Camp Z30-D: The Survivors
Riding in a rusty bus squished against her mother, Khang Ngoc Quach smells the dry earth on the nearly empty road to Camp Z30-D. In the fields, oxen pull rickety carts over fallow ground that come spring will turn fertile. Strips of flags flutter in the wind.
Khang, 10, is on her way to meet her father. She has not seen him since her third birthday.
In front of the prison's scrawled sign, children chase one another, their feet dusty in flip-flops.
Mother and daughter pass the guards' bungalows. Laundry dries in the heat. Inmates, wearing prison stripes and conical hats, plant corn in the fields.
It is 1982, and strict order is the rule at Camp Z30-D with the fires of Phat Phu Nghiem's rebellion having been snuffed out for a year.
They approach a small building for visitors. Inside are several doors leading to smaller rooms. Khang and her mother enter one. A gaunt man waits inside.
“I have brought someone to see you,” her mother tells the stranger.
She approaches the man, seeing his eyes light up. He turns toward her. Hesitates. Then steps around a small table. He stoops down and reaches to hug her.
She looks up, the man looming over her. She can feel his tears on her forehead, trickling down her soft brow. “Con toi,” he says. “My child.”
The words sound strange — no man has ever called her that.
Lam Ngoc Quach strokes his daughter's hair, then whispers to his wife.
“The pictures you have shown me of her are nothing like seeing her in person.”
“You will fulfill the dreams that I couldn't,” he says to Khang. “You will be my future. Please remember that you must study, and study hard.”
She can only clutch his hand, recalling how she grew up listening to tales about her father, a soldier who still loved her even though he was in prison.
The youngest of four, Khang was told she was her father's favorite. Her birth was the only one he was able to attend, having been on duty when the other children were born. When Khang's head emerged, her father christened her, immediately announcing her name.
Khang was told how Lam doted on his newest child -- even helping to change her diapers, in his view a “revolutionary act.” He fed her strained carrots and scrubbed milk stains from her bib. He scooped up Khang on his shoulders and ran around the house, feeling the energy seep back into his body after a long day on the base, his daughter yelling, “More! More!”
As Khang stands in the cramped visitors room at Camp Z30-D, other memories slowly seep back: The airy, four-bedroom home in an upscale neighborhood of Saigon; her siblings attending private schools, on their way to becoming doctors, lawyers, university professors.
But in 1975, Lam was among the first prisoners shipped to prison, leaving Khang with little more than family portraits. Her favorite picture showed everyone beaming during a beach outing. She is wrapped in her father's arms, her “funny-looking” belly button showing.
The family soon lost its property and moved in with Khang's aunt. Her mother peddled trinkets, bread, bananas — whatever she could. Classmates taunted Khang because her father was in prison. Even the teachers lectured about dads such as Khang's — bad men who needed to learn to treat their country better. But Khang, sensing her mother already was shouldering more than she could bear, didn't talk about being tormented.
As the years drifted by, both mother and child struggled in their own ways — the parent without a shoulder to lean on, the child without a shoulder to cry on.
Now, seven years after the fall of Saigon, Khang must say goodbye to her father once again. After holding one another for less than a half-hour, mother and daughter pass through the gate that marks the entrance to Camp Z30-D, Lam far behind and deep inside.
In 1984, Khang's father is released from Camp Z30-D. Local police order him to record his activities in a journal and review it weekly. Feeling there is little chance for a better life, the family decides to escape.
The three oldest children go first, Lam leading the way through jungle and a maze of winding paths to Thailand. He returns for Khang — risking being thrown back into prison, and walking nearly a week to reach his hometown. Finally, the family is reunited in late 1986 at a refugee camp. Months later, they arrive in Orange County.
As a teen-ager, Khang watches her father learn English, get a driver's license and land a job at a Long Beach catering factory, where he rises from delivery man to quality control supervisor.
“He teaches us by example that we must try to overcome our obstacle,” Khang says. “He doesn't forget what happened in prison. He just moves beyond it.”
As the years pass, Khang's three older siblings finish school, find work, marry and move out. Khang prepares to follow. But in 2000, her mother, 56, dies from liver cancer. Khang decides to stay with her father in their two-story Westminster condo, its entrance lined with peach blossoms.
Khang, 28, and her father, now 59, hang like friends. They are regulars at Costco, where they sometimes treat themselves to a thick T-bone or a New York steak. She isn't keen on action movies, but will sit through one while enjoying Vietnamese fast food with her father on their living room couch.
“All along, Dad has only asked that I give my own children more than what he has given me,” she says. The request reflects the meaning of Khang's name — peace and prosperity.