In the summer of 1979 my family and I lay half-dead in a derelict fishing boat lost in the South China Sea. There were 83 other refugees aboard, all of us fleeing Vietnam, and after five days without food and water, some of the mothers began to consider the unthinkable: binding their babies’ arms with strips of cloth and slipping them into the sea.
I was born in the Mekong Delta of South Vietnam, eight months after the country fell to the communists. My family had owned a rice milling empire worth millions, but the Viet Cong took almost everything. We eked out a meager existence on a tiny tract of land for four years, until my parents decided that leaving was the only hope for a better future, and worth the many risks we would face as “boat people.”
Then, on our sixth day at sea, a miracle happened: We were spotted by a World Vision aid ship. The crew brought us to a refugee camp in Singapore, and a few months later, a Lutheran church in Fort Smith, Ark., sponsored my family’s move to the United States.
We arrived with nothing, unable to speak a word of English. My father went to work in a fiberglass factory, earning $90 a week to support a family of 10. The children in our neighborhood were friendly, but we weren’t allowed to play with them. My parents were terrified that if one of us got into a fight, we’d all be sent back to Vietnam. That fear defines the life of a refugee: Don’t stand out. Don’t take risks. And whatever you do, don’t fail.
My time was divided between school, work, and church. Work gave me discipline and kept me out of trouble; church gave me community and a strong faith. My siblings and I walked a path two inches wide and 18 years long, but it turned out to be a good one. Together, we hold six doctorates and five master’s degrees, from schools such as Harvard, Yale, Georgetown, the University of Pennsylvania, and NYU.
When I was a student in medical school in 2002, I returned to Vietnam for the first time, to visit my relatives who are still there. I was shocked by the poverty. Their houses were shacks, the walls plastered over with newspapers; bare light bulbs hung from the ceiling on electrical cords. My cousins slept on the floor. Visiting them was like walking into a parallel universe—the life that would have been mine had the wind blown our boat in a different direction.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus said, “When someone has been given much, much will be required in return; and when someone has been entrusted with much, even more will be required” (12:48 NLT). I used to wonder who Jesus meant, because I sure didn’t think it was my family. The way I saw it, we had been given nothing, entrusted with nothing. I hoped that rich and powerful people would read Jesus’s words and take them to heart.
But when I went to Vietnam, I finally understood: He meant me. I was the one plucked from the South China Sea. I was the one granted asylum in a nation where education is available to everyone, and prosperity is attainable for anyone. I worked hard to get to where I am today, but the humbling truth is that my hard work was possible because of a blessing I did nothing to deserve. And that blessing is something I must pass on, in any way I can.
My story is true for all of us, whether you arrived in this country by boat or by birth: Much has been given to us—and much is required. That, I believe, is what it means to be an American.
Vinh Chung serves on World Vision’s Board of Directors, and his new memoir is called Where the Wind Leads. In the video below, he describes his family’s journey to the U.S.