Partial Transcript: All right, thank you so much for having me here to your home and for agreeing to this interview. To start out, could you tell me a little bit about your life in Vietnam?
NGUYEN: Okay. Life in Vietnam. I pretty much left Vietnam when I was a child, roughly around nine years old. As I best remember is that I came from a family pretty well-off. My mom and dad started out with nothing, and they—my dad was a fisherman, and they, over the year, very successful. During ’75, he’s considered one of the well-off people around the town in Danang.
BRODY: In Danang.
NGUYEN: Danang, Vietnam, which is middle part of the country. So my childhood— nothing really struggle or anything like that, but when the communists came in and conquer—I guess, took the whole country, and my dad started to kind of have a—if he said whether we leave or not—leave Vietnam or not. So during that ’75 time period, I was roughly, what, around five, six years old. He contemplated he’s not going, and as the communist progressed, when they took over the country, they took everything from him—his life, all wealth. So during that four-, five-year period, he changed his mind and he started to try to escape from Vietnam. And as I remember, I was just so little—we wouldn’t struggle or anything like that—like, food on the table or anything like that because he’s well off, so when he senses that all his wealth and all that stuff taken away from him, he’s starting to have a plan to escape from Vietnam during the ’80. During that five period, it make him realize that we got to go because this is no future. You lose your freedom or whatnot, and so that’s what he went through.
BRODY: Did you have any siblings? NGUYEN: We have ten total.
NGUYEN: Ten total sibling. I am the eighth kid, and I have two little sister at the time. Life, during that time before we left from Vietnam, it wasn’t bad for us. Some families were worse just because they’re struggling because they’re not well-off, but we came from family wealth.
Keywords: Danang; Vietnam; Vietnam War; communism; escape; family
Partial Transcript: BRODY: After your dad made the decision, what happened then?
NGUYEN: He make the decision to leave, and so he’s a fisherman, so he had boats. He have ship that go out and do the fishing business, so he start with that. He organize dates and time. He paid the police to kind of look away so that he can go. So the original plan was that—during the ’80, that after the new year—it was a new year, 1980, exactly—that after the new year, he’s going to start leave. So his plan was, after the new year, he pretend like he’s going to go out and fish. During that time, what’s important for him was that—because during the eighties, the Vietnamese head-butts with the Chinese during that time, and he didn’t want us, especially the boys, to be back in the country and fight for the communist Vietnam. So his plan was, when we leave, the boys have to be on the boat right away, so he snuck us out there first. We were pretending that we’re fishing and all that, and coming back a day or two—where he paid the police at the beach to look away sort of deal—and pick up the whole family; my grandfather, grandparents, my mom, and six of the sister. So the original plan was to snuck the four boy first on the boat, go out, and pretend like we’re fishing, and then come back a day or two to the beach and pick everybody up. Anyway, there’s two boat. When they come in, the other boat owner said, “Look. Your kids on this boat, then your side have to come in and pick up, because something goes wrong, then, you know. That’s the deal.” So my father said, “Okay. I don’t care. All I’m worried about is my kid. He stay on this boat. I’m on the other boat. We’re going to go in the beach and pick up all the people—my parents and whoever.” Well, when we took off and he went into the beach, they already signal a smaller boat coming this way to tell them that, “Don’t come in. They’re going to capture
you,” even though they paid money to let him go. He didn’t see the signal and he took off, and the small boat came to our boat and said, “You better go because they’re going to catch you,” so we abandoned my dad and we went to Hong Kong, because we went from the middle of the country and that’s the best route to go. During that time, we already know—with the news, we already know my dad going to be captured, and that’s how we started out. On the boat that we’re on with the four brothers, we left for Hong Kong. And I think we are very fortunate, because if you’re interview a lot of boat people—the story is not a very good outcome, and some of them very lucky to be alive and very lucky to come—the outcome, because people that go south instead of going north to Hong Kong, they encounter all sorts of thing. And there’s a good amount of boat people that lost their life at sea that lost their life to a pirate, because I think, mainly, the pirates mainly from Thailand.
BRODY: So you didn’t encounter anything like that.
NGUYEN: (both speaking at once) No. That route, we already know. My dad know, during that period, that the Chinese won’t do anything to you. They just left you alone. But, there’s no—nothing. We just have enough food, water, and go to Hong Kong.
Keywords: China; Hong Kong; Vietnam War; boat; bribery; communism; escape; family; fishing; fishing boats; leaving Vietnam; pirates
Partial Transcript: BRODY: Right. So your dad—
NGUYEN: My dad stuck with the other boat.
BRODY: Yeah, but was he okay, or no—?
NGUYEN: (both speaking at once) No. He got captured. BRODY: Okay.
NGUYEN: Um-hm. So, that’s how the story started when we left, just as(??) boat people.
But like I said, we were just fortunate enough that where we at, our location, which is a mid-part of the country, and that’s the route we go, and it’s—
BRODY: (both speaking at once) Just go straight there. So there was no incident.
NGUYEN: No incident at all. We almost—I think—because back at the time, technology’s not good, and these people—they rely on just a compass, and you heard the story—I’m not sure—but some of them don’t know how to use—and then they lost lives at sea too. But they use a compass and they just head in that direction on the compass and go, but we were okay because we’re—our boat was big. We had plenty of water and supply, and I believe one night before we got there, there’s another Chinese boat that we encounter that point us to the right direction. Then we arrived in Hong Kong port, like, in ’80. But yeah, we were fortunate enough that nothing happened to our boat.
BRODY: (both speaking at once) So you said that the boat was big and you had enough supplies. Was that—who had organized—
NGUYEN: My dad. BRODY: Your dad did.
NGUYEN: Yeah. My dad did. I mean, the boat that he have considered to be the biggest fishing boat in the business back then. You hear the story about small boat, and there’s tons of people in the water up to here where you sit, and those are perilous people that die at sea. Our boat was huge. No problem.
BRODY: No problem.
NGUYEN: But that’s because he had the plan.
BRODY: Right. So you were with your brothers—three brothers? NGUYEN: Three, so four of us.
Keywords: Hong Kong; Wonder Bread; boat; food; refugee camp; refugees; supplies
Partial Transcript: BRODY: So you were in that floating boat in the harbor for just two—and then, they moved you to a camp in Hong Kong.
NGUYEN: In Hong Kong. Um-hm. BRODY: How long were you there?
NGUYEN: Total, like, nine months—eight and a half months. We left new year, so somewhere around January, February—new year for Chinese New Year—and we got there, and then we left Hong Kong in October. Roughly about nine months in. And—
BRODY: Nineteen eighty, still.
NGUYEN: Right. When we got there, it’s 1980, October, in that exact month. BRODY: Was that camp run by the United Nations?
NGUYEN: No. That camp—actually, I believe, maybe it was a—I’m not sure, but you know Hong Kong is governed by the UK, right? So to be honest, I’m not sure about that, but we interviewed with the people, and they spoke with the British accent—
BRODY: (both speaking at once) Yes, the British accent.
NGUYEN: —but I’m not sure where they—it’s probably, maybe, some sort of—I don’t know, but some organization that—for refugees. I remember that. It was a British accent.
Keywords: Hong Kong; United Kingdom; United Nations; refugee camp; refugees
Partial Transcript: BRODY: Yeah. (laughs) So the—while you were in the camp, did you need to locate a sponsor? How did you end up in Texas?
NGUYEN: Okay. So to kind of backtrack, during ’75, when the communist took the country, my uncle, during that time—’75—and he told my brother—my father, which is his brother—he said, “Look. This is not going to be good,”—because he’s the one in the army for the South Vietnamese, the democratic part. And he said, “Look. They taking the country. You got to go now, and you have a boat.” And during ’75, it’s easy. Your family snuck out, and you’re gone. You’d be free. But my dad just lingering, and he said, “No. I don’t want to do that. So what if the communist come? There a bunch of Vietnamese people here. If they can survive, I can survive too, you know? And this is my home land.” So he said, “No. I don’t want to go.” So my uncle and his family just took off in ’75 and made it here during, like, seventy-something, and so they’re here.
Keywords: Florida; Texas; United States; Vietnam; Vietnam War; communism; immigration; sponors; sponsor
BRODY: In Texas?
NGUYEN: In—it was Florida, but he moved to Texas, and that’s the uncle and aunt that sponsor us from Hong Kong. So we didn’t have to go through any kind of church organization. Some—a lot of people do, but we don’t. We have our own relative, so that’s good.
BRODY: So did you first go to Florida then?
NGUYEN: No. He actually moved from Florida to Texas during the ’80, and he’s a well- off man too. He got his own restaurant, so he sponsored us. It’s pretty—I mean, it’s easier if you have some sort of foot in, good establishment, so we didn’t have any problem getting a sponsor, whereas some people do if they don’t have any support. So that’s—
BRODY: So all four of you were sponsored by your aunt and uncle.
NGUYEN: (both speaking at once) Yes. All four. We came—four of us. Just wait for the paperwork, and we on the plane a few months—nine months later to arrive in Houston, Texas.
Keywords: Florida; Hong Kong; Texas; family; restaurant; sponsor; sponsors
Partial Transcript: BRODY: In Houston. So tell me about your first days in Houston.
NGUYEN: First day in Houston? It’s kind of a shock because during that period of time, we never—we were kids. We’re not exposed to anything, especially cars. When we first arrived—well, the first thing is the plane for us as a kid. It was like, Wow, I’m on a plane! But when we land in—on the way from the airport home, we’re like, Amazing.
This is—cars everywhere, because we’d never seen so many cars, (laughs) and we’re all like, Where’s all the people? No people walking. No bike. It just a total wow experience. Everybody talked about, Oh, man, everybody in the US own a car. We were like, Oh, you got to be six—really rich to own a car! And we just witnessed that, so it was, like, Wow—jaw-dropping.
BRODY: You were blown away.
NGUYEN: (both speaking at once) I was a ten-years-old kid, and that’s how we started our life in Houston.
Keywords: Houston; Texas; airplane; cars
Partial Transcript: BRODY: What was your housing situation like?
NGUYEN: My uncle arrange it. He has a—we live in apartment for a few months, but he had a house and then he brought us in, also, with my other—with the other side. He had two family, the husband side and the wife side, that he sponsor.
BRODY: Wow. So he sponsored the whole family.
NGUYEN: Um-hm. We would thank him for that, but yeah. He sponsored us. We really don’t—I think back, we fortunate enough that, because my uncle, we don’t have any struggle that a lot of people have, like, as far as job and housing, and they pretty much took care of us, like find us jobs and things like that.
Keywords: apartment; family; housing; sponsors
Partial Transcript: Tell me about your jobs. Well, you were very young, so you were in school.
NGUYEN: (both speaking at once) No. I already—I was in school. Right. The funny thing about school with me is that at the time, my brother lower my age.
BRODY: Why did he do that?
NGUYEN: Because the mentality is that if you’re young, you want to go to school to learn English. You don’t want to be old and stuff, so he lower two and a half years old,
and then (laughs) the older kids and the older middle-age, they would bump up the age so they would retire early! (Brody laughs) That’s how they know how the system works here, is that you can retire early if you—whatever.
BRODY: (both speaking at once) Reach the age.
NGUYEN: Right. So that’s how most of the—some of them were—they tell the real age, but most of us, we either lowered the age or add a few more years older. Like, my wife did the same thing. She’s younger—two years younger than she’s supposed to.
BRODY: (both speaking at once) That’s really funny. It’s flexible. (laughs)
NGUYEN: Yeah. And now, I have the certificate that I can’t change it back! (Brody laughs) What they heard is that you can change them. (laughs)
BRODY: You can’t change, so it’s going to affect your retirement. (laughs) NGUYEN: Yes. Yes.
BRODY: So in school, what grade—they bumped you down, so what grade did you start in?
NGUYEN: So, I started sixth grade—well, yeah, sixth grade. I was kind of like—jump a few grades when I was in Vietnam, so I was sixth grade and I was ten years old—ten and a half years old. So, when they—when my brother lowered my age, he put me in fourth grade to start, so I’m two grade down to start with! So I started fourth grade in the
elementary school in Alief, Texas, down in Houston. School was fun, and got its up and down during that period. Kids would make fun of me.
Keywords: age; bullying; education; elementary school; retirement; school
Partial Transcript: BRODY: Did people make fun of you?
NGUYEN: Oh, yeah. Yeah. I mean, racist, prejudice—it’s worse back then. BRODY: Yeah. Tell me more about that, about your experiences with that.
NGUYEN: In school, a lot of kids—especially white kids—they mock your language and they do eye thing, and it’s just—
BRODY: How did you handle that?
NGUYEN: (laughs) Okay, I’m going to tell the truth. Okay, so I was in school, and I think it’s my second year, fifth grade, and this kid always making fun. A lot of kid making fun of me, but this kid named Todd, I remember him until today; tall—taller than I am—freckle-faced kid, white kid, and he keep bothering me. One day at the library, he keep—somehow, he keep bothering—I couldn’t handle it. I couldn’t—you know. I kick him in the crotch real hard! (both laugh) And at that point, the ESL teacher—I didn’t know much of the language—didn’t know much English yet, and the teacher—ESL teacher—call me and they said, “Oh, no! Don’t do this!” And then at that point on forward, all the kid heard and they didn’t bother me anymore! (laughs) But yeah. You know kids; they make fun of you because you’re different. I mean, worse then than now.
Keywords: English; bullying; discrimination; education; racial slurs; racism; school
Partial Transcript: BRODY: So I know a lot of people from Vietnam ended up in Houston, but in your particular school, were there other Vietnamese children?
NGUYEN: Yes. There’s another kid that been there, Wan, and he’s the one who translate stuff to English.
BRODY: For you.
NGUYEN: Yeah. Met one of those kid from Houston from the school. There’s few kids Vietnamese. I think that Alief was mainly—not a whole lot back then of Vietnamese community, but now it’s huge. (??), but there’s few Vietnamese kid.
BRODY: At that time. NGUYEN: At that time.
Keywords: Alief; English language; Houston; Vietnmese students; education; schools
Partial Transcript: BRODY: So were your brothers in the same school as you?
NGUYEN: My brother—about my brother, I’m the youngest, so I was ten. The one next to me, he was, I think, fifteen or fourteen—fifteen, something like that, and the one before him is two years older. And then my oldest brother, he’s, like, twenty- something—twenty-one.
BRODY: Did he go to work?
NGUYEN: Yes. So for him, he went to work. I was in elementary, and my other two brothers in high school. My oldest brother was—he was college educated in Vietnam, and so he started to doing drafting. His language wasn’t good, so he didn’t wanted to go back to college because he’s a little bit older—twenty-something, twenty-four, something like that—and so he went for drafting school, and it turns out he liked it. Then he becomes a builder, like a carpenter fixing houses and drawing the place, and that’s what he’s doing now.
BRODY: He still does that.
NGUYEN: (both speaking at once) He’s build house. Uh-huh. And my other two brother—they went to school, finish high school, but didn’t go to college. We just had to work and support ourself, because you can’t depending on your relative for—they just get you on your toes to get going. They have to work and support.
BRODY: What kind of work did they do?
NGUYEN: My other brothers—well, before they went to work, we moved to Dallas first. So when my brother didn’t have a job—the oldest one didn’t have a job—he followed this other guy, kind of like his apprentice—building houses, fixing house, remodeling home, thing like that—and he followed him up here from Houston, and I think we stayed in Houston about four, five—three years. And then we started moving up here with him because he got a job up here. And so all four brother move to Richardson, Texas, and my brother go to Richardson High School. And so the oldest one only worked, and then my
other one just working part-time, like at 7-Eleven convenience store, and make some money for sure(??).
Keywords: Dallas; English language; Houston; Richardson; building; carpenter; drafting; education; employment; high school; jobs; social class
Partial Transcript: BRODY: Right. So all of you four brothers living together in Dallas. What part of Dallas—were you in Richardson?
BRODY: And then you went to the high school, so you were in middle school at that point?
BRODY: Where did you go to middle school?
NGUYEN: I went to West—did they call it middle school? BRODY: Junior high.
NGUYEN: Junior high. Yes. West Junior High.
BRODY: (both speaking at once) West Junior High, and then Richardson High School. So what was it like for you? It sounds like you were the brother who had the most time in American schools. By the time you got to high school, how did you feel about being in an American school?
NGUYEN: I think after we left Dallas—I mean, Houston—I don’t have any culture thing that making fun of you anymore, so when I came here in Richardson, I joined sport and I loved sport.
BRODY: What sports?
NGUYEN: Football. And when you’re in sport, I think it helped for me, at least, that you don’t get kids to make fun of you. You fit into some—a group, right? And so I was in sport for—really, for small kid. Really, I’m bigger than they are because I’m two years older. So I joined the football team, but I’m small kid anyway, size-wise—just more mature—but I joined football and I enjoyed it and we had a blast. All the kid look up to me because I was pretty good. I was—at West, I was, like, three years—seven, eight, nine—yeah, three years most valuable player. We go to the banquet. It’s pretty cool.
BRODY: That’s very cool.
NGUYEN: And then I also do track and field. BRODY: What position did you play in football? NGUYEN: I play running back, and then linebacker.
BRODY: Really? And then in track and field, what were your events?
NGUYEN: (both speaking at once) Track and field, I’d sprint the hundred meter, the two- hundred [meter], and the quarter mile, and then both of the relays—the four-hundred meter and the mile relay.
BRODY: And did you do football in high school, at Richardson High School?
NGUYEN: Yes. And then—I’m getting to that. So all those three years is fine. So the year when I came back, sophomore, everybody was just poofed up back then, like, in the groups.
BRODY: Everybody grew.
NGUYEN: Yeah. And it’s—I was at JV football in Richardson High School, and my size just hundred and thirty pound. All the kids—(laughs) so I decided, “Man, this not going to work. I’m just a shrimp.” (both laugh) So I quit. I was just going to do track and field, and then one of the football coach—he also coach wrestling, and so he recruited me. “Hey, Chad,”—well, my name wasn’t Chad back then. That wasn’t a person—citizen yet, but—“You want to try out wrestling?” And I looked at him. I said, “Oh, man. This is sissy sport.” He said, “No. This is good for you. Go come and try out,” so I went and try out, and I liked it. Give me something to do. I always want to be a part of something, a team. I liked the structure, basically. That’s why—I think part of it is why I play sport, is the structure. So I joined wrestling and wrestled the rest three year from high school until graduated.
BRODY: You enjoyed it? NGUYEN: Yeah. I enjoyed it.
BRODY: Did you still do track and field?
NGUYEN: No, because at that point, like I said, I’m not growing. (laughs) It’s just that I think my advantage in junior high is that maybe I’m older, maybe, and I’m doing really better, but once I don’t have the size, and the older kid—when they catch up, it’s just hard for me.
Keywords: High School; Richardson; Richardson High School; Richardson West Junior High; assimilation; education; fitting in; football; friendship; junior high; schools; track and field; wrestling
Partial Transcript: BRODY: What about the academic side and the social side of going to school?
NGUYEN: (both speaking at once) Yeah. The academic side—when I was in school, I didn’t try real hard. I’m doing okay. I got an A average to graduate, but—because I think, for me, is that I don’t have parents to push me too. And look back, I think that I’m lucky the way I turned out because some other kid like me without parent turn bad. There’s no guiding and no directions too.
BRODY: What do you think made a difference for you? Why were you able to avoid that?
NGUYEN: (both speaking at once) Because in my mind, when we first arrived, I said I wanted to do something. I’m not going to be a bum. I’m going to be successful, and I think that’s the mindset. Although I’m not trying too hard for my—during my high school year, but I’m okay. And things not too hard for me to get school, in honored course and all that, and AP, and stuff like that. I’m in the courses, but I’m not trying to my full potential. That’s what I felt. Also, because I’m in sport, we stayed in. We practiced until six, seven sometime—five, six, seven—four hours after school, but the way it turned out, I’m glad. I met her through high school.
BRODY: Oh. You met your wife in high school, yes. NGUYEN: (both speaking at once) Yes. Um-hm.
BRODY: So tell me about how you met.
NGUYEN: Okay. So I was end of my junior year. (laughs) End of my junior year, and I bump into her—not “bump” literally, but in contact with her. Then so we make arrangement and we dated that summer. And then the next year, I went into senior year. We see each other, and then we make plans. Okay, we’re going to go to college, and Which college, and all that. So I think, for us—my wife and I—we’re more mature than any other kid like I see now, because we set goals and things like that. When I met her, I said, “Okay, that’s it. She’s my wife. She’s my love.” To be honest, I didn’t propose to her, right, but we already know—she kind of know that we’re going to get married, but not until we get out of college, and that’s what we did. So we—I graduate one year before her and I didn’t go anywhere. I attended UNT [University of North Texas], driving back and forth, and then when she graduated, we all both went to [Texas] A&M together.
BRODY: That must’ve been a lot of coordination for you to pull that off.
NGUYEN: Yeah. Lot of driving, I guess. I guess it’s, like, pretty good drive—forty- something mile each way, right?
NGUYEN: Every day for a year. I didn’t want to stay up there. Plus, (laughs) didn’t want spend the money. I don’t have the money too! Yeah.
Keywords: Texas A & M; University of North Texas; academics; college; dating; education; marriage; school
Partial Transcript: BRODY: That makes sense. That’s a really nice story though, that you met each other in high school. In high school and during the time once you got to Dallas, what are your memories of the larger Vietnamese community at that time?
NGUYEN: At that time, it’s not so much like right now. We remember the biggest Vietnamese community probably in Garland, because everything we do, we go to Garland for—
BRODY: You were very active there.
NGUYEN: (both speaking at once) Right. Not—we’re from Richardson, but I’m talking about as far as shops, restaurant, and grocery, it’s all there. We go, and that’s how our contact with our Vietnamese community would be—like, go to the grocery and we run into them and things like that, but that’s—
BRODY: All local.
NGUYEN: In Garland is the biggest Vietnamese community back then, because when I’m in Richardson, Richardson wasn’t that many, you know, like Plano back then— there’s nothing in Richardson back then anyway—only the central line—but it wasn’t that big of a community thing, even in Garland. Just smaller.
BRODY: Did you socialize or attend religious functions or cultural functions at that time?
NGUYEN: We didn’t go to—I mean, to be honest, during that time people worry—we worry about making money, get your life, go work, so we weren’t really concentrating on, Oh, okay. We’re going to be attending this community. So everybody had their own thing.
BRODY: Right. Surviving.
NGUYEN: Right. Surviving. So time to time, we were—especially during certain holiday—Buddhist holiday—then we go to temple, and then we see a lot of people in there. Those are the function we would go. But in general, there’s not really a community that you connect with and you go to back then.
BRODY: Day-to-day. NGUYEN: Right. Day-to-day. BRODY: Just more—
NGUYEN: No. I mean, of course you have some kid or people my brother worked with that are Vietnamese, but the work place is same thing with the school. You just see them here.
BRODY: You see people there, but not necessarily as part of your daily social life, right?
NGUYEN: (both speaking at once) Right. Correct. Because like you said, that we’re there to survive more first, that first few years. Right now, it’s just better. I think it’s better. They have community that you can go to, get together, things like that. But I think during that time, it’s all about surviving—make a living, support yourself.
Keywords: Buddhism; Dallas; Garland; Richardon; Vietnamese community; groceries; holidays; restaurants; traditions
Partial Transcript: BRODY: Right. So again, back to learning English. We haven’t really talked about that very much. Starting in Houston, and then on here in Richardson—how did that go?
NGUYEN: (both speaking at once) Well, I did learn a little bit because my father—he hired tutor and would teach us that broken English or whatever they can teach. I picked up few things and hear things, but still, fluently, you can’t. So that started, and I think I picked that after two years—one, two years—because you’re a kid. You pick up really fast.
BRODY: So you did ESL in Houston.
NGUYEN: (both speaking at once) ESL in Houston. And then, I think I didn’t do any more ESL after two years—fourth, fifth, and then, sixth, then I’m gone. I’m out of there. It was just two years of ESL.
BRODY: What were some of the hardest things about learning a new language?
NGUYEN: You know, I didn’t think it’s hard for me. I think part of it because I’m ten, eleven years old. I mean, if you come at a time where you’re in the teenage year, you’re a
little bit older, and then your tongue is stuck with the mother language and it’s hard to pronounce everything right.
BRODY: Was it harder for your brothers?
NGUYEN: My brother—my older brother in Dallas struggle a little bit, and I think part of that—the second to the oldest—part of that, he didn’t do too well because of the language.
BRODY: Right. The timing.
NGUYEN: Yeah—the language that he struggle, because I think he start out in eleventh—tenth or eleventh grade, and that just too much for him, for the language barrier. Now, my other—the brother that next to me, he’s very good. He’s—math, everything. He’s very smart guy, but he didn’t like to go to school. (laughs) He didn’t want to go to school! He would fail in PE [physical education] and ace on his, like, algebra test, but he didn’t want to go to school. I guess, back to the surviving, you’ve got to make money to support, because nobody going to pay for college, so that’s why— that’s part of the reason that he didn’t go to.
Keywords: English; English as a Second Language; Vietnamese language
Partial Transcript: BRODY: Right. So for you, you went to UNT for a year, and then the two of you went to—you and your wife—or, not-yet-wife at that point—
NGUYEN: Girlfriend. (laughs)
BRODY: —girlfriend, at that point—went to Texas A&M. How did you choose Texas A&M and—tell me about that time period of your life.
NGUYEN: (both speaking at once) Okay. So the story is that we know where we want to go, and there’s two school here, and we can’t afford private school, obviously, so the two school there is UT and then A&M. I think we chose A&M because we thought that maybe the UT–Austin is a party school. (both laugh) That’s what the logic is. So I think we choose A&M because of that, and we visit the campus. My wife and I went there and we liked it. It’s open. It’s not very congested or crowded, and so that’s why we choose A&M.
BRODY: And did it prove to be a good choice? (laughs)
NGUYEN: Yeah. It’s very good choice. Yeah. We liked it. We liked it a lot. I think during that time of our college year, we had a huge—compare now—Vietnamese American Student Association.
NGUYEN: And we had fun. I look back. We had a whole lot of fun because they always had some function just for Vietnamese American student, and talk—looking back now, they have hardly, because all the kids are now—they’re more Americanized than us. We think we’re Americanized already, but now is the third—what, third generation?
NGUYEN: It’s not the same. They’re not doing the same thing that we do.
BRODY: Right. I want to come back to that in a minute, but first, I’m so interested to hear more about the A&M Vietnamese American Student Association. It was big. How many students do you think were—?
NGUYEN: Were big then, but few hundred—three, four hundred kids. BRODY: (both speaking at once) That is big. That is big.
NGUYEN: (both speaking at once) Three, four hundred kids.
BRODY: And what kind of functions and activities did they have?
NGUYEN: (both speaking at once) They had musical function, food—things like that. BRODY: (both speaking at once) What kind of food?
NGUYEN: Vietnamese food that we tried to learn to make sometime. BRODY: Oh, so would you cook it.
NGUYEN: Somebody did. Some ladies, right, honey? (calling out to his wife in the next room; Brody and Nguyen laugh) And then, time to time, they had host certain event, and then we have Vietnamese singer concert.
BRODY: Yeah. So that’s interesting because up until the time that you went to college, you were all just trying to survive and not really—didn’t have a lot of time, it sounds like, to focus on the culture and the food and things like that. So tell me how—describe your feelings when you realized that there was this Vietnamese American student organization and there were other students that shared your experience.
NGUYEN: I feel like I fit in also, because we’re here in the country, during that time, and we don’t have anybody, and now, this experience in college—we have older kids— compare, right?(??)—and we have our age, and all this character of this old memory—
old people. Like, not really old but—for instance, there’s this guy that much older than us, probably ten, maybe a little bit more—that he went there, and his characteristic is hard to describe. Like, he would drink tea and he would make fun of us in a nicer way. He would make fun of my wife’s bike and things like that in the Vietnamese language, and I felt like, Oh, okay. And I think that because of that also, I think that we maintain our language, and—I’m speaking for me, but my wife also—but we are able to maintain the language in writing, whereas some don’t, because like, my cousin, they came same age as I am. A lot of them don’t speak as good as a Vietnamese, or read and write Vietnamese. So I think that that’s the reason why that I liked a whole lot, the experience from college—the Vietnamese Association. Now, I ask my son now—he’s in college—and they don’t have as big because I think they are more Americanized now. Even if they have some sort of function like that, they probably won’t speak any Vietnamese, but in English. But it’s a different generation. It’s going to change.
Keywords: American identity; English language; Texas A & M University; University of North Texas; Vietnamese American Student Association; Vietnamese identity; Vietnamese language; Vietnamese students; assimilation; college; cooking; culture; dating; food; identity; music; social events
Partial Transcript: BRODY: As you got older and got into college and doing that, what was the next chapter of your life?
NGUYEN: Retirement. (both laugh)
BRODY: So you’re working now, though. Before you retire, what line of work are you in?
NGUYEN: I was—okay. So I graduated A&M with a electrical engineering degree, and my wife was accounting, so when we graduated in ’94, jobs lined up everywhere. You graduate that time, you had four or five jobs to choose from, and so we went back. So we got—I got a job offer here at TI, and got a job offer in Houston—Compaq—and so we
choose to go to Houston and go back to where I came from. So when we graduate, I choose to work for Compaq and she work for Enron, and we started our lives there after we got married. Back to that, we graduated in end of—beginning of ’95. Yeah.
Something like that. Yeah. She graduated ’95. We got our degree. Two weeks, we got married. It was after college. And then we took off for our honeymoon, and then we went to Vietnam for a whole month before we start our job. We already accepted our job, but that’s—it was—(laughs)
BRODY: So you went back to Vietnam for your honeymoon.
NGUYEN: Yes, for a month, and I think we hadn’t been back there for, like, twenty years—fifteen, twenty years—something like that. And then we came back and start our job in Houston. She was accountant for Enron. I was doing electrical engineering design—chip design for Compaq.
BRODY: So you stayed in Houston, and then—
NGUYEN: Stayed in Houston—oh, what year, honey? (talking to his wife in the next room) Four, five year? Five years. Five years. So we got married and stayed there, and three years later we had our first kid, and that’s the reason why we came back here, because her family’s here and mine’s also here. So working for three, four years there. We had our first child, and then six months, we moved back to Dallas, and she didn’t even have a job. We just dropped it off and dropped down everything in Houston and we moved, sold everything, and bought a house.
BRODY: Brought the baby. NGUYEN: Right. Brought the baby.
Keywords: Compaq; Enron; Houston; Texas Instruments; Vietnam; accounting; baby; electrical engineering; employment; family; honeymoon; identity; jobs; parenting; retirement
Partial Transcript: BRODY: That’s twenty years, yes. And then you found jobs and everything, and so— NGUYEN: Well, (laughs) I lost my job a year and half later, when I came here to Dallas. BRODY: The economy.
NGUYEN: Yes. The 9/11 whole deal was pretty bad, and I was pretty depressed for months because going to school, and now I don’t have a job. Then I start looking for something to do. My wife and I went and got into real estate for a while, and then I found a job doing IT work, which is what I do now; IT support easier. I went back to engineering for a few months and I didn’t like it anymore. It’s just like, you’re in the enclosed office and coding and things like that, and I got away from it, and then I didn’t like it anymore. I think part of—I think I’m so lucky to—it’s part of my career choice, is because I have option, thanks to my wife. She also work. Otherwise, I would have
probably pursued engineer and stressful.
Keywords: 9/11; IT; depression; employment; engineering; jobs; real estate
Partial Transcript: But she’s work, and the story with me is that— what year was it, honey? In—yeah, in 2000—yeah, 2000—I had a heart attack.
|00:52:17| BRODY: Oh, no!
NGUYEN: Right? In the middle of a Friday morning, I had a heart attack. I didn’t know what it was. I just know how I felt, and I had a heart attack, and I told my wife, “Call 911,” and she thought I’m kidding, or—because she was little, and we always played the 911—and I come out this room. I lay down, say, “Honey, call 911! I don’t know what happened to me, but call 911!” So the guy wheeled me out the ambulance and hooked me up EKG, said, “You have a heart attack,” (laughs) so I went to the hospital and they put a stent in my—
BRODY: How old were you? NGUYEN: Forty-two.
BRODY: Wow. I’m really sorry to hear that.
NGUYEN: (both speaking at once) Yeah. And I wasn’t overweight or anything like that, or smoking, or—it just happened, and the doctor says, “You don’t look very good sometime.” And then at that point on, I think I went easy on the stress, and that’s why I was doing IT. Plus, at the time, we have three kids. I think, like I said, I’m lucky because both of us are working, so some had to make sacrifice. So I took the easier job.
BRODY: Yeah. Well, it sounds like it made you think about—
NGUYEN: And then, come home and take care of everything about the kids. So—but, yeah. I’m fortunate, and I’m really lucky that I’m alive.
BRODY: That’s nice. I’m glad that you’re well now.
NGUYEN: (both speaking at once) But, yeah. It was a shock. But now—after that, now I’m just, like, two things in my life now that I work on hardly—I mean, work at it—is my health and my kids. So my ritual thing is I walk three, four miles a day, and I work, and then I run. I go out and run marathon, and things like that, to get the heart.
BRODY: Right. Take care of your heart. NGUYEN: Yeah. Um-hm. But—
Keywords: 911; EKG; ambulance; children; health; health care; health problems; heart attack; parenting; stress
Partial Transcript: BRODY: You mentioned your kids. So you’ve got three children. What has it been like for you, being a parent of children who were born here and are Americans? (laughs)
NGUYEN: I think the environment we in when we were raised—I think we’re more protective of them and want to provide for them the best that we can, because we feel like we struggling when we were little. We had to work harder and things like that. So for us, we were protective. We want to, at the same time, provide the best that we can for them, give them education, things like that. But I mean, that’s the whole thing about us, is that, Okay, after she’s gone to college, our job is done as a parent and we can go to retire. So again, that’s the two thing. The most important thing for me right now is my kids—make
sure they’re okay—and then my health—make sure I’m okay—and everything’s going to be okay!
Keywords: children; education; kids; parenting
Partial Transcript: BRODY: Yeah, absolutely. Those are good priorities to have. You and your wife both kind of had a foot in both worlds. It sounds like you were very comfortable in Vietnam and at home with Vietnamese culture and food and all of that, but yet, you also are Aggies, you know? You’re Texans and you are here. So how do you balance those two sides of your experience?
NGUYEN: Well, you know, I think we adapt to change better, as far as for me and my wife. Like, I’ll give you an example for this. If we go back to Vietnam, the weather’s hot, we wouldn’t complain. We can ride it out. We’re okay with that. Whereas, the second generation and born here, they go to Vietnam, “Ah, that’s too hot!” That’s because we had the luxury of living both Vietnamese culture when we were growing up, even though we came at a little age, but we still have that experience and we’re okay with that, so I think that’s an advantage for us. Another thing is that food—we eat a lot of fermented fish stuff, which stinks. (both laugh) I admit it, but it taste so darn good for us! Now, all the second generation or the third that won’t touches that, and I think you can’t force them, right? But I think they lose out on that, to me, because they don’t have the experience.
BRODY: Right. The taste, maybe, of your childhood.
NGUYEN: So, again, we’re fortunate that we share those two different culture— American culture and the Vietnamese culture.
Keywords: American identity; Vietnamese culture; Vietnamese food; Vietnamese identity; adaptation; cooking; culture; food; generational differences; identity
Partial Transcript: BRODY: What is the part of American culture that you enjoy the most?
NGUYEN: (both speaking at once) I like structure, whereas in Vietnamese family, we don’t have structure. Most of them don’t have structure.
BRODY: What do you mean?
NGUYEN: Like sleep time, everything, do this and that, chore—like, in Vietnamese culture, the boy never do anything. They don’t cook, clean. They just eat and go, right? And the girl have to do everything. The girl have to cook, right? So here, we do everything. My family—my daughter and my son—will do everything. They do chore. The boys cook the rice. He cook. He wash the dishes. So we’re trying to—
BRODY: Share all the—
NGUYEN: —share everything. Okay. That is a good thing. So we kind of—
BRODY: (both speaking at once) That’s the piece of American culture that you kind of melded into your family.
NGUYEN: (both speaking at once) Exactly. Melded into—I mean, most of American here—the kid don’t want to do anything too, just like—right? (both laugh)
BRODY: Right. So—
NGUYEN: But we trained them, sort of, to do that, and I keep telling them, “Seeing you do things for thirty minute—washing dishes—I can do it in ten, (Brody laughs) but I want you to do it because when you’re out there on your own, you’re able to wash the dishes, or know how to.” I’ll give you example, and it make me feel so good, is that my son went to [Texas] Tech and he share apartment with these kids—these white kids—and they don’t do anything. The dishes high, and that would bother my son, and he complained to me, “Dad, they don’t know how to do anything! They don’t know how to do dishes!” And now I realized that he learned. We preach, but he won’t—we feel like he won’t listen, but they do listen. Things like that make me feel good to know, okay, at least—I thought they didn’t listen to me, but little things like that, like cleaning. He cook. He able to do laundry whenever they would come home with stinky basket. (laughs) They do all that, so that’s good. Little things that know more every day that you can take care of yourself—laundry, the cooking. You don’t have to be extravagant, but know how at least, cook rice and feed yourself, instead of—yeah. But, that’s what we aiming for, is to have that flexibility. She, right now—weekend, her chore will be dusting all the stuff and they would vacuum.
BRODY: (both speaking at once) Your daughter, yes.
NGUYEN: We don’t have a housekeeper or maid to do—we used to hire one, but we don’t because we do it ourselves. It’s exercise anyway, right?
BRODY: Right. So you do it together as a family. NGUYEN: The laundry, everything—
Keywords: American culture; Vietnamese culture; chores; family; gender differences; parenting; structure
Partial Transcript: BRODY: Right. That flexibility. Some people have said that they feel like their experiences as a refugee have informed and made that flexibility part of their personality. Is that accurate for you?
NGUYEN: Probably, yeah, because again, the refugee—that comes with the refugee because you have to. You left your mother country for freedom and opportunity. You have to. But again, also situation. For us, again, we’re at a young age and it’s easy for us to adapt and cope and do everything, but again—like, for instance, my brother—oh, he struggled.
BRODY: Your oldest brother?
NGUYEN: My second to the oldest, so he didn’t really—I don’t think—I think he just barely finished school. He was depressed. He don’t fit in. And then no school, no work— whatever. Right now, he’s a machinist, but what I’m saying is for a period of time, he don’t like it. It was hard for him to adapt and fit in.
BRODY: Did he experience— NGUYEN: Language barrier and (??).
Keywords: English; discrimination; flexibility; language; language barrier; prejudice; racial slurs; racism; refugees
Partial Transcript: BRODY: That’s good advice, for sure. I just wanted to circle back and ask about your family—your parents.
NGUYEN: Okay. So yeah, I can tell you about my parent. After we left, my father got caught and the Communists put him in prison for seven years. That’s for wanting for escape. My sister and my mom were struggling for years; got no money, food, and things like that. We do send home money, but we were struggle here as well, and so during that time, my brother send money home, but you can’t send—it’s communist. You can’t send real money. You can send product, gifts, and I remember my brother sent home the toothpaste, they put gold in there—inside the toothpaste!—ounces or whatever—I was a kid—for them to spend.
BRODY: Did they get it?
NGUYEN: Yes. They get some of the gift, but they getting smart. Back then, they don’t have anything for radar, or whatever system—
BRODY: (both speaking at once) X-rays.
NGUYEN: —X-ray system, yeah, to scan. But later on, you can’t. But during the eighties they can, so they send home—got gold to spend, but my father was in jail for seven years, and when he got out, he was really sick. They don’t have enough to eat. When they say they put you in jail, they mean put you in jail. Not the jail here that people give thing or take things for granted. You don’t get to TV, read, or get—have the degree. You messed up, you pay for it. None of this human right. So he got punished real bad. When he came out, he had to go operate on his intestine because he’d eaten bad, contaminated food because there wasn’t enough food, so I think that’s the problem that cost his life short. He
passed away when he was seventy-something. But anyway, he got a operation. Took, like, three-quarters of his intestine away, and when he—then he got colon cancer afterward. That’s why he passed away shorter, but I think that’s contribute to his problem, because of the jail time. That’s seven years.
BRODY: That’s a long time.
NGUYEN: Long time. And my mom and my six sister—during that time, we had two came over—sent over on the boat. And so two of my sister came afterward, like, in ninety—’88 and ’92. And then recently, we have another sister came over four years ago, so we have total of seven of us.
BRODY: Seven of you here, out of the ten.
NGUYEN: Right. Ten. And then, three over there, but my oldest sister—she just passed away a few years ago. She suffered cancer too.
BRODY: Oh. I’m so sorry.
NGUYEN: But, yes. Two of them left there, and then my parents passed away too. BRODY: So the seven of you who are here are all in Dallas?
NGUYEN: Yeah, most of them. My oldest one in California. He’s the one who do the construction and architecture and building. He would—he’s doing very well. Very, very well. He’s in Huntington Beach now. He buy land, and then he build houses and sell it, and California’s doing very well in housing.
BRODY: Yeah. There’s a lot of people. (laughs)
NGUYEN: For the price. (laughs)
BRODY: That’s it. Yes. The market is good there.
Keywords: California; Communism; Communists; family; immigration; money; political prisoners; prison; refugees
Partial Transcript: So the last sort of area—we’ve kind of touch on it a little bit, but it’s more on this question of identity. To you what does it mean to be American? You mentioned you achieved your citizenship, so tell me about what it meant to you to get American citizenship.
NGUYEN: I—to be honest, I really didn’t think about that. To be, like—you know how some people, “Oh, yes!”? We’re not like that. In fact, my wife and I went the same time. We went and got naturalized the same time. We got the same—but again, it wasn’t a big deal for us. I guess we were young, so we became naturalized in eighty—’90, or something like that. Yeah. Ninety—I forgot, but long time ago. But for us, we weren’t like older people that dreamed to be an American immigrant, excited about. It’s just something that we needed to have or get, but it’s no problem for us. We’re younger. We passed it with flying color. So yeah, as far as that, I didn’t remember that, “Yes, I’m a US citizen now.”
BRODY: So after—it’s been a while since that happened and you became an American citizen, but what does it—reflecting back, what does it mean to you now to say, “I’m an American”?
NGUYEN: I think American citizens should be proud to be a American citizen, and I’ll tell you why—because if you travel a lot and you go to different country and you
experience stuff—experience life, experience with the people that you touches—you don’t know nowhere else you would rather want to be but here because, yes, we have our bads and good, but the freedom is outrageous here. I mean, look at that. Where else you go in the world that the president mess up something, you cuss and you mock him, and you do something? You got your freedom of speech! Nowhere else. Even some of the democratic country—some of them, you can’t do that. Like Taiwan, you can’t really say, but they’re democratic, right? Some of them. So we’ve been living in Hong Kong, Thailand, and we experienced all that. We’ve experience culture. We experience the economic, the food, the infrastructure, road—nothing compare to the US. You’ve got so much opportunity, so at the time when I was natural, I don’t feel like that. But now, you—I’m so proud because you go everywhere, you cannot have the same experience.
It’s just amazing. You go to France or Europe—we haven’t been there. That’s our bucket list. But from what my father-in-law—nothing. Traffic, nowhere to have the car, the freedom to do anything—it’s all great. Very good. We’re lucky to be here.
BRODY: So back to that blended identity that you have; what does it mean for you to be Vietnamese American?
NGUYEN: Very proud. We have the heritage. We have the Vietnamese heritage, food— food is the best. When you get older, that’s all you think. (both laugh) It’s good. I feel that’s the best part is to be Vietnamese American, is that we live in this world of freedom and a melting pot of diversity. You can’t go anywhere and have the diversity that we have. I mean, now, we’re going backward. Look at Donald Trump about all this
immigration things that he do, and you think back and you say, “This country was built on immigration.” This part is not all American. It belonged to American Indians, then we came and we conquer, and we are American. But that, because of the immigrant, create all this diversity. You name the food, you go out there and you get it. Vietnamese food is more(??) because of (??) one of the best one, but yeah. I’m so proud to be an
American—Vietnamese American because to be here and to have that heritage is great.
BRODY: So a hundred years from now when you’re great-great-great-great-great- grandchildren might listen to this interview or read the transcript, or future scholars, is there anything that we haven’t talked about today yet that you think should be included or you think that they should know?
NGUYEN: Don’t forget your heritage. Don’t forget your heritage. Open mind. Experience your heritage. Experience your Vietnamese culture as well. That’s the best thing that I want my kid to experience. We go back a whole lot to Vietnam, and they like it. I think my oldest son—he speak better Vietnamese when we went over there. We come back and know he get it. He can write too. So he’s just also the talented kid, but at least give it a chance and don’t forget your heritage. Give it a chance, because you see some kid that doesn’t have that. I’ll give you example. There’s a little kid, eleven, twelve years old. He’s Filipino and he think he’s white, and he’s making fun of—“Oh, you’re a ching-chong, right?” So it’s like, “Yes. You’re also Asian though!” (laughs) So I don’t want the kid to have that. Know where you’re from.
BRODY: That’s beautiful. Thank you so much for your time and for your story. It was wonderful to hear, and I’m very honored to be able to record it for this collection, so thank you very much.
Keywords: American citienship; American identity; Vietnamese food; Vietnamese language; Vietnamese-American; citizenship; culture; democracy; diversity; food; free speech; freedom; heritage; identity; immigration; melting pot; naturalizing; opportunity; parenting; politics