Hai Minh Tran

Living the American Dream

Profilers: Mike Dierenger, Landon Thompson, Brooke Hubert


Meet Buy plendil online Hai Tran

He likes turtles.


Conditions in Vietnam

Hai refers to himself numerous times throughout the interview as an immigrant, so we asked him if he thought of himself as an immigrant or a refugee. In this video he examines the circumstances of his family in South Vietnam which lead to their departure, and explains why he is a refugee.


Escape to Vietnam

There existed many forms of escape from Vietnam, but the most common and easily accessible was to leave on boats. The sheer numbers of people escaping by boat from Vietnam led to these people being referred to as “boat people”. Some lucky people were picked up by rescue boats and taken to refugee camps in countries such as Thailand and the Philippines. Hai and his family were part of this group.


Arriving in America

Most refugee families who came to America had sponsoring families. These families were supposed to help the refugee family by raising money for travel from the refugee camps to America, giving the refugee family financial aid, a place to stay, and support. Hai’s sponsor family lived in a suburb of Michigan, and he talks about his experiences with his host family and how the host family took advantage of the situation.


Being Different and Being Bullied

While Hai’s parents were worrying about finances and finding places to live and food to eat, Hai was able to go to school. However, he was faced with his own challenge: bullying. He explains how this affected him as a child, and how his tough time in school helped shape who he is today.

Living the American Dream

Growing up, many Americans are presented with the idea of the American Dream, which states that anyone who is hard working and pushes through adversaries can be successful. We asked Hai if he feels like he, a refugee to America, was able to fulfill his American Dream. He responded affirmatively and shares how he found his own path to the American Dream.

Full Interview Transcription

What’s your name? Where are you from?

Ah, right, my name is Hai Tran. I was born in 1979 in Phuc Bien Vietnam. I was born in a refugee camp. I live in San Francisco, CA. 31 years old. And I like turtles.

Do you have a pet turtle?

I had a pet turtle, actually, once when I was growing up. The thing about pet turtles is that you think they’re like really slow, but they’re actually extremely fast. Because I took my pet turtle outside one day, and put him down on the grass to have him nibble on the grass, and he disappeared, he basically started booking it and he was gone. Psheeew. So my turtle ran away, it really sucked. So let that be a lesson to everybody. Turtles aren’t as slow as the fables lead you to believe.

How did you come to be in America?

I came to America because my father was in the US army. He enlisted in 1968 and he was a soldier in a helicopter team that went around marking locations for the U.S. Army to airstrike. When he was discharged in 1975…he met my mother, and they had 4 children in Vietnam. And we, through his connections with the U.S Army, he was able to secure passage to the United States.

Did your dad end up in a Prisoner of War camp?

Yes, my father, when the U.S Army pulled out of Vietnam…basically the communist regime took over the country and they gave everyone a choice whether to remain in n Vietnam or go to South Vietnam. The country was split in two. My father’s family was a fairly wealthy family that lived in North Vietnam. And they decided to give up everything that they had: their home, and then whatever money that they had to move to s Vietnam because South Vietnam was free and North Vietnam was being controlled by the communists.

So their family went from being wealthy to being homeless, and you know, for the choice of freedom. My father after the war was captured by the communist regime. He was held in a Prisoner of War camp in China Beach, which I think is where the show M*A*S*H was based. I don’t know, let me look it up real fast, Wikipedia, do some real time fact checking. Well M*A*S*H was evidently based off the Korean War. So that’s totally different. I think there’s some parallels you can draw there. There’s some very similar themes.

So my father was held in the Prisoner of War camp for three days, until he escaped. And he walked from North Vietnam to South Vietnam, all seven hundred miles. And again that’s where he met my mother, and that’s where they raised myself and my 2 sisters and 1 brother, for a couple years.

What sort of process did your family go through to escape from South Vietnam?

Well, escape from South Vietnam at the time was all done via boat. There was a large movement back in the late 70s early 80s, and they call people like me and my family boat people, boat generation. Most Vietnamese immigrants, second generation, first generation, have ties back to the boat generation. Almost everyone I know that’s in America my age basically left in basically a similar fashion. We had actually tried to leave Vietnam five times, from late 70s early 80s, all unsuccessfully until 1984, where we were able to secure passage via boat. My parents had a connection to some fishermen, and we used a small fishing boat, about thirty feet long, and the entire village all snuck on it, and tried to escape.

At the time because the economy was basically non-existent, you had to barter in gold. That was the only currency that mattered at the time. So the entire village basically saved up all the gold that they had and paid the fishermen. And we left via boat to go somewhere, I don’t know where; Australia, New Zealand, or China, wherever we could make it. I don’t think we had a real destination. We left via boat, and we were at sea for a while, basically kind of stranded, and a Parisian rescue boat found us and took us to the Philippines where there was a refugee camp set up to process and take care of Vietnamese immigrants. This was sanctioned by the UN and they gave everyone food, shelter, medicine, and education, teach people English in preparation for finding them sponsorship to America.

Do you remember anything about the refugee camp? Does anything stand out in your memory?

I remember it was muddy. It wasn’t like summer camp. It was basically tents just set up on the mud, just sleeping in the mud. It was very rainy, so it was quite harsh living conditions. I remember being attacked by a giant snake when I was a child and adapting a fear of snakes from that point on. As well as snake shaped things, like worms, sea cucumbers, dildos…you know stuff like that. You can edit that part out. But I absolutely despise snakes. I think more so than Indiana jones. I won’t go near them, I won’t touch them, anything. I think they’re vile.

In the Philippines, it was probably the best thing that could have happened for us. Because they taught us all English, which gave my family the opportunity to go to America, and I was able to go to school, get an education. A lot of my friends and people I know who have come to America, they still don’t really speak English, so they’re not going to be able to find work. Their parents are relying on the Vietnamese community to take care of them and stuff.

Another thing they did was find sponsorships all around the world for different families. A lot of my relatives, uncles, cousins, and aunts, they were sponsored by European families, so a lot of them live in Norway, other parts of Europe. But because of my father’s connections to the U.S Army, we were able to find a sponsorship from an American family. It was another family that also served in the war. And I think they took sympathy on us because of having seen what had happened to Vietnam, and what the war…how it had divided so many people.

What do you remember about your sponsoring family?

My sponsor family, they were very…I actually visited about ten years ago, essentially when I was done with high school. Their children were about the same age as me. So both families were in pretty similar situations. My father was the same age, they both served in the war, they were both taking care of… I think they had three kids, my parents had five kids…but they were both trying to take care of their children in a very struggling economy. In the 80s, American was going through a recession. Where we ended up moving to in Michigan, it was going through a pretty big collapse of the auto industry. Most people who lived in the area were finding themselves hard at work. It was a pretty dire time back then. So their situation was not unlike ours, and they were really struggling to make ends meet. So they really couldn’t offer us a lot of amenities or money. When we first came to live with them in Michigan, we were living in their back yard in a tent. We basically didn’t have a bathroom; we didn’t have electricity, a refrigerator, anything like that. It was pretty tough, considering we were in America, but it was basically the same thing as living in a refugee camp. So as a family we were just trying to make ends meet. We did things like picking apples, vegetables, we painted houses, you know…random odd jobs to try to make money.

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I think the family that sponsored us probably had good intentions, but I think given their well-being at the time, it was pretty much impossible for them to really offer us any kind of real aid, I mean especially financially. So this family was…they lived in Michigan in a suburb of Detroit. Their father was a Vietnam War veteran, and they were raising three kids at the time, roughly around my age. So both families are in pretty similar situations. They were having a really hard time making ends meet. I think they saw sponsoring a Vietnamese family as a good way to garner sympathy from the community: get donations from the church. But they really didn’t supply any kind of financial support for our family.

When we first came to live in Michigan, we were basically living in a tent. So we didn’t have any running water or a bathroom or anything. And it was impossible to find an apartment because no landlord was going to rent to a family of immigrants at the time, and also, in the 80s, just the economy with the recession. Detroit as a city was kind of collapsing. So our situation was dire, and their situation I think was almost just as dire. I don’t think it was really meant to be, but we, as a family, just did odd jobs to make ends meet. We did things such as cleaning houses, painting, removing weeds, picking fruit.

My parents enrolled in college after a few months, and shortly afterwards they were able to send us to school. I remember just moving around a lot when I first came here. Just going wherever there was a job, and every time my parents found work we had to relocate again and go to another school. So things were quite tumultuous, there wasn’t a lot of stability back then.

Do you have any hard feelings toward the family…you said you thought they used you somewhat, do you have any hard feelings because of that?

Not really, it was a long time ago. And I think it was an opportunity for them, and I don’t really blame them for taking it. I think, obviously, today, that probably wouldn’t repeat itself. I think that people watch things like that a little more closely. But as far as I know, as my father has told me, he never received a single cent from our sponsor family. Eventually we were sponsored by a few other families that wanted to help us out, and they did give us financial aid and places to stay and clothing and food and stuff. So there was a few families who really helped us out a little later, and we still keep in contact with them. They still live in Michigan. Nice folk. But our initial family, yea, I think there was a little disconnect between what they promised they were going to do and what they delivered on.

I’ve heard you refer to yourself as an immigrant a few times. Do you feel more like an immigrant or a refugee, and why?

We’re definitely refugees in that we escaped Vietnam. We didn’t leave Vietnam by choice. I think if you decide to immigrate it’s because you are looking for a better life than what you have there. And our situation really was because we had no life, we had no future of any kind left in Vietnam. The communist regime basically took over the entire country. Entire villages would just disappear. People from the army would just roll in and just murder everybody and burn the village. And like that it’s just gone. My father told me that at many points he was basically running for his life. A lot of people that he knew, a lot of friends, a lot of relatives of ours were just executed regularly for no particular reason other than the communists wanted to dominate a little more Vietnam.
The only work that you could get to support your family was very hard labor. And even then there was no guarantee that you would get paid or come back better. Some of the work that my father had to do was removing mines from minefields, working in the jungle, so I think my parents both felt like it was just a matter of time. It really wasn’t “if” it was going to be “when”, when things caught up with them. So they made the conscious decision to run, to flee. And for years they were just fleeing from town to town, trying to find a way to get out of Vietnam.

Like I said, we tried to escape 5 times until we were able to do it and go to the Philippines. I think that was pretty much the situation at the time. I would be surprised to hear, unless you were an extremely wealthy family, of anyone actually being able to emigrate from Vietnam at that time. I believe that most of the people who left around that time who are my age are probably considered refugees.

Do you feel like, growing up, going to school with people who lived in America their entire lives, did you feel different, were you treated differently?

Yea, anytime you’re the only person of your kind anywhere, basically it’ll be kind of tough. That was definitely the case for me growing up for a long time. In California, there are parts of this state that you could be, say Filipino, and everyone around you is Filipino or you could be Mexican and everyone around you is Mexican. That really wasn’t the case in Michigan. Pretty much wherever I went, I was the only person of my kind in my grade and my school. Most of the attention wasn’t positive. I think it made me feel insecure, like an outcast. It felt like I didn’t really belong, or could relate to everybody.

And there was a constant level of bullying and being treated not equal with everyone else. And it wasn’t just always from the other students; it was also from, sometimes, the teachers. I remember that there were teachers that just didn’t treat me equally. They just had prejudices that they couldn’t put aside for the sake of actually teaching. I don’t feel like that’s…that’s not right if you’re a teacher. Every day, almost on a daily basis, there was bullying. I got beat up a lot. Getting off the bus, I’d have to basically run home; I was getting chased by other kids. So it was tough.

It was very difficult adjusting at first, and it didn’t really get any easier for a long time. Up until high school, I was a victim of constant harassment. I’ve gotten in a lot of fights. I pretty much had to defend myself on a regular basis. I was fighting up until my senior year of high school. Just, you’re 18 years old; that’s a little bit too old to be getting into fights in the school yard. I’m not extremely proud of that. Luckily that was the last fight I got into. I haven’t been in a fight since then. But I was 18, and it really shouldn’t have happened.

But in retrospect, just the feelings of insecurity and isolation kind of built up a lot of anger and resentment in myself. And it took a little bit of time to finally even out. Of course, everything changed in the last decade or so. Right now being Asian is actually, in a lot of ways, a benefit. A lot of employers want to hire Asian people because they know were going to work hard or we’ll sacrifice a lot of things for work. When I’ve been working out here for the last ten years, companies like yahoo and Zynga, sometimes I look around the office and almost everyone around me is Asian. I look in meeting rooms and everyone else there is Asian. It’s a lot different story now.

I think being an Asian American today, especially in progressive places to live like San Francisco and the Bay Area, being Asian is a lot to be proud of. There’s a very strong sense of community, and I think that’s a good thing to feel empowered by your heritage and empowered about where you came from. I think that’s really positive, because for me it was a completely different story. It was always something that I felt cursed with, like why me, why do I have to feel ashamed about being different. Why is everyone else having a normal childhood around me and doing normal things? Summer camp, and school dances, and softball, and sports, and stuff…why was I never picked for any of that stuff? Why was I always the person left out of it? I think my story would be a lot different if the decade was 2000, or well not the decade, the millennium I guess, and not the 80s and 90s.

How did you come from Michigan to be in San Francisco?

My story begins…I spent 20, 15 years in Michigan, all through elementary school, middle school, high school, and about 2 years of college. I enrolled at the University of Toledo in Ohio to study English. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do growing up. I liked art; I wish I could have been an artist growing up. But the reality of art school, which is, at the time, one of the most expensive things to do, was not a reality for my parents who were both working fairly low paying jobs at the time. So being able to go to an art school was pretty much not a possibility. So I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, and one thing that I always kind of liked was teaching. So I thought, you know…I could be a teacher, and one of the easiest things to do was study English. I wasn’t particularly good at science or math, or anything for that matter, so I figured English was a good place to start.

I studied English linguistics with the hopes of being a teacher some day and leaving college after 4 years and getting a job that paid me, I don’t know, about thirty thousand a year or something like that. That felt about right for a starter job teaching. But as it happens, 1999, 2000 was a big year for internet technologies and the dot com movement. I guess you could call it that. And most of it was happening in the Silicon Valley area in California. And I remember just studying English. I think I was in a Shakespeare class at the time or something, and just thinking to myself, what’s all this for? With everything like graphic design and learning html5 and learning to program, I think people my age were getting six figure jobs on the west coast. You know that’s pretty much a no brainer decision for me. I couldn’t in all honesty ever have finished my degree given kind of where things were going.

I’m pretty glad I made that decision. I was able to learn valuable skills and get a job in San Francisco at a start-up, but also doing what is now kind of like the future of computing. Everything is all on the cloud, everything is all software, everything is all happening on the internet. That’s just the way it is. Ever heard of the Youtube? the Twitter? a Facebook? That’s where I wanted to be. You know what’s cool? A billion dollars is cool. So yea, I just came out here to learn design and how to make my mark on this new economy. And I haven’t moved back since then, it’s been 10 years, and I’ve been able to work at pretty much every company I’ve wanted to work at. Got to work with a lot of amazing people and do some pretty cool things, like working on stuff for iPhones. Pretty cool. It’s one of the new frontiers, I think, mobile. So it’s been a great ride.

I think I would have done it exactly like this a hundred times if I could go back. If I had to say anything about that, I think coming from Vietnam and being a refugee and finding my own way and not really following the rules and not really doing things the expected way, I feel pretty good about that. To me that makes a lot of sense, that’s really what America is all about. It’s about choice and freedom and being able to do what you want to do.

Do you consider yourself to have fulfilled the American Dream?

Yea, for sure. Like I said, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I think if I had come here and just gone to school and had a normal childhood and a normal upbringing and a normal college education and gotten a normal job after, I think that would have been boring. I think it was, if I have to kind of be cheesy about it, I think it was kind of my destiny in a lot of ways to screw up as much as I did, to just kind of blindly jump into things and feel things out the way that I did. I think to this day I still feel like an outcast. I don’t feel like things are quite normal with society. I feel like I can make a better future and at least play a part in creating a better America by thinking outside of the box and by not following the rules and going about it my own way. It’s kind of always the way I’ve done things. I just quit my job working at a really great company and everyone thinks I’m crazy for it. But I’m going to find a way to leave my mark and try to create a better way to do things. I think that’s really only something you can only really do if you take these steps.

These possibilities would not be around if I was still in Vietnam. And I wouldn’t be able to make these decisions and make these choices. I think that’s pretty awesome, pretty great. I think Vietnam is a much better place now than it used to be. It’s changed a lot. My family lives there now and they have much better lives than they did before we left. It’s one of the faster economies there, but what they really don’t have is the ability to do what I have done and to make these kinds of choices. And they probably won’t for another hundred years. You know they’re picking up the pieces from what was probably the worst war in the last 50 years. I think it’s profoundly shaped my outlook and my perception on what the American dream is all about. I hope to never settle down in that sense. I think it would be boring. I always like moving forward and having a lot of momentum.

Are there any other stories your parents have told you that you may not necessarily remember that you have thought were interesting about yourself or about your family?

My parents always told me this story, and I don’t know why they keep telling me. Maybe they think it’s funny or something. So I’ve got a weirdly shaped head. The back of my head is pretty flat, like more than usual. It’s pretty flat. They always like to tell me a story about how one day, I think I was three months old or something, and they took me to the park and they were carrying me, and they drop me like on the ground, on my head. And they’re always like…that’s why your head is so flat! And I was like, well that’s not good; that’s horrible! Just drop your child on the ground, and now my head is flat in the back. I think that’s really weird.

Oh I have this other story too. The only time I really had to go to the hospital, when I was actually seriously hurt in my life was when I was I think 4 or 5 years old, when I was on a swing set and my sister was pushing me. She pushed my so hard I guess I fell off and broke my arm. The only times I’ve ever been seriously hurt have been induced by my family. Which is kind of weird. But other than that, I’m the model of perfect health. Never had any kind of illness or injury of any kind.

You know my head is really flat. People tell me that all the time, people on the street. They’re like, “Hey, what’s up with your head?” So yea, it’s kind of weird. Yea I think that’s about it.

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