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Interview for

Su Co Part 2


Interviewed By:

Matthew Weiner

Date Interviewed:

Audio Recording of Interview
00:00 / 1:38:28

This is the second part of Ms. Su Co’s interview. Ms. Su Co is a Buddisht nun from Vietnam who resettled in the United States as a refugee of the Vietnam war in 1991. In this part of her story, she offers details that further illuminate her profound desire to enter Buddhist monastic life. She also recounts her earlier, unsuccessful attempts at fleeing Vietnam, what motivated them as well as her jail time service, among many other incredible events.

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Additional Notes

Narrator: Su Co

Content Warning: Mentioning of sexual violence

Summary: This is the second part of Ms. Su Co’s interview. Ms. Su Co is a Buddisht nun from Vietnam who resettled in the United States as a refugee of the Vietnam war in 1991. In this part of her story, she offers details that further illuminate her profound desire to enter Buddhist monastic life. She also recounts her earlier, unsuccessful attempts at fleeing Vietnam,  what motivated them as well as her jail time service, among many other incredible events.

Topics: Cultural adjustment, Conditions back home, Education, Employment/service, Family, Food, Historical Context, Identity, Immigration Process, Language, Politics, Religion, Violence, War


Section 1: 00:02 - 06:15

  • Conditions back home - In order to obtain water, Ms. Su Co had to carry buckets of water from a well to her house.

  • Religion - Ms. Su Co shares that from her early teenage years, she knew she wanted to live in the temple. It was her life’s purpose and if she couldn’t have it, it was better being dead.

  • Family - Ms. Su Co’s mother did not want her to join the temple at an early age because she feared that life there would be too hard on her and that she would have to discontinue her regular education.

  • Food - Ms. Su Co explains a funny story about when mother tried to dissuade her from vegetarianism by cooking delicious non-vegetarian food that she knew most children could not resist.

  • Family - Ms. Su Co’s sister who was a school teacher drowned to her death in 1974 in a river that flooded. By this time, Ms. Su Co was already living at the temple and she did not want to return home.

Section 2: 06:15 - 18:07

  • Education - Because of the various restrictions that were being imposed by the communist government – for example, Buddhist monks and nuns had to dress as lay people in order to obtain education – Ms. Su Co discontinued her studies at the university in Saigon in 1975, three years after she had enrolled. She would have received her bachelor’s degree the following year.

  • Historical Context - Under the communist regime, inspections were randomly executed and every building that housed people had to have them registered in a book. If one’s name did not appear in the book, one was asked to return to their home. Ms. Su Co experienced this while she was in the monastery in Saigon but she luckily met the requirement.

  • Religion - Ms. Su Co shares that Buddhist monks and nuns were careful not to discuss politics.

  • War - Ms. Su Co suggests that not all days during the Vietnam war were chaotic; in fact, she once had an opportunity to leave the country for America, but did not take it because her environment was tranquil enough for her to continue practicing Buddhism.

  • Employment/service - Ms. Su Co recounts how some communists visited their temple in Saigon once again and reprimanded them for living so comfortably while many others in the nation were suffering. Ultimately, the communists asked that they contribute to the economic project the new government had designed.

  • Food - Responding to the communists’ request, the administration from Ms. Su Co’s temple bought land that was then cultivated by the nuns in turns. They grew potatoes, tapioca roots and peanuts.

  • War - Facing food shortages, the villagers living by the land Ms. Su Co and the other nuns cultivated would often steal their harvest.

Section 3: 18:07 - 26:11

  • Violence - Ms. Su Co suggests that after the communist regime formally took control of Vietnam, some people who previously revered Buddhist temples changed – they also, like some communists, began to harass those like Ms. Su Co, who lived in temples, attempted to steal property and demanded things like food.

  • Religion - The communists in Vietnam did not support any religion. They thought it was “”the highest heroin.””

  • Politics - Ms. Su Co reveals that the communists would confiscate people’s property. This had a negative impact on business.

  • Immigration Process - Ms. Su Co resettled in the United States in 1991. One of her closest friends from university had moved to Texas seven years earlier and they were able to reunite.

  • Employment/service - Ms. Su Co, along with the other buddhist nuns, worked on the communist economic project for seven years – from 1975 to 1982.

Section 4: 26:11 -  30:47

  • Education - It was only until 1983, eight years after Ms. Su Co was forced to drop out of the university in Saigon, that the communists allowed for Buddhist schools to open. This was achieved after great, continuous advocacy from senior monks.

  • Education - Between 1975 and 1983, buddhist monks and nuns could not attend any formal schools. In reaction to this, some more knowledgeable monks and nuns would visit temples and teach the aspiring nuns and monks.

  • Identity - The buddhist robe is integral to a buddhist’s identity. Ms. Su Co explains that she and the other buddhist monks and nuns around her refused to disrobe in order to go to school as the communists had mandated.

  • Politics - Ms. Su Co explains the selective process of the buddhist schools after they were reopened: an applicant had to have a clean political background; that is, there should not have been any evidence to prove that they had been a dissident. Ms. Su Co had tried to escape Vietnam in 1982, so she would not qualify; knowing this, she forged a story – that sold – about her past, calling herself an orphan.

Section 5: 30:47 - 42:13

  • Immigration Process - Ms. Su Co reveals that she attempted, albeit unsuccessfully,  to escape Vietnam. Once, in 1982, she was caught and had to serve a one month and a half sentence in jail under horrible conditions.

  • Religion - While in jail, Ms. Su Co would dream about different buddhas. She would pray every night and as though they had heard her, she was released in less than two months.

  • Politics - Ms. Su Co explains that it was the overbearing tactics of the communist government that pushed her out of the country; specifically, she and her fellow buddhist nuns and monks could not comfortably practice their religion.

Section 6: 42:13 - 52:38

  • Education - After serving her jail sentence, Ms. Su Co attended a Buddhist school for four years.

  • Immigration Process - In 1989, Ms. Su Co attempted to escape Vietnam again. This time, she had the company of one of her friends as well as that of some other monks and nuns. They separated but remained around each other to avoid suspicion.

  • Food - Eventually, Ms. Su Co and company boarded a ship, but the ship was filled beyond capacity. While on this ship, someone stole her water because there was barely on food for people to eat.

  • Religion - The ship Ms. Su Co and the other one hundred eight two people were on stopped working on the third day and slowly began to sink. During this scary time, Ms. Su Co prayed constantly; eventually, one or two days later, some good Thai samaritan fishermen noticed them.

  • Religion - Knowing that some of the Thai fishermen would be Buddhist, the people on the ship persuaded Ms. Su Co to go to the top of the ship in order to attract the Thai. It worked, specifically because she had her yellow robe on.

  • Food - Ms. Su Co narrates that the Thai ships came closer to the sinking big ship she was on and not only fed the elderly and the children but also took back some women and children with them.

  • Religion - Ultimately, the Thai fishermen could not aid and rescue everyone on the boat because they were not authorized by the Thai government to do so. However, they were a symbol of hope for Ms. Su Co and the others who were on the sinking ship and every time they were in sight, Ms. Su Co was sent to the top in her yellow robe.

  • Food - The Thai fishermen continued to supply food to those on the sinking ship.

Section 7: 52:38 - 1:00:58

  • Food - There was a shortage of food on the big sinking ship Ms. Su Co was stranded on in 1989 so people began to steal from each other. Luckily, without any effort on her part, Ms. Su Co had someone who was looking out for.

  • Immigration Process - Eventually, the Thai fishermen got the big ship to start moving again. As it was approaching the shore, someone called the police and Su Co and many others jumped back into the water to escape captivity.

  • Employment - Ms. Su Co reveals that on the big ship were people who were highly educated and would normally be of high status such as doctors and government officials. In fact, the very reason they were on the boat was because they could afford the ticket, which was priced at two thousand dollars, which Ms. Su Co equates to six ounces of gold.

  • Immigration Process - Ms. Su Co did not prepare much for her journeys out of Vietnam; the only thing she would bring was money.

  • Religion - For Ms. Su Co, the freedom to practice her religion was her motivation to leave Vietnam especially after the eight year hiatus in her formal education in Buddhism.

  • Politics - Ms. Su Co discloses that some monks did work in tandem with the communist government and that the ones she knew about came from the north. These monks were perceived disgracefully by Ms. Su Co and her peers

  • Religion - While on the ship, Ms. Su Co prayed a lot. However, the routine she observed in the temple was not feasible at this point in time.

Section 8: 1:00:58 - 1:07:50

  • Religion - Whenever Ms. Su Co and those on the big ship would encounter a new challenge, she would think about and envision the Buddha and ask for help through prayer.

  • Identity - Even though there were buddhist monks on the ship, for some reason, Ms. Su Co became the go-to person for any prayer requests. She was always called to pray over the boat when it failed to work.

  • Religion - When Ms. Su Co’s individual prayers over the boat failed to work,  she invited everyone else to join her. And fortunately, that seemed to work.

Section 9: 1:07:50 - 1:15:05

  • Immigration Process - When the boat Ms. Su Co and the others were on landed in Thailand, they were received by government officials and brought to a temple in a small village where they lived for a month.

  • Food - While living in the house on the temple land, the Thai government offered Ms. Su Co and the other refugees food such as rice and vegetables.

  • Cultural adjustment - At the temple in the small Thai village, there was a monk who was initially hostile to Ms. Su Co and her fellow nuns and monks but only out of a short-lived ignorance.

  • Immigration Process - The house was not large enough to accommodate all one hundred and eighty three Vietnamese refugees.

  • Religion - Ms. Su Co mentions that the Vietnamese refugees were able to bond with Thai officials who practiced Buddhism.

  • Cultural adjustment - The Thai camp Ms. Su Co and the big ship passengers settled into did not have a hygienic drainage system. As a result, the Vietnamese refugees asked for permission to dig holes into the ground instead; it was granted; additionally, the Thai government tried to address it.

  • Language - The highly educated Vietnamese people who had been on the big ship with Ms. Su Co communicated with Thai officials in English.

  • Historical context - Ms. Su Co recounts that in 1989, the United Nations ceased operations of all refugee camps including the one she and the big ship survivors were in in Thailand. Consequently, they moved into a holding center on the Thailand-Cambodia border.

Section 10: 1:15:05 - 1:24:03

  • Religion - While in the holding center on the Thailand side, Ms. Su Co continued to pray at a temple – made of  bamboo and leaves – that the Vietnamese refugees had constructed. Out of respect and understanding of Buddhism, the Thai people offered separate houses for the Vietnamese buddhist monks and nuns

  • Religion - Ms. Su Co remembers that there was an abundance of Buddha images in the temple sent by Vietnamese in America who were sympathetic to the refugees.

  • Religion - Before leaving the temple with the Buddha pictures, Ms. Su Co and a monk colleague burned all the pictures because they feared that the temple would be neglected afterwards. However, she clarifies that this is not a normal thing to do.

  • Language - While in Thailand, Ms. Su Co learned to speak the language conversationally.

Section 11: 1:24:03 - 1:29:22

  • Food - While at the holding center, Ms. Su Co and the other Vietnamese refugees were fed.

  • Education - While at the holding center, Ms. Su Co taught some students English. She explains that there were some other officers who had been to America that also started English classes.

  • Food - While at the holding center, Ms. Su Co and the other Vietnamese refugees were permitted to purchase food from local Thai vendors.

  • Violence - Ms. Su Co discloses she did hear about sexual violence perpetrated by Thai border guards. She clarifies that she did not personally experience this injustice.

Section 12: 1:29:22 - 1:38:28

  • Immigration Process - After the first holding center - Ms. Su Co and the other Vietnamese refugees were moved to another one in 1990.

  • Immigration  Process - Ms. Su Co remembers the second holding center as more spacious; for example, the refugees were separated into groups and had separate bathrooms. She also reveals that her brother who lived in America is the one that had been financially sustaining her all along.

  • Identity - Ms. Su Co tells the story of a woman who was pretending to be a Buddhist nun. Even though the woman had a shaved head, Ms. Su Co knew she was not a nun based on the fact that she wore makeup.

  • Immigration Process - Before immigrating to the United States in 1991, Ms. Su Co was interviewed by an American who tested her knowledge of Buddhism and also tricked her; however, Ms. Su Co passed both tests.

  • Language - Ms. Su Co ended up helping her American interview with translating letters from Vietnamese to English.

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