Nicholas Trajano Molnar: This begins an interview with Mr. Tan Nguyen in New Brunswick, New Jersey on February 10th, 2012 with Aviva Shapiro and Nicholas Molnar. Thank you Mr. Nguyen for being here today, and I am glad that Carl Burns got in contact with you.
Tan Nguyen: My pleasure.
NM: Could you tell us when and where you were born?
TN: Sure, I was born in 1968, July 20th, in Vietnam in a town called Phan Thiet, which is, I believe, approximately eighty miles north of Saigon.
NM: We usually begin the interviews trying to draw out some of the interviewee's family history. Could you tell us about your father, what was his name and his background?
TN: Sure, my father's name is Am Huu. He enlisted in what they call ARVN, Army Republic of Vietnam. I can't recall the date exactly, but I believe it's in the late '60s, and, you know, he fought for our country, South Vietnam.
NM: Do you know anything or did he talk about any of his family's history in South Vietnam?
TN: Not too much as far as his parents, I just know that, well, he really didn't, you know, talk about his parents that much.
NM: Did he have any brothers and sisters?
TN: Yes, he has I think two brothers, and he had one sister. I could be mistaken, but, you know, those are the ones that he mentions the most. They came to the United States with us, so we stayed in contact with them.
NM: Did they all live in the same area?
TN: No, no, we were all in different areas. The reason we were at, the town of Phan Thiet, is because ... his occupation was a fisherman, so that was a fishing village, so when he chose to do that, that's where we relocated to.
NM: Could you tell us about your mother and her name?
TN: My mom's name is Yen Thi Nguyen. She lived in the same town. They met, and they were married, and, you know, we grew up in that town. I know my mom's parents lived in that town also, and I'll get into that later, how when we came to the United States we had to leave them behind, and it wasn't under pleasant conditions. ... She has one brother that is still alive in Vietnam that we keep in contact with, and also her younger sister is in the United States, and she lives in California, and another sister who passed away a few years ago, and she was still living in Vietnam when she passed away, and her mom and dad passed away I believe in the mid-'80s.
NM: You said on your pre-interview survey, you have six siblings.
TN: Yes, I have three older brothers and three younger sisters.
NM: Okay, I was wonder where you fit in there. Could you tell us a little bit about them?
TN: Sure, well, I'll start with my oldest brother; he came over with us. I believe he was at the age of fifteen or sixteen. His name is Thanh. My second older brother, believe it or not is spelled the same way, Thanh, but it's pronounced (Ton?). Next, my brother Tuan and then, there's me, followed by my sister Thuy and then, my sister Hang and my sister Vina who was born here in the United States, I believe in 1977.
NM: Now your parents were, this is a long shot, but I know a little bit about the history of Vietnam, and during World War II, the Japanese had occupied Vietnam, and they would have been very young, did they ever talk about that time?
TN: No, not really, but I did fail to mention, my mom actually told me she was taken prisoner when she was sixteen, if I can read my notes here, and it says that she told us that she was taken prisoner by the North when she was a teenager, and she was forced to do labor intensive work, and then, she managed to escape, and she went to the South, to the town where she met my dad in Phan Thiet. She really didn't like to talk about it too much just the fact of how they treated her and how that they used them for, I don't know what the term is, for labor. Then, finally, one night she said she managed to escape, but she didn't say with whom or if in a group, and as they said back then, if you're able to escape to the South, you were safer.
NM: So, really your mother was from Northern Vietnam?
TN: I believe, yes, I can assume that she was from the North, because once the line was drawn, thirty-second or thirty-eighth parallel, between the North and the South, that time she said that was the time where a lot of people had to decide, also not just the military, but the civilians, which side they wanted to live on and a lot of them left North Vietnam to go to the South, because she always mentioned that the South Vietnam was more prosperous than the North. The North was like a poverty stricken area, and the South was more prosperous, and when Ho Chi Minh decided that the country was going to be split, because of his actions, they had a big influx of people crossing the border, but because when she was a teenager, she was in the North, and then, she was used as labor for the North Vietnamese Army, and so, she escaped, and she went to the South.
NM: When she came to the South, I may have forgotten, but did she come with any family members or was she by herself?
TN: I believe by herself, she said she just escaped, and she didn't talk much about it, but as I said, I knew her parents lived in the same town in the South, Phan Thiet. So, I don't know how they got there originally from the North because back then you just lived anywhere; it was just Vietnam, right, until, what is it the thirty-second or thirty-eighth parallel?
NM: I am not sure.
TN: ... It is one of those; when that was formed, that's when, of course, if you're on the wrong side, and you wanted to go down to the South, and you would make every effort to make your way down there, so she really didn't talk too much about how her family came over. Some may have been in the South already; some may have been in the North, but she was definitely taken captive by the North, and then, she managed to escape.
NM: Now your father worked at the fishing village?
TN: Yes, that was his occupation. ...
NM: Had he always been in South Vietnam? I wanted to ask because did he ever talk about his experiences living there, because prior to 1956, the French had controlled the Southern half of Vietnam. Had he ever talk about it?
TN: ... Well, as far as the French influence, the only thing he mentioned was that they were in country; that they weren't really enemies; they just knew that they were in country, and then, they were a big influence to Vietnam, and that can go both ways like good and bad, but he definitely didn't fight against the French or something to that aspect. He was born here--I'm looking at my notes--well, his military service was '65 to '71.
NM: What I am asking is he as a teenager, the French have the Southern half of Vietnam until like 1956. Did he ever talk about like growing up under the French?
NM: Now, your father, he had been a fisherman before he joined the military. Is that correct?
TN: Yes, as far I know, he was a fisherman, him and his brothers, they bought a boat, and that was the sole means of income growing up.
NM: Did he ever talk about what motivated him to join the military?
TN: I never asked him whether he got drafted or he enlisted. He just said that he joined, and he served, and I believe a lot of people also served, because they knew that there was a threat, and they wanted to keep their freedom, and whether he enlisted or was drafted, I'm not sure.
NM: You would have just being born.
TN: Right, yes.
NM: In your pre-interview survey, I understand some of his family members also joined the military. Did you say he had two brothers? Did he ever talk about that?
TN: Yes, I believe he had two brothers, the ones he talked about, the two brothers. The only person other than my father that I know that joined was my cousin, and he was an officer at a young age, and he was killed within his first year of after commission, and that's something that we always were saddened about because growing up we always had a picture of him, black and white picture, in the house and every year during his birthday, they would light a candle and say a few prayers, but I don't know if his brother served, but I just know that our cousin served.
NM: Was it common to serve in the military?
TN: You mean is it common, like are willing or ...
NM: No, no, no, was it common for people in the area you lived, for people to either be drafted or enlist into South Vietnamese ARVN military?
TN: Well, growing up at a young age, most of what I'm telling you is from what my parents tell me, and I can recollect them saying on a daily basis the progress of the war, and often I hear them saying how such and such from the neighborhood is also joining, different people within the village are also joining, and to me, I feel like the way he tells me is though them voluntarily wanting to join and take up arms and protect their way of life, and so, I mean, it's not like he comes home a lot because he is away most of the time, and every time he would come home, it's just for a brief moment on leave, so growing up, he served in 1965 until '71, and I was born in '68, so as a kid my biggest thing when he came home was what kind of gifts did he have for us, because when you're serving with the American soldiers, we always looked for things that he would bring home for us whether it be candy or canned goods, the C-Rations or something to that effect, but the sense of the whole village, again, he would just say such and such joins; I can't recall the names of course, and it's a small village, so word gets out fast.
NM: So, I just have a quick follow up question, but then I want to get into what it is like living in this village. Do you have any recollection, was your father serving locally like near Saigon area or was he going wherever the ARVN frontline was.
TN: No, he was definitely going where the action was. I don't know the geographical area where he served, but I always knew he was injured actually twice, so he was definitely where the action was, and there was a time when he was injured the first time, where he was shot; he had a chest wound, but it didn't go through his chest; it just kind of pierced and came out on the surface, and that to me was my first experience with my dad being in so much pain, and what had really happened when he was injured; he told me this particular story, that he was in a convoy with his troops, and they were ambushed, and they lost a lot of soldiers that day, and he was one of those that was injured, and when he was taken to the hospital, believe it or not, the hospital was actually blown up by saboteurs or something to that effect. The enemy actually blew up the hospital, not all of it, just portions of it. So, he was brought home for home health care, I guess, home health aid, and that's my first image of my dad being in a war because when he's at war you don't know what he's doing, but now I see that he's a victim, and he's injured, and he's home, and the nurse would stop by once in a while, and as a little kid, I just remember my dad screaming in the room where the nurse was; that's because, as gross as it may sound, the medical services were nothing like we have here in the United States and to clean his wound, they would actually take cotton or gauze, dip it in alcohol, and they would use actual chopsticks, my dad said, and then, run it through the wound through the entrance and right through the exit to keep that clean, and this is while he was alert. So, that part, every once in a while, when the nurse would come by and do that, I felt bad for my dad, because he's going through all this pain, and you would think that would be his end of his tour in Vietnam, in the service, but shortly after when he recovered, he went back to service to continue fighting, and then, he suffered another injury. He stepped on a mine, but it's called a nicknamed a toe-popper, and that is it's just a small mine, and that's just made to ... blow up your feet, your toes, not necessarily kill you, but it would take you out of action, and this would, the whole objective, like he told me when you step on one of these things, now you have to have guys in your unit helping you out of there, and that takes the soldiers out of action, the whole intent of that particular mine, but he had that second injury that was in the '70s, I believe, '71 because I'm looking at his paperwork, and he said he was hospitalized, and he lost his big toe on his right foot and a portion of the second toe, and that was the end of his service as far as with the ARVN unit.
NM: He left the ARVN in what year?
TN: Yes, I'm reading my notes; when I asked him he said from '65 to '71.
NM: Okay, so we are in the 1971 period. So, could you just describe this fishing village that you are growing up in in Vietnam?
TN: That's always been the image in my mind. I haven't been back to Vietnam since then, and just for closure, I would like to go back to that fishing village. Growing up in the fishing village is definitely the one memory I have. We lived in a stucco style house, no electricity, no running water, of course, nothing like that and with the well that you share that with three other families, because it's centrally located in the backyard. The fishing village, the marina we're going to call it, it's just lots of wooden style boats. ... I recall them being painted with bright colors, and each boat has eyes on the front bow of the boat. I don't know what that means, but I guess it adds character of some sort. My dad and his brothers invested and bought a boat, and again, that was our livelihood. They would also sew their own nets. They would buy fishing lines and sew nets with some kind of makeshift needle that they carved out of bamboo, and they would sew these nets that are hundreds of yards long, and then, they would go out to the sea and lay down the nets, gill netting it's called and catch whatever fish they can, sell it to the market, and then, keep a portion for ourselves for food. You've got to keep in mind, there's no refrigeration, so you have to eat the fish fresh, and like I said, we sold some at the market, and ate whatever we had left. That was our daily diet in the fishing village. I don't believe there's any paved roads; it's all dirt roads. I recall just going to the front of the house; it's within walking distance to the beach. You can hear the ocean, the waves. That's how close we lived. That was my vision of it still. It's just a lot of small houses side by side, and people carrying their nets over their shoulders down to the boats, and they'd be gone a day or two, sometimes, and then, when they come back, our families always in anticipation of how well they did, and then, of course, sometimes they do well, sometimes they don't, and it's just a pretty small community; everybody knows everybody else.
NM: Approximately what is the population?
TN: That I don't know, no. I just know like everybody knows everybody's business; let's put it that way.
NM: Was any of the fish ever salted to preserve it?
TN: Yes, I was going to mention that, because I mentioned there's no refrigeration, that you eat the fresh fish that was brought back, of course, and the other fish, you would, I guess gut the fish, clean it out, and then, you would salt it and dry it. This way you could preserve the fish, and then, when you wanted to cook the fish all you have to do is just add water when you're cooking it, and it kind of rejuvenates the meat, I guess, but it's very salty, and another big product is called the anchovy sauce or nuc mam as we call it. That's when they take a lot of the fish, and they put it in a ceramic barrel. The barrel is like a fifty-five gallon drum size, I would say, and they would shovel sea salt, mixed in with the fish, and then, they would add a little water and seal the ceramic barrel and that over time would breakdown the fish and everything, and you get like a concentrated form of fish flavored sauce, and that is, I would say, equivalent to your ketchup or something; that's what we use with just about every meal. Of course, it's very salty. You mix it with water or lime juice and stuff like that, chili pepper, and that was the one thing you always eat your food with. Going back to dinner, I remember every day it was like mostly fish and rice, fish and rice, and I remember in the back part of the house, the porch overhang, I recall the kitchen was basically a couple of cinder blocks and what you do is you start a fire with wood or whatever, and you wait for the fire to go up, because I remember I had to do this task growing up, and my mom would say, "Hey, go start the fire," and I'd start the fire, and then, you let the flames burn out, so you just have the embers, and then, you put the cooking grate over the bricks, and then, of course put the pot of rice, fish, and vegetables, and that was the kitchen; that's how we cooked our food. ... The one thing though, meat, that was like obviously mainly pork, pigs. We raised them in our backyards, and my mom would always tell me that such and such neighbor had a liter of pigs and how lucky they are. You'd always think how wealthy you were in the village by the number of pigs you have, because when you slaughter a pig in Vietnam, whatever you want to call it, prepare one, it's for a special occasion, whether it be a wedding or New Year's, something to that effect, because you don't get a lot of it, because, like I said, you don't have refrigeration back there. You can also sell the pigs, and you get money, so that's additional source of income, but primarily it was a fishing village, and I remember going down to the marina and just seeing when the fishermen come in and who did what, how many fish were caught, where they're at, and helping my dad with the boat, the little I can of course. He took me on it one time, and I was pretty scared because, as I say, I was maybe four or five, and we went so far that I couldn't even see land anymore. To a kid my age, that's scary, when you don't see land anymore. I was probably crying, I don't know. I always had fond memories of that village, because it amazes me, the marina, all these boats there and how that was our income.
NM: Did your brothers, because they were older, did they help out fishing?
TN: Yes, my oldest brother and the second oldest brother, they helped out when my dad needed them. If they weren't out there in the ocean, they were home sewing the nets, fixing the holes in the nets, whatever the case maybe. That was their job.
NM: How far was the market from your village?
TN: That I don't know. I know at the marina they would have like brokers there. I don't know what they call them, buyers. You have to get this fish fresh and I don't recall seeing ice or anything, so, like I said, once the boat comes back, they had to sell it right away, and that fish is taken to the market, and they pay you on the spot, and then, you bring home, like I said, the portion for your family.
NM: Were things also bartered as well?
TN: I do recall going to the outdoor market, not like supermarkets here, nothing like that; if you wanted to buy things you would go, I guess the equivalent to a flea market here. You go there, and there's always bartering there, because I remember my dad haggling or my mom haggling prices, arguing about the quality of certain products and coming to terms with whatever price they agree, and I was just a little kid, I carried everything; I was the chore boy.
NM: Now, were all the buildings in this village, were they all stucco or some made of, I do not know, thatched roofs?
TN: It's funny you should ask that because believe it or not our house was made out of stucco, but like a couple of houses down it was a hut, you may call it, made out of thatched material. Again, it's whatever you make of it, but we never looked down on anybody with house that's made of a hut, because I remember the corner store, and when I say corner store, they had like very few products, but I remember the corner store was a thatched hut, and the old lady would sell stuff out of there. I remember going there with my dad, with some money; we'd go there buy candy or something to that effect or soda or whatever, but yes, it was made up of all different types of structures. My mom's parents, who lived in the same town, they were, I wouldn't say wealthy, but they were better off. They had like a two-story stucco house, I remember not only that, but their property has a wall around it with a gate in that particular neighborhood shows you have money or your wealthy, I guess, because if you have a wall around your property, that obviously cost money to do, and that just shows status, but I remember going to my grandparents' house, so often going up the stairs and kind of getting a better view of the whole neighborhood and that was pretty fun.
NM: As a young child, what do you do for fun when you were not helping out?
TN: Well, for fun, my recollection of my childhood, probably began when I was around four years old, four or five; that's what I recall, and you've got to understand that a four or five year old child in Vietnam is not the same as a four or five year old child in the United States. We can roam around the neighborhood, no curfew, whatever parents did, I wouldn't say they don't care where you are, but it's accepted. Going back to activities, I remember going down to the beach. We had a lagoon. Every time in the ocean there's a storm, an overflow of water would go over the hill and create this pool of water, and in that pool of water was also trapped fish and hanging out, tagging along with my older brothers, that was the thing to do, was to go down to the beach where this ocean that overflowed into this depression where the catfish were, and we would swim there and of course, catch the fish, and one of the ways to catch these fish, believe it or not, was using a can. Now, I'm saying this comparison, say like a Hawaiian Punch can, like something like that or a Hi-C can, the bigger ones, you would hollow out, you would cut out both ends, so it's a cylinder, and you just throw them all down into the water there and wait a while, and then, the water is so clear, they said that you would swim down there, not me, because I was too young, but my brothers would swim down there, and they would actually peek inside each cylinder can because the fish likes to use those as a hole, I guess, and then, if you see a fish in there, you want to put your hand over the fish on the side which his head is pointing because the fish can dart out fast, but he can't go backwards fast, as my brother tells me, so then they would put both hands over each end of the cylinder, trapping the fish inside and swimming to the top and that was how you caught the fish that was in there, and then, of course, you'd cook them up. We'd have a bonfire there, and we'd just cook up the fish and eat them. Also, I remember like the lizards. ... They're really big, scary for a little four or five year old; these things had to be like my height back then like three or four feet long. I remember growing up like food wasn't abundant. It wasn't like you can eat anytime you want. There was dinner time, and I ate breakfast too when I went to school, and that's it. You can't just go in the refrigerator and just get something to eat. So, a lot of time spent was to try and get food or hang out with my brothers and, like I said, the beach was inhabited with lizards, these big old lizards, and you can find them, if you see a hole in the ground, and they would make this say noose out of the fishing line and put a stake into the ground with the noose, so if the lizards would come out, or he should come back in the hole, he would entangle himself in that, and then, you'd go back and check out your trap, as they say, and then, if you catch one, then that's food for the gang as they say, put him on the grill. I remember doing that and also potatoes, they would grow wild along the edge of the shoreline there, not necessarily in the sand, and of course, we would go around looking for them, and for the other activities. I didn't have a bicycle, but I had a bicycle rim. It was just a rim, no spokes or nothing, and you would have like three foot bamboo stick, and the object is just to push the rim and keep it rotating, so it wouldn't fall over and just keep running with it. That was one of the other activities, and another one was I recall was marbles, because I guess, they were cheap, and you would shoot marbles with your friends etc., and you would bet rubber bands, so whoever you bet you'd get rubber bands, and you intertwined your rubber bands to make it like a rope. If you put five rubber bands together, against another five and you kind of make like a chain out of it, so if you see a kid that has like ten feet of rubber band, you know, he's pretty good at shooting marbles, and let's see, another activity, well, growing up in a fishing village, I like to fish myself. We didn't have fishing poles with reels or anything. We used bamboo stick with fishing line and hook. Here is a funny story. I'll never forget this. Like, I was telling you before, between the four houses that shared the backyard, there was a well in the middle which we all shared for water, and I remember one day the lady next door, she gave me this tin bowl, and it had four catfish. I'm going to say they were five to six inches long each and that was like a pet. Some houses would have a fish tank made out of cement, so she gave me these catfish, but they were too big. My brother says, you know, you're not putting them in the tank, because they were just too big, so I noticed the catfish was gasping for air, and I felt sorry for them, so I didn't want just to let them die, I dumped them into the well, so they could live, because this is where all the water is. So, a day later, while my mom was like outside hanging clothes, I wanted the fish and catch those catfish. So, I said, "You know what? Let me doing some fish here," so I grabbed some fishing line, and I lifted up the bricks near the well, on the patio and found some worms and hooked it on, and I started fishing in the bottom of the well. My mom turns to me, and she says, "What are you doing?" and I said, "I'm fishing." She goes, "There's no fish in the well." ... As she said that, I'm getting a bite on the line, so I'm pulling up this fish, and all of sudden I pulled up a catfish, and she looked at me like in awe and amazing and like what the heck, and she goes, "Where did that come from?" and I said, "Oh, the lady next door she gave me the fish. I put them in here." She goes, "What? You put fish in our well?" and I got my butt whipped for doing that, so she spanked me for a little while, and I didn't know because, like I said, I'm a little kid, but that was everybody's drinking water, and you didn't want to contaminate it with fish. That's the whole moral of the story. That was one of the experiences I recall, and also back to activities, weddings was another big deal. If somebody were to get married in the village, the whole village would come out for them, and of course, everybody has got their Sunday best on, and I recall they would have a parade with the bridegroom in the front, and they're walking through the village, and I'm with my dad, and the whole tradition is that people would have a ribbon of some sort across the road, and bride and groom would have to kiss, and then, they would get money from the people that are holding the ribbon and they would go to the reception. It's all outdoors, with lots big white tent, etc. and lots of food, and I remember it seemed like forever to walk to wherever it was, and I just like tell my dad, "How much further?" But, I remember that was kind of special and of course, going to school, so when I was five years old, I went to school. ... I mean, school is an activity, I guess. So, going to school I remember I went with my cousin, and my dad would take us. We would sit on the motorcycle, no helmet, no nothing, just two little kids on back on the motorcycle going at a high rate of speed. This was taught by French nuns, the school. So, I was actually taught French in the school. I remember my ABCs, it's (A, B, C?), you know, apparently that's how you say the ABC in French, but going to the school, Dad would buy us some kind of hot cakes or whatever for breakfast, and then, we'd go into school through the gates, and I just remember in school that you don't want to be one of those kids that get their hands smacked by the nun with a ruler, so you had to be good. So, there wasn't a lot of horsing around in the school, you learn, but I do recall in the middle of the school yard there was this big fruit tree, sort of like a lychee fruit, and I recall just looking out the window, every once in a while one of the nuns would take a kid out there and would allow the kid to pick a fruit, and I'm wondering, "How do you get that privilege?" and apparently, it's only if you did well in school, whether it be a test of some sort. If you're a good kid, each kid would go out there and have the opportunity to pick the fruits off the tree, and keep in mind, the tree was surrounded by barbed wire, so it wasn't like anybody can go in there at any time, and I made it an objective to try to be one of those kids, but I never did, but I remember one time, I don't know, what I did in school, but I won something, right; I was given a prize. So, it was in a brown bag, and I'm not going to tell you now because the funny part comes later, so it was in a brown bag, and I was so excited and so proud of whatever it was I did, I can't recall, but I won in that class; I won the prize. So, I come home, and I wait for everybody to get home, and I'm like, "I won. I won in school. ... I did well or something," and they were like, "Really?" and they asked, "What did you win?" So, out of the brown paper back was a potato. [laughter] So, I won this, and it was a potato, and everyone started laughing, and I'm like, "What? That's not good?" and I was proud of myself, again its food, but it's a potato, and to this day, we still joke about it, so I tell my brothers and sisters if they remind me of that time, I go, "Well, when was the last time you won a potato for anything?" So, touché, right, but those are the things I recall, being in school, oh, yes, and also it was an all-day kindergarten, so we'd get naps from eleven to one, and that will play out later on as I tell you the story of coming to America and going to the school, but the other activities, like I said, was just roaming around the neighborhood, just hanging out with kids, but let me also add this, that because it was during wartime, and I say, one of the big things was when he convoy of troops that would go through the camp. Trust me you can hear them, and my most memorable impression was the smell of the diesel fuel when the trucks of the convoy of troops that would go through your town, you would wait out in the street, because you knew there were going to give you something, and me and my friends obviously went; we just wait on the side road, wave for them,and stuff like that, and they would throw us like candy; gum was the big thing, Chiclet gum; I remember those and just wave our hand out, but again, they were very nice to you. They'd always throw stuff to you, and we were really appreciate of that, and one day I just asked my mom, I said, "Why are they coming to our town?" and she says, "Those are the American soldiers that are coming to help us." ... Again I'm four, five years old, so I really don't have the total grasp of what's going on as far as being in the war, I just hear that we're at war, but don't really, can't do a visual of what is going on. So, I'm like, "Oh, they're here to help us, for what?" and they were like, "Oh, because, you know, they're helping to fight the North," and I said, "Oh, that's very nice of them," and I said, "Wow, they came from," again I didn't know where they came from, only know they just appeared on our village, but that went on. I thought to myself, "That's really nice how these soldiers are coming over here, and of course they look nothing like us," and I said, "They're willing to help us in the war effort." So, right there at that point I just knew that like it was a good thing that we were getting help, because you never hear about like the South winning or something like that. You just hear from my dad or my mom that such and such was killed, such and such were killed in the war, so it's almost led you to believe like, "Hey, all the people that we know are dying in the war," but you don't ever hear the stories like, "We're winning this battle or we're winning that battle." You just hear about the deaths. So, it was a relief for me to see the troops come to the village, and my mom told me how they're going to help us. That in itself was I say a joyous moment to see the troops, and the fact that they, you know, give you candy and everything like that too. That was a big event every time they'd come through. Let's see; I'm trying to figure out what other activities. Church was a big thing. We were actually one of the very few that was raised Roman Catholic. The majority of the religion in Vietnam was Buddhist, but we were raised Roman Catholics, so church was a big deal, Christmas was also, but Christmas is not like Christmas over here; it was more of a parade through the town carrying Mother Mary as a shrine, and everybody just walking with candles in their hands and celebrating Christmas. New Year's was the big holiday in Vietnam. ... I couldn't wait for that, because there's a tradition that the elderly have to give the kids money--it's a tradition--in this red envelope, and color red is good luck, so the whole neighborhood was shut down for like a whole week. There's no work, no nothing, and it's just friends visiting your house, you going over their house, and it's just a festive time, and again the best foods are made, and fire crackers are lit, and I remember that being a big thing, because it was just a big party for a whole week, if you can imagine that, and of course, the money thing too was great.
NM: When you were going to Catholic School, were the boys and girls separate or were it together?
TN: I can't recall. I don't know if they were separated or not, but I remember going to school with my cousin, but she wasn't in the same class I was so maybe, but I can't recall why we were separated.
NM: For other Catholic holidays such as Easter, would that be just celebrated among your family who was Catholic?
TN: Well, there was a portion of the village that was Catholic, and we had a church.
NM: So, the church would celebrate.
TN: Right, and the big emphasis was actually Mother Mary, because there's a story behind Mother Mary, and I didn't find this not too long ago, a few years ago when I actually went to the Vietnamese Congregation Church in St. James in Woodbridge, and they did a play about Mother Mary and how she helped with the efforts. Apparently, they did play where the soldiers were say attacking this village, and they were really like killing everybody, and the group, the villagers escaped, and I believe Mother Mary made an appearance, and she led them to safety, and that story that was like echoed throughout the whole community. Again, I can't recall what happened. It's one of those stories, and because of that, even the church I recall, you go into the church, and the first thing you see is a statue of Mother Mary, and it was pretty big to a kid anyway. It was, I would say, about twenty feet high, but every time we would parade through the streets during the religious holidays, it was the Shrine of Mother Mary, because of the story of how she appeared and helped with the efforts of the villagers escaping from being killed, but yes, there was a portion of the village that were Roman Catholic, but I didn't know about that then. There were two groups Buddhist and Catholic. I just know I had to go to church every Sunday, and the best part of the church was just playing around outside with all my friends and stuff like that. I can't recall being in church or something to that effect, but being a Roman Catholic when I came to America, that helped. That played a big part in our relocation, and that is through Catholic charities because of our religious affiliation, not to say that Catholic charities only help out Catholics, but I recall Mom saying how the Catholic Church is helping us when we came to this country.
NM: This village seems a little, I mean the size, of course people joining the armed forces and the American convoys and I guess some South Vietnamese convoys would go through town as well.
TN: I don't recall the Vietnamese troops going through town. I just know my dad had to go off after his leave, he would just be driven up by some friend or something to where their unit was at, but the only time I see troops going through town was with the Americans soldiers.
NM: It seems like the village is kind of a ways off from the main stream of the war.
TN: Well, funny, I mean, you should mention that too, because I forgot ... to tell you also it's not that far away from the war, because I recall every morning hearing artillery rounds. You could hear that thunderous noise that they make, and I asked my mom, I said, "What is that?" you know, and she says, "Oh, they're bombing." That's all she says, and I'm just like, "Where?" Of course, she didn't know either, but that's how close we were to the war, where you can actually hear the artillery, and I remember it getting closer to the point, this may sound funny, but it just seemed like it always happens early in the morning and just before dark is when you hear the artillery rounds, and at one point, it's funny to say, but that's how I got woken up to go to school in the morning; when you hear the bomb, it wakes you up. I'm not saying like it's visible, but it is loud enough to get your attention, because it's not something you hear every day, because, like I said, this is a quiet village. No major highway runs through it where you hear sounds of motor or anything like that, but also you hear this bombs going off. As a kid, I was worried. I would always ask my mom, "Are they getting closer? ... How come we're not doing anything about it? ... Why is everybody just continuing with their daily activity? ... Isn't anybody concerned?" because I remember I was, getting to see the troops go through, and then, you hear the bombs going off every day. Again, it's, now that I've been in the military, I know that it was far away, but again, as a kid, you hear, and you'd be scared by it, and you can only imagine these bombs blowing up, like what is going on, are people getting killed out there, I'm trying to visualize back then. You hear the explosion, you know that it's doing damage, but I guess, you kind of have to think what is it doing to people?
NM: Do you have any questions about growing up?
(Aviva Shapiro?): I know that you are the youngest of your brothers and your sister must have been very young.
AS: Even as a young child you were still given responsibilities, so what about your sisters? The would have only been like two, but did they have any responsibilities towards your mother like helping her out with things?
TN: Like chores and stuff like that? Yes, well, you're right my sister Thuy was two and my sister Hang, she was only nine months old newborn, and part of my chores was to also babysit, to watch them, my sisters, so my mom can do her chores, because she didn't work. She was a stay home mom, and my brothers would help my dad out with the fishing, but I remember watching my sisters a lot. I remember feeding them, caring for them, that was part of my, I guess, of my ... responsibilities, mom says something, you do it; that's just how it is.
NM: At what point, because your father had served in the military, but I am just trying to get a grasp. I know he left the service in 1971, and about when you were five, six or seven, the war started turning very badly for the South Vietnamese military. What do you remember about that period? How did that affect your family?
TN: Yes, so my dad got out in '71; I'm looking at my notes that my dad told me. On a daily basis, like I said, after my dad got out and recovered from his last injuries, he grew more and more concerned too about the war, how he would give us like an update of how far the North has come down. Now keep in mind, we were eighty miles north of Saigon, we were pretty much like by the capital of South Vietnam which was pretty far away from say the thirty-second or thirty-eighth parallel, or Da Nang or Kaesong, and he would say like, "Oh, they reached this town." "They reached this town," and as he tells it, a few days here and a few days there, my whole image of that is they're coming farther and farther south; they're invading, and I'm like, "How come nobody is stopping them or what are we to do?," Do you want me to go into that day when we left the village or ...
NM: Yes, building up.
TN: Okay, there was talk about and this is 1975. This is the big, the moment, big transition. Now, we also got word that they said that when they were invading they were just killing people, and my mom said, you know, "We have to leave." No, I take that back. My dad said we have to leave; he said, because if we don't they were going to kill him, because he was an Army soldier fighting against them, even though he was out of the service, he was still a soldier at one point, and so, he grew concerned not only that, but my mom said she was hesitant at first, because her parents were living in town, and she didn't want to leave them. They didn't want to leave; that's the thing. She tried to convince them to leave, but they didn't want to leave, and she wasn't going to part with them, and again my dad just told them, "If we don't leave, they're going to kill me," and also, he was afraid that my oldest brother, and well, my oldest two brothers, they would have been, say drafted into the military, the North Vietnamese military now, and you have no say so, because like I said, 1975, we were led to believe like the country was, like I said, losing and the big issue was whether we should leave or not, and again, I wasn't sitting in the conversation, but it was determined that we were going to leave. So, I remember packing, and it wasn't much. I believe it was like a couple of suitcases, one with important documents and one was like bare essential clothes, and preparation was made and that we were going to take my dad's fishing boat, because they got word that the US Navy was picking up anybody that want to leave the country off the coast, because if you recall from the footages on TV how difficult it was to leave the country, the last helicopter had left the embassy, and now, we are left with who's going to help us, and then, like I said, my dad mentioned about the US Navy, picking up refugees. So, we packed up our boat, left the house, just left it behind and made our way out to sea, and well, if I can just back up a little bit, again, my mom's parents were reluctant to leave, but my mom convinced them to leave finally. We went to the marina, got our boat, packed everything up, and keep in mind, the atmosphere at this time wasn't calm; it was chaotic. It was just people abandoning their houses. ... You could hear the artillery rounds closer, you could hear gunshot here and there, and so, of course, we went to the boat with intentions of going down to the shore to pick up my mom's parents which were waiting on the shore. So, I recall, now, if I could just describe the boat, it's just a wooden open boat, with a little cuddy area to fit maybe three adults and that's it, and it had a little diesel motor, and that was it. So, we went down to the shore to pick up my mom's parents, and again, there was boats on fire out there, there is just boats going in every direction. It seemed like to me like where is everybody going, why don't we just go somewhere and hide for a while until this whole thing blows over, and we can come back. That's a kid thinking, why do we have to go so far, why can't we just do that, go to the other side of the ocean and just hide. Anyway, this was a memorable moment because I still can envision this, see this pretty clear in my mind. When we went to pick up my grandparents, I pictured them, the two of them, on the beach, they had a suitcase, my grandfather's suitcase in his hand, and as we came closer to the beach, the water was too shallow; the boat could not go all the way to the beach. So, we had to anchor off where it was still deep enough, and then, I don't know who it was, but it took the raft to go to shore to pick up my grandparents to bring them back. So, the person who, again I can't recall, was in the raft and it was made out of lots of bamboo interwoven, and then, it's covered with heavy tar on the outside to waterproof it. So, it's a big basket basically, and it was rolling closer and closer to shore. Now that I'm picturing it, I can probably say it's a few hundred yards. Halfway there, all of a sudden, our boat gets bombed, the artillery, the first round was like, when an artillery round hits the water, its different than hitting land, when it hits the water it's absorbed a lot, so you get this big flume of water, but you do hear the explosion, but it's not as loud as if it would hit on land, and that's due to my experience being in the military, but the first round hit, and of course. you could tell it was intended for us, and then, another round hit, and then, the third round was so close it was in the front of the boat that the water actually splashed on to the boat, and that's when everyone scrambled. My mom, I remember, shoving all of these kids into the cuddy cabin area, and everyone was screaming, "We've got to go, we've got to go, we've got to go," and that person, like I say, who went to pick up my grandparents was halfway between our boat and them on the beach, and again, with my father screaming, "We have to go, we have to go," my mom, I recall her crying, "No, no wait," you know, we got to pick up her parents, but my father was so adamant, and he so boisterous, I'm going to say, because it was a very frightening moment, because we just got artillery, and then, it causes the water to splash on to the boat, that the person rowing the raft just came back, because I guess my dad convinced him to. ... I believe it was my older brother that was rowing that raft, and so, he came back, and the anchor, we didn't even have time to pull it up. He just took a knife, a big butcher knife or something like that, and he just cut the rope, and then, we motored up out of there and being in the cuddy, I could still see out, I could still see my mom crying and reaching for her parents who were on the shore, and they're waving at the same time, it's very emotional as the boat was going away further from the shoreline, you could see them fading away, again being so far, and I think that was my last image of my grandparents and a lot of crying going on, and it went on for a while I guess, and then, finally we got far away enough, and I think things calmed down when we saw this, again to a five year old that time, this great big ship. Now, I've seen boats in the marina, and I've seen fishing boats, but nothing like this. It was this huge gray ship, nothing I've ever seen before, smack in the middle of the ocean, and it doesn't move. It's not moving; it's like a building in the water or something because, and all little boats are around the ship, and so, there it was; this is the ship that's going to take us, that's going pick us up and help us. Again, I didn't know we were going to America, I just know they're picking us up to help us get out of the area where the enemy is coming, and if you can picture like the ship and around it was thousands of wooden boats surrounding it and abandoned too because obviously you're going there to get on board that ship, so people that have gotten there already, are already on the ship and they left their boat abandoned; their boat is floating in the water. So, here we come, and keep in mind, we're going to do the same, abandon our boat; we have to get on the ship, but it wasn't like you pulled up the ship, and there's someone waiting there to take us on board; you had to make your way to the ladder, which is the steps, stairs that lead up to the ship, and again, this ship is so huge for a kid my size, you just have to look up, and so, the task was now to go from moving boat to another moving boat while it's rocking, and I remember the waves weren't that calm, and the boats were just bumping each other, so picture a family of eight at the time trying to make their way, and again, someone's holding my hand, I remember that, and just pulling me over to the next boat and had to wait until that boat hits the next boat to get on, and my mom has my two year old sister in one hand, and she had, I'm sorry, my nine month old sister in one hand and my two year old in, and she's trying to make her way, and at one point, she always tells the story how she had to put my nine month old sister down on the bow of this boat, so she can grab my sister, and she says that if my sister knew how to turn or roll, she would have went in the water. That's how frightened she was, but thank God she didn't know how to roll she says. So, she managed to make, to get my sister, and again, my experience I just remember someone helped me, dragged me and put me on the boat, and I guess it was my older brother or my father or whoever it was, and all I can do is just look around and see other people doing the same thing, and I looked on the ship, and I see all these people. I mean, it was packed on the ship, and here we are; it almost seemed like we were late or something, and from what I can gather too, and this is my mom telling the story of my dad, she said that one of the American soldiers helped her, saw how difficult it was for her to maneuver as she made her way down and grabbed my mom and my sisters and helped her get to the ladder and this other image that was sticking in my mind is that the ladder well, again there was only maybe, like, again, being in the Marines now, I know what the layout is like. The ladder well is really narrow, like barely two people can squeeze by if they turned side to side, that's how, and then, you've got thousands of people trying to get up to the ship, and it's not really orderly at all; everybody is trying to get on the ship. So, I remember them lowering a crane, and it had like a pallet to bring up people by way of crane, so they would drop the pallet, people get on, and they would lift them up and bring them onto the ship, and I thought, "Wow, that's a pretty cool idea." Well, there were people there so desperate that they were hanging on to the edge of the pallet, not actually on the pallet, but hanging on the side, and I remember one of the person dropping like because they're so far up, again they couldn't hold on, I guess. I remember them falling; I don't remember them like hitting anything like a boat or nothing I just remember them let go, and I hope we don't go up that way to save myself. So, finally, we made it up to the boat, the ship I should say, and it was just mass hysteria. Everyone is crying, babies are crying, people are yelling, and I remember my mom yelling too saying, "Where is your dad? Where is your dad? Where is your brother? Where is your brother? Is everyone here? Is everyone here? Who's missing?" She's trying to like gather us together to stay in a group, because it was packed on that ship, I mean shoulder to shoulder, and we weren't allowed inside the ship. We were only allowed on the deck of the ship, so it was just a lot of turmoil, a lot of chaos, confusion, and my mom constantly saying, "Where is your dad? Where is your dad? Where is your brother? Is everybody here? Is everybody here?" and we were just all standing frightened and huddled together, and finally, I remember hearing this big loud horn, I guess, ship's whistles as they're referred to today, and it frightened me, and that's when the crying got louder because I guess people knew that the ship was going to take off. It was filled to capacity, and there were still people, other boats coming. ... I looked down; I could still see people down by their boats, doing what we're doing, hopping from boat to boat, but the big ship's horn blew, and again, people were crying louder, including my mom, because she was constantly saying, "Where is your dad? Where is your dad?" and she was calling his name, but with the same token other people were yelling for their loved one's names too. So, again, the ship left, and of course, a lot of crying by everybody, and we were just pretty much frightened, nervous you want to call it, and not knowing what to do except we're on the ship now, no directions; everybody is on their own type of thing. So, the ship steamed off, and I remember watching down over the railing people are still waving like I guess that's to say like help, you know, don't leave or some sort, and I remember the ship just pushing all the little boats out of the way like they were like nothing, and as the ship went further away, you still saw a lot of people still left behind, and again, my mom constantly calling for my father, my brother. Now, keep in mind they could have been somewhere, another part of the ship, they came up another way, but there was no answer, and you couldn't walk around to find them; it was so crowded. So, I remember just sitting down, you now, Indian style, and we were all in a group and of course crying and everything, lots of kids are crying, and I remember we're pretty hungry too, but the water was plentiful, they would give out water, but the food, my mom says it wasn't that accessible, because as they were giving out food, the people that were getting it, it wasn't sharing; they weren't giving to the people in the back of the group, and that's where we were, and I remember being on that ship a long time, and I said, "Mom, how long were we on the deck of that ship?" She says, "Four days," because we made our way to Guam, the island of Guam. So, I said, "Four days," but keep in mind, it's the tropics, you know, it's warm, and Vietnam was not like you're, it's hot actually, so, but you're still on the deck of the ship for four days, and like I said, the food wasn't in abundance, because it would never get passed to us, and I remember we were crying. My mom says, and again I'm telling this story from my mom's version, she told us that we were all crying stuff, and this one lady was kind enough to give us a pack of noodles, which we called ramen noodles, I guess, and it was, you know, dry noodles out of a package, and my mom broke to like little pieces to give to each one of us, and she says, "That's all you had for like four days," so she goes, "That was what you had," so a cube of ramen noodles. I'm sorry, I'm saying ramen, because this way you can relate, but it's the same thing and getting to where we were going, finally I saw land, and the ship slowed down, and, you know, everybody off loaded, and we were put into like a line, and this where they were serving the food by the tents, these big green tents. I'm like, wow, these are like the big wedding tents, like the big white ones, these are green, but so, you just grab a tray, and you just go down the line, and they would just scoop food into your tray, and man was I hungry and we ate. Everyone was still screaming or yelling out loud for relatives who were missing, including my mom, and apparently this is what happened. My father and my oldest brother did get left behind. They went back to the boat to get the suitcase of our documents, etc., and they didn't make it back, and the ship left them behind.
NM: We were talking about going to Guam.
TN: Okay, I think I left off where we found out that my brother, oldest brother, and my father were left behind, and they reunited with us in the Island of Guam. So, now I'm telling you a story from my dad's recollection of what happened. So, what happened was he went back, him and my oldest brother went back to get our suitcase and our credentials and important paper work, and the ship had taken off, so he was left behind along with a lot of other people and being that my dad was a fisherman and knew the sea and everything like that, he found the biggest boat that was abandoned, bigger than his obviously and him and my oldest brother started loading up supplies etc., because he knew that the ship was going to Guam or that direction, and like, I said, he knew the ocean, so his intention was to follow the ship. So, they found the largest abandoned boat and got supplies, extra fuel, food, whatever they could salvage from the other boats, along with other people that were left behind. So, he took on a group of, he said about maybe like a dozen people on this boat, so he followed the ship that we're on, obviously, but the ship was too fast; he couldn't keep up, but again, he knew which direction they were heading, that's why he joined up with us like a day later, I think it was, when we got to Guam. It wasn't until like a day later is when my mom found him again, but what happened was, he and my brother and, like I said, about a dozen people were on this boat and they're en route, following the ship, and on the way, they ran into the South Vietnamese Navy. Now, the South Vietnamese Navy they were also fleeing the country too, but because the United States has given the South Vietnamese Navy ships to use during the war efforts, and they were flying this South Vietnamese flag, which was basically gold with three .. red stripes, and that was the flag, and that's going to play a very sad part in this story portion. So, my father, who is driving the boat, and my brother who was helping out, came upon this South Vietnamese Navy and you could tell because of the flag they were flying. Now, he said there was a ship, a small sized ship, the kind of ship that I know as an LCU, landing craft unit, in which the front of the ship opens up, not a ship, but like a big boat. It's a troop carrier; their front opens up when it hits the beach, that's the type of boat. Anyway, he saw the South Vietnamese Navy ship obviously bigger than his, and he said, "They're going to pick us up, help us out," but as they got close, they were actually shot at. I don't mean shot at like directly, but they fired a couple of rounds across the bow because they were in fear that this could be an enemy boat or that they had no more room to take on anybody so they did that to deter them from trying to get any closer whatever the case maybe, but he said somehow one of the passengers aboard my father's boat made his way to the front of the boat, and he took off his coat and when he did that, underneath was an ARVN officer; I don't know what rank he was, but my dad says to me that he was a very high ranking officer. He didn't know that he was a passenger on his boat, because he had a coat over himself to look like anybody else, because, keep in mind, if they knew that you're an ARVN, Army Republic of Vietnam, the North would kill you, so he was disguising himself at least until he made it to safety. So, he got up the front of the boat, took off his jacket, and he revealed that he's wearing his uniform as a South Vietnamese officer, high ranking. So, the South Vietnamese Navy saw who he was, and they actually wave them over, the boat, and he and his wife and his kid only were allowed to board the boat, not everybody else, just him because of his rank. Of course, my dad was surely upset and cursing him out whatever the case may be in disgust, but the fact was that they would only take him and not the rest of the group, so away they had to go, again, they had to go on their own. So, he said sometime later, they saw another group of South Vietnamese Navy. Again, you could tell by the flag they were flying, and this time they were able, they got picked up; they allowed them to come aboard, and then, they abandoned the boat that they were using. So, he says they're all in this ship, smaller ship, of course, and all the Vietnamese refugees were in there, and he says the saddest moment this whole ordeal he said was April 1975, he said the saddest moment is when they saw the South Vietnamese flag being lowered for the last time because the country had fallen, and they knew that they had lost their country. To any of us, I don't know how you can relate, but my comparison is can you imagine the United States Flag being lowered for the very last time ever, because it was taken over by another country. He says the whole group of people on that ship was crying, and there's total silence and just crying seeing that flag being lowered, but then, in the midst of it all, it was replaced with the American flag; it was replaced with the American flag and it was raised, the American flag. So, to mean that that ship now belongs back to American property, because it was on loan to the South Vietnamese, but such a country flag was lowered and an American flag was then raised, so that brought a sense of a better feeling than knowing like hey, this ship flying an American flag, it's protected, it's American property etc., and of course, knowing that you're going to America. He didn't quite actually tell me like how he felt about that, but he just kind of emphasized on the lowering of his country's flag, how sad that was. So, then that ship made it to Guam, and that's how we reunited, so then we're in Guam living in the green military tents as they called it and sleeping on cots and everything, and then, we were then relocated to the Philippines, Subic Bay, that was what I was told, a refugee camp, and again, living in the green military tents and cots, and as a kid, you find kids your own age, you just mope around, and what is there to do. My recollection or experience from being in the Philippines and Guam is just watching the GIs like seeing them there, what they're doing, what they're up to, and I can recall by the bar tent there is this big green, now I know what it is a 7-Up machine soda machine. In the '70s, they're a lot bigger than they are now; it was like the size of bathroom, I guess, and I see the GIs just walking up to them once in a while and just putting some coin in there and out the bottom pops this can of soda. Now I know, because my dad used to bring us soda home from when he came home on leave from the Americans. It was great, you know, it was the best thing ever. So, I'm like, "Oh, my gosh, they're getting those soda cans like Dad used to bring home," and I'm going, "Man, how lucky is that job to be inside of that machine giving out sodas." I think there was a person in there giving out the sodas when you put a coin in. Again, that was my thought process as a five year old. So, the tent we lived in was divided by canvas wall; our family is on one side, and there was another Vietnamese family on the other side. Apparently one of the GIs, I would say, servicemen was dating one of the other family's daughters I guess, so he would pull up in a jeep once in a while and pick her up, and me and my little entourage of like four other kids just wandering around, seeing them, waving to them, and once in a while, he would throw us gum or candy or whatever, and then, one day, believe it or not, he threw us a quarter, a coin, and of course, it landed, and I picked it up, and I stepped on it, and I said, "This is the coin that they put in that machine to get that soda." So, with that we all ran down to this big green colored machine, and I did what they did, put the thing in, hit the button, and sure enough a can of soda came out. Now, keep in mind, there are four other kids around me, and open the thing and I guess I was in charge of the soda can, I would take a sip, then I would hold it to the next kid, not letting him grab the can by himself, you know, I would just let him drink a little, pass it to the next one, and to the next one, so we all get like kind of an equal share. I mean, that's how, I don't know, good the stuff was. That was one of my most special moment being in the Philippines, and the fact that we got to eat there, that they fed you like three times a day. We couldn't wait until we go to the line and get food, and I would just say to myself, "This is pretty good. Before I was hardly getting food." So, that was the day to day life. I don't know how long we were there. I just knew it was hot, and there was nothing to do, but just to stay in the tent and walk around and like a lot of servicemen they would throw away, the military food back then was called a C-ration; they were like olive drab colored cans, and the skinny ones were like peanut butter jelly. They would just discard them all over the place, and we would go and find them, and of course, that was the big thing to do, but one day I remember mom says that we had to leave, we had to leave soon, and I'm like, "Well, where are we going?" She didn't know; she just got word that everybody has to pack up, because there was a storm coming, and we would call it a hurricane; they call it a typhoon, I believe over there, and the storms was coming, and we couldn't stay in those tents because they wouldn't stand the storm, so another mass hysteria; everybody grabbing and fleeing because back then the, I guess the technology of the storm warning wasn't as good as now, like back then I guess you only have a couple of days before you knew it was going to hit that area. Now, you can track it forever, so my mom just said that we've got to get going, we've got to go, so they just rushed us on to an airplane. Now, I know what kind of plane it was; it was a C-130 because being in the military I remember what kind of plane it was. I remember the back opened up, and we all got in the plane and I was scared; I believe I was crying, and the only thing I had on was this like red sweater, the clothes that they would just give you because when you're in Vietnam, you don't wear a shirt; you just wear shorts. So, we boarded the plane, and of course, it was loud, it was noisy; I was crying. It wasn't like you're sitting in a nice chair like on a regular jet; you're sitting in a cargo, a netted bench, and plane took off with everybody on board, and also, it got really cold, and it went from hot to cold, and that's because it reached the elevation of thirty thousand feet or whatever, and it got really cold up there, but I remember one of the servicemen coming around giving out something, and it was food. That was my first experience of pudding; they were handed out on the plane. So, again as a little kid, you've never eaten that stuff before, I'm like, "Oh, my God, this is pretty good." So, that was my memory of that particular flight. So, then we landed somewhere, and then, we got on another plane. My parents told me that we went from the Philippines to Hawaii, and then, boarded a regular jet and made our way to California, and then, flew to another place where we were then bussed out to this base, that now I know it was a base and that was Fort Indian Town Gap, Pennsylvania. I went back there a couple of years ago to see, but they tore that area down. So, we lived in the military base there in the barracks. I remember it being a white building, green window and door trim. Then, that was the lifestyle for a while, and I find out now what like most of my relatives are in the Southern portion in the United States, like Louisiana, California, Florida, and we were destined to go there too because they wanted to keep the refugees in the southern portion of the United States for the climate reason, because we came from the tropics, so they wanted to keep us in a warm climate. So, I asked my mom, "How did we end up in the northern section?" and she didn't know. Again, it was just a mass scramble to get thirty thousand refugees off the island, and they were just telling planes, goes to base, go to that base, because they couldn't fit everybody. So whatever available bases were, and it just so happened that we ended up in Pennsylvania. Living in the barracks was, again it's just, the daily thing was just stay in the barracks there. Once in a while a pickup truck would come by, and we hear the horn beep, that meant everybody go outside. They would drive between the barracks, and they had the pickup trucks full of clothes, and this would be the clothes that everyone donates to those boxes and they would just make a pile of them, and then, you or your family would go out there and get the clothes, and there is no size or anything; you just get what you get. So, after a while, my mom and dad told us that we had a sponsor, and I don't know the translation, but she said that someone's going to sponsor us, and I didn't even know what that meant. So, we got on the bus, and again, this is my first time for everything, first time on a plane, first time on the base, first time eating the food and getting on the bus, this great big bus, and again, we just sat there, and it was nighttime I remember, and then, finally it stopped, and we got off the bus, and we were greeted by these American families. Of course total strangers to me. I was scared and nervous the whole night, and I remember getting into a car, but I didn't get into the same car with my mom and dad, and I was crying, thinking, how come I was with these people and not with my mom and dad; why couldn't we go together, and it turns out they were the sponsors, through the help of Catholic Charities, because at that time, with the refugees, they asked who in this area would help taking some of these families, so they all lived in Edison, New Jersey by the Ford plant if you know the area.
NM: (Union?) Road?
TN: Yes, exactly. ... They're from Edison, and because we had eight people in the family, it was too big for any family to take us all in, so they decided to separate us to the three families. My brother Paul, and I say Paul because we were given American names, when we came to this country. Our sponsors thought it would be easier, so being that we were raised Roman Catholic, they decided to go with our baptized names. Mine was Joseph, that's why I was known as Joe growing up, and my brother John and Paul, all the disciples I guess. So, me and my brother Paul, second oldest brother, we lived with the (Duggan?) family on Crescent Street which is off Vineyard by Johnstone by the bar, (Richie's?) Bar. ... I grew up living with them, and my brother, my oldest brother and my brother John, lived with the Culanskis and they lived by the elementary school, Lincoln School, and then, my mom and dad and my two sisters lived with the (Mullen's?) which was right down on Johnstone Street. So, here we are separated, but within walking distance, but still you take someone from the village through this transition, and you're brought into this new country, and everything is just like pleasant surprise is the best way to put it, because the house is nothing like our house. They have a car, the streets, and it's just like a dream. You're just like, "Wow, this is the other, I've never ... " because we didn't have TV or anything in Vietnam, keep it in mind, so we were just isolated in this environment, it was just, like I said, it was a pleasant surprise. So, we're growing up, and the (Duggan's?), they had kids of their own. They had three boys, and I didn't speak English, not a word, nothing. I just remember talking, but it pretty much sounds garbled, because I can't make out what they're saying, but I know they were nice people. I know they were willing to help us, and that in itself was pretty good. We would sit down, eat dinner with them. I had my first American food and family, and I remember what it was; it was Hamburger Helper. "This is good stuff," you know, now I know it was Hamburger Helper; back then I didn't know what it was. Then, after a few months apparently the church St. Matthew's was a big part in our, ... they helped find us a house down the street, Idlewild Road, and that's where we rented a house for the longest time. The priest, my dad said the priest in St. Matthew's got him a job and that was through the sanitation department because my dad was now in his forties and no English, no education, none whatsoever and what can he do? So, they found him that job, and it actually was something he could do, not only that because it had benefits and everything for his kids, and to this day, he's retired now, twenty-seven years with Edison, but I look up to him because knowing what he did, every morning four o'clock, getting up, and he's a little guy too, walking the route, you know, picking up garbage, putting it in the truck for twenty-seven years, rain, snow, sleet, hail; you name it, he was out there, and I admire for him for doing that, and it wasn't by choice, but it's definitely like I said, for his educational background and everything like that, this was an opportunity, and it worked out well. So, now we're all, well, let me just go back a little bit, so I'm with the (Duggan's?) and now summer is all over, and I'm starting school and this is my school experience here. So, I'm now seven years old, and I remember them walking me to the school, and someone takes me by the hand. I don't know where my brothers and sisters went. I just know that I'm being led by somebody, and then, they gave me off to another person. They grabbed me by the hand. They take me to a room, so I was put in a classroom, and well, I found out that seven years old, you're put in the second grade, so I'm sitting in the classroom; it's not like the classroom that I was used to in Vietnam, and all the kids are looking at me. I'm totally the new kid, and I'm super shy, nervous, frightened, don't want to make a move, can't speak English, don't understand, and I was sitting there just hearing the teacher talking, but my best comparison to say is like if you ever watch those Charlie Brown cartoons, and you hear the teacher going "Waa, waa, waa, ... " that's exactly what it sounds like, so later on I saw the cartoon, I was like, "Hey, that's what the teacher sounded like back then." So, I'm just sitting there and not knowing a thing, just minding my own business, just sitting nice and quiet listening to the class and the teacher, can't understand a word, and out of nowhere I just hear this loud bell ring. Back in Vietnam if you heard something alarming, something bad was going to happen, but anyway, I heard this bell ring, and all the kids just got out of their chairs, and they ran to the back of the room, and I'm just sitting there wondering what's going on, and they're in the back of the room, on the shelf there where they hang their coats and everything, they're grabbing their boxes, these metal boxes and bags, and they're coming back to their seat, and they're eating, and I'm like, "Oh, it's eating time," right, so they're all sitting there eating. Of course, I didn't bring lunch or anything. I was just led by somebody, so I'm saying to myself, "Okay, that must be where the food is. They keep if for you." So, I go back there, and I'm looking on this shelf back and forth looking for a bag or a box or something, and I don't see anything there, so I sit back down on my chair, and I thought to myself, I said, "You know what? Tomorrow when that bell rings, I got to be quicker and go back there and get a lunch," again not knowing how the system works. So, I'm sitting there patiently, and then, someone comes in the room and grabs me by the hand takes me through the hallway and puts me into a line and gives me a tray and I said, "Oh, I remember this, this is like refugee camp when they give you a tray, and then, they scoop food on it for you." So, I said, "This is how it works," and then, again, she gave me this piece of paper, which is a lunch ticket to give the lady, but I said, "That's how it works." Can you imagine what would happen next day if I ran back there and grabbed somebody's lunch, what that situation might have been? So, then they found out that obviously I couldn't keep up academically, I don't understand, so, by the way, jumping forward, where I work in the Sheriff's office, I'm a community police officer too, and one of our programs is finger printing school kids, and I actually request to go back to that school to finger print the kids just like go back to the elementary school where I grew up, and years ago there were still like a couple of teachers that remembered me, and they said, "Yes, when you first came to the school, we didn't know what to do with you." They said, "You were in our pilot program for what they call now the ESL, the reading class." They said, "Yes, we had no idea what to do with you. You can't speak English," so they started a program just for us at that school. So, I wasn't, like I said, smart enough, so they moved me to the first grade and things were a lot easier singing your ABCs etc, so I said, "That's a little easier," then, later on, talking to a couple of my classmates, now keep in mind, I was in first grade, and they tell me, they're like, "Hey Joe, when you were in our class, you used to fall asleep every day," because keep in mind, when I was in Vietnam, I would get naps from eleven until one. Now, being that I'm in a class, and I don't know what's going on, so I'm just like sitting there, so I would fall asleep from eleven to one. My friend Mike, later on, he told me, "Yes, every day you'd fall asleep, and then, we'd wake you up." The teacher said, "No, no, kids, don't wake him up. He's having nightmares of the war." I was like, "What? He told you guys that?" "So, we would never bother you, we let you sleep." I'm like, "Okay ... whatever works." Again, I remember the bell rings again, the lunch thing, but now everybody got to go outside and play. So, I'm out there, and I didn't have any friends or anything, so I was just standing next to Mrs. Patters. I remember her, she's a lunch aide lady. She's out there, watching us when we play, and she would always keep me close to her side and, you know, kind of like she was protecting me, it seemed like, but she was very nice, and that was my first impression, like I said, the generosity, I guess, of where I'm at and just watching kids play and everything, and I remember it must have been around Halloween or some sort because the kids would all come up to me every once in a while and teach me how to speak English. They would say, "Say haunted house," and I'd be like ... whatever the case might be. I remember that, and then, I stayed back in the first grade. So, I was two years behind now, so after that, things went well. I picked it up and progressed through the grades. However, my oldest brother, he was sixteen, I believe, and they put him in high school, Edison High where I graduated. ... He couldn't make it. It was just too hard back then, because again, they didn't have these programs, ESL reading program, so he had to drop out of school and basically go to work. So, he never graduated or anything like that, but the rest of us we did okay and made it to the next grade.
NM: I want to backtrack a little bit. So, when you started in the second grade and then stayed back, was that in 1976 or 1977?
TN: Like I said, April '75 is when we left the country, so staying in the refugee camps here and there, a few months here. I'm going to say it was the beginning of the school year of April, probably the same year.
TN: Yes, I would say, because we came over in April, and I'm going to say September '75.
NM: Okay, so was it only a few weeks in Guam?
TN: I can't recall. We didn't keep track of time or days, all we knew that we were just there, and it was like a holding area as you might say. There was nothing to do, but just sleep and eat and just wait for the word whenever that may be. Of course, however long the transition, I can't recall.
NM: One of the things I wanted to ask, but you answered already, was about in some of the refugee camps they would actually start the English language programs, so sounds like you just came to the States.
TN: We didn't get any of those classes there, but when we came to the United States, they did offer us night school program. I do remember going to Edison High at night time, and my parents too, and we would get the basic English class, you know, like door, window, just very basic, and I remember doing that. I remember my parents tried, but they didn't do well, I guess, and they stopped going, but we did, and that helped us out with the schooling.
NM: I know that your family was relocated to Edison, but were there other refugee families located in Edison as well?
TN: Well, yes, and no, all I remember is from Indian Town Gap, we were on the bus, and the bus stopped, and we were taken in by the American families. Growing up, I don't recall any other Vietnamese refugees in that area. As a matter-of-fact, when we finally rented our house and stuff, the last name Nguyen, we were the only ones in the phonebook in that area, but now, if you look the same phonebook it's like two-and-a-half pages of that same last name, so I guess over the years, but back then no, there was no other Vietnamese families around us that we could talk to or.
NM: You mentioned the night classes at Edison High. Were there other people taking the language courses as well?
TN: I don't remember. I just remember our family going there and trying to learn.
NM: One of the things that you told me that your father did in the United States was that he eventually got a job at the sanitation department. You already told us about acclimating a little bit in school, but what were some of the things that were, I guess challenging or you found a little challenging to acclimate to in terms of living in the United States?
TN: Well, one of the things I was taught is that transportation, you know. Once we relocated to our house, which was only a mile away from our sponsor's house. We rented a house, and of course, through the assistance welfare and any public assistance program, my father he didn't have a driver's license, and so, we were without a vehicle. If we needed to go somewhere, it was walking. I remember the house we rented didn't have a washing machine, so every Friday we would carry our bags of laundry all the way up to Route 27 in Edison, and do our laundry there, but you may look at me like, "Ah, you poor thing," but again, you've got to keep in mind that everything was new, a pleasant surprise as I said. So, I looked forward to going there because you could hang out there, and there was a deli next door. I remember Mom and Dad gave us some money to buy snacks or whatever, but acclimating to the area, it wasn't challenging because I don't know the hardship of it. I just know that this is better than what we had, so everything was a plus, but now sitting here, if I were to compare back then, yes, I would say transportation was an issue, but again, back then, it wasn't an issue because someone from my dad's work would always pick him to go to work, and if we needed food, I think the neighbor, they would take Mom and Dad to the store, and finally after my oldest brother got his driver's license in 1976, At seventeen he was the one that has the car in the family. So, that issue was resolved, and it wasn't for a couple of years later, it was actually when we found other Vietnamese refugees. One of the things was Morristown, there is a big Vietnamese congregation there, church, and every once in a while, we'd go there for the major religious holidays and to see other Vietnamese people like us. "Wow, you know, there's this other people here, not just us." Another part I said acclimating would be I always had the sense like we are in their world, like we came from Vietnam, and we were almost like alienated, I say. You know, no one is coming up to you and introducing themselves or something like that; everything was like you kind of took like the back row to everything; we kind of had to learn, we kind of had to watch; whether it be in school or whether it be at the store or something like that, you always felt like you're at the bottom of the totem pole or something to that effect, not to say like it was a bad thing, and it took a while to get acclimated, like five, seven years for me, my experiences, to know how things work and just growing up around people, and we actually had nice neighbors. I will never forget them. Acclimated to the weather was one of the big things. I recall it was around the holidays, again this was Christmas, and like I said, Vietnam Christmas was just having a parade to go to church, you know, the Mother Mary Statue. Here it's different; it's about presents and everything, about Santa Claus and Christmas trees, so I remember someone knocking on the door. There's this a young lady, and the basic English that we knew, somehow I elected to go with this lady, this total stranger, and so, they dressed me up in a jacket and off I went, and she took me, again I was maybe in second grade or third grade; my English was still not that good so she takes me to a store which now I know is Menlo Park Mall. Back then they had a Woolworth, so this was the program through welfare I believe or one of those public assistance programs, where I was to go to the store with fifteen dollar credit, and I would shop for my brothers and sisters, for their presents. Alright, so, she would help me pick up presents and stuff like that, and I remember also buying my brother a cap gun, buying my sister a doll and everything, and then, the best part was going to the snack bar at Woolworth's; it's not getting more, but the hot chocolate and the marshmallows, which I like because I've done this year after year later. So, that was like I can't wait for that portion of the whole experience, and after that buy presents, and we got to see a play, and I wasn't the only kid. There were other kids too and different ethnicities, not just Vietnamese, and I think I was the only Vietnamese kid actually. Then, I went home and everything, and my brothers and sisters like, "What is all that? ... Why is it wrapped up with paper? What did you do?" and I really can't explain it, because I don't know I just bought you stuff, and they told me not to tell you until Christmas, and you can't open it until then. They're like, "Who?" I said, "I don't know. He just told me." I'm talking about the young lady, and again, every once in a while someone would knock on the door, and they would give us food, like, you know the food that, the can foods that you bring into the school and stuff like that, they all end up in our house like that, and Thanksgiving, they'd drop of a turkey, and one of those was a Christmas tree, so we put together this tree, and they said you put the presents underneath it, so there it was, and the longest time, I don't remember how long it was, my brother and sister were just so antsy about wondering what it was, and I stuck to my word; I couldn't tell what it was, but then I realized that, "Hey, you know, I didn't buy myself a gift," so I just got gifts for them, so I was like, "Oh, man, come Christmas they're going to open up their gifts, and I'm not going to have anything to open us," so I found some of my toys that was given to me, I wrapped them up pretending like they were my gifts, and that was the big thing about Christmas, and then, the assimilation of the holidays and then, the next biggest thing was the weather, like I said before. One day it just started snowing. We didn't know what it was back then. We'd never seen snow before in our lives. My mom was yelling something. ... She said, "Look outside, look outside," and we all came to the window, and sure enough this white stuff was falling down covering the grass and the streets, and we're like, "Oh, my gosh, what is this?" We think it's like the world coming to an end or something like this totally, if you never saw snow in your life, you'd be like freak out. So, we're all at the window thinking like, "Is this bad? What is this?" So, later on we seen one of our neighbors Mary, (Nikki?) and (Florie?), they're all in the yard playing in the snow, rolling something around; there's a big ball of snow, obviously it's a snowman they're making, didn't know back then, and we're all in the window still, and they're waving us over; they're waving us outside. I go, "Mom, I think it's okay to go outside." She's like, "No, no, don't go out there," and they're waving, "Come on out, neighbor," so somehow again, I like to be the guy to go outside, so they dressed me up, and I'll never forget it, just walking out there, I was so cautious even with my steps walking on this white stuff. I always tell the guys; it's the comparison to like Neil Armstrong walking on the moon; this is one small step for Tan, one giant step for his family. So, I'm walking real cautiously out there, just like wondering if this thing is going to hurt me, whatever is falling and stuff like that, and sure enough it was cold, and you could do things with it, make snowballs, and I was, you know, pretty happy, enjoying about it, and I'm looking back to everybody in the window; I'm like, "It's okay, you can come out," you know, and that was the acclimation to weather, snow, the experience of snow, and then, that was my memorable experience with that.
NM: I just want to get the timeline right. How soon was it after you relocate at Edison that your father got the job at the sanitation department?
TN: I believe as soon as we rented our house. Again, they found the house for rent, and then, shortly after he was given this job, so it was like at the same time, and I want to say we lived with our sponsors like say, April, like six months, and then, we were on our own, and then, our family, we rented a house.
NM: When you were talking about that area, you mentioned St. Matthew's Church. Was going to church part of growing up?
TN: We would go to church, again, but again here is the question, the acclimation, we didn't understand the English language, so we just went to church because out of respect because we're Catholics, but didn't understand it. It wasn't until years later where we found the Vietnamese congregation that they had services in the Vietnamese language that my parents went to, but I continued to go to, even though they don't understand it, they would still bring us to church. I would understand it, because I went to CCD in St. Matthew's, and they were so adamant about religion that they wanted to make sure that we were brought up that way, but they were still going; it was a big deal for them, and actually my communion, confirmation in the Guardian of Angels, you know; somehow we switched churches or something like that; that's in Edison also.
NM: Is that the one behind the diner?
TN: ... It's on that side of (Clinton?) Avenue.
NM: Did you take part in any extracurricular activities such as Boy Scouts or sports or anything like that?
TN: Yes, it's funny you mentioned Boy Scout thing, so growing up, and I think I'm eight years old now. I'm assimilated. I'm hanging with the neighborhood kids and everything. I could speak and my neighbor three doors down is Jeff. He was in the Boy Scouts, and he came back from a meeting wearing his Boy Scouts uniform, and I'm like, "Wow, where did you go?" and he told me what he did; they go camping, canoeing, hiking. I'm like, "That's great," you know, because I was like, "How do you join?" He goes, "Oh, it's easy. You just join. You've got to ask your parents' permission." So, I said, "Come on over to my house, so we could convince your mom and dad to let me join," so when he came over, and I said to Mom and Dad, I said, "Hey, I want to join--" and again there was no translation for Boy Scouts in Vietnam--I just said like I want to join this group or something that he's in. ... My parents looked at his uniform, and they thought that it was some kind of military group for youth or something; they were like, "Oh, no, no, no, you're not joining the military." I said, "It's not military. It's the Boy Scout." Again, there's no translation. I said, "They don't do that stuff. They go out, and they go fishing in blah, blah, blah." Again, just to, I'm not putting the Boy Scouts down or nothing, but back then you wear the green pants and the shirt, and in fairness, my parents thought it was a military uniform, and of course, we tried to get away from that whole thing into a better life, and so, you asked me about extracurricular activities, yes, I wanted to, but I was denied from joining because of some reason, and so, I said like I joined the basketball team in elementary school. In junior high, I really wasn't too involved in any sports, same thing in high school. Well, high school I actually there was that part of the Marine Youth Corps, and this is one of the reasons too why I went and joined the Marine Corps later on. It was like a private instructor, he took his own time, and he was able to, you know, just like ROTC type thing, but not like official, but he taught us about the military, the respect and all the traits that go along with that, and that was in ninth grade, but that's the extent of any extracurricular activity.
NM: It sounds like you befriended some of the kids in the neighborhood, and what kind of games would you play just growing up with them?
TN: Okay, with the kids in the neighborhood, let me see, this is '75, I guess the big thing was Star Wars, I think that came out, and each kid had like an action figure and of course my parents, ... it's not their fault, and they just don't buy us gifts for Christmas or anything. They just don't, we've never celebrated that way. I was always the go to guy for their presents, but growing up with kids in the neighborhood, they would play like Star Wars and stuff like that. Of course, I would never have like an actual figure; my parents would never buy me that, couldn't afford it, but I would hang out with a particular kid, so if I wanted to play, say with like action figures, I would go with Jeff; if I wanted to play with Lego's, I would go to Bobby's house. If I wanted to play with what they call the evil Evel Knievel Stunt Machine, I would go over Mark's house because he had that toy. Like I said, we didn't have the money for any of that extra stuff, but playing with kids, you just go to each other's house, birthdays, I remember that, but birthdays, that was another thing, we didn't celebrate birthdays in Vietnam. It's just not even mentioned; it's just not even a thought, I guess, but over here, apparently, it's a big deal. So, I told Mom; I said, "I'm being invited to such and such house, because it's his birthday." She's like, "What's so special about that." "No, they have a cake and everything," and she said "Oh, okay. Yes, I have to buy him a present or something like that." So, she's like, Okay," so she gave me money. I remember my first present I bought was a Slinky. ... I asked my parents, I said, "Can I have a birthday party?" you know, and I think I had one. I was maybe eight or nine years old when she said I could have a birthday party, and again, I had to get a cake and had to do all the stuff, and she just said it was too much work whatever the case would be. I think I had one birthday party growing up, but again, it was no big deal growing up with the neighborhood kids they're all nice. We walked together to school, things were different back then. We're talking in the '70s, late '70s where you were allowed to walk around the neighborhood without any fear, as long as you're home for dinner, etc., or when the streets light were on, and you're good to go, and I've got to say the friends, I made in the Edison area were alright. I'd tell my stories, and they were kind of interested in that too, nothing bad to say about the neighborhood kids, ... big influence with my assimilation.
NM: I am just thinking you were talking about your first encounters with lunch at school.
TN: You liked that lunch story.
NM: Yes, I am just thinking of your first encounter with gym class.
TN: Oh, gym, actually I was pretty good at that. That was my favorite subject in school because I guess I was an active kid like I said in Vietnam. So, physical education didn't require a lot of thinking, like in math and reading etc. It was for me just fun time, play time, and I was good at it. I was physically able to do the things, and that was my favorite subject in school. I actually thought about being a gym teacher, later on. The hardest part was the reading, just being able to, reading comprehension and stuff. It's always been like a struggle for me and, you know, because I didn't have that head start.
NM: Okay, this might be a good place to stop. This concludes the interview with Tan Nguyen, and thank you for coming here today.
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Reviewed by Alexandra McKinnon 12/31/13
Reviewed by Nicholas Trajano Molnar 1/27/14
Reviewed by Tan Nguyen 2/18/2014