LOS ANGELES, Sept. 25 (JTA) — In 1977, an Israeli cargo ship nearing Japan spotted a leaking boat crammed with 66 Vietnamese men, women and children. They were among hundreds of thousands of “boat people” fleeing their war-ravaged country following the end of the Vietnam War. Despite desperate SOS signals, the refugees, who were out of food and water, had been ignored by passing ships from East Germany, Norway, Japan and Panama. The Israeli ship picked up the passengers and took them to Israel. There, Prime Minister Menachem Begin authorized their permanent admission to Israel, comparing their plight to that of European Jewish refugees seeking a haven in the 1930s. What happened to the Vietnamese refugees, and the hundreds that followed them, in the Jewish state? One of the opening scenes of the Israeli film “The Journey of Vaan Nguyen” features one of the original refugees, Hanmoi Nguyen, has been in Israel for 25 years. He works in a Tel Aviv restaurant, lives modestly and with his wife is raising five Israeli-born, Hebrew-speaking daughters. The oldest girl, Vaan, is a writer, has served in the army and feels Israeli — except for her looks. In the up-front style of her fellow sabras, they keep asking her whether her eyes are slanted because she eats so much rice and if she is related to a Chinese martial arts star. In the evenings, Hanmoi Nguyen writes Vietnamese poetry and joins his friends in nostalgic songs about the beautiful land they left behind. He had been the son of a wealthy landowner in Vietnam and he dreams of returning to his native village to reclaim the ancestral property and settle scores with the Communist functionary who kicked him out at gunpoint. He scrapes together enough money for the trip and returns to a land and a people he hardly recognizes. In a curious parallel to the Holocaust survivors who returned to their homelands to reclaim their old homes, he is met with suspicion and hostility by the new inhabitants and red tape by officials. Even the hated Communist functionary, like the Nazi bully in Germany, is now a nice old man, who urges that bygones be bygones. After a few months, daughter Vaan joins her father to search out her own roots. She is happy that people on the street look like her, but has trouble negotiating the language and has no patience with the elaborate circumlocutions of social intercourse. To the natives, Vaan herself has become a foreigner, and she laments, “I am a tourist, I am an Israeli.” The agony of being suspended between two civilizations, without being fully at home in either one, is sensitively, at times heartbreakingly, portrayed. But the film by Israel’s Duki Dror, in Hebrew and Vietnamese with English subtitles, is not without humor. One hilarious scene shows the newly arrived boat people being welcomed by an effusive Jewish Agency for Israel representative in Hebrew, of which the polite audience doesn’t understand a word. Shortly afterward, an equally enthusiastic integration official tries to teach the refugees a lively Chanukah song. On the other side, the returned father tries to explain Israel to puzzled Vietnamese villagers. He finally comes up with, “They have one lake and eat strange foods.”
Tom Tugend is JTA's Los Angeles correspondent. A veteran journalist, he also writes for the Jerusalem Post, the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and the London Jewish Chronicle.