The Journey of Tony Nguyen From Vietnam
Profilers: Adolfo Lopez, Katie Osako, Walt Pedreira
Part I – Life in Vietnam and Fleeing Vietnam
Tony: So, my name is Tony Nguyen, and I was born on June 29, 1969. [and] I was born in Saigon, Vietnam.
What was it like to grow up in Vietnam?
Tony: I grew up in Vietnam. During the war, I was very young. I do not remember about the war like that. But I grew up with the Communists, so I know how the life affected me a lot. That’s why my parents tried to send me out of the country when I was 9 years old, back in 1978. But it didn’t succeed until I turned 17 so in 1985, I was able to escape Vietnam.
Can you recall an experience with the Viet Cong?
Tony: So, after 1975, my dad worked for the US Army. So, it was very hard for me to get education. So, I dropped out of school when I was 7 years old.
Did you leave Vietnam by yourself, or were you accompanied by your family?
Tony: So, just by myself. In 1978, I was trying to go with my uncle, but one time I went to Middle East Vietnam and my uncle left. So, in 1979, I tried escaping Vietnam by myself. So, when I was 10.
What do you specifically remember from the day you escaped?
Tony: Okay, first let me tell you a little about my life in Vietnam first and foremostly. So, the life was really hard for my family because my family had 11 siblings. Three of them died from sickness that they had, so now we have 8. So, my dad kept trying to send me and my sister, but my sister never accepted. Only me left and was able to get out of Vietnam in 1985. So, the ship take 6 days and 5 nights. It was very terrible, very small. Almost no chance to survive. The boat was 2 meters wide and 12 meters long, and we had 23 people on the boat. So, on the last couple days we ran out of water, making it more likely we were going to die. Luckily, on the last day…on the 6th day, in the morning, when we see a little island from far away, it took us about almost a day to get there, but when we get there everyone was like no energy. Some were very seasick and some had died, it was terrible. But what we ended up trying [was] to go anywhere. As soon as we saw the island, we just go there. We do not know what the island is. But when we got to the island, to Indonesia, the people that live over, we told to contact the US embassy to get us to the main island. So, we stayed for three months, by myself I go worked for the people over there. In return, you just have dinner. During the day, we can eat whatever we can find on the island; veggies and especially coconuts all day.
Did the other refugees on the boat become your family?
Tony: Three people because we paid for their gold to get out, that is my neighborhood. There were also kids, the other oldest was of my age, and 2 younger brothers.
Part II – Life in Indonesia and Early Life in America
Was it harder living as a foreigner in Indonesia than living in Vietnam?
Tony: It was harder because I had to be by myself, no family to support. Back in Vietnam, I had my parents. I worked in the morning with my parents but I was not worried about finding food or water. So, once I got there, I had to do a lot to survive. A lot of people did bring gold, I also bring a little bit of gold but we sold it and live there for three months.
How were you able to move from Indonesia to America?
Tony: So before we go to America, we had to go to two different islands. So, at the three month, somehow the US embassy contacted the people over there saying “they need to be thought of.” So, when they, at the three month, moved us to another island to make sure we don’t get sick, we don’t get any disease before they brought us to the–they called it “galan”–island we stayed there. We stayed in kuku island. So, we stayed there for 30 days. They treated us with all the medicine that we don’t got, like the IVs (something like that). They made sure everybody got fit before they took us to the next island.
How old were you when you arrived in America?
Tony: So I was turning 17.
Katie: Turning 17? Oh wow, you stayed at the other island for a good time?
Tony: For more than a year…nine months. Yeah. I am lucky because I got all my paperwork…my father paperwork that he worked for the US army…So, I was the first one to first leave the island. I was a minor, under 18, so I was able to get the sponsor and bring me here.
What hardships did you face when you arrived in America?
Tony: So, when I moved to America, I thought I could lived with my uncle but the life is not easy like that. So when I moved here in February 28, I lived with my uncle for three months. Compared to 1975, the lifestyle was different so I couldn’t stay with him. Then, my parents asked one of my uncles if they can help me out for the time being. So, I went to live with them tempting within a year they would kick me out the house, and I did not even finish high school. So, I went to high school for a year and like I told you, I did not have enough credits so they kicked me out too. So you know, the way the people treated my family, was the way my uncle treated me like that. So I tell myself, I got to prove to them that I don’t need the education to succeed. After a year, I moved back to Orange County, from San Jose back to Orange County. So, I learned ESL and more English stuff like that, and then I’ll be on my own so I just work for my family. When I first come here, I had nothing, no car, no nothing. One day I would take 5 to 6 different buses to get to school and to work. When I lived in San Jose, going in High School, I would work after school. So, my first job in America was in Carl’s Jr.
How did your relationships with your family and friends change after you moved to America?
Tony: So I tried to prove myself, I tried to work hard because I didn’t do it before. [and] Education-wise, I quit school when I was in seventh grade, so I lacked education. To learn, I went to vocational school for my current job. So, I went and started earning money, and start my life. It is very sad because you live by yourself. You have family here, uncles but no one supporting me as a minor when I got here. So, it is truly really sad. [And] So, I had to work because my father was in the US army and couldn’t do no business nor work in Vietnam. Life was really hard. So, I worked and supported my family for all these years.
Part III – Reflection about the War
How has the war influenced your decision in life?
Tony: So, actually, it was not my decision to leave the country, it was all my parent’s. My parents took me on a boat to go, but I know that life back then was really hard. So I said go. When I get on the boat, I feel like there is no way back; most likely going to die because it is a small boat filled with a lot of people. The waves were also really high. Most likely I felt like dying just because the boat was too small and it was also cracked. The water was coming in. Two people are on the bottom trying to get the water on little buckets, and two people on the top dumped it out 24/7. So, during that time, I was really scared because I was seasick and very weak. So, one of the guys on the boat told us that every 2 hours for 22 hours. If you don’t do it, then they threw people out of the boat. So, everyone had to do it. I was very seasick, but I still had to do it. Every 2 hours, 4 new people got to it. Believe it or not, when we go to the island within half-an- hour, the boat sank. When we got off the boat, everyone went to the island (and we just got off) and within half-an-hour the boat sank. It was terrible. If we would have stayed another day, we would have died.
Have you returned to Vietnam?
Tony: I have returned many times (to Vietnam). A lot of times I visit, like I do charities in Vietnam supporting the church, building the church, for many years.
What changes did you notice when you returned to Vietnam?
Tony: So, it is very poor. First time I returned was when I got married. The first time I returned to Vietnam would be in the end of 1994. So I got married in 1995, January 1995. So, I met my wife, Vanessa, went back to Vietnam and got married there. When I left Vietnam, I did not think I was going to be able to go back and see my family. The only way I was able to see my family…was yeah, when the accommodation opened and let a group go back.
Do you believe hardship in Vietnam has lessened or increased since you first left?
Tony: So when I come back, the life over there has gotten much better than when I was there. I feel very good for the country, for the people over there. But still there’s a lot of poor people. But life is much better than when I was there.
Looking back on your experiences, what is your opinion on the war in general?
Tony: All I think is because America, they love Vietnam. There was a lot of death in Vietnam. I don’t know how or why America got involved in Vietnam, just make it out by 1975. But, they left a lot of death behind. That’s why a lot of people went to jail, even my uncle went to jail for 14 years for working for the U.S CIA in Vietnam. So, it also affected his life. Right now, he doesn’t want to see any family members, even now. He is still alive. He lives in San Jose. I don’t know how they treated them during the 14 years in the jail. My dad was a very low rank, so he only went to jail for 3 days.
How do you think the refugee policy during the war has influenced or changed the current policy we see today?
Tony: It’s really good. They are accepting a lot of people who are the family of the U.S. army or work for the U.S. They are doing a lot of good and also back then they had some kind of chemical that affected a lot of people in Vietnam. But they did get a lot of people out of Vietnam, especially from 92-98. A lot of families whose fathers or mothers worked for the U.S – it was a good thing to do for the Vietnam people.