From Mud to a New Life
Germaine Letrong’s 1982 journey from Saigon, Vietnam to gain a better life
essay written by Ethan Letrong
Germaine Kim Letrong is a Vietnamese immigrant that was forced to migrate to the United States because of the problems that were occurring in Vietnam. She came to America as a foreign exchange student and would ultimately begin a new life in a country that displayed totally different values. She would soon adjust to this culture in which she views it as a better society that would benefit her family. Her family would also benefit to this sudden shift in lifestyle and would take advantage of the opportunities.
The Vietnam War is one of the most memorable wars in American history, because of the atrocities that befell onto the people. The various documentaries that sprouted from the war showed images and historical facts that were shocking, but the firsthand accounts were more devastating. Germaine Kim Letrong was born and raised a sheltered life in Vietnam. She had seen the rapid changes going on before and after the war. Ultimately she and her family were forced to immigrate to America and obtain their green cards. The results were devastating, and they dragged down Vietnam in an era of Chaos. But from the cesspool of war, sprouted a new life of opportunity that this citizen now enjoys. She vividly describes the huge difference in life styles that she experienced during her immigration.
Ms. Letrong was born in Southern Vietnam Saigon city, which is now known as Ho Chi Minh City. She was born into an upper class family, whose household successor worked under the leader Ngo Diem. They lived in a house directly in front of the slums, built with the money that Mathew Thiu Pham, her father, had earned. She would walk past the slums and the trashy streets on her way to her high school. Most lower class Vietnamese would actually not be able to attend school because they did not have the money to do so. She attended a well known French High school which was taught by nuns. There she gained her education by learning French history, literature and grammar. In addition to the second language, she was taught English, but very broadly. Ms. Letrong would be chauffeured around the town of Saigon either by her father or a servant. She was kept on a very strict schedule because of her father’s fear that she would be killed in the streets by the bombs that lay siege by night. She was not able to enjoy the teenage years of her life and strictly stuck to accomplishing her school work.
At school, Ms. Letrong would regularly exchange the records of famous French singers with her friends. She enjoyed an ordinary life by day, but a constricted life by night. Propaganda was spread everywhere by the government to attempt to raise morale about the war, they claimed that the southern Vietnamese republic was winning the war. When in reality they were losing a majority of the battles and skirmishes. Her life, financially, was unaffected by the war, her father had invested in creating a “high rise building” that would be rented out to American troops as a source of steady income (1). Ms. Letrong would take up a foreign exchange program that would allow her to study for a degree in Pharmacy at an Ohio University. But she would abandon the degree and choose another degree while staying in America.
The war had already begun, and news of the Northern Communist under the leader of Ho Chi Minh had yet to reach the population of Saigon. Along with the stories of the atrocities of the Northern army that was raiding the southern Country side. Ngo Diem was thrown from power, and along with his brother, they were executed. The Government was falling apart; they were forced to rely and ultimately became dependent on American support. Her father was thrown in jail but was released later on; he would not “seek a job” until arriving in America (2). Ms. Letrong describes that during the arrival of Americans, new job opportunities for women grew. Prostitution and female bar workers were rising in an effort to pay for the family’s needs. The economy had become focused entirely on the American troops. Even Ms. Letrong’s family became focused on getting Americans to rent out their building for a steady income.
While the war dragged on, American troops eventually pulled out from the war completely, leaving the Southern Vietnamese troops demoralized and the southern economy in shambles. The ending was near, but many had thought that the Northerners got what they wanted; now they’ll leave everything just as it was. It wasn’t until the day that the Northern Communist Tank went into the capital that everyone realized that nothing was going to return to the way things were. The North would stay and maintain control over all of Vietnam, and the Pham’s would have to Immigrate to America.
Originally, Ms. Letrong had already flown to America on a student Visa and attended college. When she heard news of the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam, she immediately attempted to buy airline tickets to fly back home, but the United States government denied her request because the country of Vietnam was under turmoil. She did not hear from her family from a month and assumed that they had died. Then one day, her father called her from Camp Pendleton, and told her that they family were safe and no one died during the voyage. At that moment she felt an enormous sigh of relief descending upon her body. Immediately she went to Camp Pendleton everyday to talk to her family about their ordeal.
She found out that her family originally planned to bribe some people who had already purchased seating on the planes to America, but they ran into a lot of difficulties that prevented them from doing so. They had lost all of their “certificates, passports, and picture albums” back at their home, so they were unable to take those things to the airport, which would later deny their entry (2). They were able to bribe some boatmen that were taking people in their boats to allow them on. Her Grandmother had invested in gold and used the gold to bribe the boatmen in order to save her family. If she hadn’t invested in gold, her family would have probably remained in Vietnam. They went to sea for several weeks and were rescued by an American ship that was patrolling the area. At that time, the Communist government had yet to settle down in Ho Chi Minh, so they did not implement search ships to find Vietnamese trying to flee the country by boat. Along with others, her family was rescued by the boat and taken to the American Military base known as Camp Pendleton. After a while, they were sponsored by a Californian District Attorney named Anthony Recalkus, and with the remaining gold, bought a house in Orange.
Upon arrival in the United States, Germaine Letrong became enticed by the dramatic difference in cultures. In Vietnam, men were treated better than women and held good paying jobs. Also in Vietnam, if a man divorced his wife, the man would get everything and leave the woman with nothing. In America, women were treated on the same level as a man and could sustain a good paying job. Also the jobs in America actually required the skills necessary to obtain them, when in Vietnam; you needed to have connections to obtain a job. This was shocking that women had so much power in the United States, while in Vietnam they still oppressed women. Not only the women’s rights, but the citizen’s rights that were given to them by the constitution were a blessing for her and something she never gained before. In Vietnam, Diem was oppressing people’s rights and in history, often portrayed as a dictator. She quickly implemented these fundamental rights and assimilated them into her everyday life. Ms. Letrong also mentioned that in the United States, she learned how to drive a car for the first time in her life. In Vietnam, either her father or another person would chauffer her around, but in America she needed to drive back and forth to school. She obtained a foreign card known as a driver’s license.
The clean streets and trash system had surprised Ms. Letrong. Vietnam did not possess such an intricate and effective trash system, all trash was normally thrown in the street and would be dumped in a random location. Also the fact that the sewage system was working properly and was hardly noticeable was even more astonishing. Vietnam had not implemented the sewage system over the whole country because of the countryside. But there were some shocking details such as how wasteful Americans could be. If they wanted something better, they could throw the old one away and buy a new one while Vietnamese would often save items in order to reuse them again for daily needs. What also surprised her was that Americans had a huge variety of recreational activities, while in Vietnam it was very limited. One thing she had to get used was the fried and high saturated fattening American food that she was not accustomed to. At this time there weren’t a lot of Vietnamese restaurants and Vietnamese food was generally healthier than most American food. Many Vietnamese immigrants would suffer from this situation as well. But Ms. Letrong would either make her own food or eat at another Asian restaurant.
While in America, Ms. Letrong and her family would have to adjust to American society and technology. They were sponsored and given jobs to sustain an income to pay for the rest of the house and their family’s needs. They were given refugee cards which would be later exchanged with green cards so that they can become American citizens. Ms. Letrong had a student visa which was quickly exchanged for a green card. She ended up moving into her parent’s house for about a year before she got married to her ex husband. Her father would take a job as a computer programmer because he was recommended by Mr. Recalkus, although he would retire as technology and his old age progressed. Her mom was given a job as an assembly line worker at an artificial heart valve manufacturer. Ironically “she was diagnosed with a heart problem,” so she went on disability and eventually left work (3). Until a few years ago, they were living off of social security to pay for their bills. Also her father had to try and adjust to American culture; an example would be that he would absolutely not use a microwave because it was never in Vietnam. He would never learn how to use it and would rather just grab items from the refrigerator and consume it cold. Also he would never use an American hose; instead he would construct his own watering system from bamboo and water his plants individually just like in Vietnam. Ms. Letrong would have to adjust to the new technological idea of using a computer, her work would buy computers and she would have to learn how to use them. She described that her work gave her a Commodore 64 and that she would have to lug it around for work.
A major issue that Ms. Letrong and her family suffered was the English language and culture. Ms. Letrong had some knowledge of the English language, but it was a different experience to understand the slang and figurative speeches used every day by Americans. Originally she was sent to America to obtain a degree in pharmacy, but after a few classes she immediately changed her degree to accounting. Eventually she got the hang of it when she was taking her classes for her Accounting degree, but her family was still struggling. Her father had a hard time understanding other Americans and could hardly talk to other Americans, so he would seclude himself to the Vietnamese society in America. He would normally drive without being strapped in by his seatbelt and would often get pulled over for that. But out of luck he would ramble and struggle so much that the police officer would let him go. Ms. Letrong would describe about the situations that she would have to bail out her parents; they would forget to pay bills because they could not read what the bill said. He may have lived in America, but in his own mind he still lived in Vietnam. But her mother would better adjust and actually be able to speak and understand a bit of English, enough for others to understand her. She would talk to Americans for her husband and would talk to her grand children in both English and Vietnamese. Most of the family would be able to assimilate into the Vietnamese culture and graduate from college. Some had a family and raised their children to go to college.
Ms. Letrong was married to her husband for well over twenty years before they had separated, but it wasn’t until then when she had assimilated into the American culture. While with her husband, he had assimilated into the American culture, but she had not fully embraced it as he had. In college she didn’t attend the college sports games and she never joined a sorority house. Only after the divorce she went to an American Christian church and joined the Christian society that she had yearned for. She had begun raising her “two children as a single mother in America”(4). By doing so she had gained friends that introduced her to the pleasures of the American culture. She had also dated several American men and mentioned that they were different from American men, in a positive way. She has taken up a good paying job as an auditor at DCAA in Santa Ana where she enjoys her job and has been working there for over twenty years. But despite the changes, she still maintains her Vietnamese culture by going to the district of Little Saigon and keeping her Vietnamese friends. She listens to Vietnamese music and watches “Paris by night” with her family which was common for Vietnamese Americans. She also educated and often takes her children to the Vietnamese festivals, such as “Tet” to remind them of their heritage. She also taught her children the Vietnamese language so they could talk and understand their grandparents, but her son has yet to master the language. She is currently still doing all of this, so that her children would not suffer and undergo the same hardships that she went through growing up.
Recently, Germaine Letrong has attended a few church missions to go over to France and help the churches there gather more members. She does this so that she can set an example for her children and to help the world to a more peaceful resolve. She has raised a twenty-eight year old daughter who currently resides in Portland Oregon with her husband and she has raised her seventeen year old son, who is still in school. Her father passed away in saint Hoag hospital, but her mother is still alive and lives with her family in Orange. She is currently still in contact with her family and continues to enjoy the American culture before she retires from her job. She is also planning on visiting countries around the globe and is currently planning to do so with her friends. She does not regret her migration in America, in fact she finds that “it was a real privilege and I enjoy my life in America” (5). She enjoys the variety of cultures that mix together and form the American culture in which she can exercise her political and religious freedoms. Although she does regret that Vietnam had to undergo a war, she is comfortably living in Irvine. She is not planning on returning back to Vietnam any time soon.
1. Letrong, Germaine. Personal interview. 24 May 2009. 2
2. Letrong, Germaine. Personal interview. 24 May 2009. 5
3. Letrong, Germaine. Personal interview. 24 May 2009. 6
4. Letrong, Germaine. Personal interview. 24 May 2009. 7
5. Letrong, Germaine. Personal interview. 24 May 2009. 18