Friday, June 29, 2007

MORE EXPAT TALES: Boat People 2 - The Story of Loc

In this, his second tale of boat people he met in Australia, my highschool friend Rolly Lampa quietly but powerfully strikes one against a Communist regime that made boat refugees of a generation of Vietnamese people. At the same time, he gently chides me for a (probably) tacit pitch for Communism when I fretted earlier over what I called a "clampdown" on one of our batchmates who died an NPA commander in the early years of martial rule in the Philippines. (To decode this cryptic intro, read post alluded to here.)

The other Vietnamese guy I met while in Customs was a bit different. He was tall and gangly and well educated, an IT guy no less. His name was Loc. He was with the unit that serviced our computers and coordinated mainframe requirements. He had newly transferred in from another government office and he was working on the disc drive of the guy next to me when he must have overheard a conversation I was having with another Pinoy officer.

When the other officer had gone, Loc caught my eye, smiled, and introduced himself. You’re from the Philippines, he asked, and his English was accentless, almost Pinoy-sounding. He said he had many Pilipino friends. Turned out he’d also come to Australia by way of the “camps” – in his case, camps in the Philippines (Palawan, I think). We chatted, and from then on, in the manner of officemates the world over, when we crossed each other’s paths, we would nod to each other and say Hi, Hello.

One late afternoon, it was my turn to call up the IT group for help – my computer kept freezing. Loc got the assignment and spent about an hour at my computer station, doing techno things. It was past five and the office was almost deserted when he finished but we continued chatting.

I remember the winter rain splattering on the windows when Loc told me his story. Once upon an afternoon only, and we never again got to rap with each other that long again.

Loc was 17 when he went on the boats. When he tells his story, he begins with about 20 odd men in the boat, no women. Like Ba, he never tells what happened to the women on the boat. They got to open sea and were heading north, towards Hongkong but they ran into trouble near some coral reefs that he later found out were called Freedomland on Philippine maps. There was a gunboat, he says, flying a strange flag. Many years later, he found out that was a People's Republic of China (PROC) flag but he couldn’t have known. The men on the boat saw the gunflashes even before they heard the chatter of the machine guns but they were taken completely by surprise. Some stood up to raise both hands in surrender but the firing went on.

Loc does not remember making a conscious decision on what to do. He simply dove head first into the water. Good for him, he was a strong swimmer; that had been his school sport. Loc remembers diving in the general direction of the nearest island and he remembers that he hadn’t taken more than four or five strokes in the water when he felt a glancing blow to the top of his skull. Loc showed me the scar where the bullet had furrowed a neat groove through his hairline. Might have been a ricochet from the hull of the boat because it was a spent bullet that lodged weakly near his temple. Through a red mist, Loc swam as he had never swam before, fighting not to pass out. He thinks he may have swam about 6 or 7 km before the breakers flung him on the beach. He kept drifting in and out of consciousness but remembers with clarity the moment when his eyes focused on a pair of combat boots. He looked up to the muzzle of a rifle and thought it was all over. It wasn’t. A Philippine marine had stumbled upon him on the beach.

Afterwards, Loc remembers only kindness. Maybe it just wasn’t his time yet, he says. Maybe some young Philippine Army doctor thought he was a challenge. Maybe karma. Maybe faith (he is Roman Catholic). Maybe plain compassion, he speculates, and that is why he likes Pinoys instinctively. I feel unbidden pride in my own people. Loc lived through the hospital and the refugee camp, and the processing. He reckons three or four men in his boat survived, none of them his relatives. He is the only one who chose to live in Melbourne. He finished college, got a job, got married and had just become a father to a baby girl when we talked idly, waiting for the winter rain to let up. I moved on to another government office a year later and haven’t had occasion to run into him ever since.

But I think of Loc every time I read stories of personal bravery and about refugees and the people smugglers who are much in the news. Lately, I’ve been reading my blogger friend’s struggle to accept the reluctance of her high school classmates to affirm one of their own as an “outstanding alumnus” for having co-founded the NPA. Where has all the romance gone for a generation who used to wear Che Guevara T-shirts ? The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind. Nowadays, I think of the NPA and their vision of an alternative society and my mind’s eye locks into a 17-year old orphan boy swimming to freedom through a hail of bullets. Not much romance there, I would think.

Sadly, reality beats romance every time. The reality is that the homes they left must have turned pretty awful for Ba and Loc and their people to flee in rickety boats and make their way through unspeakable horror to freedom and a better place to raise their own children. And I’m glad the NPA will never take over my old country. Or turn out a generation of Pinoy boat people.


Rolando Agaton Lampa
Melbourne, Australia

Photo credits: stockxpert


myepinoy said...

Very moving and interesting post.

This line tells all - "I think of the NPA and their vision of an alternative society and my mind’s eye locks into a 17-year old orphan boy swimming to freedom through a hail of bullets."

houseband00 said...

Hi Anna,

I've been reading the last two posts with such great concern and admiration. Especially the last one where I felt proud in being a Filipino.

Please thank Mr. Lampa for me for sharing his incredible stories. =)

evi said...

now that i've read your friend's article, i have a better understanding of refugees. many years ago, my aunt used to work for a refugee camp in bataan. i had the opportunity to pay her a visit and i stayed in the camp. i mingled with the vietnamese refugees. one day, we went to the beach. they were all dressed up for a party and there i was in shorts and sleeveless shirt. at that time, it didn't dawn on me about their lives as refugees. here's the link to a photo i have of the boat they used to flee...

cacofonix said...

Reminds me of my driving instructor and hairdresser, both Vietnamese and products of the Philippine Refugee Processing Center in Bataan - they were very young at the time, but both have been extra kind to me because they feel an instinctive affinity towards Filipinos. From what I heard, that particular center was a haven (mainly because of the kindness of those who tended to them) after their harrowing boat experiences.

As for the ideological movement, I've had contemporaries at the state university whose young lives were tragically snuffed out in the course of romancing its sad, bitter reality. They were very bright students. I saw old eyes in present-day Cuban youth as a result of the regime that Che Guevarra initiated.

Indeed, sadly, reality beats romance every time. Touching and inspirational story as usual…thanks again for sharing.

Leah said...

There was this Vietnamese guy at work and I was so surprised he greeted me in Tagalog so fluently. Found out he was a refugee as well and was in the Phil for so many years. He eventually married a Pinay. And when we see each other, we talked to each other in Tagalog.
He was affected in the last lay-offs at dont know where he is now.

Rolly, your posts are inspring, it is very moving to read the stories of Ba and Loc. They are definitely heroes in their own rights. I hope they are doing well.

vernaloo said...

if that is my experience I could have died not because of a gunfire but because of drowning hehe

seriously thanks for sharing this to us Anna. One of the many Filipino traits that we should be proud of :)

Jerry said...

I remember the Clampdown on a Standout post, Anna. So Rolly was one classmate who didn't like the idea of an NPA leader being designated outstanding alumnus.

I don't want to start a debate here, but if this post ignites one then let it be.

I know where Rolly is coming from but at the same time I'd agree with Anna that Arthur Garcia was outstanding in his own. way.

Major Tom said...

Like myepinoy stated previously, this is a very moving story and I couldn't believe such dangers and hardships had happened in real life. But the good thing is that the story of Loc and Ba now have good endings. Yet it is so sad for those who have perished trying to escape the communist regime in Saigon.

Jigs said...

Hi Anna, got to read the two parts. It was really touching but really sad. I can't believe they had to go through all that. I hope one day i get to affect and be part of people's lives in a radical way.

pining said...

what a journey!
Imagine what people go through just to escape poverty...he's one of the lucky ones.

Gina said...

Just finished reading the 2 installments of "Boat People". Very moving stories of survival. Thanks Mr. Lampa for sharing them.

Heart of Rachel said...

Hi Anna. Thanks for sharing Rolando Lampa's moving story about Loc. I couldn't even begin to imagine what he went through in life. I admire his faith, courage and determination for a chance of a better life.

dimaks said...

hence everyone deserves a second chance.. beautiful and inspiring life story.

Belle said...

i've known several vietnamese nationals who came here by boat, too. it was their only chance to escape the horrors of war by braving through those perilous journeys in an overcrowded leaky boats.

Rolly Lampa said...

Hi Mye Pinoy

On the train all the way home after Loc told me his story, I kept trying to recall what I was doing when I was seventeen (I was in college not doing anything particularly memorable). Listening to a boat person’s story at first hand has a hundred times more dramatic impact than reading about it in a weekly magazine or seeing the same scene in the movies. Makes you feel very humble and very thankful for the things we so often take for granted.

Hi Houseband00

And thank you for sharing my pride in being Filipino. This business of stereotyping national character is risky and very politically incorrect but abroad, we Pinoys do have a rep for being kindly and hospitable. I have no idea why the boat people were treated so appallingly by their next-door neighbours (apparently, some boats in distress were towed back to open sea or were victimized not only by pirates but by ordinary fishermen) but it’s the old “pakikisama” cultural habit with us. We may not have much to eat but come in out of the rain, anyway, share our kanin and tuyo.

Hi Evi

We hadn’t migrated yet, we were still in the Phils when the first refugee camps were opened. Can’t remember that the boat people figured at all in my consciousness at the time; they were just people we read about in the news and felt vaguely sorry for.
It’s really different when you get to know them close up. Then they become real people with real families and real worries.

Hi Cacofonix

My wife and I are products of the state university too, and we were there in the time of the actibista. Gerry Barican, Mon Paterno III and Joe Mari Velez were in our graduating class. Yes, we know all about the bright “young lives tragically snuffed out” in the course of following their romantic ideology. I don’t ask “Why?” anymore. The answer, from a Bob Dylan classic of the time, is blowing in the wind.

Hi Leah

Yes, I think they’re both still in the pubic service. Haven’t come across Loc for some time but I saw Ba fleetingly coming through Melbourne Int’l Airport on a Qantas flight from Manila a couple of years back. He was doing passport control checks; I wasn’t in his queue but I caught his eye and we exchanged waves and smiles. He looked to have gained some weight. They’re both OK, I would think; they survived the boats and the camps, they’ll survive anything.

Hi Vernaloo

You’re welcome, Vernaloo. Don’t worry about drowning; in such a situation, you just think to yourself, this is not good, I’m out of here and drowning is not an option. But OK, for insurance maybe you should take up swimming. Good healthy exercise and you never know, might be life-saving too.

Hi Jerry

Outstanding ? You could be right --- but only if the distinction or honor to be awarded is based on for-better-or-worse impact upon society criteria. On that basis, Time Magazine routinely considers both Osama Bin Laden and Dubya Bush for its Man of the Year award every year-end Really depends on the award criteria but there’s a lot of subjective considerations that come into play for a “distinguished alumnus” award.

Arthur Garcia was a knockabout koboy-kolokoy guy in high school, not an ideologue at all. To this day, we who were his high school mates are still amazed that he would turn radical in college, go to China and come back and co-found the NPA with Commander Dante. Such is life.

I ‘m not really much into ideology. I’m for whatever works best, and I very much believe in the freedoms, and also I’m getting old and would like to avoid divisions among my own high school mob. We had Arthur and we also had others who went on to become (or married or begot or had family members who were) police and military officers, government men, small businessmen-entrepreneurs, etc., who believed in the things that Arthur stood against, with the same fervor that Arthur believed in what he fought and died for. Too late to paper over the differences now. Peace, Jerry.

Hi Major Tom

Yes … and let me also say that Ba and Loc may not be representative boat people. Unfortunately, some bad elements also got out through the boats – drug dealers, crooks, etc. The boat people were people like you and I, ordinary people caught up in events that truly test character and fortitude. Like all ordinary people, some rose above the hardships and the horror; and some just got dragged along or under.

Hi Jigs

More power to you. Radical is OK by me but at the end of the day I hope your best effort comes down on the side of bringing a bit more happiness to people rather than sadness… we can all do with more of the former.

Hi Pining

Amen. It seems to me those who are plucky tend to get lucky.

Hi Gina & Heart of Rachel & Dimaks & Belle

It was a pleasure relating these true stories. If you do get to meet one or a few boat people, please take time to get to know them better. They have stories to tell and more often than not, their stories will touch you deeply.

snglguy said...

Off topic, Anna. I have something for you in my Tuesday entry. Check it out, ok? ;-)

Danny Mendiola said...

Hi Anna!

I am retired and a new blogger. Thanks for that post on Vietnamese refugees. You will find more stories in my blog . You might want to check it out:



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