12,862 km: Jan's journey from Nha Trang to Westminster
Profilers: Junbo Zhai, Matthew Kuloszewski, and Vy Nguyen
Part 1: Introduction
Vy: To start off—Can you say your name and tell us where you are from?
Mrs. Vu: My birth name is Trang Thu Thị Nguyễn but it’s very hard to pronounce my birth name correctly, so I have legally changed it to Jan and it’s now Jan Thu Nguyễn. And now since I’m married, I add on my husband’s last name: Vu, so its Jan Thu Nguyễn Vũ.
Vy: Sounds good. So where are you from?
Mrs. Vu: Well I was born in Nha Trang, Việt Nam but now I am living in Westminster, California.
Vy: Sounds good. Can I ask you what was it like growing up in Nha Trang?
Mrs. Vu: Well I don’t remember much of Nha Trang except the beaches, because we didn’t live there very long, we actually live in a little city near Saigon called Bien Hoà and most of my young life back then were from there. My parents own a pharmacy and I went to Catholic school and life was really good. I was very much a Tomboy, so I would be playing, being outside with all the other boys in the neighborhood, playing with them. Getting into trouble like any other boy. That’s what I remember.
Vy: That sounds really fun. What did you enjoy most growing up in Vietnam, anything specific?
Mrs. Vu: Yes. The carefree life as a young kid, I was very comfortable and I was 7—I remember when I would go home alone, getting on a “Tuk-Tuk,” what they called it. A three-wheel, almost like a bus system, for public use and I would get on it myself to take myself home and I felt very safe back then, and very confident that I could move freely and wasn’t afraid. That’s what I remember.
Part 2: The Fall of Saigon, Escape, and Resettlement
Matthew: These set of questions are going to ask about any direct experiences you had with the war, or witnessing conflict. So to start, what do you recall hearing first about any conflict growing up in Vietnam?
Mrs. Vu: To be honest, I didn’t know there was a war. I was 7 […or 6 years old], we didn’t leave until I was 8, so all those years I didn’t know anything about there was a war going on. I wasn’t even aware of it.
Matthew: Do you think growing up in Saigon, people were more isolated from the conflict?
Mrs. Vu: That I don’t know. I’m sure my parents, they knew about it but they didn’t tell us kids, so I did not see any type of military presence that I could remember when I was in Saigon, so I had no idea.
Matthew: What led your family to choose to leave eventually?
Mrs. Vu: Well, the background of my dad was that he was forced (when he was younger) to work for the Communists and he would be the one that would transfer money, from what he told us, from one place to another. He did not like it because he was forced to do that, he tried to get out of it. What he told us was, one time he was supposed to be transferring money from one place to another, but he took the money and used that to escape (going into hiding) so he doesn’t have to work for them anymore. So he is basically in their black book, so if we were to stay and get caught, then it would be very dangerous: they could kill him. With that alone, we have to leave the country.
Matthew: Do you recall the date or time your family left?
Mrs. Vu: It was the night of April 29th, 1975. I know that date because that very night, the next day, Saigon fell.
Matthew: So in leaving Vietnam, whenever we talk or hear about survivor’s stories, there’s always a myriad of different ways that people ended up leaving. How did your family manage to leave logistically?
Mrs. Vu: So my aunt and uncle, which was my mom’s sister’s family, they also own a pharmacy, but they were a little bit more well-to-do than we were because they were more established. We, my family, had just started out, so we weren’t in the business for long. So they had a sedan, a car, and that was our motor transportation so my family and my aunt’s family. We all load up in the car with very little belongings like just a few things because there are 7 people in my family and 8 people in my aunt’s family, so that’s 15 people cramming into a sedan. So all the kids were sitting on somebody’s lap. So just imagine like those clown cars; stuffing everybody in. And so there’s no room for belongings so we just could carry things that we could fit into the car and that’s how we traveled. We all met at my aunt’s house and we went from there to the dock where all the navy ships were. Because one of my other aunt’s stepson, he was in the navy. He was able to get us passage onto a Vietnamese navy ship ao we were supposed to go there and board the navy ship. But when we got closer to the dock, it was chaotic. There were so many people, people running all over the place. So of course, the sedan wouldn’t fit so we all had to get out of the car and travel by foot. And imagine a husband and wife with 6 kids or 5 kids in total. All little kids. Can you imagine, if one of us were to have gone missing or just got lost, that would be awful. So what my mom did was, thinking ahead, sewed pockets into each one of our waistbands (of our pants) and stuffed money in there, in case one of us or some of us got lost, we would have money to survive until we can be found or whatever.
At that time, I had no idea, I knew nothing, to me it was just, we’re just going somewhere and it was exciting. All seeing all these people that I think back, now me being a parent, how terrible and terrifying it was for my parents to have 5 or 6 kids in all the chaos and to lose one of us. Thankfully, nobody got lost. We all got on the navy ship fine. I remember the number of the ship is called 503 Navy Ship, and we got on it and was able to leave that very night, thankfully.
Matthew: That was a pretty crazy story, I can’t even sugarcoat it. So to ask a follow up question, in the form you submitted when agreeing to interview, we noticed that you spend time in Guam and also in Camp Pendleton, so to ask first, why Guam and how did you get to Guam?
Mrs. Vu: So to continue the story, we went out to sea with our navy ship, it was loaded with people. More than they can handle so it went very slow. I think something had happened, either the engine died or something that caused the ship to stop working so it was just floating. But I remembered seeing a documentary where there were American ships way out in the ocean, like a few miles out, waiting to rescue anyone that was trying to escape the country by sea. So thankfully, we were rescued by an American ship, we all boarded onto that American ship, and we docked in Guam. So that’s how we came to Guam.
They processed us, gave us social security numbers, and took our personal information like our birth dates, names, etc and processed them. We stayed in Guam for 3 months. I have to say, those were the best 3 months I’ve ever had in Guam, it was like living on a tropical island for 3 months with the oceans as your view. They set up tents, like huge tents, so there were several families living in 1 tent. They set up showers for us and they would feed us and most nights would have movies. They set up bleachers and a big screen for movies and during the day we would swim in the ocean. It was beautiful, beautiful white sand beaches; the water was very warm just like if you were in Hawaii. It was so beautiful and we just basically lived in paradise for 3 months.
Matthew: When you lived in Guam were you considered a refugee?
Mrs. Vu: Yes, we were all refugees.
Matthew: So in terms of accommodations, did you live in a camp? Or in group housing?
Mrs. Vu: It was a huge tent. It was a military tent, it’s like a military green tent that they set up and several families can live in that tent. Because the weather was warm and beautiful, we didn’t need any protection besides the wind. The tent was very sufficient and comfortable and we were not allowed to cook anything. Of course, most adults missed the homecook, Vietnamese meals, so some of them would go into the jungle. One side is the ocean and the far out is the jungle. A lot of the adults would go exploring. They would go into the jungle to see what they could find that was edible. They found a lot of the plants there that were edible and would bring them back. Cook them up and make soup. Like when you go camping and make a fire so that’s what they did. So they made fire to cook the meal, some people would go into the ocean and hunt for sea cucumbers which were edible, so they would cook that ip and invite everybody that wants to join and eat. When the military police found out, they came and told us we couldn’t do that and they destroyed all the cooking implements and the fire and that we weren’t allowed to do that. Somehow, people were able to make food and cook. So I thought that was fun and exciting.
Matthew: It sounded great that even though you guys were in Guam under circumstances that were completely out of your control, you guys still managed to establish a sense of community.
Mrs. Vu: Yes we did, I was very young. I knew nothing about the war, everything was so an adventure for me. It was so fun to me during that time of my life. I knew no hardship, everything was an adventure.
Matthew: So we saw that, a little bit, that you also spend time in Camp Pendleton in the San Diego area. What was the process of getting from Guam to Camp Pendleton and why did you do so, if you can recall?
Mrs. Vu: I think Guam was a stopping point until they could get people relocated elsewhere that was more practical. So after 3 months in Guam, they separated everybody. I don’t know what the process was but they somehow divide everyone that was in Guam into different camps throughout the United States. One of my aunts’ family was relocated to a military camp in Wisconsin. That was somewhere in the midwest. My family and another of my aunts’ family was relocated to Camp Pendleton in San Diego. And I don’t remember what the process was to separate people but you know, we didn’t even know how to ask to keep us together so luckily one of my aunt’s family was able to relocate to Camp Pendleton but the other one was not. So we got to Camp Pendleton, we were there for 10 months, I think that was the time where we were waiting for sponsorship, for people to sponsor us, to go to live and assimilate to America. It took us 10 months and we didn’t find it but somebody else found it for us. I guess (I don’t know the process), I assumed that they interviewed my parents and asked for what kind of sponsorship like what kind of church, or what religion we would prefer because we were Catholic. Somehow we were sponsored by a Catholic church in Minnesota, Bemidji Minnesota. After 10 months, we flew out to Minnesota. I’m not sure who paid for it (the church or the government), but we flew out to Minnesota. We were set up by the Catholic Church there.
Matthew: How long did you spend in Minnesota particularly?
Mrs. Vu: So we live in Minnesota for about a year and a half. When we came, it was October so it was during Fall, it was cold for us because we were still coming from a tropical county. Minnesota was a huge difference as far as weather wise for us, so it was very cold in October. But it was beautiful there. I remember the leaves were turning orange and yellow and it was not something I would see in Vietnam.
And they set us up at a house that they rented for us, it was a huge house. It has 2 stories and it also has a basement. So they rented that out for us and we lived there for a year and a half. When winter came, it was very, very cold. My parents had a hard time living in such a cold environment. For us kids, especially for me, I loved it. I thought it was so much fun. Being and seeing so much snow. Being in the snow, I self-taught ice skating. There was a pond in the back of the house and everyday afterschool I would go ice skating. I loved it, I loved the snow. I assimilated very quickly.
When we went to school, there was a proportion of the time where my siblings and I were taken to the gym and there was a teacher there that would teach us English so that we can learn how to speak English. So we can communicate with the kids at school with anybody, but after a year and a half, it got too cold for my parents. They said that they could not live there for a long period of time.
At that time, my aunt who was living in the camp in Wisconsin had moved to California. And so, my aunt talked (or wrote) to my mom saying “why don’t you guys come out here, it’s very nice and warm. The weather is almost like Vietnam.” I guess that didn’t take much, so my family notified the Church and that we would like to move to California. The Church was very supportive, they got us a huge station wagon and packed out belongings and with a wagon behind it. They had someone help us drive to California, but it was just my dad and my two older siblings with a driver in the car to drive all the way from Minnesota to California.
But for my mom, myself, and my 3 younger siblings, we all flew. So they put us on an airplane and flew us to California. So we met with my dad there and … we all lived in San Jose, so California but in San Jose at the time. All 3 sisters, my mom, my 2 aunts, we all rented a house right next to each other. So all 3 houses were right side by side and we lived in San Jose for a few years. I was about 9 years old or 10 at the time, went to school and my mom was very happy because she was with her sisters and I got to spend everyday with my cousins. They all live next door; it was a fun time for us. We stayed there for only 2 years.
Part 3: Post-War Identity as a Vietnamese-American
Matthew: When did you and your family eventually decide to settle in Orange County or Westminster in particular?
Mrs. Vu: So after 2 years in San Jose, my dad was looking for a job. One of my aunt moved to Westminster and called my mom—“Why don’t you move down to Westminster, there’s a huge Vietnamese community here.” My mom listened to her so we moved to Westminster. After 2 years, we moved back to San Jose, not sure why. It was fun for me, moving back and forth, because I got to see my other cousins [because] my other aunt stayed in San Jose. After we lived in San Jose near Milpitas, I went to high school for a couple of years and my mom wanted to move back to Westminster. So we moved back to Westminster, that was the last move we made. We have stayed in Westminster since then. So in 1982, we moved to Westminster for good. So I have been here since 1982.
Well—we were in Westminster twice. The first time was when I went to junior high, the first two years of junior high. I would say that was ‘79 and ‘80. The second time was ‘82.
Junbo: The second question is—how did you adapt to life in America?
Mrs. Vu: I love to read! So I wanted to learn the language quickly so that I can read all the books that are available. It was very important to me to learn to speak the language as well as I can with you know, as few accents, if any, so that I can assimilate into the American community and culture—I wanted to become an American. But at the same time, I wanted to retain my Vietnamese culture and language so I still read in Vietnamese so that I don’t forget the language. I can still read, write, and speak fluently. I guess in short, I wanted to become an American, but I want to retain my culture as well.
Matthew: I know today Westminster and San Jose are noted for having very large Vietnamese populations. Was [the Vietnamese] population also as big in the ‘80s when you were living there? Or not as much?
Mrs. Vu: No, no. In the ‘80s, there were very few Asian markets—maybe just a couple. Mostly, we just went to American grocery stores and buy whatever we can. Any vegetables can be stir fried, so it doesn’t matter if it’s Asian or American. The Vietnamese community was not that huge, but it was growing—it was bigger than most places in the United States. Even though it was still small at that time, it was still the biggest concentration of Vietnamese.
Vy: Can I also ask a follow up question? You moved to a lot of different places and went to school 1-2 years [in each]. Was it hard being in school and getting to know other people? How did you involve yourself in school?
Mrs. Vu: When we first came to San Jose, I did not enjoy school very much. I was bullied by a lot of the kids that you know, at that time, they looked at all Asians as the same. Doesn’t matter if we’re Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, or Japanese, we were given the same derogatory names. I would get teased all the time. I took it in stride—I did not cry because I did not let that bother me too much, but I did not enjoy it either. I put up with it and concentrated on my schoolwork. I excelled in school because of that, you know, because I poured all my energy into my schoolwork. I had very few friends that first two years in San Jose. When we moved to Westminster, I was in the 7th [grade]—I skipped 6th grade, I told my parents that school was too easy, so I wanted to skip a grade. They made me take a test, and I passed, so they allowed me to skip a grade. I went from 5th grade to 7th and 8th.
7th and 8th I was in junior high, and I made some friends there—mostly Asian. There were, like I said, that time in Westminster, there were a lot of Asians. Not just Vietnamese, but you know, Cambodians—my best friend was a Cambodian, and then one of my other best friends was Indian, from India. I made a lot of friends when in junior high, mostly Asians. I was not comfortable yet making friends with Caucasian kids. They were very confident and they just looked at us like they didn’t really care about us. Nobody was nice enough to us. It made me feel self-conscious so I didn’t make an effort to make any friends because nobody really wanted to be my friends with us. So us Asians, we kind of stuck together and made friends—you know you had a small group of Asian friends at school.
And then back to San Jose for my first two years of high school. My cousin went to that high school, so she was like my friend. Near Milpitas, there was a huge concentration of Filipinos at that high school. So I made some friends, but again, Asian—no Caucasian friends. That, basically throughout the rest of my high school, and the last two years of my high school in Westminster, all Vietnamese friends. I did not get comfortable until I was in my twenties to be able to be comfortable being friends with a Caucasian.
Matthew: Did you find yourself gravitating towards other Asian kids in school because you felt you had a common experience?
Mrs. Vu: Probably, but more because I was more comfortable—more comfortable speaking with them. I guess my English was not exactly that great, so I was more comfortable speaking Vietnamese, so that’s why I seeked out Vietnamese friends. For the other Asian friends, yes we speak English, and that’s how we learn. When you’re speaking English with another Asian, you feel less self-conscious and you’re more comfortable. But if I were to speak English with a Caucasian person, I would be very nervous and so, I guess I was just scared.
Matthew: Thank you for sharing that. This next question is a little different from what we’ve talked about before. But I’m just going to ask if you ever felt connected to your history or past as a refugee?
Mrs. Vu: I don’t know how to answer that question—hopefully this will answer it. I still feel very much Vietnamese. I miss the country. I have been back twice, and it was just a feeling that being back in my homeland, it felt really good. There’s still a lot of Vietnamese in me. You know, I’ve been in the United States since ‘75, which is 48 years, I believe? I have been in the States more than I have been in my own country, but yet, I feel I’m still connected to my homeland of Vietnam. I still, you know, talk about it. I still love the food. Some of the foods are stinky, I love it! You know, people can’t stand it, I love it—you know, all the stinky sauces, I can eat ‘em all. So, I’m still very much Vietnamese, but I’m also very much Americanized, I would say.
Matthew: I also am a huge proponent of Vietnamese food [laughter].
Mrs. Vu: [laughter]
Matthew: I don’t know if Jonah has told you this, but there are so many times where I would just go to her apartment and she would be like, “My mom made this,” and I would eat it so fast.
Mrs. Vu: I’m glad you enjoyed it!
Matthew: To follow up on that, you had so many different experiences growing up, moving to different places and assimilating. When you started your own family, were you ever worried that your kids were not going to understand that experience, or not really understand you?
Mrs. Vu: I didn’t really think about it. I was very Americanized. I think that raising my kids, I want them to be a part of the American culture. Of course, I would love for them to be able to know where their parents came from. That’s why they came back with us to Vietnam one time. You know, we want them to know the country their parents are from. I don’t expect them to feel the way I feel about the country, because they were born [in the United States]. My husband is like me—he’s still very much Vietnamese, but very Americanized as well, and so we can swing either way, but we want our kids to be able to be just like any other American. But also, you know, understand where they came from as well. So we would tell them stories, especially me, I would tell them stories about my childhood in Vietnam and stuff like that. Oh yeah, and of course, the food. At home, I cook predominantly Vietnamese food. So, they know it—they know it all. They love it! They miss it, especially Jonah’s brother, he loves Vietnamese food. But now that they’re older, you know, they’ve experienced other cultures food-wise, and I’m good with that. As long as there’s still some Vietnamese in them, I’m good.
Junbo: Have you ever traveled back to Vietnam? If so, how was your experience?
Mrs. Vu: I went back twice. My husband and I, the first time was 2008. It was just the two of us, without the kids. I think I cried. I am—actually I’m getting emotional now—because it was so long since I’ve been back. And seeing everything—I went back to the house where we used to live. It’s boarded up, nobody lives there, it’s empty and it just sits empty. And I visited my relatives in Vietnam. I still feel very connected to the country. The second time we went back, we took the kids with us (Jonah and her brother), just so they see where their parents are from and their background. The second time was more of a happy visitation. We went to a lot of places—we went from north Vietnam and traveled slowly down to south Vietnam and saw as much as we could see of the country and the beautiful scenery and the culture. Everything that we experienced as kids we wanted to show our kids what we went through. The second time was a fun time and I’m glad the kids came with us so that they knew how it was in Vietnam.