Saturday, June 30, 2012

Journey from Vietnam to Northeast Texas

Statue of Ho Chi Minh in Can Tho

This is one in a series of occasional stories about people traveling TO Northeast Texas to live.  Their journeys are as varied as their states and countries.

If you want to learn Vietnamese in the United States, a place to practice is in the many nail salons owned by Vietnamese immigrants.  All of them have family stories of their journeys to the United States.  But few are as dramatic as that of Northeast Texas residents, T.C. Nguyen  and his wife, T.P. Nguyen (pseudonyms  by request), who have separate tales to tell of their passage to America.

A native of Saigon, T.C. Nguyen  joined the South Vietnamese Army at age 17 and spent time as a prisoner of war with the North Vietnamese.  After the fall of Saigon in 1975, Mr. Nguyen was sent to a re-education camp where he lost weight - down to 100 pounds.   In 1979, he made the hard decision to escape in order to get an education.  Leading 47 others,  Nguyen used a fishing boat to arrive in Malaysia, spending almost two years in a refugee camp.  The United States Catholic Relief service sponsored his move to the States in 1981 where he arrived on a cold evening in San Francisco dressed only in shorts and a shirt.

Serious about the opportunity to obtain education, Mr.  Nguyen earned his PhD in Applied Management and Decision Sciences from Walden University (Laureate International Universities) in 1996.   Despite offers to join the CIA and FBI, he worked in the corporate world, his last stint with a Fortune 500 company.  He married T.P. Nguyen 11 years ago, a second marriage for both.

Mrs.  Nguyen's family was wealthy.  Her father owned a big business in Saigon that was dismantled by the communists when the city fell in 1975.   Her family managed to escape by boat but she decided to stay even though only 16 years old.  She wanted to protect the family home and to believe in the world the Communists described.

The reform policies launched in Vietnam in 1986 known as Doi Moi, translated literally as “reform”, brought profound changes to the country — rescuing it from the failures of central planning and self-isolation adopted after unification of the country in 1975. In 1992, Mrs.  Nguyen invested almost $1million into building low income housing and schools.    But even under the reform movement, a 30% bribe was expected which she refused to pay,  making it hard to get reimbursed by the government for work completed.  Eventually, Mrs.  Nguyen lost the entire investment.

Mrs.  Nguyen didn’t talk to her family for 15 years because phone connections were not allowed by the United States into Vietnam.  After diplomatic relations opened up, her family could sponsor her.  She came twice to the U.S., the second time in 1998.

The discussion with Mr. and Mrs. Nguyen became more complicated when we talked politics. All in Vietnam fear China. The United States just announced a new Asian policy that concentrates on empowering the other countries of SE Asia to check China’s growing military power by becoming stronger economically and militarily.  T.C. Nguyen likens this to an old fairy tale in which a monkey is gradually taken down by the tightening noose around its neck.  He thinks the United States is focusing on the right place now and considers Secretary of State Clinton as one of the best Secretaries our country has ever had.

 Both want Vietnam to continue to improve but the elite of the Communist Party control the economy for 90 million people and make most of the money.  State Owned Enterprises (SOE) are still 40 % of GDP and with their inherent inefficiency, burn through billions of dollars.  T.C. Nguyen has written extensively on the need for reform, including several books published in Vietnam.  He bemoans the mismanagement of Vinashin, an SOE created to build ships, whose chairman just received a 20 year jail sentence for violating economic management regulations.

With his PHD in Economics and extensive writings on economics, finance, management and politics, Mr. Nguyen is in a unique position to give advice to reformers in Vietnam, including the Communist Party.  Some recommendations are obvious - the constitution must allow more than the one communist political party.  Open the internet to all.  State Owned Enterprises should be sold.  With 53% of the population still working in agriculture, T.C. Nguyen knows the economy must evolve much more towards technology to bring up the standard of living for all Vietnamese.

T.C. Nguyen's writings help free himself “from the haunted past” and use his “pain and tongue”to move Vietnam forward in peace.  Both Mr. Nguyen and his wife are passionate about their native country.   Their visits back to Vietnam and Cambodia help them access the situation and incorporate new ideas in Mr. Nguyen’s writings.  Meanwhile, the Nguyens enjoy the heat of Northeast Texas, Mrs. Nguyen offers spa services, and they dream of better times in their native land.

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