Monday, September 22, 2014


So this seems off topic doesn't it?  Well, some may realize that my last name is Nguyen; my husband is Vietnamese.  In America, every family has stories of immigration (either in their family or for the indigenous population the effects of).   Ours does too, and it is very close to home.

My father-in-law was one of the South Vietnamese employees of the American Embassy in his last job in Vietnam.  He also had many other 'black marks' against him which made the fall of Saigon particularly dangerous for him.   He had been a Catholic monk, he was well educated, and had been an officer in the South Vietnamese Army.  The war was divided along rural/urban lines and religious as well; something many don't know.

Air Boss on the USS Midway that day.  My sons sat in
these seat on a recent visit - a special perk from a man who
had been there that day and gave my husband and us a
special tour, nicer than his first visit there on April 29, 1975.
On April 29th, 1975 his boss turned to him and said - go get your family, you have 30 minutes to get to Tan Son Nhut airport; which was being shelled and was littered with burning airplanes.   That started a months long ordeal by my husband at 10 years old to get to the USA to save their lives.  You can't imagine what the details are, there is no space here for them except one to give you the flavor.  At one point he had to climb down a rope net off the side of the USS Midway (carrier) and jump into a small boat in rough seas to transport to a cargo boat and climb up that rope to get into the hold.  Terrifying.  We visited the Midway a year ago with our kids.  He stopped dead in the hanger and exclaimed "I slept on bubble wrap here".

The Nguyen family is full of GRIT.  The things they went through that day were harrowing.  But those were only just the start.  What was sad was not only were they leaving their country but the life they had built from nothing.  Through grit they had come from poverty (my FIL was a monk because his family couldn't afford him and gave him to the monastery at 7).  The day my husband left Vietnam, he was going to the top private school in the nation and his 'life was set'.  He had attended seven schools in three years to claw his way there.  They started over in refuge camps with nothing.  If you speak to my husband, you would never know that English is his third language as there is no accent.  He worked his way to MIT and has started multiple high-tech companies.  At this point, risk is something that comes natural.  It wasn't just that the months were hard - once they got here to the USA, they had nothing.  This is a particular period that they just don't discuss - the years of hardship.

It is no surprise that he married me, a dyslexic girl whose high school had a betting pool of how many weeks it would take me to flunk out of MIT.  I was told once by a professor that if I thought I was going to grad school with writing like that - I was sorry mistaken.  I got mad and got to work (I still am an awful writer, but not as bad!).  Both of us tend to set our jaws and 'get it done'.  We are comfortable with failure and the need to try 99 times to figure something out.

See it.  You think you
know the story of
April 29, 1975, but
there is so much more
This week a movie made by Rory Kennedy (Bobby's youngest daughter) for PBS's American Experience opened in select cities around the USA.  It will play on PBS in April as well.  Watch the trailer.  The movie focuses on the 24-hours of the last day and the stories of how the South Vietnamese left.  We were excited for ourselves and our extended family with our 1st generation children who now live in privilege.  There is nothing like a PBS documentary to explain to kids in the visual terms they understand.  We don't talk much about the past but it figures into every way we run our lives -- which is 100% different than their peers.  Hard work gets results is the mantra around here.  We learn from every failure and it makes us stronger.  Something needed when all the children have dyslexia.  There isn't any Wii or Playstation around here I can tell you.  Grit is what is valued and taught.

We were invited by Rory Kennedy to the opening and were able to see it as a group last night.  The people seated around our group of Vietnamese adults and 'halfee' kids were often surprised as my husband or his sister would loudly blurt things out during the film.  "The yellow flares!  I remember that!! They were everywhere".  Or "We stayed in the trench that night while the bombs hit the airport".  But the other movie goers didn't seem to mind.  I think they realized that two people who lived though this as kids were piecing together their shattered memories into a coherent timeline for the first time in their lives.  We had made sure to drive in one big SUV - the conversations were priceless on the way home.  The kids all had big eyes and lots of questions.

Unloading onto the USS Midway - less than
3000 made it to the ship, my husband included.  I am now the
family keeper of half the items in the one bag they had. A few
family relics of their life left behind.  One is a christening
blanket - my children were christened in it.
Why everyone reading this should watch the movie is because it is the story of how failed planning delayed the evacuation in the face of overwhelming evidence. How all of the South Vietnamese who got out did so because the lower level staff at the Embassy and State Department violated orders and the law and ran a series of illegal 'black ops' to smuggle out over 100,000 Vietnamese in danger.  This is a story that no one really talks about and made us cry.  The State Department man who knew the dictate to leave the Vietnamese behind was wrong and flew on the last Pan Am flight into Saigon posing as a French man and set up a ops in an apartment and smuggled thousands onto cargo ships leaving - the stunned Air Force in the Philippines receiving them hourly not knowing how they got on. The Army captains who hid the families of the South Vietnamese Army officers ('dead men walking' they called them) in their trucks and drove them onto the airbase and put them direct on planes before the airport was shelled - screaming at them to abandon their post and go with their families - knowing that all was lost and that the Americans were going to abandon the country in hours.  And the marines who would put 1 American and 40 Vietnamese into those helicopters -- knowing that when the last American got on - there would be no helicopters.  These people did what they knew was morally right and accepted that it would likely mean the end of their careers.

We were stunned.  My husband blurted out at one point - "we landed at 3 am on the Midway, I asked my dad what time it was when we tumbled out".  We realized that he was on one of the last runs of helicopters.  The operation ended at 4 am.  420 South Vietnamese were left on the embassy by Presidential order.  Last night he marveled that if it wasn't for these men, he would likely be an internet savvy farmer in the hinterlands of Vietnam right now (if he was lucky).

Rory Kennedy's point is obviously that when we in the West go into a country and people work with the American and Coalition Forces to achieve our mission - we can't abandon them.  It is morally wrong.  That was what everyone leaving the movie was talking about.  The modern parallels are clear.  Obviously we agree.

I get very angry all the time to watch people here rail against immigrants while sitting on their butts letting their kids drool in front of video games and expecting that they are entitled to all America offers.  'Job creators' is their favorite phrase usually contrasted with 'immigrant welfare'.  That little terrified boy who almost didn't make it on that helicopter has created four companies and hundreds of jobs - an entire industry in Boston in Speech.  Most of you have a phone with his technology on it.  And he isn't comfortable with laurels, each time he took a month off and then was back to work on the next company idea.  When he is working on a new company (as he is now), I step up my work into overdrive and support the family so he can create something new.  The Casket and Stumpwork course were designed for this purpose.  You are funding the next big-tech thing.

My impression of refugees and immigrants - legal and illegal (if you really watch the movie - all the South Vietnamese were illegal) is quite different from the shock jocks out there.  I have watched parents work menial jobs because protectionist policies for native borns wouldn't allow their doctorates or medical training to be transferred (my MIL is a French trained surgical nurse, but spent 20 years in the USA washing surgical equipment instead) -- all the while pouring everything into their kids and demanding only the most attentive work from them so they could academically succeed.  Every time I step into a cab in Boston, I ask for the life story of the driver.  Try it.  You'll get out and shake their hand as you will just have met someone who is usually from some war torn country working multiple jobs and going to school trying to support an extended family.  Honorable men not sitting around complaining about others.  My friend teaches English to new immigrants who ride a bus two hours each way after cleaning floors in poverty to learn - she is furious as her funding is being cut while everyone yammers at how people don't learn English.  She has a 300 person waiting list - people who want to learn, but they may have to close their doors.  I listen to locals in my wealthy town complain about 'these people' coming into town and making the schools harder for their kids.  And smiling with no comment at them as they explain why their kids aren't taking honors math -- 'the teacher is a hard grader, you know'.  As if avoiding work is a ok thing.  I know she is a hard grader, because my kid is taking it.  And we are spending an hour a night tutoring him instead of doing something for ourselves.   Because that is what you do when you realize the opportunities America has to offer and you almost didn't have it.  They often don't realize because of my white face that we are 'these people'.

See the movie.  And think about donating $5 to Rory Kennedy's Indiegogo project with PBS to record the stories of all these South Vietnamese like my FIL before they die.  Their stories are all similar to ours and what makes America constantly reinvent itself, be innovative, and vibrantly alive.  

And we thank those Americans in Vietnam who followed their conscience instead of the rules from the bottom of our hearts as a family!  If it wasn't for them, I wouldn't be in the position to teach embroidery to you.  


  1. wow, there are no words. Thanks for this post and Bless your family

  2. I love it when someone is passionate about a certain topic and family is more than a mere topic. Your passion for your family shows through in each and every sentence. Blessings to you and your family. Continue to be full of 'grits'.

  3. What a wonderful post. I am a first generation Chinese American. My parents and my mother's family escaped the Communists after WWII. I've hear many many stories of what they went through to escape. Even then immigrating into the country was practically impossible for people like my family. I admire you and your husband and his family -- and am grateful that there were Americans in Vietnam who followed their consciences.

  4. I am so in awe of your families courage and perseverance!
    It's not just the Immigrants "they" piss on it's the Children of native descent and the children of colored and mixed race couples too. "they" have no Idea what it is to pull yourself up the hard way. through poverty ( my mother was a single waitress, daughter of a halfbreed native. my children are mixed race"oreos") racism and all the "opportunities" "they" tout as being there for them above amuricans (as though we aren't) is laughable. yes the opportunities are th ere but you have to work your ass off for them they are not handed out like candy on Halloween. My face maybe white but my heritage is anything but. Those who sit back and expect a hand out are the same people running the country into the ground and they are more likely to be privileged white men than any one else. not that they are all like this but the great majority that are running their mouths are and they have no Idea what it is like to struggle fail, struggle more and fail again. they have no empathy and no imagination. I feel sorry for them as they will ultimately loose everything and have no idea how it happened, nor the skills to deal with the failure when it happens

  5. Your family's story is similar to my family's ,though my father arrived here in 1920 and my mother's parents around 1900. My parents would not talk about their struggles to make it here.My father once mentioned sleeping in the NY subways as he couldn't afford a place to live and I know he went through at least 3 businesses before he had one that clicked.They never talked about life in the old country.I wish that they had. A piece of my story is missing and they are all gone now.
    I have great respect and empathy for those who took the great challenge to leave their families and life as they knew it to come to an unknown land to try to do better.

  6. My son in law is Native American, and all the immigrants to this country treat his family with the utmost disrespect. It's absolutely amazing how these people forget that THEY were the illegal immigrants, and I would love to see them attempt to learn Navajo as adults. We all need to be more respectful of others-you never know what difficulties they have overcome in their lives.

  7. Thank you, Tricia, for your moving, powerful, and fascinating post. It's an inspiration and I'll be thinking about it for a long time. I really can't afford to take your Cabinet of Curiosity class but signed up anyway, realizing what an extraordinary and rare opportunity it was in so many ways. Now I see that it is one result of decades of intense experiences and struggles, varied interests, and an outlook on life that has not only helped you and your family survive, but to thrive. I feel fortunate being able to benefit from one part of your story. You are a treasure.

  8. Thank you so much for sharing this story. This was 'my' generation serving in Vietnam at this time and so little is remembered of what the men on the ground did try to do to help. Good to see the whole story being told. It is a chapter in our history we need to never forget.

    A generation or so later, I get to see, enjoy, and support, the many nationalities of our Biochemistry grad students here where I work. Very hard working bunch of kids :). -Catherine

  9. My father served as a mechanic in Vietnam in the USAF, and I was adopted as an infant when he was stationed in Taiwan. We were living in Texas when he came home from Vietnam, I must have been 4-5 years of age. I will watch the PBS documentary. As a first generation immigrant / US Citizen in 7th grade, I think you have communicated the sacrifices of immigrant families better then any person I have ever met. I didn't live in an immigrant family, but I do know of the sacrifices in these families. Tricia, you should be the person talking policy in Washington DC. The next person who is critical of immigrants in casual conversation to me, I'm sending them to your blog. I have had a wonderful life in the US, and it is because of the opportunities, and hard work that we can make a living for ourselves in this great country. I also do not have an accent; and your husband's interest in speech, makes me wonder if the enunciation of English, is what holds people back.... Tamra

  10. Thank you so much for sharing your family immigrant story. Like you I also ask immigrants to share their immigration story. My father's nursing home aid was an immigrant from Africa. She had NOT ONE living relative on this planet. Her entire family was murdered in civil war! Can you imagine life with NO family? Yet she had the most profound faith of anyone I had ever met. Regarding the 'learn English' issue. I really get tired of hearing 'them' railing about the lack of immigrant English skills. It is very difficult for people to learn a second language as an adults, but I'd bet that their children would be happy to translate for you - I heard 4 year olds do it! Before the advent of radio and TV it took much longer for immigrants to learn English. My mother as a 4th generation American (it could be longer but we don't know because the Great Chicago Fire destroyed all prior family records) went to a German speaking Lutheran church and school as a child. My grandparents spoke English with a strong German accent. My generation if the first to speak English with no accent - unless you count Minnesotan as an accent - uff da! Ya sure ya betcha! Lela

  11. As I told you in my e-mails, I just found your blog and took part in the two giveaways. I thought of looking a bit more into your blog(thinking it isn't nice to just drop in, take part in a giveaway and leave!) and stopped in this blogpost! Stunned, shocked!What a dramatic touching story! I am Greek, coming from Constantinople, thrown away by the Turks. A long story. But I know how it is to be a Greek in Turkey and a Turk in Greece, if you understand what I mean. Also I am a teacher of English and for my little pupils English is their third language after Albanian and Greek,they are children of "legal' or "illegal" immigrants. Some teachers wouldn't like teaching in this school. I love it! Thanks for the chance to tell you all this!AriadnefromGreece!