By Karthik M., Timothy N., Michael P., & Ethan P.
Through the harsh seas and rough air, Ted Nguyen survived through the terrors of Vietnam. When having his home and his clinic taken away, his family persevered. When alone without a true home in a new country, Ted Nguyen created a home.
Ted Nguyen was born in February of 1974 in the small city of Binh Duong, Vietnam. During Ted’s early life, he had an easy childhood. He had caring, laid-back parents. Economically, they did well and would have been considered middle class, as his father was a doctor. However, splitting the money with eight kids was not easy. “You had limited resources because of the big family. You had fewer clothes, toys, attention, etc.” His school life was rather boring. He was filled with work from the inside of rooms. He longed to go outside. In fact, his most vivid memory of school was when he left to visit the wild. “I went on a great camping trip, it rarely happened, but it was a gift to go out.” If only he had known that he would be traveling across countries in just a few years.
Communism spread like a disease across Vietnam with the south suffering the most. The south, who had fought against the Communists now felt the full might of a ruling Socialist Regime. Anyone associated with the southern government was harshly discriminated against. Southern Vietnamese soldiers were detained in concentration camps and worked to death. Southern Vietnamese families were forced out of the city and into the poor rural countryside. A small family in the city of Binh Duong lost their house and clinic to the government for “Collectivisation,” which meant the property was “shared.” “They took privately owned property for the ‘public’ so the government could have all the profit from it.” Although Ted’s family didn’t fight in the war, they were still discriminated against for being Southern Vietnamese. “In school, they favored kids whose parents worked for the government.” Kids of government officials had better chances of going to college and getting a good education. Ted’s parents knew that even though they lived in their small house in the countryside, at any time government officials could take someone from the family to work in their labor camps or the whole property could be taken for “public” benefit. With their children’s futures so uncertain, Ted’s father, Hay Quan, knew it was time to leave.
Hay Quan, father of eight, planned a daring escape in 1982. Paying for seats in a smuggler’s boat, they would sail with almost 200 other people to the Philippines. Tan, now known as Ted, would be rushed onto the overcrowded boat not having a clue of what the occasion was. All he was told by his father was that they were moving somewhere. Ted didn’t know why there were so many other people crammed in a little boat. He didn’t know why they were all rushing and being so secretive. Ted’s father, mother, and seven other siblings huddled in their own respective area of the boat as it set sail. As they sailed, great waves rocked their boat, causing them to slam into others. This would continue for several hours until their boat was illuminated by a bright light. It was the Vietnamese Coast Guard! They were all forcefully arrested without resistance and taken to a prison called Xuyen Moc. Fortunately, in Xuyen Moc Prison, the family was interviewed by the warden and only had to stay in jail for one day. The warden was more lenient on families with many children. But, this was not the end of their journey.
Ted’s father had to plan another escape, but this time only Ted’s older siblings would go. Three years later, the escape plan was initiated. Ted was ten at the time and the details of the escape were unknown to him. A few months later, he found out from his father that the escape was a total success and his three older siblings Tuyen, Tri, and Thi had made it to the United States. Now, at the age of 13, it was Ted’s turn with his two other siblings, Thuy and Thach. Since he was older, he was told all the details of his father’s plan. They would leave on a smuggler’s boat the same way they had tried before, destination — Philippines. The journey would take less than a week if everything went according to plan.
In late 1988, Ted, Thuy, and Thach boarded in the pitch black of night with only lamps revealing the crammed boat they would again be riding on. They huddled with absolutely no room between them, surrounded by strangers. “It was just a regular fishing boat crammed with people so there was hardly any space to move, we were all squeezed in.” The condition on the boat became considerably worse day by day. Excrement slowly lined the boat as there was no room to go to the bathroom and going on the edge of the boat was too risky. Everyone’s clothes were damp by the continuous splashing of waves. Many people were starting to show signs of hypothermia and others vomited at the horrific smell of human waste, making the smell even worse.
It was the seventh day of their trip, and the fear of running out of food rations had become a reality. Ted had no idea how far they were from the Philippines, but with 200 other people on the boat, he knew their food supplies wouldn’t last another day. The boat condition itself had also become dire. There was always the fear of capsizing, and they had no lifeboats or life vests to help. Throughout the seven days, damage to the hull from the waves had severely lowered their chances of survival. The boat was on life support and could sink at a moment’s notice. Luckily, they were rescued by the Philippines Coast Guard.
Those on the boat were given medical care and emergency food for the children and then moved to a refugee camp on an isolated beach. The conditions at the camp were decent compared to Vietnam, with huts made out of tree leaves and wood. They would get daily rations of fish and fruits from nearby villages. Thuy was the only one who knew how to cook, so Ted and Thach relied on her to cook all their meals and take care of them. There was nothing to do at the camp and there was nothing to play with, as they were on a barren beach. Swimming wasn’t an option because of the chances of getting sick. He lived this dull life in the refugee camp for about eight months until delegates from several nations came to interview the refugees. Each family was interviewed together to determine which nation they would go to. Most refugees were looking to go to America, but it was not their choice to make. “The refugees there would be interviewed by government delegates from different countries but most preferred to go to America, and we were interviewed by the American Government and got accepted.” With this, their fate was decided. They were going to the United States!
They were driven to Ninoy Aquino International Airport and Ted was excited to ride an airplane for the first time. As the plane lifted, Ted felt the rush in his ears and the sight outside the window was magnificent. As it was nighttime, the city shined bright next to a vast blue ocean. When he awoke after the 12 hour flight, he found himself in a totally new world.
He felt isolated in this new land. Every step felt like a new planet, causing awe to arise at a force beyond his control. The immense buildings made him feel like he was in a futuristic world. “You got big modern buildings, everything seemed bigger than in Vietnam, you know it’s the first time you are on an airplane, and all the technology, and the roads, and everything is so massive.” Eventually, he enrolled in school and was a decent student, mostly sticking with the same group of friends. Looking back on his time, he said, “You’re mainly on your own and you just had to figure things out on your own.” In college, he worked as a Great America food server and a support engineer, yet was also on welfare for a time. After graduating, he became a software engineer. Nobody had any idea that he would come this far. When asked if he is happy now, it is clear that he is. “You start a new place, you gotta [have a] better future, and get kinda get used to the place, you come alive, you grow up here, you went to college, graduated, got a job, your life is stable and more secure than if you compare it with the conditions with Vietnam.”
Today, Ted has a wife, Cindy Nguyen, and two children, Timothy and Andy. As his children grow, Ted is thrilled to see that all of his efforts were not for nothing. When Ted looks back on his past, he is very grateful that he is in America now.
If there is one thing to take away from this journey, it is that Ted persevered constantly. And because he did, he has given his children an opportunity greater than they could have imagined if they had stayed in Vietnam.