Vietnamese Israelis go back to their roots in powerful Journey

los angeles | 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 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 admission to Israel, comparing their plight to that of 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, who has been in Israel for 25 years. He works in a Tel Aviv restaurant, 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 up-front Israeli style, her fellow sabras 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.

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, hostility and red tape.

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 has become a foreigner herself. “I am a tourist, I am an Israeli,” she laments.

The agony of being suspended between two civilizations 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

JTA Los Angeles correspondent