Sample Autobiography (2)
*All names have been changed or omitted for personal use as a portfolio sample
My first memories are of the rice box. It was dark inside and there were at least two other children with me. Those on the outside would pry the lid off when it was time to eat. I remember my grandmother’s face, peering over the top and her rough voice saying, “Do not cry. Do not cry,” as she reached in to pinch my cheeks hard. Then the lid would close again and we would be in the dark with the grainy rice and the gentle rocking of the boat beneath us.
When we weren’t hiding in the box, it didn’t mean there was no danger. My grandmother made it clear that we were in danger at all times. We all sat in the hull of the boat and I understood that the big people were always listening. Each time the boat listed or the rhythmic motion changed, my grandmother would become tense and her head would rise as sharply as that of an animal on alert. Still, there was nothing we could do. I knew if the bad people boarded our boat I would not get to see my mother again. It didn’t matter if we were across the small hull space voiding our bowels into a bucket, or whether we were in the rice box, holding in the tears. It was all a matter of fate.
The first time we went into the rice box, we could hear their voices. The footsteps were louder than even the sounds of the old boat creaking. I heard the strange, new voices of the men and the very different, scared voices of my grandmother and the others. There was a man named Mr. Kang aboard who knew my mother back in Vietnam. He and his brothers were on the journey with us. I heard his voice then as he talked to the men who had boarded the boat only to discover its trembling secret cargo. I wanted to cry but I remembered my grandmother’s stern face and harsh directions. Although I was only three years old at the time, I understood.
From the rice box I heard Mr. Kang bargaining with the men. I heard them talking about jewelry and then there was movement and shouting for a long while after that. I must have fallen asleep from exhaustion because the next thing I remembered was sitting next to my grandmother. She did not hold me, she only bowed her head and may have been sleeping herself. Mr. Kang took me to sit with him and his brothers. He told me the boat had been boarded by Cambodian police and that they had let us live in exchange for all of the jewelry and valued possessions of those aboard.
After that first incident, Mr. Kang helped look after me and I enjoyed his smiling face and the way he talked to me like I was one of the other grown-ups. He told me that we were hoping to get to Malaysia. He told me the Malaysian’s had special ways of getting us to the United States. My aunt had escaped Vietnam years earlier and the boat she and her family were on was picked up right away by the Malaysian’s and they immigrated to America almost immediately. She was waiting for us there.
I was told later that it was two weeks before we were stopped again, this time by the Filipino police, who finally brought us to shore. For me, life began there. It was a long time before I thought to ask about my history in Vietnam and why we were on that boat in the first place.
In the Philippines, we lived in a refugee camp run by the American Red Cross. We lived by the water and Mr. Kang’s hut was near ours. One time, I could not find my grandmother and I started to cry. He came running to pick me up, soothing me as he took me back to his hut. From that point on, I spent as much time with him as I did with my grandma. She would often disappear and it was a while before I learned that during these episodes she would go sit in the fields and stare into some unknown distance. Seeing her like that, I had fleeting glimpses of the tobacco fields in Vietnam; of the hunched backs interspersed among the rows of green. Once, she forgot to feed me and I went to her, disturbing her solitude. At first she did not seem to see or hear me. When I reached to touch her, she pushed me away and yelled--her teeth brown from tobacco. I ran back to Mr. Kang, who smiled and talked to me as he fixed me a meal.
The huts we lived in were more modern than those of the village we came from in Vietnam. The camp was community-based and American counselors came regularly to check on each of us. Every time I saw the white ladies coming, I got excited. They would bend down to hug me and they always brought a special gift. One day, they gave me a piece of crisp white paper and a single red crayon. It was a treasure finer than I any I had ever received. I ran off to the small cot in our hut and stared at that blank page before me, full of untold possibility. Before the day was done, I had made a single red flower in the uppermost corner of the page. I stared at it, smiling at the simple beauty of it. I took that paper and red crayon everywhere with me and added only a little at a time, fearing the day when the paper would be filled and I would no longer be able to work that red crayon’s magic upon it.
Another time, the white ladies brought me a bottle of orange soda. I set it on the rough table in our hut while grandma made our dinner. I saw that she, too, was eyeing the bottle. When we sat down to eat, she said I could have some of the soda. I was breathless while she opened it. The first time I tasted it, I was overwhelmed by the sweet bubbliness. My eyes must have gotten wide, because grandma smiled. As I took a few more tiny sips, hardly daring to rush it, I saw that my grandma continued to gaze at the bottle. When I finally offered her some, she nodded. She tipped the bottle back and her eyes got wide, too, before she laughed.
“It is your birthday,” grandma said. “The white ladies remembered. You love the white ladies?”
I nodded enthusiastically.
“Well, we are going to white land!” she chuckled.
“Will they have orange soda there?”
“More orange soda than you can drink.”
We passed the bottle back and forth until it was empty, laughing and largely ignoring our dinner.
One sunny and breezy afternoon, I was sitting outside with my red crayon and paper. I had filled half of the page by that time and was drawing a slow, meticulous design when a shadow fell over me.
“Hello, Tara,” the white lady said in Vietnamese, “Is your grandmother here?”
I shook my head.
“Do you know where she is?”
Seeing that there were two refugee officers with the white lady, I did not want to tell them that my grandma had retreated into the field for one of her episodes. I looked back at my paper and said nothing, but when the white lady asked again, all kindness, I had no choice but to point out into the field where my grandmother sat, staring blindly.
“Oh,” the lady said, standing and looking out to where I pointed, “Would you please let her know the officers would like to speak with her?”
I was reluctant to disturb my grandmother, but I could not refuse the white lady and the officers. Taking my paper and crayon with me, I walked out to the fields. I found my grandmother standing, now, on the edge of the field. She did not hear me approach. Afraid to touch her, I moved in front of her so she could see me and I stood there, waiting for her acknowledgement.
“The white lady says the officers need you.”
She spit a wad of tobacco from her mouth and I watched her face change.
“They are coming for him,” she said, a look of fear crossing her face, “and I will stop them this time.”
I was confused and frightened by her words and the unseeing look in her eyes.
Then she turned her head and seemed to see me standing there. She darted forward, shouting “No!” and grabbed the paper and crayon from my hands. She took off toward the water and I screamed, chasing after her and not caring what kind of trouble I got into for yelling at her. I watched as she broke the crayon in half and threw it into the water. She tore the paper to shreds and it followed in the crayon’s wake. I cried and shouted at her and finally turned and ran back to the camp, barely able to see beyond my tears. Mr. Kang had come out to talk with the refugee officers who were making their way down the slope toward me. I ran straight into his arms.
I stopped crying but continued to let him hold me as he spoke with the refugee officers who were saying things about my grandmother and her ability to take care of me.
“She is my daughter,” Mr. Kang said, “I take care of her.”
My grandmother had snapped out of her strange mood and hurried up to our little group then, out of breath. One of the men took her aside to speak with her. I only saw her nodding and I heard her answer, “Yes, yes, he is the father.”
“You have no paperwork?” the other man asked Mr. Kang.
“I have nothing but letters, between her mother, her aunt, and myself that will show I am her father. She travelled with her grandmother, it is true, but I was aboard the ship with them. I have protected her since then and I will continue to do so. Come, I will show you the letters.”
He put me down and gestured for me to go into my hut while he took the officers with him to his own. I did not understand what happened after that, except that the officers left and I began to call the man who cared for me, dad. Nothing changed with my grandma. She continued to have her episodes occasionally and I continued to live between the two huts, waiting for the time to come when we would get to go to the white land.