From Refugee to Restaurateur: Tom Tran's Survival Through the Vietnam War
Profilers: Raul Iglesias and Alan Zhan
Growing Up Surrounded By War
Tom: My name is Tom, Tom Tran. I’m Vietnamese, and I come to this country on 1979, and I left my country on 1978, but I got here on 1979 because I stay in refugee camp for a year. My homeland is, like you know, I provide that to you, my homeland is Vien Binh, it’s south of Saigon City- now it’s Ho Chi Minh City, yeah. Ok, and today thank you for letting me to have the opportunity to share what my past and what my experience, and what I went through, or what I remember, you know, of my childhood. And I can tell you today is what I see and what I know- or maybe it’s something I…beyond my knowledge, I don’t know…maybe, I don’t know. Because a lot of the political- you know after the country fell, a lot of things going on, we too young, and…we probably, kind of…thinking is very simple and naïve at that time everything- you know 12 years old when the war going on. So, well, that’s about it I introduced myself.
Q: How was life growing up in Vietnam during the war?
Tom: That’s, you know the time moving. When I was young over there, just like I said you know, our lives is so simple and naïve because- one thing is because we are young, so we don’t know what’s going on. We thinking is very simple, because we think there’s a war going on is normal. Yeah, we notice our country have war but we feel that’s normal, because everyday we go to school…sometimes, you know not all the time but sometimes we see, you know the night before fighting or something and dead body or things, and we think it’s normal, but I don’t know why at that time we think this way…yeah, we think this way. At nighttime, always a gunfight, but we don’t know what’s really going on. Bombing? We don’t know. The only thing I remember is when we was young, and my parents always remind us, say “if something getting worse, you know getting close to here but you can hear the siren you know from fighting, from gunshot, and we all family have to go downstairs to hide.” Because my dad, you know make like a- more like a homemade cave to be a safe place for us. But I don’t think it’s that safe, but at that time, better than nothing, yeah that’s true. But…I didn’t see my father worry about. Because you know, that, one thing you know, we wake up the next day, everything back to normal again, I don’t know why. But now I know, I now why. Because you know, my father tried to not show- you know didn’t fear it or to show on his face, but maybe he worry a lot, but he don’t want to show us how worried he is. Yeah…that’s the thing you know now I realized that at that time- he always remind us to how to try to find a place to hide…safe place to stay, but now I know, you know he didn’t show but really he’s worried…yeah he’s worried, in fact you know he’s worried, yeah. That’s the thing when I was in childhood, and getting move on with the time. As the time go by, a lot of things I realize, just like, in fact I know my parents are afraid of and another thing is people is not normal, but one thing, maybe we are poor over there, so everybody the next day nothing they can do. They still have to go back to work, we have to go to school, and a lot of vendors selling things on street, and we still market opening. Even street peddling, you know people are allowed to sell things. Not many things in their hand but they try to sell because they want to make a living…yeah. We’ve been bombed so bad at nighttime but the next day, you know we go back to normal. Yeah, next day, we all regress back to the normal life, normal activity, normal operation. People still run back-and-forth and come- coming and go out a lot of people because we all have to living…to make living, that’s why.
Daniel: During this time of war, when you were growing up with your parents, was anything interrupted by the war?
Tom: Oh yeah it interrupt the school or the business or- of course they have. But we so very strong, but just like I said, you know…maybe we are poor, but we have to live. That’s why we have to do the same thing everyday we do. But of course, you know they really bother us, the situation over there really bother us, but we can’t say anything. Yeah, and we still have to wake up, we still have to go to school. I remember when I was young, when we wake up and we go to school, and all the neighbor kid, we walk together, and we see the other lines of the soldier walking. We walk to school and they walk to maybe a battle or something, I don’t know.
Daniel: How far was school from where you lived?
Tom: The city I lived is very small, I don’t live in Saigon City, it’s a big city but- that’s the capital, but I live in a very small city, I walk like 20 minutes. But, everyday we walk along we see the battle tanks, we see the peo- the soldiers walking but only different; their hand carry a gun, and our hand carries a book a pen. That’s the difference.
Daniel: And did you have any personal interactions with any American soldiers during the time?
Tom: Oh yeah, that’s a lot because every night, when they withdraw from the battle, come back to the city, they stay in front of my house, you know along there, you know the tanks- all the battle tanks? Yeah, so we interact with them, ask them- you know at that time, our English was terrible, but all we asked was for candy, but you know, they very nice, all the young people. Yeah, all the young kid.
Daniel: And you mentioned earlier about your father sort of putting up this wall to seem like he’s- to put up a brave face, right, for you and the family, to sort of make you guys feel safe.
Tom: Yeah, at that time we think that way, but you know the time go by, and we grow up a little bit and we can tell the difference and say “oh my god…daddy is not that strong.” You know, he’s still worried but he didn’t say a word. Yeah yeah see, he didn’t want to put us down, he want us to be- stay safe and listen to him because he’s…this is the father, so he has to protect us. But now you know, when we grow up more and more and we understand more.
Tom: A lot of time, those parents…they stressed, but they try to hide, you know. They try to hide, they don’t want us to worry. He let us know, yeah when the gunshot getting close you go downstairs find a safe place–the cave he made. And also, another thing was…”you guys have to study good” and things like that, but the next day, you know back to normal again. Maybe this a wartime, we didn’t understand the difference at all. Yeah, at that time we didn’t see a difference at all, we thinking “yeah we in the wartime”, but whose war and the war, you know we don’t know, we don’t know nothing. Until 1975, when the country fell. then we are kind of shocked, and we have stunned, and don’t know what’s going on.
Alan: And when the country fell, how was your everyday life after that?
Tom: Oh…you couldn’t believe it, at first- the first day the country fell…we feel to our feeling have to be happy, or worried. We are kinda confused, but you know why we confused? One side say “no more war”. Well of course, you happy, you don’t see any war from now on. But another side, you don’t know the system. You know, Communists…how they look like, how they behave, we don’t know. Yeah, but after we go back to school, oh, we seen a big difference. All the students…they have to exile to the front field, you know to work…and, of course brainwashed is another thing. And all the teacher in school, when we go back we don’t see our teacher. We see new teacher. And later on, we see our teacher, you know before come back to school to do things, to teach, but they already reeducation.
Tom: Oh…they send them out to reeducation and practice new political introduction. Because totally different politics, it’s totally different now. So we scary- at that time, we worried we say something wrong. When you say something wrong, they probably frame you up, you know with the name counterrevolution…and you in trouble.
Q: What ultimately drove you and your family to depart from Vietnam?
Tom: At that time, we try to stow away- try to escape separately. My brother- older brother and sister, they start first, and they escape and end up to Australia. Yeah, for us we- at that time, I still young, you know about 17, 18 years old, I stick with family, and my father decide “this time, you know they already got there, the older sister and older brother, got there. Why don’t we the whole family go?” And he decide that.
Daniel: That was a decision he made for the family?
Tom: Uh…good and bad. Good and bad, because not like- people think you escape, if you fail, you end up in jail. They let you go, but everything with money, bribery with money. But the bribery with money, not a hundred percent you safe, because why? Because you give the money, you know bribery, only for the local government. When you go out to the ocean, you will face a different group of people. Just like a pirate, they wash you out of everything, they take away everything.
Daniel: Do you remember any thoughts that you might’ve had when you were traveling to the United States?
Tom: Oh at that time we don’t know where we end up to, yeah we don’t know. Because the first thing, you just escape safe, you know out the country, then ok. Then when you get to the refugee camp, you have to register. Yeah you have to register, and all your paperwork will send out all over the whole world. So that’s why a lot of refugees end up to Australia, some to France, some to Germany, and some to the United States, you know not everybody come to United States. They find a sponsor for you. Who want to sponsor, you know those- I mean the refugee. So…you don’t know, you don’t know where you go really.
Daniel: So you said your family decided to go and separate and then go, right? It was your brother and your sister that went first?
Tom: Yes, they went out first and they got to Australia.
Daniel: Right, and who did you travel with when it was your turn to go?
Tom: I think after years later and we decide the whole family go.
Daniel: Oh, and how many of you were there at the time?
Tom: At that time, we have about…my mom clearly, and five kids, that’s 7-8 members. But to tell you the truth, unfortunately, my father not make it.
Daniel: Sorry to hear that.
Tom: Yeah, he past away on the refugee camp in Malaysia…he probably, you know we spent two weeks on the ocean. He probably be hungry and sick and all kind of damage in the body. So he get there and he sick and very sick and he pass away.
Daniel: How old was your father?
Q: What was daily life like in the refugee camps?
Tom: Yeah but still, a lot of messy things going on, violent things going on, because when the refugee come to one place- because we all have to dig well to get water for ourselves. Yeah, they don’t support that. They only support some rice and some vegetables, meat, but very small amounts. It’s good enough to survive but not good enough to be fill enough ok. So a lot of things we have to do it by ourselves. So, we have to go fishing by ourselves, go to dig well, you know to get water, by ourselves. Everything, we do. We live like a caveman. But the refugee camp- when we arrive, they treat us very well, because at that time is a- when you arrive, you know have a Red Cross over there. Yeah, the Red Cross in the refugee camp try to help people up, but after up, then a lot of things you have to do it by yourself. And you just put your name on the waiting list, send out to all over the world, and find a sponsor for you. If you lucky, you know another few months they call your name and say “oh yeah…you will be in…Australia” or “you will be in the US” at that time.
Daniel: When you first came to the United States, what were your first impressions?
Tom: I couldn’t believe it, you know, but when I first got here, end up to San Francisco. I got a church people on Venice Street, have a big church. They respond- response to us, you know a bunch of people. So very nice, we can go to get something, you know old clothes you know (that) people donated. We got the- a place to study, you know like second language- ESL?
Daniel: Oh ESL, I took ESL.
Tom: Yeah, yeah. And very nice, all the teachers, very nice. And we learn a little bit thing, then after that we- I have to move on, so I move from San Francisco to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania…oh, big difference.
Daniel: I can imagine.
Tom: Got out the airplane, you know I see all the snow I say “oh my god, I want to go back to San Francisco.”
Daniel: When you went there, in terms of your social life, being a young adult, was it hard to make friends?
Tom: I already have a friend, that’s why he talk me into it, he want me to move out there with him, he’s- he work in the restaurant. From that on, my job is restaurant work in Pittsburgh, and after that, sometime- you know restaurant say, if we find a job, restaurant provide everything: living place for you, the pay is good, then we go. So I go, from Pittsburgh I go to Ohio, I go to New York, and after that you know, I have another friend call me in Denver, Colorado, and I move back to Colorado. And at that time, I have a family, yeah. I meet my wife and my family.
Reflecting on Life Today
Alan: So, since then, has the war come up in your daily life now? And do you ever regret leaving Vietnam, or how do you feel your life would’ve changed if you stayed in Vietnam?
Tom: That’s a very, you know…the question for us- is ok. Because now we have a good life here, we have job, and we have a family. My son about your guys’ age- you’re about 20 something right, you 20 something?
Daniel: I’m 21.
Tom: Oh 21, you young, younger than my son. Yeah my son, he graduated from Santa Barbara.
Daniel: Oh that’s awesome.
Tom: Yeah. And…if you say “regret” for us, we not regret. But, you know for my mom, of course, because she lost, you know her beloved, yeah it’s my father, yeah. She always say “wow…we shouldn’t go out and leave the country.” But at that time, Vietnam is terrible. By the time we leave the country on ’78- ’79 is a very tough time. Now, the economy is reformed, so better, just like China, you know same thing. When the economy reforms that mean a lot of people coming there and investments or open a business and things like that, it’s ok now, but at that time, you don’t know. Even when the boats- when the boat leaving Vietnam, we look back to Vietnam, the land getting farther and farther, because you know our boat’s moving, getting farther. And I never think “I have a day that we can go back there and visit.” Never think about that. And that’s it, my life I look at Vietnam’s land again one more time and that’s it, but now you can travel back. You see, sometimes the time change, even what you thinking- you change too, that’s true, something I find out myself.
Alan: How do you think your life would’ve been different if you stayed in Vietnam?
Tom: Some doing good, some doing good. Because we already have a business established over there. Yeah, not a big business, but you know, in Vietnam is not like here. Here, you have to rent a place, you have to sell whatever the license let you to sell. For example, restaurant, or you wanna grocery store, you only sell groceries. In Vietnam, if you have a place, you can sell almost everything, and at nighttime, you can go upstairs and stay—you live in there too, live on business too but not in here. Even- you work in the restaurant, you close the restaurant, you go back to work to stay. That’s the difference, you know when we come here we confused we said “why, why why why people don’t live upstairs?”
Q: Do you think it would have been harder staying in Vietnam?
Tom: Yeah a lot of people ask this question, and they always mention like “why? Why would you guys work so hard? You know, you put your time on business, on job, you work 10 hours- 12 hours a day.” We say “it’s nothing, because when we in refugee camp, we go through everything far worse than that.” Of course everybody has to take rough and smooth, but you know, we only at that time, we only take rough, no smooth at all. But in here, we have rough and smooth, why? You know, so make it easy. After the country fell, ’75, we already hide out from the city where we live, because we plan on to leave the country for the whole family. We don’t want involved with the activity, you know with the government and things like that, so we try to find a way to leave. But at that time, not only- you can buy a boat and sail the boat to somewhere to escape, no not that way. They had organization, they all bribery with money. Yeah, you pay- I remember you have to pay 10 to 15 times per person. And they let you out, but they not guaranteed at all.
Q: How do you associate Vietnam in memory today?
Tom: You know, 1978 and ’79 is a very tough time for Vietnam. A lot of people work all day and go to exchange for just a cup of rice to bring home to feed the whole family. Work all day. At that time, it’s tough time, so when we decide to leave- when my parents decide to leave the whole family…our minds at that time, we just want to fire, you know…we can leave. I don’t care it’s Australia or America or- we don’t know because we just want to get out of that environment, over there it’s terrible at that time. But now it’s getting better, you see the time change, now getting better. Now a lot of people travel back there on Visa too. But at that time, it’s terrible. You can’t say a word when you around people. When the country fell, you cannot listen to the radio. Only some stations, you can listen. Just like an iron curtain, closed iron, you isolated there. You no contact outside, you don’t know what’s going on outside. But nowadays, you see- when you want- phone, you know you can talk to people, you can see them face to face. That’s Apple.
Alan: How do you feel about, I guess more “freedom” than you had?
Tom: Oh yeah of course, the whole reason, the whole purpose- we leave the country because we want to find freedom. When we come here, well I remember when I land to San Francisco, all the people form long line and waiting for refugee coming, and they have place for us to eat, and a place for us to stay, it’s so great, yeah. But after that, you know a lot of things is on my own, but you know I love to do that because only a few months in San Francisco I move to Pittsburgh, I go to Ohio, go to New York, Chicago. Yeah I live in Chicago, I work in electric company too.
Daniel: So how many jobs have you had ever- like when you first came, you said you moved to Philadelphia with your friend, right to work in the restaurant business.
Tom: Yeah, but when I move to San Francisco to Pittsburgh, Ohio, New York, that’s- all the jobs is in the restaurant. When I moved back to Chicago, I went to college. I went to college in Truman College in Chicago. I remember in Pittsburgh I got my high school diploma. I try to make it up, you know get the test with GED and get my diploma. Then move to Chicago, I work in the company- I work in the Central Can Company and Garden Electric Company. Real nice company. I think I stay there long, but somehow bad luck, you know I got laid off. But I don’t have the patience to wait. At that time, my friend called me from Denver, so I moved out to Denver. After that I work in the restaurant again, because I already have experience work in the restaurant, so I work in the restaurant. And the second time I work in the restaurant, I get the idea you know “yeah, someday I probably can run a restaurant, if I try to save up money and do that.” And finally, I did.
Daniel: That’s awesome. That’s great. That must’ve been an amazing feeling to own something of your own, to have your own business.
Tom: Yeah, but you know, the time go and you learn. Otherwise- before I worked in the restaurant and everything- I can open a restaurant. At that time, you know I work in San Francisco, I don’t think I can do it. But after I work in electric company, after I go back to my same job again I say “hey, that’s the way to do it.” You know if you’re strong enough, tough enough, you hang in there, and you make it.
Daniel: After you came to the United States, eventually you got your GE, and then you got a degree in Chicago. Was that something you wanted to do, or did you pursue education just because you knew it was gonna be a little easier to navigate?
Tom: A lot of this is nice…now I look back, I still make the wrong decision. I’d rather go to get more education, but I didn’t do it, because I have an opportunity, you know. People selling a restaurant and it looked exciting to me, but I say “well there’s a chance I jump in there” and…I was stuck in there, but I have to be tough enough to stuck in there and convert that into the money you want to do it. That’s something I do, yeah. But if I stay, you know work for the company in Chicago, maybe I continue, try to finish my school. At that time a garden company give me an opportunity to get a degree in the company and work for the company. Because you know, garden and electric companies- actually it’s work for GE…GE company.
Alan: If you haven’t done so already, do you plan on revisiting Vietnam?
Tom: Oh I visit Vietnam many times! Until you know the pandemic, then I stop it, I stop it for awhile.
Daniel: You’ve been back to your hometown.
Tom: Yeah hometown. I look at the house I lived, now it not belong to us, but I look at- I asked the owner of the house “let me in and visit.” Remind me a lot of things- yeah yeah when I was younger.
Daniel: When was the first time you went back since you were here?
Tom: Uh…1989. The first time. Long long time ago.
Daniel: How old were you when you went back?
Tom: That’s already- I already have a restaurant you know, 20 something years old, you know 30 years old.
Daniel: What was it like to go back? Did everything feel smaller when you went back?
Tom: Oh yeah, of course. Compared with that, before I say “well, I walk to school still take me 15-20 minutes” but now you know, like 5 minutes, 7 minutes you can get there. It’s very small, but I don’t know how I imagine at that time why I think that way, I think “oh this big city.” No, it’s very small, tiny.
Alan: When you went back, how have things changed, or what were your initial thoughts about how things changed?
Tom: Oh change a little bit by little on ’86. And I went back there, you know, it’s not that developed. See, people still follow you, because you know that’s a Communist country. They don’t know what you’re going to do over there, so they follow you and everything like that, it’s not comfortable. But after that, now you go, well you can do whatever you like. But don’t ever try to do, you know…like a counterrevolution, overthrow the government, things like that, and it’s ok, it’s ok. Now it’s quite developed, and people educated more over there now. Very good. Just like China, you know, same thing.
Daniel: Have you ever been to China?
Tom: A lot of times too. Russia not yet, but I’m going to.