Introduction to this Stone Soup Writing Activity

Note: “My Country and the Way to America” is a very difficult story to read. It describes awful situations in which people die. The story is best read with an adult. 

Map of Vietnam

Map of Vietnam

Background: A Brief History of the Vietnam War

Vietnam is a country in Southeast Asia. It borders China, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia. In the mid-1800s France conquered Vietnam along with Thailand and Cambodia. This area of French control was called French Indochina. Vietnam was therefore a French colony. 88 During World War II (1940-1945) the Japanese controlled Vietnam. After the defeat of the Japanese in 1945 French Indonesia broke up into its separate countries and in Vietnam a new war started because the French tried to reassert their control over Vietnam. Too many people in Vietnam wanted independence. The French were defeated in 1954 and withdrew from Vietnam. The story is a more complicated than this, but for a basic introduction to the Vietnam War, th war that began against the French continued after their defeat and their eventual replacement by the United States as the foreign power fighting for control of Vietnam. The United States was not trying to make Vietnam a colony, but as the victor in the war against the Japanese the Americans were looking for as much of Asia as possible to be friendly to the United States. At this time much of the world was dividing into two political camps — Capitalism where private property was the rule — and Communism where the government owned most or all of the property. Vietnam was moving towards Communism and the United States did not want that to happen.

In 1973, when I was just finishing college, the United States was defeated and Vietnam became an independent country. As it has turned out communism itself changed and became more capitalistic. The US is now friendly with Vietnam. There is peace between these two former enemies.

The story of the Vietnam War is long and complex. You can read about it in the Wikipedia. You may also want to look for books sin the library and discuss the war with your parents. Many Americans have very strong views about the American involvement in Vietnam. There are some who think it was a very good idea and are sorry for the American defeat. Many others think it was an awful idea, and are glad the war ended. During the time of the war there were many demonstrations in the United States against it. By the time the war ended a majority of the American people were opposed to the wear. This said, the Vietnam War stirs up  strong emotions in the United States, and in other countries as well.

What is important to understand for this project is that in the end, whatever the merits of war that may be declared by governments and politicians, children and their families always become the majority of victims. Wars, and in this case the end of a war, often leads to huge numbers of people fleeing. After the American defeat  large numbers of Vietnamese were desperate to leave Vietnam and many escaped the country illegally on boats.

Today, when I write this, it is May, 2016. One million people fled wars to Europe last year, most of them at one point in their journey crossed water on substandard boats. As I write this, boats like those described in one of the stories here are on the Mediterranean Sea heading to Europe. Many people end up drowning as do people in the story, “My Country and the Way to America.” Escape under terrible circumstances from war and its consequences is, unfortunately, something that is a universal characteristic of all wars.

The two stories, “The Escape” and “My Country and the Way to America“, are by children who escaped from Viet Nam. When Nguyen, who wrote “The Escape,” he had been in the United States longer than Huong Nguyen, who wrote “My Country and the Way to America” and thus his English is better. 

Project: Understanding What Happens

Read both stories with someone else. You might read them with your parents or teacher or class. The plots of these real-life stories are similar. Talk about the plots of each story with someone, and maybe write them down.

Based on your discussion of the stories, make a picture of one or more of the incidents described in the stories such as going to the zoo still being unaware of what is to come, being saved by the big boat with toys, and a refugee camp in Indonesia are examples of pictures you might make.

Project 2: Non-standard English

Huong Nguyen had something to say. And despite the fact that she doesn’t know English very well, she said what was in her heart. Her story is written in what we call non-standard English. In the case of Huong’s story, her unusual way of writing English makes her story all the more memorable and, as a work of literature, all the more effective.

For most writers, it is in writing dialogue that non-standard English is most useful. This is because few people speak English the same way they write it. Everyone has his or her own personal way of saying things.

For this project, listen carefully to how people talk. Listen carefully the way you listen to music. Listen to very young children. Listen to people raised in different parts of the country. In one of your stories, include a character who has a very unusual way of saying things. Base this character’s speech on someone you have actually heard speak. If you do this you will find that your character seems more real, more “alive.”

The Escape

By Viet Doan Nguyen, 11, East Point, Georgia
From the May/June 1985 Issue of Stone Soup

I have been through an experience that I will never forget. When I was about six years old, my family and I escaped looking for freedom in America, because the Viet Cong took over my country. The country is Viet Nam.

The first time we escaped we didn’t make it. I didn’t feel scared or anything; but I felt very uncomfortable sitting in a small boat breathing other people’s breath, hearing babies’ cries, and smelling the dirty fumes from the boat. The second time we tried to escape the Viet Cong caught us and put us into jail. I was really scared when they all pointed their guns at us. After they put us in jail, I began to know what prison was like.

Life in prison was very terrible. We didn’t have enough to eat, nor enough clothing, and the little children didn’t get a single decent meal. They didn’t care if the people lying there starved to death. All they fed us was two meals a day, and that’s it. The food that they gave to us was like leftover foods, but we were so hungry we didn’t notice. After spending a month in jail, they let us out.

About two months later, my father made another plan. He bought a small passenger boat, then gathered people who wanted to escape. In a few days we took off. This time we made it. We landed on a seashore off Malaysia. We stayed there for two months and many other people like us were there also. Later the Malaysian soldiers put us in a wrecked boat and pulled it out to the international water. We stayed out there for ten days. Whenever an airplane or a boat passed by, the people in the boat tried to signal for help; but it was no use. Finally, a ship saw us and towed the boat to the nearest island, called Air Raya. It was located in Indonesia. We stayed there for nine months.

At the beginning of those months, it was horrible. Every day people got sick and died because of the air and foods that they breathed and ate. Later there was a hospital built on the island.

After we stayed there, we were all on board a big ship. We sailed to Singapore. From there we flew by plane to America!

My Country and the Way to America

By Huong Nguyen, 11, Hosford Middle School, Portland, Oregon
Reprinted with permission from Light of the Island, © 1982
From the May/June 1985 Issue of Stone Soup

I live in Vietnam. I go to school in Vietnam. I have three pigs and one dog, but the dog is dead. My mother she was sad. My mother my father my sister is go to work. Me and my younger sister we stay home. Everybody is go to work. We has a restaurant in Vietnam. So my family they work there.

In Vietnam is very awful so we leave. One night my sister she take my younger sister and I go in to the boat. But we ask her where do we going, and she said she take us to the zoo. And we very happy because we don’t know what the zoo mean. She tell us the zoo is for the animals use to live.

So we go to see we saw the lion and the tiger and the elephant and the monkey and the wolf and snake and the bear and the very old cat. The old cat is very big but if we touch that cat he bite you and you have to go to the hospital. That cat so grumpy.

After we went to the zoo and we go to buy a lot of food. My younger sister she ask what for? My oldest sister said we going to have a party.

And she take us to get on the boat. And I see too much people. When we start to go I am too small and I am so stupid.

Because they want everybody to put the children to go sleep because they start to go but I don’t want to go to sleep but I want to play with the water. I put my feet under the water. The people in the boat they gave me a medicine but I don’t know what is that. Then I drink the medicine. After I drink I was sleeping.

When I wake up I saw the ocean. And I put my feet under the water again.

After three days or four days out the ocean, the boat have a hole and the water coming. Everybody was cry and scary. The boat was rocking and raining. The people they felling down the ocean. The captain in the boat. He jump down the ocean and he help everybody to get on the boat. Then he was tired and he can’t swim no more. He dead under ocean. His wife was sad and lonely. Everybody they are wet. Me and my younger sister we are under boat. And we didn’t get drop down the ocean. My sister she said we are lucky. The people they take care of the lady because that lady she is very lonely and sad.

We stay in the ocean for a month and two days. The last day we saw a people dead on the water. We saw money and the wood, the shoe, the paper, the clothes, the pants. And everybody was scary.

Another day we saw a big ships. We are happy they let we get on the ship. We saw a lot of toys. We play on the ship for one day.

And they get my boat to Malaysia. We lived there two month.

And they take we go to Indonesia. We lived there one years. We live in Indonesia. We have no food no water to drink no soap and shampoo for hair in Indonesia is very dirty and messy. They has a lot of the bad fly. If the bad fly sting we get sick. And no medicine. The people they dead every day.

I sick one time but not much because I drink the bad water it make me sick.

My sister she think I might dead so she feel sad. And worry about my mother and my father and my sister in Vietnam.

Next morning the America people they call my family name to get on the ship. They take us go to the big mountain.

A lot some people. And we are talking to the Vietnamese people. We came to a big mountain they have everything. They have water and food, and no fly nothing. We lived there we don’t have to cook. They cook for us to eat every day. We can eat anything if we want to. Because we got to come to America some day. So we very happy.

The mountain is very beautiful. It look very big then in Vietnam. The mountain look like a city. I like America we like to live there. We live there they give us candy every day. We live there one week. Then we get on the airplane to came to Hong Kong. And we came to America. Then we live in the hotel two days in Los Angeles.

William Rubel, Editor
About the Author

In 1973, I was twenty years old, teaching children's art classes at my college, the University of California, Santa Cruz, and came up with the idea that the best way to encourage children to write was to introduce them to the best writing by their peers. Stone Soup grew out of that idea. Along with co-editor Gerry Mandel, I have continued to edit and publish Stone Soup for all these years. I am also a culinary historian. I write about traditional foodways. My book, "The Magic of Fire," is about hearth cooking. My book, "Bread, a global history," speaks for itself. I am currently writing a 130,000-word bread history for a University Press. I publish articles on gardening and traditional foodways at Mother Earth News. I also publish on wild mushrooms and other food-related subjects.

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