The Last Refugees
"I feel for these people, because we were there as refugees." That's what Trinh Chu has been telling clients -- she asks the non-Vietnamese to call her Trina -- at Top Nails, the Aurora salon she owns with two of her sisters.
This morning, Trinh is sitting Indian-style on a chair in her front office, holding a Winston between two neatly manicured fingers. Under a small shrine with pictures of Jesus, her desk is littered with piles of paperwork, junk mail and half-eaten bags of snacks.
Chi Nguyen, wearing jeans and a baby tee, sits down by her sister. Chi's long hair is dyed blond. She tells people to call her Cali, a nickname she gave herself when she was living in the Golden State years ago.
They've both watched the stories about Hurricane Katrina unfold on television over the past few weeks, images that remind Trinh of what it's like to lose everything, to be filthy and sick with thirst and hunger and forced to leave your home -- not because of a flood, but because of bombs. "Our neighbor," she says, "I remember she was sweeping her front porch, and she said, ŒI'm not going nowhere. I'm staying in my house. This is my house.'"
Trinh looks at her younger sister.
"You don't remember anything, do you?" she asks.
Thirty years ago, when Chi was eight and Trinh was nine, their father, Sum Cong Nguyen, led them, their four siblings, their mother and about thirty others on an escape from Saigon that could have killed them a dozen different ways.
They arrived in Colorado in September 1975, but Trinh doesn't remember any fundraisers or movie stars donating millions of dollars to these refugees, reminders of America's most unpopular war. "I'm not jealous or anything," she says. "I'm just saying they will have a lot more opportunity to make it compared to us."
But this family has made it. Today Sum is a leader in the Asian community, making his second run for the Aurora City Council. Like their father and mother, the five siblings are Americans, living comfortable suburban lives. Chi and Trinh own Top Nails with another sister, Lynda, who changed her name legally from Khanh and recently ventured into the real-estate business. Their eldest sister, Suong, owns her own nail salon just down the street. Their little brother, 37-year-old Danh, "does everything but cook" at Junz, a Japanese-French restaurant in Parker.
Among them, the siblings have nine children, all spoiled by Vietnamese standards. The oldest is a 22-year-old college student and newlywed, who married the first non-Vietnamese in the family.
Danh recognizes that his generation is the bridge between Vietnamese parents and thoroughly American children, a group that's spent the majority of its years as U.S. citizens but still remembers how and why it was that they all got here. They know firsthand how hard work can bring a person up from nothing.
He tells his family's story like he's been waiting his whole life to share it.
To tell their story, he must talk about the others, the thousands of men, women and children who were drowned, starved or trampled trying to flee. As Danh sets the scene, his voice becomes the whisper of an old man sharing ancient secrets, a web of truth and legends that he picked up from family members, friends, other refugees.
By the spring of 1975, after decades of war, North Vietnam was closing in and the South was panicking. People like Sum Cong Nguyen, a captain in the South Vietnamese army who'd been trained by the United States military, had the most to fear.
On April 30, 1975, seven-year-old Danh was crouched inside the sandbag bunker beneath his Saigon home with his mother, Anh, and his brother and sisters. On the radio, President Duong Van Minh -- appointed just days before, after President Nguyen Van Thieu resigned and fled -- announced South Vietnam's surrender. By noon, the Communist government was broadcasting Saigon's new name: Ho Chi Minh City.
Despite his wife's pleadings, Sum had left the house to go to headquarters, to receive orders and check on his men. He wove his way through a maze of desperate people -- only to find that no one else had shown up.
Before, Sum had refused to abandon his men or give up on his country. Now the choice was made for him. He rushed home and knocked frantically on his front door.
His family heard the pounding and froze. They didn't dare leave their shelter until they recognized Sum's shouts.
"Get on my ship," he yelled. "Get on my ship right away. Let's go."
"Where will we go?"
In minutes, they'd grabbed what little they could carry -- food, and photographs of the parents and siblings Sum and Anh would never see again. Sum had a room where he kept his most precious things, valuables that had been handed down from generation to generation, a room the children could enter only on the New Year. They left all of it behind. The children didn't even change out of their pajamas.
The family of eight piled into Sum's military jeep and headed for the dock. The streets were blocked by barbed wire, wrecked vehicles, military tanks, people running aimlessly. As Danh stared at blazing houses and cars, the looters and the dead bodies, his dad told him not to worry. They were going to America.
They were going to Disneyland.
After turning back once because they'd forgotten identification and then pleading for thirty excruciating minutes with a security guard who refused to let them pass, they finally made it to Sum's ship, a landing craft with a large flatbed that was used to bring cargo to shore. He drove the jeep right on board and tied it down. All around the port, people were looking for a way out, begging to get on Sum's ship -- civilians and military, friends and strangers.
Sum took anyone who wanted to come with him.
"Where will we go?" they asked.
He didn't know, he said.
Sum was about to take on the South China Sea with nothing to guide him -- no compass, no map. Over the military radio, voices were saying that his boat would be destroyed if he did not turn back, that his family would die in the ocean. He turned it off and prepared for the possibility of being caught. If anyone identified him as an officer in the South Vietnamese army, he was dead -- or worse. He took off his uniform and showed people his student ID from the law school he'd been attending, then told people what to say if the boat was captured. "Oh, we don't know him," they were to tell the Communists. "He's a student. He's just trying to help us."
There were four bedrooms on the boat; Sum gave them to other families. His family stayed in the jeep, watching the horrific scene unfolding around them.
Imagine, Danh says, canoes built to hold no more than ten people now crammed with forty. Boats were tipping over, people falling into the water. And for those who made it to sea, how much drinking water could they fit on one little boat with that many people? How much food? When the water was gone, men and women drank their own urine. When the food was nearly gone, mothers starved their babies, because babies who outlived adults would soon be dead, anyway. "You have to understand, you're talking about millions and millions of people trying to get out," he explains. "And a lot of them didn't make itIt's terrifying."
Sum let the Saigon River plot the boat's course. By its banks, he saw other boats burning, people crying. He wanted to stop and rescue them, but the people he'd already taken responsibility for pleaded for him to keep going. At a fork in the river, Sum had to guess which way to go. His choice led to the ocean; the other way would have led to the enemy, it turned out.
After drifting through that first night, Sum spotted a fishing boat and bought an anchor and rope from its crew. He asked them to guide him to the U.S. naval fleet some twenty miles out to sea, but the men refused. For the next two days, Sum saw nothing but ocean.
On the third day, a storm whipped the boat like a leaf in the wind. Water gushed on board faster than the men could bail it. Everyone was wet, crying, starving. Only Sum knew the worst of it: One of the boat's twin engines had died. He lied to everyone on board, telling them he'd faced worse weather many times in the military. He said not to worry, that he'd take care of them, but that they needed to pray to God, Buddha, Jesus or whomever they believed in.
Then he crawled into the jeep to kiss his wife and children goodbye. "I don't think we'll ever survive," Sum remembers. "But they don't know. I go up there to talk to people with my tears, and I say I will try my best and I will save your life."
For three days, no one ate. They were sick and vomiting, but alive. Finally the storm passed, and in the calm, they met a boat that gave them food and water. Sum asked this crew, too, if they would guide his ship to safety, but they refused. Singapore was just one day away, they said.
A day and a half later, they finally saw the shore.
When they'd left Vietnam, Sum had ordered everybody to throw away their guns -- but he had hid a Colt .45 for himself. He'd gone for it when he found out that a Vietnamese congressman who'd fled with Sum had been hoarding food for his family, even letting his wife and daughters wash their hair with the drinking water. But a friend had talked him down.
Now, as they reached Singapore, the congressman turned on Sum. "This is a stolen ship!" he yelled.
Sum grabbed him by the front of his shirt and twisted to get a tight grip. "Ladies and gentlemen, I want to talk to you about why he don't want to help me," Sum yelled. "I save you. I bring your family, and you stab me in the back."
Everyone on the boat cheered Sum on, telling him to kill the congressman. Even after all his time in the military, this was the closest Sum had ever come to killing a man.
Although Singapore wouldn't accept the refugees, officials there provided them with food and water and made arrangements for four naval ships that had escaped Vietnam to take them to a refugee camp in the Philippines. Sum divided his passengers into four groups, then aimed his boat toward the tall ships.
Anh had the children ready and told them to get on the first ship -- but Sum stopped her. He was responsible for these people, he said, so they would wait. He helped the first team, including the congressman's family, climb up.
When Sum's boat got to the second ship, Anh again had the children ready to board.
"Let's get on," she said.
By the third boat, Anh would not give in, and climbed on board with her children. "Now it's time to take care of your family," she cried down to Sum.
Her words stung. Sum asked the ship's captain for his assurance that the fourth boat would also go to the camp. His words didn't ease Anh's fears. "I don't want to go on that one!" she shouted.
But Sum had made up his mind, and he pulled his wife and children off the third ship.
Once on board the fourth, Sum was asked to take command so that the captain could rest. He kept in contact with the other three boats by radio. On the second day, he lost communication with the third ship. The captain decided that this fourth boat would return to Singapore. Sum had a bad feeling. After a few hours, he convinced the captain to turn back toward the Philippines.
The next day, Sum heard over the radio that a ship with twelve soldiers on it had surrendered to Vietnam. The twelve had taken command, killing the dozens of men, women and children on board and tossing their bodies into the sea. It was the third boat.
"If I'm on that third ship, my family on that third ship, I'm no longer to talk to you today," Sum says. "We die."
By the time they finally reached the Philippines, they'd been on the ocean for more than 22 days. Dry tents were waiting, along with food, water, clean clothes and their first showers in over three weeks. They were safe.
After about a month in the Philippines, they were moved to another refugee camp on Guam. A month later, the family was sent to yet another refugee facility in California, at Camp Pendleton. Sum still doesn't know how the governments decided who went where; he didn't ask questions for fear the Americans would decide not to let them in.
The Nguyens were among the first wave of Vietnamese refugees to reach the U.S. In 1975, Congress passed a bill granting these immigrants special status and establishing a domestic resettlement program. Many of the 130,000 refugees who arrived over the next year had close ties to the American government and were highly skilled and educated, like Sum.
At Camp Pendleton, Sum's family received cultural training to facilitate their assimilation into American life. Sum filled the rest of the long days trying to teach his family English. And just when Anh had decided that no one would be generous enough to sponsor an eight-person family, a Lutheran church offered to bring them to Colorado.
When Sum's family arrived in Denver thirty years ago this month, they had nothing but the church's promise to cover one month's rent and expense money, and a job for Sum as a "carpenter helper" with a member of the church that was sponsoring them.
On Sum's first day of work, his boss handed him a tool belt. Sum stood frozen, holding the belt on outstretched palms as if it were an offering to the gods.
"What's the matter, Sum?" his boss asked.
"I was an officer in Vietnam," he replied. "I made decisions." Sum had never worn a tool belt, never used a hammer or fixed a door. In Vietnam, he'd point a finger and someone below him would do a task. In America, he'd thought he'd have a better job, that he could do anything he wanted. Instead, he found himself carrying eighty-pound bags of shingles that wreaked havoc on his weak frame.
On the second day, he lost his footing and slid down a second-story roof, catching himself on the gutter.
Sum's children got their start in Denver public schools that same week. They'd walk together to school, then split up and go toward their separate classrooms, classrooms where they were the only Vietnamese children.
Every day, Trinh was told to "go back to your country." Scared and unsure of the language, she took whatever bullying came her way. "I didn't know to tell anybody," she says. "So I just sit there and act dumb."
Suong and Khanh huddled together in the middle-school cafeteria. Khanh was so shy then that she hid her face behind her long hair and sat slouched over. One day, a group of girls started cussing Khanh out and hitting her for no reason. Suong leaped over the table and punched one girl repeatedly in the stomach. She walked away with a black eye.
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.
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.
With Trinh the only child still at home, Sum spent years trying to coax his family back to Colorado. By 1989, Lynda, Danh and Thanh had returned.
Trinh was dumbstruck by the change in her baby brother. He was now a man -- respectful, kind and very handsome. At six feet tall, Thanh towered over the rest of his family. His siblings would find themselves staring at him. When he caught them, they'd look away.
"Why are you guys looking away?" Thanh would ask. "You can look at me."
When the family got word that Thanh didn't show up for work one morning, they knew something was wrong. Then they got the phone call. There had been an accident, a head-on collision on the highway. The steering wheel hit Thanh so hard that it cut off his breathing, and he died instantly. His friend in the passenger seat broke nearly every bone in his body, but survived.
Just before his death, nineteen-year-old Thanh had told Danh about a vision in which he was floating in the air and could see everything, but no one could see him.
"So I told him to shut up, you know," Danh remembers. "But he knew." He believes that Thanh, who was born on Christmas Day, was a saint.
For months, Thanh visited his siblings and parents in dreams. "They would actually see him," Danh says. "And then he disappeared. He never came back, and I think the reason why is because it hurt so much when we saw him."
To this day, no one speaks of Thanh to Anh. There are no pictures of him in their home, but Sum keeps Thanh's driver's license in his wallet. And although he and Anh are Buddhists, Sum hosts a big celebration every Christmas. "And life keeps going and going," Sum says.
Trinh quit her job at the furniture company not long after Thanh's death. Not knowing what else to do, she enrolled in cosmetology school.
In the 1980s, the Vietnamese introduced American women to affordable manicures, helping boost the nails business to the $6-billion-a-year industry it is today. Nails Magazine estimates that 39 percent of all licensed nail technicians in this country are Vietnamese -- and a half-dozen are Sum's offspring.
Lynda's oldest daughter, Erica, who started doing nails when she was fourteen, thinks she can find a Vietnamese nail salon on almost every corner in Aurora. She attributes the phenomenon to the fact that Vietnamese like to be surrounded by family. Not knowing what else to do in this country, a few Vietnamese women learned to do nails and opened salons, and they taught friends and family, who went on to open their own shops.
Trinh worked as a manicurist for a year before opening her own shop. When Suong, Chi and Lynda (who'd been in Virginia) moved back to Colorado, the sisters all worked together. Suong later left to open her own place, Nail Perfection, down the street, but there are no hard feelings. She still helps out at Top Nails on Sundays.
Sixty-nine-year-old Sum beams with pride as his house erupts with laughter. A grandchild is playing "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" on the piano; another is running or rolling around upstairs, and thumps echo through the walls. This home, which he and Anh bought in 1994, has the greenest front lawn on the block. (Sum conserves water by skimping on the back yard, where loud rap music is playing right now.)
The front door keeps opening and closing as people come and go. Just inside that door is a framed photo of Sum presenting President Bill Clinton with a petition against U.S. recognition of the Communist regime in Vietnam. The same photo is displayed in the dining room, in a frame with another picture of the event taken from a different angle. Right beside it is an autographed picture of Clinton; on the opposite wall is an autographed photo of President George W. Bush.
While Anh makes fat egg rolls with big pieces of shrimp in the kitchen, Sum sets up a folding table in the living room. The kitchen table isn't big enough for his extended family.
Every night at the Nguyen house is like a family party. Trinh and Chi show up around 8 p.m. after closing the salon, just in time to eat. Chi and her two daughters, five-year-old Jenny and sixteen-year-old Vanessa, live with her parents; Trinh comes for dinner every night. Lynda has stopped by, but she won't stay long tonight because she has a house to show. Suong is working late, but her kids are here.
Her eldest daughter, nineteen-year-old Melissa, has been helping her grandmother in the kitchen.
When the cooking is done, Anh takes a seat on the edge of the couch, right by Lynda. She sits straight, her fingers laced in her lap on top of the red apron, her legs crossed, her toenails tipped in silver. She points to the mantel and begins speaking rapidly in Vietnamese. Aside from the "Thank you," "Nice to meet you" basics, Anh speaks only Vietnamese -- though her children suspect she knows more English than she lets on.
Mirrors stretch up to the vaulted ceiling along the wall above the mantle. Resting against them are four black-and-white photos, mounted but not framed.
At the far left is Anh's mother. In the 1940s, her family lived in the country and her husband's in Saigon, so Anh's mother would often travel back and forth. The Communists suspected she was a spy, making trips to exchange information, and sometimes followed her.
One day while she was at home breastfeeding Anh's baby brother, a man stormed in and ripped the baby from her. "Come with me," he commanded. "I'm just going to talk to you for a little while. Don't worry. I'm not going to kill you."
Anh was nine years old; her mother was 26. They never saw each other again.
Around the same time, Sum's sister-in-law made a similar trip, leaving her three-month-old baby with her husband's family when she went to visit her parents. The next day, both families began searching for the woman. They never found her.
Later, a witness came forward and told them what had happened. Communists had stopped the woman and accused her of being a spy. She'd begged them to let her pass, because her baby would be hungry; instead, they'd killed her, cut her into three pieces and tossed her remains into a hole. The witness led her family to what was left of her body.
Sum's oldest and second-oldest brothers were killed in the war. His parents' and his grandparents' houses were burned by Communists.
He points to the photo on the far right of the mantel -- his mother. She died in 1989 at the age of 94; Sum had never been back to Vietnam to see her.
He says he won't return to Vietnam until it is a democratic country. He recently visited Japan and North Korea, and couldn't wait to get home to his country, the best country. The United States.
"I know 58,000 American soldiers died for the Vietnam War, and we lost the war," he says. "I don't know why, but I so sad about that, and I know the American people are so nice with their great humanitarian heart to help give us freedom and a life in the United States."
Sum is determined to give something back to this country. He's volunteered twice to go to Iraq, but he's too old. He's president of the Asian Trade and Cultural Center and the Unified Vietnamese American Council of Colorado, and he co-chaired the Aurora Asian Pacific Community Partnership. In 2003 he ran for a seat on the Aurora City Council. Although he lost, he's running again this fall. He says it's all part of his continuing education.
Looking around at her home, at her family, Anh remembers how they came to a foreign place with six children and no money, no home. They've achieved what she never thought possible.
When Melissa sits across from her grandfather, he points to the framed photo of himself in his graduation cap and gown. All of his grandchildren should have a picture like that, he says. "Didn't I tell you, ŒYou get college degree or you don't see my face?'" Sum asks.
"They hate me, okay. But I look to the future, because education can change your life," he says. "I'm a great example for you."
"I know," Melissa says.
She graduated from high school early in January 2000 and started working full-time at Top Nails, just as her cousin Erica had done. For a while, every visit to their grandparents' house sparked a lecture. "But he is right," Melissa says now. Last year, she started going to a community college. She plans to transfer to a university and then go on to dental school. Erica is an accounting major at Metropolitan State College.
Sum hands Melissa a black three-ring binder labeled "Student Report Cards." "I keep records to see how they do," he explains.
She smiles at him in disbelief.
At 9 p.m., Sum slips off to supervise the night shift at A.B. Hirschfeld Press.
After he leaves, Melissa says she thinks it's pretty cool that her grandfather came from another country and earned a bachelor's degree here. She also thinks it's cool that her family is so close. She wonders about moving to California, but she can't imagine not seeing grandparents, parents, siblings, aunts and cousins every day. That's what's so great about the nail salon, she says.
Although Melissa can't fathom what leaving Saigon must have been like, she knows the story, tells it to friends, plans to pass it down to the next generation, along with the Vietnamese language.
Danh says it's his duty to make sure that his three-year-old daughter does the same.
"It's like a tree," he says. "When you kill the root, the tree dies, and that's exactly what we're talking about. If you don't hold on to your culture, to your language, the tree dies."
Trinh is less optimistic about her kids -- perhaps because they're teenagers.
"I always threaten them, ŒI'm going to send you back to Vietnam,'" she says. "They won't even speak Vietnamese. They say, 'We're in America.' They're born here, so they're Americanized. They speak [Vietnamese] very little, not enough to carry on a conversation."
Zach Benjamin, Erica's husband, is white. He shakes his head over all the times he hears Erica's cousins answer in English when they're addressed in Vietnamese.
"If they keep doing it, they're going to forget it," he says. "And it would be a shame, because it's a good thing to know, and their family has gone a long way just to come here, let alone actually prosper here."
Although Erica can't make it, Zach attends a barbecue that Suong is hosting to raise money for Sum's city-council campaign. Suong, who owned Geisha Steakhouse with her husband for seven years, has set up an eclectic spread of dishes in the back yard, everything from chicken teriyaki and fried rice to twice-baked potatoes and brisket with cranberry and portobello mushrooms. Classics from the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and Janis Joplin play in the background as Sum takes the microphone to introduce every guest and ask them to say a few words.
"This is the least we can do for him," Danh says at the mike. "We're really proud of all the things he's done -- not only for our family, but he's helped a lot of people along the way. All he wants is to really do good work for the community -- Vietnamese, black, white. To him, there's only one race, and that's the human race."
Melissa and her cousins have hidden inside the house. When they sneak outside to fill their plates, Sum tries to lure them to the microphone, but they act like they don't hear him and run back inside.
There are Vietnamese, black and white people among Sum's supporters, and he mentions that two of his granddaughters have black boyfriends.
"I don't look at the color of the skin," Sum says. "I look at the character of the people."
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