Several times I heard similar stories of big fish, or whales, miraculously rescuing boat people at sea. Whales, I discovered, are sacred to these fishermen.
“One time I was going to shoot a whale that came up near our boat,” my guide Sonny once told me. “My daddy, he scream and stop me. Never shoot a whale, he told me. They bring good fortune to fishermen.”
Outside of Vung Tau, it happens, the bleached skeleton of a whale guards the town’s entrance. Who’s to say where symbolism ends and the miraculous begins?
WHEN YOU REALIZE what these children have seen with those lovely eyes of theirs!” exclaimed Susan Hunt, principal of Biloxi’s Gorenflo Elementary School, as we toured her classrooms for several hours one weekday morning.
“They’re doing very well here. They excel in math and art, and most of them pick right up on English. They can speak it much better than their parents. At home they are the ones to answer the phone, read the mail, and talk to visitors. But it does cause some problems within the family. Among the Vietnamese, children are traditionally seen, not heard. But here they know much more about what’s going on than their elders. It makes the parents feel inferior, and the children even start talking back—which used to be unheard of.
“But aren’t they beautiful?” Susan asked, as we sat down at a cafeteria table to share lunch with a group of Vietnamese children. One little girl’s sparkling eyes attracted mine. She looked perhaps eight, but Susan told me she was actually 14—old enough to remember the war, the boats, and the pirates.
“Once in a while a few of the other children, they pick on us,” the girl told me. “They laugh at us and throw things. They call us names—Vietcong, gooks. They try to beat us up.” Her eyes gleamed with dark defiance. “But we don’t run away,” she said. “We don’t scare. . . .”
I ATTENDED A NIGHT CLASS in English as a Second Language at a local high school in Biloxi. Sponsored by the state of Mississippi and funded by the federal government, the classes are organized by pro¬gram coordinator Jane O’Brien for Catholic Social and Community Services of Biloxi. Jane sat beside me as a score of young Vietnamese grappled with the maddening com-plexities of the English language.