trees. Above all the grey, the sun burns viciously, but in the Gap, below the clouds, the darkness is smothered into light.

There is a white ribbon. Inside the white ribbon are white buildings ordered in a precise dance. There are black tar roads and square patches of green grass between the white buildings. From a hilltop on which stands a white church with a red steeple a half a mile from the white ribbon, the white buildings with their green windows and green roofs look like a page filled with punctuation marks without any words.

The light coaxes people out of the white houses. Reds and blues and yellows spill out into the greyness. All is alive as another day begins. White buildings spin with people, colors, shouts or greeting. The morning air is tickled with children and breaks into laughter. Life begins another day.

II

As the light seeps through the clouds, a buzzer breaks my night. I reach to slam off my alarm. Outside, the birds are buoyant voices in the mist. Blackbirds calling for the sun. Outside the white tape, my day begins. I walk from my white barracks into the greyness of the early morning. Inside the white ribbon, a people are rewriting the story of buildings. Colors of people flow from large white barracks to regroup at small white mess halls. People walk in groups to talk; they stroll to make up lines alongside mess halls. A flapping of sandals arranges people and whispers of silk provide background music for their talking. The white buildings become punctuation marks in a living story. Paragraphs of people move along the streets.

I am going inside the white ribbon. I work inside the white ribbon. America is outside of the white ribbon; inside the ribbon is a country without a name. A people without a country. A life that is in suspension between two lives. Within is the land of the unknowing. Oceans and continents lie between the whispers of silk and the earth the people were born to.

Before I enter the white tape, I walk into a building filled with officers. Breakfast brings sausage and eggs and potatoes together with volunteers and hundreds of lieutenants. The lieutenants have straight backs and mustaches at attention on their upper lips. They come up behind the female volunteers with a pinch and a “gottcha!” Volunteers are speaking quietly but intensely, bending forward over coffee. There are many people yet to place – 15,000 here; tens of thousands more in Chaffee, Elgin, Pendleton; with more in Guam. Waiting. In tents. To work here is to walk step by step into a quagmire of public apathy – antipathy.

Breakfasts are sometimes sobering. Today the chaplain sits with us, bringing reality with his coffee like a slap in the face. God’s helper warns us that “they” will use us to get out or to get supplies (contraband: paper, pencils, chalk, books to read). We are informed that “they” are an infantile but crafty people. “Some” are good, of course. For “them” to leave their country was bad, but now that “they’re” here, we must do whatever we can. But we must be cautious. The volunteer eyes come together to ask if the chaplain would speak in such careful quotation marks if “they” were white European? Irish? Dutch? How cautious was God the Father about his Son’s associates?

III

Tall military police in green stand watch beside the white ribbon. There are MP’s slouching in guard boxes listening to rock and roll music, frowning MP’s thoughtfully tapping night sticks from hand to hand, MP’s who hand out gum or who swing giggling children around their heads. Everywhere there are MP’s. Reinforcing the white tape.

To pass into the white-taped country, I must flash my clearance passes. Numbers, labels, dog-tags – I know now why dogs paw at their collars – hang around my neck. Pink: security has cleared me. Yellow: I am a teacher – clearance hours 0730-2200. Colored passes have become status. In this world a red pass is superior; a light blue tag is a sovereign.

Colors are everywhere within this country. Carnivals of people glide between the buildings. Young men and old men walk singly or with their arms around each other. Tan face, sometimes scarred with memories of a life or war, shatter into smiles. “Hello, teacher!” Old men’s and old women’s teeth glazed back as a mark of beauty and to prevent cavities, give nighttime smiles with a nod. Women blossom in ao dai – their long traditional dresses. They smile their beauty. “Hello, teacher.” Between my legs, swinging on my arm, are merry-go-rounds of children. “ello” ello” “ello” “ow are you?” “ello.”

The sun quite early dissolves the morning haze. The greyness becomes a yellow heat, becomes the energy of all the colors moving in the camp. By nine o’clock, the kinetics of moving below the sun becomes an exercise in sweating. It is hot. The heat is not that of friction. It is soft, making my body feel spongy, fecund. Blacks bloom. As do reds, deep blues, patterned colors. Sun umbrellas blossom. Punctuate the story with color.

Beside a white building named T-6-37 by the army there is a pile of black coal that has been waiting in the sun for years for the winter it will be used. Waiting since the Second World War, after which the army camp was closed. A small city condemned to decompose. I stand in the sun talking in a low voice to my fellow teachers – planning our day. As we sweat beside the coal waiting for a person with a key to arrive to unlock the wooden frame building, the coal glistens in the brightness. Perhaps this winter its energy will be released to synthesize a tropical heat in the mountains of Pennsylvania.

This morning we will test the refugees on their ability to speak English. The area coordinator arrives from the education office to unlock the testing building. It is barren except for fourteen or fifteen olive drab army issue folding chairs. There is a blanket of 1940’s dust on the window sills. A quarter of an inch of dust has settled on the floor. We leave moon prints behind as we enter.

Outside the building, histories of people are forming lines. The lines curve around the buildings, move past the coal, and flow out into the gravel of the street. Through the open door comes a musical hubbub of language. A lady with high-waisted New York slacks, tinted Gloria Steinem glasses, and a forty year bulge around her middle shouts at the people. “Will … those … with … numbers A22 323 05 … to … A22 825 75 … please … stay to … the left.” An energy of pathos presses against the building. The stories of refugee camps are written in lines.

One at a time, the refugees pad through the dust to sit beside a volunteer teacher to be tested. There are three levels of aptitude: a beginning speaker may be illiterate in English; an intermediate speaker can transform a positive statement into a negative statement; and an advanced speaker can change a sentence from case to case and can also supply the missing word in a given sentence. It is a neat trichotomy.

A young lady flip-flops tentatively toward me through the dust. Smiling, I use an open hand, palm downward to ask her to sit down – in Vietnamese tradition only aminals are called by the bending of one finger.

“Good morning. Please sit down. Please … sit … down.”

“ello.”

“May I … see … your … ID … card … please? Ah, Mai Thi Tran. Is Mai … your … family … name? No? Then … your … name … has … been … printed … backwards … here. Is … your … whole … name Tran Thi Mai? Yes? Good. How old are you Mai?”

“I am fine, thank you.”

“No, how … old … are … you? ... Is your …family … here … with … you?”

“I do not understand.”

“OK. Thank you … Com om … You … may … leave.”

People move through the room like unsolved mysteries. The dust on the floor is soon relocated. It is settling on the rafters and hanging in the sunlight in the air. I go on testing, rasping out the questions as the dust settles in my lungs and throat. Behind me there is an elderly gentleman – a retired schoolteacher in crepe soled shoes, dark cotton pants worn shiny on the seat perhaps from years against a chalk tray or desk chair, and a navy cardigan sweater on top of a light blue sport shirt, tieless but fastened at the neck. I can hear him testing a young man in his twenties.

“What … is … your … name?”

“My name is Nguyen Van Nghia.”

“OK, Nghia … I … will … ask … you … some … questions … and … I … would … like ... you … to … answer … in … complete … sentences … Can … you … understand … me?”

“Yes.”

“How … old … are … you?”

“I am twenty-seven years old.”

“Are … you … a … woman?”

“No, I am not a woman.”

“Of course … not … What … are … you?”

“I am a man. I am a Vietnamese refugee. In Vietnam I was a doctor. I have studied English for eight years and I worked in a clinic with American doctors in the Dai Lat province.”

“OK. Thank you. You may go.”

In testing, faces and eyes become associated with films – newsreels of the evacuation of Saigon. Tragedies pass through the dust. Grasp my hand. There is little I can give. Tragedy is spliced into what was once my comfortable reality until my reality becomes blurred. There is no point of focus.

A mother watches her husband and son slip between the rails of an American ship she doesn’t even know the name of. The ship is a confusion of people. No one can hear her yell, or anyone hearing her yell can’t be bothered. She watches her husband’s head pop from the green and froth alongside the ship. She waits … seconds become years when her four year old’s black-haired head doesn’t pop back up from beneath the sea. People are being carried from fishing boats with enormous cargo nets, but the cargo is being lost. The day has faded. Only a few people see the faces as they fall from the net. No one can hear the screams as people slip like minnows through the net to be sucked in by the night, to be swallowed by the sea.

The stories become one story in my mind. People are running everywhere in the streets. The sound of mortars pounding gives a deadly rhythm to the rumors strafing the streets of Saigon. Brothers and sisters must decide in an instant whether to leave their mothers, their fathers. The plane leaves now. The boat is still waiting. Children are in school, the parents must decide. The plane leaves now. The boat is waiting. A fianceé is at the Academie of Science. Her boyfriend is working at a pharmacy. Their marriage is to take place two months from now. The plane leaves now. The boat is waiting. The stories are one story, but have no ending. The story is still being written.

Reality becomes itself again for me with the screaming of an air-raid siren. Inside the white tape, it is twelve o’clock. The tragedies diffuse from the room to recollect beside the white mess-halls. The quietness of the testing room is stunning, as is the whiteness of the other teachers' faces. On the floor, the definitions of moon prints have disappeared. The dust has been rearranged.

IV

Inside the white tape is the land of uncertainty. Where will these stories – this story – be finished? Who is the author? Questions lose their answers. Answers become lost in faces.

Volunteer teachers talk between mouthfuls of Stewart sandwiches. Once it was so simple to say, “Given the general literacy level of the Vietnamese people, given the agrarian based social system, given the underlying desire of the Vietnamese people for national unity, it may well be that a Communist government which unifies the country is better for Vietnam than a republican form of government.” Now such phrases are textbook jargon. Dead words from Xeroxed term papers. When there are faces to plug into the theories, when we are immersed in 15,000 people – people with names, people with visible tears, people who have left families and every material possession because they felt an immediate threat of Communism – the situation is confusing. We know about the bloodbath rumors planted by the American government and press. Yet the situation is so complex. There must have been some basis for the people’s fear. If not, the tragedy is multiplied by factors in the thousands. There has got to be a reason.

V

The afternoon crawls to a start in a white heat. The soft fecundity of the morning warmth has evaporated. The colors of umbrellas move very slowly now. People lean against the western sides of the white buildings, taking advantage of a foot of shade. An illusion of comfort. Old men and women pad between the buildings with handkerchiefs upon their heads to shade their skulls from the violence of the sun. I fear my classroom – most like an oven in the afternoon – will be deserted in this heat.

The refugees disappoint my fears. The room fills until it is becoming embarrassingly crowded. I know that many of these people are going to two or three English classes a day. How can I help but bore them? The olive drab chairs are finally filled. A few people stand outside my door, anticipating my lesson, waiting on my words. The responsibility weighs me into a serious mood, and I begin.

I teach directions. “To the right.” “To the left.” “Straight ahead of you.” “Behind you.” So many of the everyday things we take for granted must be learned by any immigrants to our culture. A map of streets and buildings is on the chalkboard. The class practices a dialog.

“Can you help me?”

“Yes, what do you need?”

“Can you direct me to the hospital?

We practice basic forms and then begin role playing. I walk up to a lady who is probably in her thirties, one of my better students.

“Excuse me.”

“Yes.”

“Can you tell me how to get to the bank?”

“Go straight tree blocks.”

“No, no, no. Three blocks. You must get you tongue between your teeth for the th sounds. Everyone please repeat: thra, thra, thra, three. Let’s go this Thursday. Th. OK, go on please.”

“Go straight three blocks, turn right, and the bank is left.”

“The bank is on your left.”

“The bank is on your left.”

“Good, thank you. Now Mr. Nhu, can you give me directions to…”

The afternoon burns on. I feel as if I’m coated with a white mud. The heat pulls the sweat from my skin to mix with the chalk dust which clouds the air around the chalkboard. The whiteness of the heat comes through the roof, sucks any energy I have left out through my pores.

Tiredness cannot last long here, though. The loss is renewed by the people. I can see people standing at the door miming my words. The ego sends energy to my limbs. Perhaps I can teach these people at least a little – lend a few words of my language to give them a key to insert into their well-locked future. I erase the board with a rag. Chalk dust dances in a pale confusion in the sunlight. A boy darts from his chair, grabs my rag, sprints out the door, leaving me open mouthed. In a moment he is back with a cup of water. Without hesitation he washes the board and returns to his chair. Class continues; after such, I cannot begin to tire.

Formal teaching ends for the afternoon after two such classes. I walk a short way with two of my students – rather, two friends, but the real teaching never ends. “What is that?” “What is the word for … ” “How do you say this when … ” The teaching is two way, however. I can answer each of these questions with “What is the Vietnamese word for that?” We move off into the maze of buildings.

In the late afternoon the heat subsides into evening. The white buildings do not glare their existence any longer. The sounds of people talking are more pleasant at this time than in the harshness of the sun. A sensuality of life softens, a bit, the hard rhythm of white buildings. The concentration camp order of asphalt and rooftops is broken again by colors of people: moving, talking, lining up against white mess halls. My friends walk me to the white tape. I can duck under, am free to leave. The tape tears the smiles from their faces.

Behind me in the dusk are the barriers shouting, “No Loitering!” “Off Limits!” “Dung Vo Van” “Khu Vuc Cam” in red letters. Behind me is the white tape. Behind me are the people of uncertainty. Behind is the land of the unknowing.

Ahead of me lie the mountains. A wilderness breathes on the horizon. What is the world we are born to? What are our names? Where is our place?

Another time, another place, and we are the faces behind the white ribbon. Or, perhaps we are there already.

Call us refugees.