Fresh Off of the Plane
The perilous 1975 journey of a Vietnamese immigrant, Thien Thanh Nguyen
essay written by Andrea Nguyen
Thien Thanh Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant, emanated to America in 1975 during the fierce Vietnam War. After a life-threatening accident, an American doctor inspired Nguyen to also earn a medical degree in the United States. He was only seventeen years old when his father’s cousin found him a plane flight to America, and yet he managed to assimilate successfully into American culture quickly. After years of hard work, Nguyen earned a Master’s Degree in Electrical Engineering at UCLA. He now lives in Southern California with his wife and three children.
Although the Communists had captured Vietnam in the palm of their hands, Thien Nguyen still considers “Vietnam…a country of rough mountains, lots of rivers, beautiful beaches, and rugged hills that disappear into the horizon.” Once a helpless seventeen year-old Vietnamese boy, Nguyen knew no English by the time he landed in the United States thousands of miles away from his precious family and warring homeland. However, after luckily boarding a cargo plane to America the day before the Fall of Saigon, Nguyen thrived in California, able to complete all requirements for the P.H.D. at UCLA in Electrical Engineering.
Before immigrating to America, Nguyen grew up in Saigon, Vietnam in a very poor household. Since the Vietnam War strongly raged on during this time, much of Vietnam was trapped in this predicament: dilapidated houses, sporadic, deserted villages, penury and fear everywhere. Many of his friends around the neighborhood were often reported as dead on the battlefield; it soon became normal for Nguyen to simply look into the window of a neighboring house and view a funeral service each week. Nguyen’s only shelter consisted of his tiny, crowded house, filled with his parents and siblings. For seventeen years, he survived various exposures to the war—the constantly shaking earth because of daily bombings across his homeland, visits from American soldiers struggling to survive in an estranged country, startling sounds of gunshots in the distance, rising smoke from plane crashes and burning houses. But one day, he and his siblings encountered a bombshell right next to his house: Nguyen “didn’t know what it was; it looked very much like a thermos…[he tried] to open it until [American soldiers] shooed [them] away.” It was only years later that Nguyen realized that this seemingly harmless chunk of metal was actually an artillery shell, still intact. He was lucky on this part; if the soldiers had arrived simply a couple minutes later, Nguyen and his whole family would have died that day because of one drastic misconception.
However, not all of Nguyen’s memories of Vietnam consist of these dreaded war scenes. Luckily, he lived in a secluded area of Vietnam that—compared to the rest of the war-torn country—was relatively safe: Nguyen and the rest of his family “never really [saw] any real combat at all…like people holding guns and shooting at each other.” Unlike other Vietnamese families during this time, Nguyen never lost any siblings to the draft. The main difficulty that Nguyen and his family faced, though, was poverty: there was no running water or electricity. Nguyen made the most from what he had; since it rained often in Vietnam, he would “roll in the mud [and stand] up….the rain would wash [him] off.” Despite the hardships he endured in this horrid state of destitution, Nguyen actually enjoyed his childhood, embracing the immaterial things in life. The family did not even have enough money to buy toys; children like Nguyen resorted to building toys from anything they could find, from a filthy piece of rubbish on the ground to an empty aluminum can. And yet, Nguyen found ways to skillfully put together kites in his free time. Nguyen’s childhood also consisted of a dainty garden and his pet dog whom he loved dearly.
Throughout his early childhood, Nguyen attended school daily. Though he lived in a poor family, Nguyen’s parents accumulated enough money to send him to a private Catholic school. Each day “during recess, [he] would go to the chapel and pray…because [he is] so grateful for what [his] parents did [for him].” Because of this large sacrifice that his parents had to make, Nguyen constantly studied very hard, frequently achieving the honor of receiving the highest grades in class. Nguyen claims that the nuns at his school taught him the meaning of diligence and organization, the main reasons for the study habits he still holds until today. Also, Nguyen’s classmates eventually nominated him as the student body Treasurer. As Treasurer, Nguyen raised money for various school events, like hosting school sports competitions or buying delicious treats for the students. Unfortunately, Nguyen’s parents’ funds soon ran short, and he left his private Catholic school, remaining at home at a young age. However, he managed to muster up his dedication to studying and educated himself. The only issue he faced was his lack of study materials. Luckily, Nguyen’s uncle, an elementary school principal, supplied him with the textbooks needed. However, Nguyen still did not have pencils or paper, and as a result, he dumped dark green paint on the back of a door and wrote with chalk to practice.
When Nguyen turned eleven years old, events turned a different direction. As he rode his bike along a pathway home, a military truck—unaware of the harmless child biking in front of the vehicle—crushed him. The American soldiers inside panicked and quickly rushed the unconscious, dangerously injured little boy to a nearby American hospital. Nguyen suffered from a collapsed lung, broken bones, swelling lips, a punctured spleen, and many more painful injuries. Shortly after the accident, the doctors announced Nguyen dead. However, one doctor persevered, trying everything in his power to resurrect this innocent boy. After a week, Nguyen regained consciousness but remained shocked, not knowing where he lied. He even found that his body was covered with scars and stitches, some even coating the insides of his mouth. But he was quickly reassured: the benevolent nurses at the hospital gave him as much ice cream as he wanted, entertained him with latex glove puppets, and let him watch movies to his heart’s desire. They also introduced him to the American doctor that operated many times to save his life. At this point, Nguyen was “very impressed with the American doctor, the nurses, and the hospital. And [he kept] telling [his] father that [he wanted] to become a doctor just like [his] American doctor.”
Years later, the opportunity finally came: Nguyen’s father’s cousin—a high-ranking officer in the Vietnam War who fought alongside the Americans—approached Nguyen’s father, asking if he wanted to fly with him to America. As a privileged officer, he was able to fly his family over to America paid by the government, and he could fit one more person into his plane. Nguyen’s father, knowing of his son’s wishes to become a doctor, sacrificed his own freedom and sent Nguyen in his place. The news totally took Nguyen by surprise; he “did not have any plans or even know that [he was] going to be leaving to America…within five minutes, [his] mom jumped [up]…and gathered anything that [he] would need and put it in a bag and gave to [him].” He immediately left to the airport on a jeep soon afterwards, never to return to Vietnam ever again. At first, Nguyen didn’t know what to think of America; only seventeen years old when he left his home and beloved family, Nguyen simply hoped to apply to medical school to begin work as a doctor. In these brief five minutes, Nguyen learned that his life in Vietnam would cease because now, he would—from then on—be considered an American.
The sun just began to set by the time Nguyen boarded his plane. There were two rows of seats on each side of the crowded, stuffy plane, passengers filling each seat and place on the floor. To avoid enemy fire, the plane had to steeply ascend; at this point, many passengers started tumultuously rolling around from one end of the plane to the other, clutching the net to survive, and vomiting. But through all of the chaos, Nguyen observed something more; he was “very impressed how everyone [was] helping each other even though they [did] not speak the same language” and were of different race. On that cargo plane, Nguyen noticed people coming together to help one another, a very different sight from the horrid, gory scenes of war throughout Vietnam. It was during this plane ride that Nguyen realized how lucky he actually was: a lot of immigrants died on the way to America; his cousin died on a boat ride to America, and his uncle did not survive when trying to escape from Vietnam by foot. Because of his survival, Nguyen appreciated his life much more.
After the seemingly perpetual flight, the cargo plane landed in the Philippines, and later landed in Guam, a hot and humid island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Here, Nguyen had to go through an immigration process. Never before had Nguyen been subjected to all of the governmental papers; this experience came as a surprise to him. Instead of enjoying the beautiful beach right outside of the processing building, Nguyen and the rest of the Vietnamese immigrants drowned in anxiety, looking for friends and family that might alleviate their worry and homesickness. After about ten days in 1975 at the camp in Guam, Nguyen arrived in Camp Pendleton, the largest refugee camp known to the Vietnamese immigrants, because he stated that some of his relatives lived in California. From a first glance, to Nguyen, Camp Pendleton looked like a “tent city” —tents and people everywhere and beneath them a thick carpet of knee-length weeds. Each freezing cold night, Nguyen was forced to sleep in a simple cot with a thin blanket; in the morning, his legs completely froze up, numbness infecting every nerve in his body. But a few painful weeks later, Nguyen loaded onto a bus to the airport where he, despite the many difficulties because he had never before been to an airport, boarded a plane to Sacramento airport to join his aunt and uncle.
When first landing in America, Nguyen developed warm feelings for the Americans because the US soldiers took good care of the immigrants during the governmental processing: each day and night, the soldiers “[walked] around cleaning our trash and clean[ed] up those people’s excretion…without them, without those US soldiers…living conditions would be a lot [worse].” The soldiers’ benevolence—in processing as well as in the Vietnam War— left a permanent impression on Nguyen that continues to influence his dear thoughts towards Americans. As for the regular American civilians, Nguyen found them honest, punctual, and efficient. Everyone seems like a neighbor or friend—trusting each other and working towards good intentions.
Because of the immediate exposure to American culture, Nguyen experienced a culture shock. As a minor knowing no English and having no parents to support him, Nguyen had no idea what to do first, no direction to turn. The only thing he clung to was his dream of becoming a great doctor like the one that had saved him years before from a young death. So, remembering his days at the private Catholic school, he asked his uncle where the nearest church was located so he could, once again, thank God at Sunday Mass for his parents’ compassion for his burgeoning life in America. Once the Mass ended, he “[approached the priest], and [he] was asking [the priest] for a rosary [through] a lot of sign language…, and he gave [him] one.” Ever since, the rosary has served Nguyen as his moral and psychological support, an appreciated sanctuary through the stress and pressures of school as well as assimilation into a completely different country.
To thank and repay his aunt and uncle for their hospitality, Nguyen often handled chores around the house—shining shoes, cleaning bathrooms, vacuuming the house. Furthermore, he earned money by mowing the neighbor’s lawns during summer months. He found a pay of five dollars generous, and he would “never forget that single time that [one] person gave [him] a glass of lemonade after [he] finish[ed] their lawn.” Nguyen, a helpless and somewhat desperate minor unable to find a real job for himself, cherishes a seemingly negligible gift. This reflects the severities that he had to endure to make a living to compensate for any burdens that he might have put on his aunt and uncle. His uncle also located a job harvesting crops among the various farmlands in close to their house. So on the day his uncle signs him up for the job, Nguyen arrives at the gathering site at sunrise, shows his social security card to the employers, and hops onto a truck that hauls him out to the field. He admits that it’s hard work; from sunrise to sunset, the harvesters pick fruit (mostly tomatoes) in the blistering hot sun. By the time the harvest day ended, Nguyen’s back was peeling, practically scabbing over because of exposure of about fifteen or sixteen hours to the sun’s damaging rays during the long, summer days. In the end, Nguyen received less than two dollars an hour for his efforts, a munificent salary that he needed.
When school started, Nguyen’s uncle called the high school principal, telling him that Nguyen, an immigrant from Vietnam, would now be attending the school and also explaining Nguyen’s predicament—not knowing how to speak any English. Nguyen got off of his uncle’s motorcycle to attend his high school classes confused. After a couple months of rapid memorization of new English vocabulary words (he would memorize hundreds of vocabulary each day) from children’s books, Nguyen felt comfortable with sitting down to a normal conversation with his American classmates. In this way, Nguyen easily assimilated into the student body: he loved to square dance, succeeded in fencing, and earned straight A’s—with the exception of one class—in the two years of high school in America. In the end, he admits that high school was “a very good experience,” one that he will never forget.
After being accepted into UCLA, Nguyen received his “Master’s Degree in electrical engineering” through hard work. He married Serena Le soon afterwards, raising three children with her. Both agreed to raise them as true Americans to better assimilate into the American society; however, they must maintain their Vietnamese roots. Therefore, the children now attend school like any other American citizen would, but they still celebrate the Vietnamese holidays, such as the Lunar New Year, and also continue speaking Vietnamese to communicate more easily with the elders to preserve years of Vietnamese history. One Vietnamese tale continues to live throughout generations of the Nguyen family: the story of the Truong Sisters who fought against the unjust Chinese leaders who attempted to dominate Vietnam. The sisters, in the end, strengthen Vietnam, developing it into a very strong and independent country; Nguyen’s passing on of this heroic tale shows the pride and patriotism of the Vietnamese people.
By the time Thien Nguyen had graduated from high school, his dreams had changed. When he first immigrated to America, he wished to finish medical school to become a doctor, saving the miraculously saving the lives of many that were once like him, but instead, he graduated from high school majoring in electrical engineering. This was because engineers were on-demand; thus, it would be much easier to be hired. Also, medical students competed with each other viciously, a cutthroat environment that did not appeal to Nguyen at all. Today, Nguyen lives in Southern California with his family. Not once has he visited Vietnam since 1975, but he wishes to do so at least once more. Frequently, Thien Nguyen sings the patriotic songs of America, but he has not yet forgotten the words of a popular Vietnamese folk song that he often hums: “Let me choose this country as my own.”
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