By Loretta Gillespie
The Cullman Times
Imagine being five years old and leaving the only home you’ve ever known under the cover of darkness, with only the possessions you could carry with you, and very little food.
Imagine getting into a small canoe with a stranger who seemed very tense and spoke sharply to your mother.
In 1975, a year of upheaval and turmoil in a country already ravaged by war for almost two decades (15 years, seven months, and four days — the Vietnamese war started Sept. 26, 1959, and did not end until April 30, 1975.)
The Nguyen family had been separated from their father and oldest son for over a year. The father had worked as a Navy soldier for the U.S. so Communist soldiers came to the farm to harass the mother and three small children, trying to find out where their father and brother were. Little did they know that they had already escaped to the United States in order to prepare to bring the remaining family members over as soon as they could be smuggled out of Vietnam.
Steve Nguyen was excited when they were finally able to sneak away into the dark countryside. He says it was an adventure for him. “When you are little like that everything seems like an adventure,” said Steve.
Because his father had helped the U.S. in the war, he was protected and gotten out of the country before the last days of the war. He had a church sponsor who brought him to the States, where he settled in Wichita, Kansas. “Thanks to the kind people in the United States, they were provided with food stamps and welfare until they could get jobs and send for us,” he said, grateful from the bottom of his heart.
But between the time his father was getting settled and the time his mother was able to find a seemingly safe passage for them, the remaining family lived in terror of a knock on the door of their farmhouse, or worse, from the soldiers who kept coming back again and again in search of their father.
The night that they boarded the small boat was the beginning of a real-life journey for the small boy who had lived his entire life on a farm. “The captain got lost and we were at sea for 20 days,” he recalled. “We had run out of food and water, the weather was bad.”
He can remember seeing giant whales near their boat. Whales were thought to be a good omen — helping to guide them to safety.
Suddenly, they ran up on an oil rig in the Pacific. Men from the small boat climbed up and tried to secure food for the starving boat people. Machine gunfire could be heard hitting the water around the small vessel where women and children huddled.
Once they realized that the people intended them no harm, that they were in fact starving and just wanted food, the oil riggers gave them enough food and water to sustain them a little longer.
The captain, not knowing his bearings at this point, headed back to Vietnam. The little party, having been through such a horrendous journey thus far, were almost back home when they ran smack into the enemy Chinese army.
Sailors came down from the ship and stabbed holes in the canoe. Women tried to protect their children as best they could. Steve can remember mothers trying to calm them, praying, and bailing water to keep the little canoe from sinking. Finally they were able to get away. They plugged the holes with their clothes and kept bailing…
As they neared the Chinese-held coastline, still fighting a tropical storm and still bailing water, lights appeared in the distance.
They were rescued by a group of friendly Chinese villagers who helped them and took them to a refugee camp.
“We come from a country where there is no knowledge of other things,” explained Steve carefully in near perfect English. “We stayed in that camp for a year with no communication from our family. They thought that we were dead.”
The refugees were fed a diet that consisted mainly of fish. They were able to hunt, fish and trap food to supplement their rations. “We often swam out and pulled in the traps to get the fish, but there was never enough good food for everyone.”
By this time Steve was about seven or eight, it’s hard for him to remember the time sequence. “My mother was still trying to get us to America, but the boat captain didn’t know how to get us there, although we did finally make it as far as Thailand, near Hong Kong with the help of some fishermen.” They found themselves in another refugee camp there.
“In those camps there were sometimes Russian, German or French people who could get better food for us,” said Steve. “Even an apple or an orange was something special.”
The family slept in a dorm. Steve’s mother found work in a small store. The children helped her. They were finally able to communicate with their father, who sent them cola, cookies and other small treats. He was elated to discover that his family was alive and safe.
“I went to school for the first time in the refugee camp in the Philippines,” said Steve. “After school we picked mangos, sometimes we stole them, to have food to eat.”
On the news each night there were still clips of Vietnamese women and children being killed by the Viet Cong. “The VC knew that the U.S. was not willing to bomb civilians,” explained Steve. “People like us were still trying desperately to get out of Vietnam.”
The family was held in the second refugee camp for almost a year. Eventually, they were able to secure transportation to the Philippines, then on to the States, sponsored by their father.
Steve remembers the excitement of boarding the airplane. He remembers his mother being frightened. From the air they could look down on the ocean and see giant whales.
“My people believe that if you pray, the whale will escort you and they did,” he said.
That seems like another lifetime to Steve now. He took history classes in the States when he was older, but he doesn’t think the books told the real story.
When the plane that brought them to the U.S. landed in Wichita, the first thing he saw was his father coming with his arms opened wide. After years of not knowing if they were alive or dead, starving or in harm’s way, his family was finally safe and together again. They all fell apart.
“A lot of Vietnamese people lived in this area,” Steve pointed out. “The first impression I had of the United States was that everything was so big, nice and clean. There were big buildings, big cars and trucks, everything was big and tall. Traffic was strange, and Americans were so tall!”
The first meal he ate on American soil was a burrito.
His father worked at the Vietnamese market. “It was hard work but we appreciated it because there were no jobs where we came from,” he said. “They told us that we could make it here as long as we were not lazy.”
The family moved to California because they heard of better opportunities. They could work for $2 an hour in San Diego. His dad could resume his trade as a fisherman there, and the children were able to find work recycling cardboard boxes by the ton and cans for fifty cents per pound.
“It was fun for me. I enjoyed jumping into the dumpsters and found a lot of food there,” he said.
They lived in a Vietnamese neighborhood. He went to high school in the mornings, fished in the afternoons for King fish and mackerel, which brought from thirty to eighty cents per pound in the markets.
The family saved their money. They lived frugally. By the time Steve was a senior in high school he worked in a warehouse.
In 1992, his sister moved to Fairfield, Alabama. When he graduated in ’94 he came to join her, working with her in a nail salon, where he learned the art of doing nails and felt blessed to be working with the public.
It took him about a month to learn how to do professional looking nails. He used his imagination to make them look unusual and interesting.
Two months after graduating he became his own boss when he bought out the nail salon. By 2002, he was financially stable enough to bring his aging parents to live with him in Alabama. The whole family now lives in Cullman and Steve says that they are happy here.
“The U.S. is very good to refugees from other countries,” he said gratefully. “If you work and save and build your credit you can buy a house and even help others to do the same.”
He and his sister did work hard, and in 2003, they bought a home. In 2004, Steve married a girl from Vietnam. He met her in the nail shop.
Steve and his wife, Amy, have two children, Jade, 6, and Andrew, 3.
He says he likes the school system in Cullman, the traffic flow is good for his business, The Jade Nail, and the people are good to work with. “I see a lot of teenagers who have nice manners. Cullman seems like a neighborhood filled with nice, friendly people,” he smiled. “It’s a nice place to raise kids, and I have found that by treating people fairly, they return the kindness.”
Steve employs several teenagers, training them to be nail technicians. “Some of them have moved on to open up their own businesses,” he said proudly.
“I appreciate all of my customers and hope to continue to help those who want to work hard and learn a trade,” he said. “Returning the favor that someone did for me is like the cycle of life — you help people and other people will help you.”
“And from the bottom of my heart I very much appreciate all those people who helped me along the way,” he said sincerely. “I am happy to return that favor by helping the local schools, sponsoring teens with sports and anything I can do.”
Steve hopes to open a second location soon. By working hard and being honest, he says he has found a way to support his family and provide a service to the public.
There are many lessons to be learned from Steve’s story. It reflects well on a man who came here with nothing but the clothes on his back and worked to build a life for himself and his whole family. He has set an example for other immigrants who come to this country hoping for a better life. There is room for everyone who wants to apply themselves to learning an honest trade in the same way that Steve and his family have done.