The Average Vietnamese-American
Hieu Pham's 1975 journey from Saigon, Vietnam to escape Communism.
essay written by Andrew Pham
Hieu Pham, being a foreigner, has been through countless obstacles in America. He has had to learn English as a second language, find a life for himself in America, and had to strive to become a person that is respected among his peers. Even before reaching America, he has struggled through hardships in Vietnam such as hunger and malnutrition. He has been through the Vietnam War and the obstacles that come with being a mechanic in the army. Today, Hieu proudly lives his life as a Vietnamese-American knowing that he has earned the life he has now.
As a child he had to live in a difficult environment, where surviving for the next day was all there was. Playing or having fun during childhood was something that he and his family could not afford. During his 10th year in school, he was drafted into the military, where he served as an airplane mechanic, because of his success in studying. Right after the Vietnam War, where South Vietnam fell to the Northern Communists, Hieu came to America, in 1975, to escape from the tyranny and persecution for being a South Vietnamese soldier. He began a new life in America where he was finally able to have a successful career, free from the harsh conditions like his home country.
In Vietnam, he lived in an environment that offered very little financial support. He lived in a small village, Duc Hoa, which is 20 miles from Saigon City. The entire village lived in poverty; every villager could only be “constantly concerned about what to do for the next day”. 1 Every day after school, Hieu had to run over to the open market to help his mother with selling fruits. He worked hard for his mother; he even tried to sell the produce by himself so that his mother could have an afternoon rest. As a child in his village, “having fun … was a luxury”2, he always had something to do for the family, if not, he studied for school the next day. School itself was also a luxury for his generation; even now, some of his colleagues remain illiterate.
School was very expensive in Duc Hoa. Though it was “free”, it required a uniform, and schoolbooks—both which were expensive for many of the families in Vietnam. Hieu’s mother had to save up money over the year to get enough money buy one set of uniform for the year. Sometimes she had to borrow money from others. Because of the hard work his mother took to put him in school, Hieu made to most out of it. He was always “[getting] prizes every year”3 for being one of the top five in the class. Hieu worked extremely hard in this aspect, because this was the only thing in which he could earn something. Usually the prizes consisted of schoolbooks and school utensils, which greatly helped his family. His mother was always proud of him when he showed his mother the prizes he got. Hieu loved it when his mother was proud, and beamed with happiness when his mother had a “smile from ear to ear”. 4 After all, studying was his only way to repay his mother for all the hard work she did on his behalf.
While Hieu grew up, the Vietnam War raged all around his small village. Troops constantly marched through his village, and camping soldiers was a common sight. At night, he heard gunfire, and the blasting of mortars. If the gunfire got really close, he and his family had to “in an underground bunker to avoid stray bullets”. 5 When soldier came to camp in his village, the soldiers took refuge in the villagers’ huts. Mostly, the soldiers held a very gracious demeanor, and, he even said that they sometimes gave him food that tasted better than their own. For Hieu, the soldiers were also a source of income for his family. He bought Coca Cola, froze them, and sold the cans to the soldiers camped in his village. The soldiers were very generous and gave very nice tips for him. For example, a can of coke was twenty-five cents, but the soldiers paid an additional dollar as tip. It may not seem much, but a dollar could get two days worth of food for his family.
Once he got to 10th grade Hieu was drafted into the military. Because of his good grades, he was able to sign up into the air force, as a mechanic. Mechanic training was easy for Hieu; he could grasp the mechanics of airplanes well, and most of his days were spent doing physical exercise where he was taught how to march for a long time. It didn’t even have much running, so he was not very tired. He also did not have any responsibilities, so he had more freedom in the camp. He was later stationed at the Tan Son Nhut air base, stationed in Saigon. He found working in the military very beneficial, he was able to have a stable pay and could even afford to move his family to a house he bought in the city. 6 Also the work hours were flexible, so he could go see his family often while stationed in Saigon.
Hieu’s main reason for immigrating to America was to escape from North Vietnam. This was a particular fear for him, because like most men in South Vietnam, he was in the South Vietnamese military, and if he were caught, he would be imprisoned or worse. Like most South Vietnamese soldiers this was a fear that was shared among all of his comrades. Hieu also went to America in hopes for a better life. He hoped to escape from all the hardships of Vietnam; after all, America was a place of opportunity. Hieu had planned to continue his studies in America to fulfill his promise to his already deceased mother to study and complete his education. Eventually, if he studied hard something promising will happen. That was what his mother had told him, and it was true. He ended up becoming a successful engineer, was able to start a family, and a better life for himself.
When Saigon fell to the North, Hieu was forced to leave without his family to the US, he did not know he was going to leave that night. He planned to go and gather up his family and leave to America together. Unfortunately, that plan did not come to fruition. Hieu had to leave on a surprise notice, he did not even have luggage, only his boxers and uniform, which was prohibited to wear once he got into the United States. Fortunately, the Red Cross provided extra clothes and a blanket. His brothers and sisters still live in Vietnam today, but he gives financial support and help whenever he could. His immigration over to America was very extensive; he went from Saigon to Cong Son Island, then to Thailand, the Guam Island, then finally ended up at Camp Pendleton, where he stayed as a refugee.7 Hieu regrets not staying with his family, and while he was traveling over to America, he wondered if they were worried for him, or if they were angry for not saying anything, even though he couldn’t.
Once in America, Hieu was scared. He was alone in the new country and had no companions or connections. While living in Camp Pendleton Hieu was a very isolated person. It wasn’t because of his surroundings, but that he had no company to support him in the base. He was already used to American foods, for he worked with Americans in the military in the was. The only thing he thought tasted badly was the Chop Suey, which they served to the refugees. He thinks that maybe they thought it was “some kind of Asian food, but it looked horrible”.8 He was also semi-fluent in English. So he did not have a problem with holding a conversation, as a matter of fact, he spent most of his day helping sponsors find their specific refugee. This was also how he met the Yeagers. He was helping them find some refugees that their friends had sponsored, and asked for his assistance. Hieu apparently charmed Mr. and Mrs. Yeager, and they decided to sponsor him. They had not planned on sponsoring, so this was a great strike of luck on his part. This event was a major change of fate for him.
At Camp Pendleton, Hieu met Mr. and Mrs. Yeager. The Yeagers would end up becoming the sponsors for Hieu, and also become his second family. They supported Hieu in going back to school, and also in getting his first job. They treated Hieu as his parents and gave him the support and backing to finally give him comfort in his life. He no longer needed worry about his survival. In fact, Mr. and Mrs. Yeager finally allowed Hieu to pursue goals for the first time. While in Vietnam he had no time to set goals for himself, now he could go and study. Hieu’s sponsors sent him to English class every day9, and later on helped him get into college at San Luis Obispo.
Hieu holds many fond memories of him and the Yeager family. He felt like he was part of the family. A funny event that he remembered was when he first introduced fish sauce to the family. If one has eaten fish sauce, they would know that it is a very salty sauce and should be used sparingly, but Mr. Yeager trying to be polite, poured it all over the rice, and the bowl became too strong for someone to handle. Hieu told him to get another batch, but to be polite, Mr. Yeager ate the whole bowl. Right after that he had to drink a few bottles of water. Even today Hieu laughs at such a fond memory.10 Even though Mr. and Mrs. Yeager are not living anymore; he and his owes the couple a great debt of gratitude.
Hieu’s first job in America was at Jack-In-The-Box.11 Even though it was not the best paying job, he was very proud to work there, he was finally making his first income in America, and intended to work hard to repay Mr. and Mrs. Yeager for their hard work. Once he was in college, he began to work at a local garage that was close by to his school. At both times he was abused by his coworkers for being a foreigner. Hieu was very irritated by some of the workers who though that they were better than him, particularly one mechanic who was in the same position as him, but though himself as superior. Hieu then remembered when one of his friendly coworkers encouraged him by saying “Hieu, don’t let him bother you, he thinks he’s the best, but think of it, we have our whole future ahead of us, you’re gonna become an engineer, and me a doctor. He can only be a mechanic for his life. Just wait and see in a few years whose better.” 12 This saying has stayed with him for all this time and he works hard based off of this principle.
Life in America was “the best time [he] ever had” 13 He had an easy life in college, and finally fell in love, and even studied well in the US also. He had been considered a very bright student, and even tutored fellow classmates. The class he had most difficulty was his English classes, but it was understandable because English was his second language. He studied particularly well in mathematical and science classes, for it required a small amount of English, and more numbers and formulas. Also in college, he began to practice things for entertainment, he took up swimming lessons to finally be able to swim, and also took ceramics as an elective course at the university. For the first time in his life, he had the time to do whatever inspires him to do. This was not possible back in Vietnam, because surviving was what took up most of the day.
In America, Hieu had to go through hardships different to those in Vietnam. Being a foreigner, he was subject to doing the remedial tasks at every workplace he had been to. As a worker in Jack-In-The-Box, his coworker who was an obese, and lazy man, always subjected Hieu to the harsh tasks, while he did the bare minimum amount of work. Yet the man had passion for listening to the police band radio, and would stop whatever he was doing to listen to an interesting conversation on the radio; of course Hieu did not understand a word that was going on. As a mechanic, he also had to put up with the fact that he was a foreigner. He was constantly nagged to do something differently, by another coworker with more experience in the garage. His life struggles in America has, however, made him more aware of how to live in the new environment, but also learned to keep “fondness with [his] own heritages”14. With his newfound knowledge about American environment, he learned how to ‘Americanize” into American society.
Hieu has finally learned all of the etiquettes and standards of modern life. He now puts emphasis at etiquette and manners. Even with the traits standard to American society, he continues to retain the morals of his Asian heritage. He holds a strict advocacy of family unity, and “respecting our elders”15. Unlike some American families, having dinner with the entire family is a daily routine in the Pham household. He believes that such practices prevent isolation inside the family, and that it causes unneeded misunderstandings, and friction form. He particularly looks down upon children who look upon their parents as if they do not need to show them a sense of gratitude. Such acts, he finds, to be extremely insulting, and sees such actions as a loss of dignity. He also still holds respect for elder, as taught to him in Vietnam. He allows the elderly to go ahead of him, and he would show the utmost courtesy to them. His children have also been taught to act in the same manner as he, and are always reminded to say hello, or show respects. Such beliefs are what stay with him in America, and those are the beliefs that he believes are the basis of his moral reason.
Hieu had had some difficulty understanding the social manners when he first arrived at the United States. He found some of the manners in Americans awkward and others clashing with the ideas back in Asia. One manner that was strange to him, was when one says “bless you” when someone else sneezes. It “seemed so superficial to [him]”16 and the reply should have some meaning to it. Hieu was also confused about why it is so bad to burp, because in Asia, when one burps, it show satisfaction, and is a thank you for the good meal. He was also extremely amazed about the passiveness in a married family. They did not discuss things out, and to his understanding at the time; he saw no compassion between couples. This was a very different element, because even if Asian couples did not decide to marry each other, they show a sense of caring for their spouse.
Hieu has lived in America for thirty three years and has lived a successful life. He has learned to treasure the small things in life, with the memories of his past, but still holds on to ambitions, and large scale dreams. He teaches his children the value of hard work, and to be grateful for what they have, because other kids are not as fortunate as they. He hopes that his children will become just as successful or even more than he has. In his thirty three years in America, he has changed into a proud, hardworking and successful Vietnamese-American. He does everything he can to keep the morals and values taught to him by his deceased mother. He is now another figure that epitomizes the values and diversity of an American.
1. Pham, Hieu. Personal interview 24 May 2009. 3.
2. Pham, 24 May 2009, 3.
3. Pham, 24 May 2009, 5.
4. Pham, 24 May 2009, 6.
5. Pham, 24 May 2009, 4.
6. Pham, 24 May 2009, 5.
7. Pham, 24 May 2009, 7.
8. Pham, 24 May 2009, 8.
9. Pham, 24 May 2009, 8.
10. Pham, 24 May 2009, 8.
11. Pham, 24 May 2009, 8.
12. Pham, 24 May 2009, 9.
13. Pham, 24 May 2009, 9
14. Pham, 24 May 2009, 10.
15. Pham, 24 May 2009, 10.
16. Pham, 24 May 2009, 10.