The Journey of a Vietnamese Refugee: Mai Nguyen
Profilers: John Briney, Allison Do, Molly Calhoon
A Pampered Life in Saigon
I think I was very lucky to be born in my family. I had a very sheltered life, very privileged. I went to Catholic French School from kindergarten up to ninth grade. That’s the year I had to leave Vietnam: I was in the ninth grade. You know, I have brothers and sisters, and I had tutors coming to my home helping me with my homework, and we had maids at home, and we had a chauffeur, so everything was just fine before 1975. It was a perfect life, I would have said that. No crisis, nothing. My parents was very happily married. I got three sisters, three brothers. I was the youngest one, and I always number one in class, so everything for me was perfect up to then.
Where in Vietnam did you live?
I lived in Saigon. I was born in Saigon, and I grew up and I only knew Saigon and Vung Tau is another beach city that I used to go for summer vacations so I only know two. Saigon and bung tow and that’s it. So I basically I don’t know anything about suburbs or anything because my life really sheltered. Just go to school, go home, then summertime my parents sent me to the beach house. For 15 years my life was like that.
So how did your life change in 1975?
In 1975 you know I remember that day not very clearly but I was 15. I was in school that day and suddenly I remember the nun told me that the front office called me. I had to report to the front office. Somebody from my family wanted to pick me up to go home. And that was like April, like a week before the end of April. So I went to the front office and there was my maid. She was waiting for me and she said my parents want me to go home right away so we walk home. And I remember it was eerie. The street was really empty that day. It was maybe 30-40 minute walk home and when I get home my mom say, “You got 15 minutes, pack up everything in a small bag”. I remember the bag really clearly, small like this. Whatever, she doesn’t care. And she was waiting for my other sisters to come home. The minute my brothers, my sisters came home, we all packed really quickly. And then I think about two hours later we left. We came to a destination, unknown house.
Elaborate on what is this unknown house?
Well when we left we didn’t say goodbye to anybody. We left in secret, so we didn’t say goodbye to the neighbors. We didn’t say anything to the maids; we just told them we were gonna come back right now. We just pack and go. That’s what we told them. But I remember clearly, my mom, she gave money to the maids. She gave some of them gold, you know. And I think in her mind, we might not come back. In that time, everybody tried to escape from Vietnam. A lot of time the escape failed, so we have to go back, you know. But that particular day when we left I remember my mom, she gave money to the maids and to the chauffeur.
The chauffeur took us to this destination. Actually not the chauffeur. He even stayed home. My father drove the car himself. So all of us stuck in the car and we drove to this house. I don’t even remember where but very close to my home. And then they say get out of the car. Each one have one bag only. Get in the house and stay in there. So we get in the house, and my father at that time, he got like three suitcases. And they told him no, just one. So we left the other two outside, and I think he lost a lot of stuff in those suitcases. But anyway we get into the house and we were shocked. There was hundreds of people inside the house like us already, each one with a luggage. And they told us to keep quiet, no talking. So every family sit in one corner; there’s hundreds of us. We stayed there, no food no drink, no nothing. And then I think night comes, they finally gave us some sandwiches to eat. And then we were waiting, and I didn’t know waiting for what either. Nobody say anything, you know, the adults don’t talk. We just quiet.
And finally I think midnight came and they told us “get in line and get in the bus”. There’s a big bus, you know, like a military bus came. So we all get in the bus and they told us “don’t sit in the seat. Lay down on the floor”. So I think like fifty or sixty of us we all lay down on the floor. They tell us, “Don’t talk, just lay down on the floor”. I have no clue what we were doing, seriously. Then the bus start moving and finally I realize, because when they talk there’s some soldiers stopping the bus and they’re talking. And I realized we were at the airport, the Tan Son Nhat Airport in Vietnam, in Saigon. They were speaking in Vietnamese and the driver was American GI. So I couldn’t understand English at that time really well but they changing something and they let the guy drive the truck in. We get in the airport, oh my god, when I get in the airport, when we get off the truck, I was really shocked. There was thousands of us in there, Vietnamese, Americans, everybody, you know it’s like a warehouse. So many people, so noisy. You know, it’s like chaos in there. And I realize “oh, so this is it. Airport, really something happening here”. I realize there’s no time to think or feel anything. Everything so fast, happening. Just go with the flow you know, and whatever my parents say, just do it. Quiet, don’t ask any questions.
So we stay in the airport two nights and we have some money. My parents have a lot of money at that time so we bought food in the airport, right. And then the third day they finally call my family on the list to get on the airplane. It was a C-130. It’s a cargo, military airplane. So they put people in there; my family got in the airplane. It was deafening I remember. It was so bad. It hurt my ears so badly. And the minute it took off, I think I remember my last sight of Saigon was a lot of light and a lot of fires. You know I think I left on the…must be the 25th or 26th. That’s right before the fall of Saigon, right. Saigon fell on April 30th. So I left about four or five days before it. I remember when I looked down when the airplane took off, all I see fires. So that means the Communists at that time already started shooting into Saigon. So we escape on time, you know. And that was my last memory of Saigon when I left. And after that I start throwing up. All that flight is from Saigon to Guam. I don’t know how many hours, maybe four or five hours. All I did was throwing up, throwing up, throwing up, you know constant all over my father. I was sitting next to my father, all over his, nonstop. That’s when I realize for the first time in my life I’m airsick. Terribly airsick. Oh my god it was unbelievable! You know, and then the C-130 is extremely bumpy. You know, I don’t know if you have seen them. It’s the one that’s like a helicopter but a huge one. It have very noisy, extremely uncomfortable.
For five hours, a lot of the time I was thinking I wish I could jump out. This is too much. By the time we get to Guam, we didn’t know where we were. I didn’t even know where Guam was. I get out, you know I think I fainted, was exhausted or something. My father carried me in and that’s what I remember. We got to Guam, yeah, about five or six hours later. We left Vietnam and my last memory was Saigon was under fire. Yeah.
Life As a Refugee in Guam
When we get to Guam, really that’s when we realize that the Americans already prepare, you know, to receive us, the refugees. We didn’t know anything because I think the last month in Saigon, they block, they censor all the news. We didn’t know that we were losing. We know that we were losing because we have a lot of refugees coming from the central. Everybody coming to Saigon, but we didn’t know that we in that bad shape. When we went to get to Guam, that’s when we realized, “oh my god, this is it”. You know, because the Americans already, we got in there and they processed your paper. They check your health; they check your, they do x-rays, they do everything. Everything was set up. We went through the whole process and they asked your name and the American the last name come last. Our way, the last name come first. That’s the Vietnamese way, right? So they keep asking, “Which one is your last name? Which one is your first name? Which are your middle names?” My name changed completely. The American way, we have to switch everything. But we didn’t understand English that well, so it’s like, “What? What?” It was really hard at that time to understand these, but they very nice, they help us.
And I think I stay in Guam for, I don’t know, two weeks. But it was horrible though because we came to Guam at night. And I remember clearly that night they took us on a truck, and this American GI, he drove all of us, my family, the refugees, and he drop us at midnight. All we saw is the stars. We didn’t see anything. They say get off the truck so we got off the truck. They say just sit there and wait for us, so we sit there for hours and hours. We didn’t see anybody coming. All I saw was darkness around us, nothing. And all Vietnamese, I don’t know maybe 40 or 50 of us, waiting and waiting. And then my aunt start crying, and my mom, you know, start crying. Where are we? What’s happening? You know, nobody knows exactly what’s happening. By the time morning come, then we realize we in the middle of nowhere. And finally the American GI came back and they brought woods and tents and they told us help them to set up the tents. Most of these Vietnamese men, they come from upper class. They don’t know how to do anything, you know. So nobody can help.
So the American GI, they set up like rows and rows of tents really quick. And then they assign my family to one tent with cots. In each tent, they have about 50 or 60 cots. So my family shared a tent with a couple more families. They gave us blankets and that’s it. Then, in that moment, I realize this is it. From the moment I left Vietnam, I mean the day I left school, I went home, I packed, to the day that I came to Guam, I didn’t have time to think and analyze anything. But that night when I slept in the tent and I looked up, it was like oh my god, I don’t know what’s going on really. This is not good, whatever it is, this is not good at all, you know. And nobody knows what happening because at that time we didn’t know that the Americans already have a refugee program, helping us. We didn’t know anything about it. And none of us speak…see the problem…we all study English. I can write, I can read really well because we study English since 5th grade. I was in 9th grade already so I have four years of English. I can speak French, I can read French fluently, but English was our, what you call it, foreign language. French was my main language in that time in school. But when they talk, I cannot understand anything because different Americans have different accents, really hard to understand.
We don’t dare to ask them anything. And then they set up tents every day, three meals a day. We just stand in line, wait for the food, go home. And it was like a camp, but a bad camp, really bad. And then they set up a restroom. I still remember the restroom. It was really funny. All they do is put a piece of wood around and then they have a showerhead. And then we were taking a shower, I look up and I saw this American GI dangling on the electrical pole looking at me. I said, “What?!” Oh it’s so funny, it’s really funny. Then this toilet is really funny they have these drums like this, I don’t know what kind. Wood, or something, and they make a hole, put a door, and then that’s it. If you want to go, I usually go at night with my father. He stayed at the door and everybody go at the same time. Take a shower at night, go to toilet at night. So my father guarded the door. And then when we washed the clothing, all of us lined up. There’s only one fountain, everybody washed. Only one piece of clothing, we keep wearing the same thing over again and stay in line. That’s why, I think, for the rest of my life I hate to stand in line for food. It was unbelievable. Long, long line, miles and miles waiting for food, and it was unbearably hot in Guam. Very hot. That was in, I think, beginning of May. Super hot and everybody wear a towel on their head because it was so hot. So you put water on the towel and then you put the towel on your head to protect yourself. And that was the beginning of my refugee life. It was no fun though, oh my god. First couple of days it was like oh my god.
At night, I was scared to sleep because I heard about snakes at night. And we were living in a tent on a cot and it was super cold. It was cold at night, very cold actually, but in daytime it’s extremely hot. Very strange weather in Guam. I don’t know if you know where Guam is or not. Yeah it’s an island. In WWII the Japanese used to occupy them, right? I never heard of Guam until I came there, but we stayed there about two weeks, and then they transferred us. They say that after we clear of the health and everything and all the background and anything, and they know we’re not Communists, we not spy, we not this and that, then they say okay now you can come to America. So we boarded the plane and it stopped in Hawaii for like one or two hours. And from Hawaii we supposed to go to California, one of the refugee camps. But when we boarded the plane, midway they told us Camp Pendleton in California was full now. We cannot take all of you there so this plane will be diverted to Fort Chafee, Arkansas. My family, nobody knew where Arkansas was. We had never heard of that place. All I know was California and Hollywood and New York. Basically that’s all of my knowledge about America, Disneyland. Arkansas, we don’t know what that is. Anyway, when we end up in Arkansas, we get out. My whole family say, “What is this?” And they took us to another refugee camp. This one, I don’t know if it’s an army or what, but we lucky because we were the first wave of refugees who came there so they put us in the barracks, you know, for the high ranked officers. So at least we stayed in the barracks. After that, everybody stayed in the tents again. And I heard that at one point it had up to 50,000 refugees in the camp. I stayed there from May to September. Four months in there.
Life In America: The Fall from Luxury
After that, we couldn’t get out. In 1975, the American government set up a program. We cannot get out of refugee camp until you find a sponsor. American that’s willing to sponsor you out of the camp and they will serve as your mentor, so you can learn the American way and merge into the mainstream. So it took us four months because my family was big. There were 10 of us. Finally we found 5 doctors in Atlanta, Georgia. They were willing to sponsor my family. And when I get out, I think two weeks later, I went back to school, high school. And that was a cultural shock! A public high school is completely different from what I was used to in my country. So I ended up in Atlanta, Georgia.
Actually we were really impressed when our sponsors picked us up from the airport and took us home. And that house…I don’t know if you’ve seen Gone With the Wind, this is Atlanta, Georgia, right? And I don’t know if you’re familiar with the life in the south, but the houses all made of woodwork and they always have a front porch. And in the front porch they only have a sofa or a swing. And that house exactly like in those Hollywood movies. It’s an old, old house. The minute we step on the porch, all the board creaking, you can hear. And the minute they drop us at the house and introduce us and say this is your place now. We all like huh? This is like in a movie. These things don’t happen to us. It was really old house, and when we get in there, it was three bedrooms, two bathrooms, no central heating. And for heating I remember we have one of those that you put on the floor and they turn on the gas and you have to use a match, then poof like this. The first time we turned it on we were all so scared, all these smells and everything.
And the house is extremely cold in the winter, very cold. I remember everybody in my family had to wear a coat. Actually, I wear like three or four layers and every time I study. I didn’t have a desk. My desk was an ironing board. Yeah because that’s how we…nothing. So I just used the ironing board. I open it up and…You know I forgot about all of this, and I talk about it now and it’s like whoosh. Just give me a second. It’s not bad it’s just that…I don’t know how you say it. Suddenly overnight your life just turned upside down. It’s hard for you to accept it. So for the first few weeks in that house, I think my whole family was under stress. There was so much friction in my family, and then my brothers and sisters, I think they were more pampered than me because they had a longer life in Vietnam and they so used to all these privileges. So they used to talk back to my father and my mom. At that time I was 15; I didn’t say anything, but all the time I saw my sister complaining, why did you bring us here and all this stuff. And my father was a very sensitive person. He didn’t say anything much but I could tell he’s really hurt.
I know for the first couple months for sure my parents think that they made a mistake bringing us here. There’s nothing here really. Our life goes whoosh like this. At that time, all the news from Vietnam was censored. We didn’t hear anything from our relatives. We didn’t know that their life back in Vietnam ten times worse than us or hundred times. Once the communists took over, everything is like no more. No food, no nothing, no electricity, no power. And most of my family who stayed there were out in reeducation camps. They a hundred times worse than us but of course the first six months we were here all the communication was broken. We didn’t know so we were so pampered, so sheltered, we didn’t appreciate that we were lucky to come here.
So the first year, my family was all shaken up. My brother and sister was very unhappy, and, then right away my three sisters… they used to be in premed, two of them premed, one of them pharmacy school. They have to go to work; the sponsor say they only pay for us for 6 months rental. After that, we on our own. So, they find seamstress job for my three eldest sisters. They all become seamstress. My eldest brother, he’s the only one who got lucky because he got a scholarship when we were in the refugee camp. They offered him a scholarship. He went straight to Colorado, Denver school, and me and my other two brothers we were lucky because we got to go to high school because it’s mandatory. We have to go to school right? My three sisters, they were very unhappy because they have to go to work and every day they come home broken, depressed because they were students before and now they have to go to work, and they have no future. And the way they look at it, all of us become maids or doing physical work, labor. And my father was 62, 61 he cannot speak English, only French. He cannot find work. My mom, the same way, she was my age now, about 55, and she cannot find work, so she depends on my sisters. My second sister, she was pretty upset at my parents, right, for bringing her here. All the time she talk back and become very disrespectful to my father. So it’s really affecting the whole family and then at 16 I found a job after school. From 16 until now I’ve worked continuously non-stop.
In ’81 my father passed away and at that time he didn’t know that he make the right decision. All the time that he was here in the six years, he was really unhappy because he thought he made a bad decision to bring us here. I wish only that my father last a little bit longer, that he can see the good results that he did. Two years later, all of us, every single one of us, graduated with a degree from university. And from then on everything, we found job. My eldest brother he worked for LADWP. My second one got a job with IBM. My third one, he continued then he went to UCLA to become a dentist. I continued. I have a Master’s degree…I have two degrees. I’m a mechanical engineer and a chemical engineer. My second sister, she quit pre-med because such a long way to continue, so she became a microbiologist. My first one became a pharmacist, that’s what she used to be before. And my third one become an electrical engineer. It took us a long time, 8-10 years, but after 10 years…I only wish my father last longer so that he can see that the decision that he made was completely right.