The Last Refugees

This family's roots are in Vietnam, but the next generation is branching out.

Danh felt like the whole world was against him. The first English slang word he learned was "cooties." No one wanted to come near him. Within six months, he'd taught himself English because he wanted to know what people were saying about him. "I think going through that, that made me who I am today," he remembers. "I'm shaking right now just thinking about that time."

Somehow the kids survived their initiation into the American public-school system, and Sum made it through six months as a carpenter's helper. When his boss ran out of work, Sum took a job as a cashier at Walgreens, where his pay dropped from $4 an hour to $2.45. Unable to feed his family, he drew government benefits for three months. But when Walgreens moved him to a warehouse job that paid better, he sent the check back.

Sum rode a bike -- with no brakes -- through snow to get to work, and Anh trudged through it on her way to the bus stop. She took a job at a jerky factory, standing on an assembly line all day with sweat pouring down her face so that she and her husband could save for a house. At night, she and Sum and their eldest daughters cleaned offices. Sum knew he couldn't work in a warehouse forever, knew his life wasn't supposed to turn out like this, and also started taking classes at a community college.

Anh and Sum Nguyen
Anthony Camera
Anh and Sum Nguyen

The kids wore donated clothes and tried to adopt American traditions. On Christmas and birthdays, they exchanged big, beautifully wrapped boxes. It didn't matter that the boxes were empty: Sum had a small tape recorder, and the children recorded descriptions of the imaginary gifts they'd bought.

By 1979, the family had saved enough money for a down payment on a house in Aurora. That same year, Sum got his associate's degree in electronics technology from the Community College of Denver.

He told Anh he wanted to go for another degree.

"What about family?" she asked.

He would be an example for them, he said. He would prove that if an old man with a family, a full-time job and poor English skills could graduate from college, anyone could.

In 1986, Sum received his bachelor's of science in electronic engineering technology from Metropolitan State College.

When they first came to Colorado, the kids were told to always speak English at home. They were in the U.S. now and needed to know the language.

Years passed, until one day Sum realized that his children spoke English, and that was all they spoke. One day he erupted, Trinh remembers. "What are you doing?" he said. "That's all you speak now, is English? You don't speak English to me. You speak Vietnamese. You cannot speak English in this house."

But as Sum watched his children become Americans, what bothered him most was the lack of discipline. "In Vietnam, parents can teach their children by stick, by spank, so they're scared," he says. "Here you can't do that, so kids take advantage of that one."

By the time she started high school, Trinh wanted to be a punk rocker. She dyed blond streaks in her hair, wore spikes, started smoking. Every morning she'd wait for her dad to leave for work, then light up a cigarette and get ready for school. One morning, Sum forgot something and came back to the house -- only to learn Trinh's secret. She had to look down to avoid his disappointed stare. He'd always talked to her like she was a little soldier; this time, he closed the door and left without a word.

"Yeah, it broke his heart," she says.

School didn't get any easier for Trinh as she got older. She never could concentrate on books or pay attention in class, so she ditched a lot. Then she'd try harder, get discouraged, ditch some more. "I end up getting to twelfth grade and I realize I can't do it, so I told my dad I can't finish school," she remembers. "Oh, I broke his heart. He was just so hurt, but I can't promise him something I can't do."

At eighteen, she started working full-time in the warehouse of a furniture company. What she didn't have in education, she would make up for in hard work.

After Suong finished high school in 1981, her dad got her into a college for computer science -- a subject she knew nothing about and cared for even less. She soon dropped out. Chi moved to California after high school. She tried a semester of college, didn't like it, then made some Vietnamese friends who did nails and enrolled in cosmetology school. She began calling herself Cali.

Lynda, too, decided against college, and got married right out of high school. A few years later, she, Suong and their families joined Chi in California. In 1985, Danh and Thanh followed. Danh was fresh out of high school; Thanh was still in school.

Thanh, the baby of the family, was the most rebellious of all. Back in Colorado, Trinh had been so upset with the way he talked to their father that she'd pushed him down a flight of stairs.

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