Editors' Choice

Is This a Great Country?

by Larry Habegger

The 4th of July has many meanings.

It’s midsummer, we're about to celebrate another 4th of July, and I’m thinking about a friend. I’d seen him many times when our kids were taking ice skating lessons. He’d wobble around the ice, a man clearly unfamiliar with skating, while I, having grown up on skates in Minnesota, would glide along with little effort. But he always had a ready smile, as if he were having the time of his life. A few years ago I was celebrating the Fourth of July with family and friends at a vineyard in the hills above Napa Valley. Some ten families were there, maybe thirty kids, and there he was busy grilling and shucking oysters and passing them around.

I thought he was Chinese, but no, he is Vietnamese. He’d left on a boat in 1978.

“You must have been about 14?” I said.

“No, I was 19. We landed on a Malaysian island.”

In 1979 I was walking the beach near Kuala Terengganu, at that time a nearly-deserted tropical outpost lapped by the South China Sea on Malaysia’s undeveloped east coast. That morning, under a gray mist, I came upon a beached boat, maybe 60 feet long, sand creeping up its bow, the hull still sturdy but paint long since worn away. The boat looked seaworthy if a little decrepit. It didn’t appear to have been there long.

“Two weeks,” answered a local man who appeared at my side. “Vietnamese boat people.”

Back then, the Vietnamese boat people represented the world’s most visible refugee crisis. They left in droves, escaping their repressive Communist rulers, many in rickety vessels that sank without a trace. Many were plagued, abused, raped, or murdered by pirates in the South China Sea. The lucky ones, like those aboard this boat, made it ashore and into refugee camps for resettlement elsewhere. The luckiest were resettled in the United States.

That night in the vineyard we all danced to music from the 70s, songs that were part of a shared past for many in the room. His dancing was awkward, like his skating, but his smile was there. His wife rocked out and his kids twirled around the floor. Moments later he and I clinked glasses full of cabernet made from grapes grown outside the door.

“I’m glad you’re here,” I said.

“I’ll drink to that,” he said.

And we did.


Larry Habegger, executive editor of Travelers’ Tales, has been writing about travel since 1980. He has visited almost fifty countries and six of the seven continents, traveling from the frozen Arctic to equatorial rain forest, the high Himalayas to the Dead Sea. In the early 1980s he co-authored mystery serials for the San Francisco Examiner with James O’Reilly, and since 1985 his syndicated newspaper column, "World Travel Watch," has appeared in newspapers in five countries, and can also be found on WorldTravelWatch.com and on TravelersTales.com. He regularly teaches the craft of travel writing at workshops and writers conferences. The next ones on his agenda are the Book Passage Travel Writers and Photographers Conference Aug. 14-17 and aboard a Turkish yacht sailing the Aegean and Mediterranean seas Sept. 20-27 (two spots remain in the workshop). Click here to learn more about Larry Habegger.

About Editors' Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we've received from travelers around the world and present it here as our "Editors' Choice." For more about the editors, see About Travelers' Tales Staff.




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