Interview with Tina Nguyen, June 1, 2019

Becoming Texans, Becoming Americans
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00:00:01 - Interview Introduction

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Partial Transcript: BRODY: This is Betsy Brody. Today is June 1, 2019. I am interviewing, for the first time, Ms. Tina Nguyen. This interview is taking place at Ms. Nguyen’s house in Murphy, Texas. This interview is sponsored by the Baylor University Institute for Oral History and is part of the “Becoming Texans, Becoming Americans” project.

Keywords: Becoming Texans, Becoming Americans

00:00:21 - Leaving Vietnam as a child/Impact of Chinese heritage

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Partial Transcript: Thank you so much, Tina, for joining me for this interview. Just to get started, can you tell me about your life in Vietnam?

NGUYEN: Sure. I left Vietnam when I was about nine years old with a family group of twenty. (laughs)

BRODY: Wow. That’s a large group.

NGUYEN: Yeah. So it’s with my grandparents, and they were Chinese and half- Vietnamese. There were twenty of them, so it’s everybody on my dad’s side of the family. My grandparents and all their kids and their wives and their kids came along. So that means my mom—she left her whole family behind—so, like, her mother, her sisters, and brothers were behind. She came with us, and she was at the age of twenty-nine when she left. Because the family was so large, when we got to America, we split up ten and ten due to sponsorship. There’s no one—no organization or church—that was able to sponsor a full twenty, so they could do, like, a ten-ten, so ten went to California, and ten went to Mississippi. But my story is, because I was half-Chinese or half-Vietnamese, it wasn’t like I left secretly by a boat or something. My grandparents, because of their nationality, Chinese, and they were a little bit well off, they were able to pay, I guess, for our way to come to American by gold. I heard, like, a bar of gold for—I don’t even know how much per person, or whatever.

BRODY: Who were they paying to?

NGUYEN: I guess it’s just the association? I’m not sure because I was very young. But it’s just, basically, you pay your way for a chance at freedom, not knowing. We did come by boat, but it wasn’t like a secret way where we had to sneak out in the middle of the night. We had a designated date, a time to say goodbye to family, et cetera, and then the next morning, people were—I remember waving to my maternal grandmother side of the family and all that. So we went on a boat. I want to say about 180 people were on this small boat, and just based on what I remembered, it was very crowded and what was brought on the boat for food was ramen noodles. I remember just eating ramen noodles from a canister. And I think after, maybe, three or four days—my timing could be way off. I don’t know, because I was so young—I think we landed in Indonesia. I think the city was called Galang and we stayed there for about nine months. They set up a camp, I guess—a refugee camp, and from what I remembered, it was more like a large cabin that would house about, maybe, twenty or thirty people in each cabin, and there’s several cabins. And in the cabin, you basically—for each family, there’s a big, large platform like a bed or something, so probably the size of a ten-by-ten or something, and that’s basically your house. So we would have a roof over our head with that platform with just that wooden board, and then for food and stuff, I think you—we had to go get water. I remember going and they have water that is allocated out. You can’t just get what you want. Each family have a certain amount, and you have to line up to get the water. The same thing with food; they have allocated amount of sardines in a can, so I remember eating sardines with rice in a can, like, every single day. That was what we—that was just your allocated amount. We were there, and then once we were settled, then my mom got a job with the Indonesian people who had restaurants, and she was also a seamstress, so she was able to work for some small mom-and-pop shop to make clothes and—

BRODY: There in Indonesia still?

NGUYEN: (both speaking at once) Yes. Uh-huh.

Keywords: Galang; Indonesia; Vietnamese-Chinese; boat; food; gold; leaving Vietnam; refugee camps

00:05:46 - Being sent to work for an Indonesian family at nine years old

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Partial Transcript: BRODY: Okay. So as part of the camp, there was a business stream as well?

NGUYEN: (both speaking at once) Yes. So—no. The weird thing is, I think, from what I remember—so the camp is on one side, and then I remember you have to travel by a small boat just to get to the other side of the island, I think, but—so the other side is more industrialized, whereas where we stayed—I mean, there weren’t any buildings. There weren’t any kind of businesses. It was just the refugee camp. And then, you take a little boat ride across—that’s probably, like, thirty minutes, forty minutes or something, and it’s just like a totally different world with businesses, restaurants, and stuff, whereas where we stayed didn’t have any of that. Right. There were no restaurants.

BRODY: (both speaking at once) No—okay. Just living spaces.

NGUYEN: Exactly. Yep. And by way of making money, I think my mom or my dad somehow was talking to an Indonesian family, and somehow they came up with an opportunity for me, at the age of nine, to kind of live with this family that owns a restaurant, and I would help around the house or around the restaurant by washing dishes or something. It was those—it was just a combination of both. It’s just a little amount of money or whatever the child can bring in at the time, and then more importantly, just an opportunity to blend in and make way of life for myself and then for the family as well. I think that probably occurred for nine months or so. And I remember at one point, they had—this family with a restaurant—they had sons of, like, fifteen, sixteen years old, and when it was time for us to get sponsored to go to Mississippi—Houston, Mississippi—I remember the story was, they offered my parent to see if they would be willing to let me stay and marry one of their sons! (laughs)

BRODY: Oh my goodness! (laughs) You were nine years old!

NGUYEN: I know! (laughs) Yes. Of course, my mom said no, (both laugh) thank you. Well, no, we never took that opportunity.

Keywords: Indonesia; businesses; children; employment; jobs; refugee camps; refugees; restaurants

00:08:33 - Sponsorship and arrival in the United States

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Partial Transcript: NGUYEN: Then after nine months to a year in Indonesia, then we were sponsored. Like I said earlier, ten of us were sponsored in Houston or Jackson, Mississippi, by a church group. That was my grandparents, my dad, my two younger sisters, and my mom, so we, immediately, has a family of five, and then, my grandparent had one, two, three, four aunts, right? Four aunts. And—yeah, maybe three aunts, and then my grandparents—I know that the total, including the five of us, was ten. And then the rest of the family, which includes my oldest aunt and my uncle, went to Los Angeles, California, so they were sponsored by another organization. And so we lived in Mississippi for about a year or so, and I remembered they sponsored and gave us a house that would—that was big enough for all ten of us in there. By way of occupation, I remember my parents having to do lawn work, and I remember back then, it was huge just to make—I want to say—is it three dollar an hour, or maybe—yeah, maybe three dollar an hour? But they were doing kind of lawn care work, and we kind of blend in and go to church, and we stayed there for about a year. Then my mom found out she has an aunt that lives in Plano, Texas, so then she got into contact with her aunt, which is now my great-aunt, and they helped us—or sponsored us to come and live in Plano. So we made the drive—it was, like, thirteen hour drive from Mississippi to Plano—with my dad, and then we just got situated in Plano and lived there for a couple years.

BRODY: Did you live with your aunt?

NGUYEN: Yes. We lived with my aunt for—or my great-aunt, rather, for about a year or so, and then she got jobs for my mom and my dad, which was to be a cook, like, at a Denny’s or something. Once my parents got jobs, then we moved into an apartment. So they—we kind of got situated and lived on our own after that.

Keywords: Housto; Jackson, Mississippi; Los Angeles; Mississippi; Plano; Texas; United State; church; employment; housing; jobs; sponsors; sponsorship

00:11:55 - Parents' status and work in Vietnam

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Partial Transcript: BRODY: What did your parents do in terms of work in Vietnam?

NGUYEN: My dad, because of his heritage—his being half-Chinese—and my Chinese grandparents on the paternal side were well-off. They had a business and it was a shoe shop. And my mom was more on the—kind of like, my mom’s side was more on the poor side, so she was more on the farming side. I remembered them going to sell stacked up loads of bananas on a boat and leaving in the middle of the night—yeah, collecting all the bananas and selling them.

BRODY: So really different than what they ended up doing when they got here. NGUYEN: (both speaking at once) Yes. Uh-huh.
BRODY: Yeah. Do you remember what that transition was like for them, to go from what they had been doing both in Vietnam, and then later in Mississippi, to working as cooks?

NGUYEN: It was probably very difficult because, number one, they knew that they were leaving for freedom, better life for the kids, but basically, it was just the unknown because when we left, there was no guarantee that, Okay, yes, you’re going to be sponsored, you’re going to make it to America. It was just, You’re going to some island, may it be Indonesia, or Thailand, or Malaysia,—I don’t know, I’m not sure—but then from there, that’s where you’re hoping that you get sponsorships. So when they left, I don’t think they have an idea as to, Okay, I’m going to go to Texas or California. That just kind of like, We’ll see what happens when we get there. So when they got here, not knowing a word of English and not having a skill because they were young—so it was basically starting fresh in a new country, learning a new language, getting a new skill, so I would imagine that was very difficult.

Keywords: Chinese; English; bananas; farming; freedom; language; language learning; poverty; social class; wealth

00:14:20 - Role of churches and religion

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Partial Transcript: BRODY: Right. I would imagine. You mentioned about the sponsorships, that you were initially sponsored by a church. What role—did religion play a role in your family’s story in your integration or later on in your life?

NGUYEN: No. I think the church was just to help us out, but it wasn’t like we were like, Okay, we’re Christian, or we’re Baptist, and therefore that we were selected because of that. I think they selected us knowing that we weren’t religious yet and all that. It was more of a—I want to say, like a—what is that term? Montessori? Yeah. Kind of like one of those organizations that’s just, Okay, we just want to help people out, and then giving them a chance to develop their own lives.

Keywords: church; religion

00:15:16 - Attending school in Mississippi and Texas

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Partial Transcript: BRODY: Okay. Let’s see. You were quite young, so you must’ve been in school, both in Mississippi and then in Texas. Can you tell me what you remember about being in school?

NGUYEN: Yes. So obviously, I started out in elementary and not knowing any English. I remembered going to a school in Mississippi, and I thought it was just odd. For some reason, I have this memory of a milk carton. During recess, they gave out milk carton or something—this is way back then—and coming from Vietnam, we don’t drink milk.
There’s no cows. Vietnam is just not a dairy country. So I remember not coping very well with that because I couldn’t drink milk, and I remember just being, I guess, frustrated because not knowing the language, not knowing how to communicate. And then in Vietnam, it wasn’t as structured like in the US. Like, for example, when I left, I want to say that I was already—even though at nine, I was in the fifth or sixth grade because, basically, in Vietnam or where I was, if you master a certain skill or whatever is required, you get to skip the class and you move on to the next class. I was higher than most kids my age, and then I remember going to Mississippi and start in the first grade, and I think my dad—even though it’s a different country, he was thinking it worked similarly in Vietnam. So somehow, he was talking to, I guess, a teacher or a principal or a translator, and he was asking to see if I could skip as well, (both laugh) and I think they were—they didn’t go for it at first, but because of—like, my math was more advanced. I was already doing multiplication and all that, and so they did let me skip second and I went to third, I think. Something like—I know I was able to skip one grade. Then we moved to Plano and I remember, once we got to live with my great-aunt, it was just—the opportunities that was kind of presented to me from my aunt was, “Oh, you’re going to have so much homework and you’re going to be carrying bunch of books,” and all that, which is—I know it sounds ironic, but it was like it was a good thing. It was just like an award to have that opportunity to do homework and carry a stacks of book this tall, because the way she was saying it, it wasn’t like, “Oh,” to scare you, but it was more of, “Oh, you’re not going to believe it. This is your opportunity.” For us, it was like—for education, it was really important. In Vietnam—I didn’t tell you this, but—only the rich or the well- off could afford education, but if you live on a farm or something, then you—I mean, school is not easily accessible, so you would have to walk for miles to go to school. I think in Vietnam, I remember having to walk through the farm, and trees, and forest, and all that to go to the school, so just the thought of hearing about, “Oh, yeah, you’ll be carrying stacks of books,” and all that, it was very rewarded—very welcoming. Like, “Oh my gosh! Really?” It was a gift.

BRODY: Right. That didn’t scare you at all.

NGUYEN: Yeah! Yeah. No. Uh-huh.

BRODY: Once you did get to school, was there a lot of homework and a lot of books?

NGUYEN: I think because I was in the oldest in my family of three girls, I’ve always been more mature than my sisters, and maybe because I was the oldest, I’ve always— from elementary through junior high, through high school and college, I was very independent and very education-focused. I always wanted to make sure I’m the head of the class, getting straight As. So it was more of—no one made me. I just kind of took that on by myself.

Keywords: English; Mississippi; Texas; communication; dairy; education; elementary school; food; homework; language; math; milk; milk cartons; opportunities; schools; social class; studying; success

00:21:00 - Moving from Plano to Houston and back to North Texas

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Partial Transcript: BRODY: Did you stay in Plano for long?

NGUYEN: Yes. I think we stayed for about two or three years, and then we moved to Houston. That was probably in 1984 or ’85. Then my grandparents, who—so when we left, it was just my immediate family—my dad and my two younger sisters and my mom—and then my grandparents—later on, they had other connections, and my aunt and my grandparents moved to Houston. So then, after living in Plano for two or three years, my grandparents were like, Okay, hey, there’s some opportunities here in Houston with a lot more Asian community, et cetera, so they told us—or they told my parents, “That, maybe, is a better opportunity for jobs and all that, if you guys want to come check out Houston.” Then we moved to Houston in ’84 or ’85, and I think we lived there for a few years. Yeah, two or three years.


BRODY: Yeah. And then you came back? Or—

NGUYEN: Yes. Unfortunately, in Houston for two or three years, my parents got a divorce, and then—so my mom left with just us girls, went back to Plano, and then hooked up with her aunt again, the one—yeah. So then we lived in Plano here—I want to say, probably, in 1986 until I graduated high school in ’91.

BRODY: And so you went to Plano schools, or—

NGUYEN: I went—no. In Richardson. I went to Richardson High School. Um-hm.

Keywords: Houston; Plano; Texas; divorce

00:23:13 - Attending high school in Richardson, Texas

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Partial Transcript: BRODY: Right. At that point when you came back, were there more Vietnamese students, or still pretty limited?

NGUYEN: I think so, yes, because I think when I came back here, that’s where I met Dai, so it was a lot more—there were, I want to say—yeah. I know of at least three or probably five—at least five Vietnamese friends that were in my class, and then probably more a year ahead of me. And that’s where I met my husband, too, in Richardson High School.

BRODY: Right. So there was a growing community, it sounds like. NGUYEN: (both speaking at once) Yes. Uh-huh.
BRODY: I mean, did you have friends that were—did you mostly stick with the Vietnamese students, or did you have friends of all different races and ethnicities?

NGUYEN: (both speaking at once) We had friends of all different—yeah. There were— most—yeah. Several of my friends were Vietnamese, but it wasn’t like, Okay, I only hung around the Vietnamese group or something.

Keywords: Richardson; Richardson, Texas; Vietnamese students; diversity; friendships; high school

00:24:14 - Cultural misunderstanding at sleep-away camp

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Partial Transcript: BRODY: Right. And so socially and academically, what do you remember about—were there any challenges or funny things that happened?

NGUYEN: Yeah. Academically, I did very well. I think since second grade, I made straight As through high school, through college, et cetera. But there was one instance, for whatever reason, I remembered. It was camp—summer camp. Maybe that was, like, in the fifth grade, when—like my kids now—you get a chance to go off and—it wasn’t in the summer; it was during the school year—but you get a chance to go off for two or three days with the other students. And there’s one story I remembered. In our country— this is kind of funny—but what I remembered, clothing-wise, we didn’t have specific clothing set for, like, pajamas; certain things are for school or for summer and all that. I guess we were just lucky if you had clothes on your back, you know, so to me, at that young age, anything with a collar, I would remember it being, Okay, that’s dressy enough. So I remember one time during that summer camp—or school camp trip—I wore what’s considered to be a pajama set, but it had a collar, and for Vietnam, pajamas—if you have a collar, that’s too fancy! (Brody laughs) It can’t be pajamas! And so I never thought of it as being pajamas. I remember it being pink, but I didn’t wear the whole outfit. It was just the shirt and I’d wear a pant. But I remember wearing it, and then some kid made fun. It was like, “She’s wearing pajamas!” And so then it dawned on me that, Oh, okay, there is a difference. Just because it has collar doesn’t mean that it’s normal, regular, everyday clothes.

BRODY: Right. So it was a cultural lesson. (laughs)

NGUYEN: Yes! (laughs) So yeah, that’s kind of stuck with me somehow.

Keywords: clothing; culture; misunderstanding; sleep-away camp; teasing

00:26:39 - Learning English

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Partial Transcript: BRODY: How was your English learning process? Was it—what do you remember about that?

NGUYEN: I think it was—I mean, when you were young, I think the younger you are, the easier it is, right? If you start—if you come here later in life, the language, the learning, the speaking of it, the pronunciation of it is harder because you have your way of pronouncing. Let’s say, if Vietnamese was your primary language, chances are you’re going to have an accent when you learn to speak English, but if you’re younger, then you become more fluent easier, so I didn’t have a hard time. I probably did at the very beginning. I’m sure I did, but it was—because I was too young to remember. I mean, I remember it wasn’t so hard that it created something that’s not—bad memories or anything like that.

Keywords: English; English language; language learning; learning English

00:27:50 - Nguyen's mother's experiences adapting and working in the United States

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Partial Transcript: How about your mom? How was her language—her process?

NGUYEN: My mom—for her, I think she missed out a lot because, even though she left when she was twenty-nine, and so that’s still young, right? Because when she got here, that’s probably around the same age when I finished college and got situated, got married, and had my firstborn, so I could imagine it was more difficult for my mom because she didn’t have an opportunity for education. As soon as we got here, it was just more of, okay, what can she do to provide for her family? So it was just—she went straight to the job market and trying to make a living for the family. I think she—so she worked as a cook for a country club, actually, in Richardson—the Richardson Canyon Creek Country Club—for, probably, about—at least ten years—ten, fifteen years. And then to make ends meet, she also—because her background, she knows how to sew, she’s a seamstress—she would sew as her other job. So she—until I was going to college, she probably had two jobs for at least ten, fifteen years.

BRODY: Oh. As a single mom as well, that must’ve been a challenge.

NGUYEN: (both speaking at once) Well, by then, she got remarried, so I have a stepdad. But still, she is probably one of the hardest, hardest working mom I know.

Keywords: cooking; education; employment; food; jobs; seamstress; sewing

00:29:51 - Living in Buckner Children's Home

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Partial Transcript: Did you stay—it sounds like you moved from Plano to Richardson. Did you—what was the housing situation? Did you move into a different apartment?

NGUYEN: (both speaking at once) Okay. Yes. After my parents got divorced and we left Houston to move back to Plano and she reconnected with my great aunt, right? Being a single mom with three girls—by then I was in the seventh grade, and then my sister would be in the sixth grade, and then my youngest would’ve been, like, first grade or something—she didn’t have, I guess, enough or couldn’t provide enough for us, being a single mom. So there, my great-aunt said that there was an organization where they would help with the kids, but you would have to have the kids go stay in a children’s home—like a dorm or something. And so three of us—my two sisters and myself—we went and lived in Buckner Children’s Home. That’s off of—that’s on Buckner [Boulevard]. I remember it was extremely, extremely hard on my mom because she felt like, okay, she couldn’t take care of us, but my aunt convinced her that, “Okay, this is not long term. It could be just three months, it could be six months, just so you can get on your foot. And then once you have an apartment, get a job, or something, then you’ll get them back. But it’s hard for you to go to work, and then, the kids being so young, who’s going to watch them? Who’s going to take them to school, et cetera?” So she convinced my mom that this is probably the best opportunity for us kids. I think my mom agreed to it, and so my sisters and I went there, and my other two sisters stayed for a week. They couldn’t handle it. They were like, No. They didn’t want it. I think especially for my youngest sister, it was just hard because they grouped you by age so we couldn’t stay together. So the thought—my mom was like, the thought of my youngest sister—she’s five years younger than me, so I was in the seventh grade, she would be in, like, first or second grade, right? At that age, she’s like, “I can’t imagine her being by herself.” Even though we’d get to see her every day, we still can’t sleep with her and all that. So then my two sisters wanted to go home. Being the older one, I was like, “I think I could handle this and help my mom out,” and so I stayed and I lived in Buckner until, probably, about—almost three years; sixth, seventh, eighth grade. I think I left in eighth grade.

BRODY: Did they—what was the name of the organization that—do you remember?

NGUYEN: Yeah. It was called Buckner Children’s Home.
BRODY: (both speaking at once) Oh, that was—okay, so that was just who was running it. And then did they take to you school every day?

NGUYEN: Yeah. So basically it is a—it’s almost like a little campus with, like, fifteen different dorms. There’s a girls’ dorm. There’s a boys’ dorm. There’s a big cafeteria. It’s almost like the little world. They have a church. And then in the morning, they’ll have a bus that would take us to the public school, and then they’ll bring us back home. They have a rec center, et cetera, so—

BRODY: Do they take you to the school that you’re zoned for in your neighborhood where your mom was living?

NGUYEN: Yeah. My mom was living—no. She could come and see me on the weekend, but my mom was going back to live with my aunt to help make a living. But then on the weekend, my mom would come visit me.

BRODY: Okay. So your sisters went home, and then your mom could see them daily, but you were sticking it out in the children’s home.

NGUYEN: (both speaking at once) Right. Yeah. Yeah. I think I just—I liked the structure of—because for whatever reason—I don’t know if it’s because when I left, I know the importance of education more than my younger sisters, so I appreciated it a lot more and I liked the structure of, “Okay, okay. This is what you do. From certain time, you go to school.” I actually was the one that volunteered, told my mom that I think I can give it a try and see how I’ll do. Yeah, so I stayed there about three years.

BRODY: Did you develop a lot of friendships there?

NGUYEN: Um-hm. Yeah. You basically live there in a dorm. It’s a two-story dorm, and you have what’s called a “house parent.” They’re kind of like your parents that would take care of you twenty-four seven. They’ll—on a daily basis, you get to make your phone calls to your family and all that. They—I lived with them and they became kind of like my parents. They’re my American parents. In fact, after I left, and even when I went to—years later—five, ten years later, going to high school and college, I would always go back to see them until they passed. They both passed.

BRODY: Was it a religiously run group?

NGUYEN: Um-hm. Yeah. It was run by a church. It was a Baptist church, and you would go to church every Wednesday and Sunday.

BRODY: Were the other kids from all different backgrounds?

NGUYEN: Um-hm. Yeah. There were, like, three other Vietnamese. It was just basically the same situation. It was more of, your parents are in trouble, or they don’t—they can’t afford, or let’s say, their parents—I don’t know—do drugs or something. It’s just a better place for the child. I guess it’s a better option than foster because you’re not living with a family. You’re living with other people a similar age, similar situation, and you’re being housed by a couple—a grandparent that actually live on that campus.

Keywords: Baptist; Baptist Church; Buckner Children's Home; education; housing; orphanage; refugees; school

00:37:35 - Vietnamese identity and American identity

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Partial Transcript: BRODY: Yeah. That’s interesting. I’m thinking about your—how you think of yourself, then. You had a variety of different experiences, both because of the age that you were when you came, being so young, and then living in different parts of the country and different parts of Texas as well. When you think about your own identity, how do you see yourself? Do you think of yourself as Vietnamese or Vietnamese American? American?

NGUYEN: I think—I feel like I’m very fortunate to have the lives of two worlds, because that’s one thing I feel really bad for my kids, because they only know this world here. I mean, yes, we took them back to Vietnam, but they don’t have the same appreciation, the same feeling or thoughts about Vietnam culture unless you really live it. So I feel like—I mean, even food and stuff, the authentic food and stuff—they don’t eat it or they don’t enjoy it like I do, so I feel like it’s more of a loss for them. I feel very
privileged and fortunate to be a Vietnamese, but still have the opportunity that I have living in America.

BRODY: It is—yeah, that’s true, that you’ve got two different cultures that you’re able to enjoy.

NGUYEN: Yeah. But my kids, even though I try to explain it to them, I don’t think they—they will never grasp it. They’re like, Oh, no, I’m good. You know? (Brody laughs) Yeah. We don’t have the freedom, the luxury that they have now with video games and all that. But if I were to think back of what I had, just playing with chopsticks and balls, but just—I feel like my life is like a chapter—a book, right? I feel like it’s a lot more interesting, because I have all of these—than somebody like my kids, who just have just their version of it. Yeah. I know it sounds hard and probably bad, but to them, they’re okay. They’re like, Oh, no, I’m great.

Keywords: American identity; Vietnamese identity; culture; food; identity

00:40:13 - Generational differences in identity

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Partial Transcript: BRODY: Would you say you would think of your kids as American? And what does that mean?

NGUYEN: I think they’re more Americanized than the traditional Vietnamese. Like, they’re a different generation than, let’s say, me and my husband. So even though we encourage them—in fact, when they were younger, it’s much easier when they were younger than now—to speak Vietnamese in the home because I want them, number one, to know their roots; two, whenever you have more than one language, it’s so much better for you. So we basically either take them to a temple so they can continue to learn the
Vietnamese language or force them to speak when they’re in the home—the Vietnamese. We’re like, Okay, when you’re at school, feel free, but once you get home, I don’t want you to talk English to grandma, grandpa, or me or dad. That was easier before they go to school. Then once they start being more fluent in school and with friends, we still have to remind them. I think now, my kids, even though they don’t speak it—or they—my oldest one does. He’s really good. He can actually read and write, but my youngest one, Maddison—she doesn’t speak it very well, but she understand everything. (both laugh)

BRODY: Should be careful what you say. (laughs)

NGUYEN: Right. Right. Yeah. She understands when I speak to her. In our family, we probably do both. In our family, we probably do both. We’ll combine English and Vietnamese all in one sentence. (laughs)

Keywords: Amerianized; American identity; Vietnamese identity; Vietnamese language; culture; language; language learning

00:42:06 - Meeting and marrying her high school sweetheart/Going to college at UNT and Texas A & M

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Partial Transcript: BRODY: You mentioned going back to Vietnam and taking the kids. What was that like, and what—

NGUYEN: Oh, okay. My first trip to Vietnam was before the kids. Actually, my husband went first. So, I mentioned I met my husband in ’89, so we’re high school sweethearts. weeks after graduation was our wedding day. We planned our wedding—because the other thing about our culture that I’m really proud of—and even though I don’t have that same expectation as the current generation—my parents were extremely strict, and especially since my mom has three girls. Later on, my mom remarried, and so I have a stepdad who is still living near us here—but they were really strict, and they don’t believe in dating. There was no such thing as, Okay, you’re going to a movie, or a boyfriend kind of deal, so the only time my husband, now, got to see me, even when he was a senior and I was a junior, was him coming over to have dinner at our house. BRODY: With the family.

NGUYEN: With the family, yes. So it was huge for me to go off to college. My mom always knew that I was very focused on education, so she was not going to be the person that’s stand in my way, so choosing the location of the school or all that was all me than my parents. And so my parents, being very strict—so they didn’t—they don’t believe in sex before marriage. (laughs) So even after we graduate high school, I remember my stepdad, now, have the “birds and the bees” talk with my husband, now, who was my boyfriend back then, and made him a promise that he—to keep me pure until we get married. And so we—two weeks after—so we planned our wedding that last semester, and I think probably the biggest accomplishment he and I ever done was basically— because his situation is similar to mine, but his is a little bit more difficult because he doesn’t have parents here. His parents were in Vietnam, so he kind of raised himself. He came here with his sister and his brothers, so he kind of raised himself—buying his own

He’s a year ahead of me. He graduated in ’90, I graduated in ’91. And then he—even though we were young, I guess we’re a lot more mature than our kids at my age back then, so we knew that—or he knew that he wanted to marry me and that we would have our life together, so he waited a year until I graduated. He went to UNT [University of North Texas] for me to graduate, and then we both went to Texas A&M afterwards. And then, we graduated from A&M in ’95 at the same time, and I remember literally two weeks after graduation was our wedding day. We planned our wedding—because the other thing about our culture that I’m really proud of—and even though I don’t have that same expectation as the current generation—my parents were extremely strict, and especially since my mom has three girls. Later on, my mom remarried, and so I have a stepdad who is still living near us here—but they were really strict, and they don’t believe in dating. There was no such thing as, Okay, you’re going to a movie, or a boyfriend kind of deal, so the only time my husband, now, got to see me, even when he was a senior and I was a junior, was him coming over to have dinner at our house. BRODY: With the family.

NGUYEN: With the family, yes. So it was huge for me to go off to college. My mom always knew that I was very focused on education, so she was not going to be the person that’s stand in my way, so choosing the location of the school or all that was all me than my parents. And so my parents, being very strict—so they didn’t—they don’t believe in sex before marriage. (laughs) So even after we graduate high school, I remember my stepdad, now, have the “birds and the bees” talk with my husband, now, who was my boyfriend back then, and made him a promise that he—to keep me pure until we get married. And so we—two weeks after—so we planned our wedding that last semester, and I think probably the biggest accomplishment he and I ever done was basically— because his situation is similar to mine, but his is a little bit more difficult because he doesn’t have parents here. His parents were in Vietnam, so he kind of raised himself. He came here with his sister and his brothers, so he kind of raised himself—buying his own
car, going to his own sport events at school and all that, or paying for his own insurance. Even when we were in high school, he was working at 7-Eleven on the weekend just for cash so he can pay for insurance for his car, gas, and all that. And even at that age, for Richardson High School, he was paying for my lunch every day, so he was already kind of taking care of me. So we went to college together and, sure enough, he kept his promise. (laughs) So we—I live in my own apartment with my roommates, he has his roommates, and we got married two weeks after graduation, and, yes, in the traditional Vietnamese ceremony.

Keywords: Vietnamese culture; college; culture; dating; high school; marriage; parenting; wedding

00:46:47 - Traditional Vietnamese wedding ceremony

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Partial Transcript: BRODY: What was that ceremony like?

NGUYEN: The traditional Vietnamese is very—it’s a long thing. It’s not just, you go to church for the ceremony, that’s it. It’s like—well, first, there’s an engagement ceremony. For our culture, you only—not only are you marrying each other, you’re marrying the family, so the family is very involved. So even with the engagement, you have a ceremony where the groom’s side comes over to the bride’s side to request for a hand in marriage, and they bring gifts and all that. And then a year later, we got married. It’s same thing there. They basically—everybody from the groom’s side drive over, present gifts. We have our own ceremony, either at home or at the temple, pay your respect to your ancestors, and then you exchange your vows there, et cetera. And then, at night’s when they have the reception for all the guest.

BRODY: The party, right?

NGUYEN: Yes. Uh-huh.

BRODY: Did you have a big party?

NGUYEN: Yeah! (laughs) When—because we got married to weeks after graduation, we didn’t have our jobs yet, so I would say that probably the biggest accomplishment both of us did was we paid for our college ourself, because our parents weren’t well off. We paid for the wedding ourself—well, with the help of some student loans, towards the end. (laughs) In fact, that last semester, Chad borrowed a student loan to buy the ring! (laughs) Yeah. And I was also very fortunate. Even when I was in high school, I was applying scholarships everywhere, so I paid for myself through college by way of scholarships.
But I think that’s probably our biggest accomplishment is, like, we got—we kind of set everything up for ourselves for what we have.

Keywords: Vietnamese customs; ceremony; college; engagement; families; family; gifts; ritual; traditions; wedding

00:48:58 - Career in accounting

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Partial Transcript: BRODY: That sounds like you worked really hard to do things on your terms and do things the way you wanted to. That’s impressive. Your story is really interesting because you’ve gone through so many different things and seen so many different types of people. Along the way, did you ever have any experience with what you perceived to be discrimination or racism? Was that something that you encountered?

NGUYEN: Fortunately, I haven’t encountered anything major, but maybe some in the work place, but being—

BRODY: Where do you work? What type of work do you do?

NGUYEN: I have a degree in accounting from A&M, and my husband has an electrical engineering. My first job after I left A&M, we moved to Houston. He had a job at Compaq Computer, which is now HP [Hewlett Packard], and because of my always ambitious—I always wanted to work for the best of the best, and so my first job out of college—and this is way before all this happened, but I don’t know if you know, but—so my first job was with Enron, (laughs) which was before all this happened. In fact, when I worked for them for three years and until I had my baby in ’99, and that’s when we literally dropped everything and we moved back home to Dallas. And then, 2001 or whenever, that’s when the Enron collapsed and all that. In fact, I let—it was just like the Titanic sank. No one knew. I mean, I even left the majority of my 401k in the Enron fund and probably lost all of it.


NGUYEN: So no, it was horrible, but I was fortunate in that there were people I knew that were close to retiring that lost, like, half a million dollars—everything.

BRODY: Oh, my goodness. Oh, my goodness.

NGUYEN: Yeah. It was just—yeah. It was just so crazy when I heard all that happen, when I was here in Dallas.

Keywords: Enron; Houston; accounting; career; discrimination; racism

00:51:26 - Returning to Dallas after having first baby

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Partial Transcript: BRODY: Wow. So you came back to Dallas after having the baby and—


BRODY: What was driving that decision?

NGUYEN: Okay, so I guess being—having your firstborn, it’s probably the most important thing in life. He’s like our little prince, (Brody laughs) because all of our families—even though we graduated and moved to Houston, all of my family and Chad’s family—which is his sisters and brothers—are here in Dallas. We wanted family member to take care of Sean, and we couldn’t imagine a stranger taking care of him. So as soon as he got a job transfer, we literally picked up our clothes. We left the house. We didn’t even have it sold. We took our clothes and we moved back home, here, to Dallas, just so we can have somebody take care of Sean when I found a job. In fact, I didn’t even have a job yet, but I knew that I could find a job and sure enough, I found it in a month or so, when I got here.

Keywords: Dallas; Houston; childcare; culture; employment; family; jobs

00:52:42 - Engagement with Vietnamese community

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Partial Transcript: Have you tried to stay in contact with or engaged with the larger Vietnamese community outside your family?

NGUYEN: Here, it’s mostly more family. There are some organizations, but we’re not as active just because there’s just so—we’re so busy with our own families. Yes. I mean, yeah, after that, then I had my other two kids. It was just—I think we become more of your typical—not just Vietnamese, but just a family, a married family with kids that has sports and just kids activities and stuff. So it wasn’t like, “Okay, because I’m Vietnamese, I’m going to go to this organization, et cetera.” It was just—we’re raised and we live as if we’re a typical family.

BRODY: Yeah. Do you—when you think about—though you’re not particularly involved with the Vietnamese community in general, because you’re doing family things and you’re a busy family, when you think about the Vietnamese community in North Texas, what are some words that come to mind?

NGUYEN: I think there’s a lot more, I guess—a lot more Vietnamese networking or association in Houston than in Dallas. I think the way Dallas is structured is so spread out, whereas Houston, it’s more in the southwest Bellaire area, so there’s a lot more activities or organization in the Houston for the Vietnamese community than here in Dallas.

BRODY: Do you think that the Vietnamese community in Dallas, maybe, is more spread out and sort of in their own communities—

NGUYEN: (both speaking at once) Right. Unless it’s, like, temple or religion related, I don’t think they have a—yeah, it’s not very close-knit here.

Keywords: Dallas; Houston; Vietnamese community; networking; parenting; religion; temple

00:55:01 - Engagement with politics

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Partial Transcript: BRODY: Right. So a different sort of integration it sounds like. And that makes me think about your—are you engaged with politics, either—some people have said that they keep a close eye on politics in Vietnam and also in the United States. Is that something that you see as something that you’re interested in?

NGUYEN: (both speaking at once) I think my parents are more into it, because I left when I was such a young age so I would just hear it, but I’m not more of, okay, following it as much as my parents are.

BRODY: Right. And what about American politics?

NGUYEN: Same thing there. I mean, I just go based on the platforms. I mean, I don’t— I’m not like, Okay, I’m pro-Republican, and I’m pro-Democrat. So it’s just what we feel is the best choice for the generation.

Keywords: politics

00:55:55 - What does it mean to be American?/What does it mean to be Vietnamese?

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Partial Transcript: BRODY: Right. And here’s—as we kind of get to the end of our conversation here, I want to ask you a couple of questions. What do you think it means to be American, whether you’re thinking about yourself or your kids or just in general?

NGUYEN: Okay. To be an American, to me, means opportunities and freedom, a lot. I feel like you get—you have so many options here. You get to pick what you want to study. You get to pick what you want to do. But at the same time, it’s also because of too much freedom, I feel like things—you take a lot of things for granted, so it’s pros and cons. While it’s a great country for opportunities and to have a better life and all that, sometimes I feel like that same freedom or that luxury prevents you from appreciation for what you do have.

BRODY: Yeah. I understand what you mean. And what does it mean to you to be Vietnamese?

NGUYEN: Vietnamese, to me, is being respectful to my roots, the heritage, being open to

choice to be all American or Japanese or any—I don’t think I would ever change that. I think things are meant for a reason, and I’m fortunate to have that combo where I appreciate and have the respect of the culture but, at the same time, the opportunities, the options, the freedom of the future.

BRODY: That’s really nice. Thank you for sharing that. Is there anything else that I didn’t ask you that you’d like to share in this interview, or think that I should know about the subject?

NGUYEN: I don’t think so. I think we talked about pretty much everything from my childhood, to school, to where I’m at today with my kids and all that. I think it’s just—at the end of the day, it’s just living—regardless of what nationality you are—just living righteously and hoping that you embed that in your children.

BRODY: Well, thank you so much for sharing your story. It was a beautiful story and I really am honored to have a chance to record this for this collection, so thank you so much.

NGUYEN: (both speaking at once) You’re welcome. Sure. If there’s any other questions that we probably didn’t cover or something, feel free to call me and—

BRODY: I will. Thank you.

NGUYEN: Uh-huh.

Keywords: American identity; Vietnamese identity; culture; freedom; heritage; opportunities; opportunity