Interviewee: Khe Chau
Interviewer: Nancy Tran
Date: February 24, 2005
T: This is Nancy Tran on February 24, 2005, interviewing Dr. Khe Chau. Where did
you live before you came to America?
C: I lived in South Vietnam, exactly in Saigon.
T: When was the first time you came to the United States and what were the
C: I came here as a student, as a freshman, back in 1960.
T: How long did you stay here for?
C: I stayed here until August 1964, then I went back to Vietnam. I stayed in Vietnam
'till 1967. Then I came back to the University of California for my Ph. D. in 1967. I
went back to Vietnam for the first part of 1971.
T: When you first arrived in the United States for your undergraduate degree, what
school did you attend?
C: Clemson University, South Carolina.
T: What was the first thing that hit you about the difference between Vietnam and
the United States?
C: First, let me paraphrase this. I am a lot more westernized than most Vietnamese
people because I went to a French school. I am more familiar with foreigners
[and] with westerners. It wasn't a shock to me as it may be the case with other
people. It wasn't really a tremendous change. To tell you the truth, it was so long
ago that I don't remember. The first thing [I remember], was the cold. That's what
hit me, because Clemson in the winter-see I came in the winter- I studied in
January and so it was cold. That was the first thing. The other thing was the
school that I went to, Clemson University, about three years before I came [there]
it was a military school. It switched over to a regular civilian school only three
years before I arrived. It wasn't a normal university that you [would] expect. For
example, in the dorm rooms there [were] still gun racks and all the walls [were]
basically steel instead of the regular dry walls.
T: Did that intimidate you?
C: Not really because I was young, I didn't know any better. It didn't affect me
T: You said you had a lot of westernizing experiences in Vietnam. Why did you
choose the United States to go to school?
C: Basically I got a scholarship to the States, [and] that's why I went to the States.
The scholarship sent me to Clemson; I didn't have a choice. It wasn't bad.
T: Did you know how to speak English when you came here?
C: Yes, I learned English before I came here. My English wasn't bad except when I
got to Clemson the southern accent got me. I had somewhat of a difficult time the
first few months. I remember when I came to Washington D.C. there was no
problem, I could speak English and everybody could understand me. There was
no problem when I got off the train-back then we traveled by train. We got off the
train in Clemson, South Carolina, it was the language [that] was somewhat of a
problem just because of the southern accent. I got used to it, it was not bad.
T: Did you pick up the accent?
C: Not really, no. [I might have picked up] some phrases and things like that. I think
my kids can put on a Southern accent a lot better than I can.
T: When you left the United States to go back to Vietnam for the first time, did you
notice a big difference in the two nations?
C: Yes, at the time there was a big difference. Remember when I came to the
United States I was just fresh out of school so I wasn't working. As a student, I
didn't think about change a lot because being a young person, a student, you
sort of go with the flow. You change and you adapt; I didn't think there was a big
change. When I went to Vietnam and I started working, [then] there was a big
change. I was used to the way things were done in the States, and then I went to
Vietnam and worked for the College of Agriculture in Vietnam, so it was a big
T: Can you give me an example of some of the differences that you perceived when
you went back to Vietnam?
C: I think one of the things that hit me was [that] things took a lot slower to get done.
Here, if there's something that needs to be done, they do it. It gets done fairly
quickly. Over in Vietnam there were a lot of procedures, there were a lot of
regulations and there were a lot of things that you had to go through in order to
get things done. That was one of the things that was a big difference. That was
one of the things that I tried to change when I worked there, and we did try to
make a lot of changes when I worked there.
T: Did you want to leave the United States once you were done with your
C: I was. I really had no intention of being in this country. I went to school here and I
went to Vietnam, and then I came back here for my Ph. D., and I went back to
Vietnam again. I came back here in 1975, and that was because we lost the war
and had to leave. If it weren't for the fall of Vietnam, I would have stayed in
Vietnam. It's not that I don't like to be here or anything, but I think I would have
enjoyed my life better if I stayed in Vietnam because you know the people, your
friends and relatives are there, and the culture and all that. Personally, I think it
could be better, but I have no problem adapting to this country because, like I
said, I'm a lot more westernized than most Vietnamese. So it's not really a
T: Did you have a big family in Vietnam?
C: Yes, there are seven children in my family, six boys and one girl.
T: Did you already have your own family before you came to the United States?
C: I was married in 1972 in Vietnam, so before I came back here in 1975, we were
married. In fact, we had a son, he was seventeen or eighteen months old at the
T: He was really young. Speaking of cultural differences, there are roles and
expectations from a son and a daughter, what were your roles in Vietnam as a
son and as a husband?
C: Maybe I can answer that question better by quoting what my son said when he
was six years old. He said, it's very difficult to be a Vietnamese kid in America
because at home there are certain expectations, and at school there are other
expectations. Most of the time they are completely opposite. For example, at
home we expect them to be not as aggressive, to listen to [the] parents and don't
talk [back], but at school they want them to be aggressive. They want them to
speak up, they want them to stand out, whereas under the Vietnamese culture,
we'd rather have them be more docile, listen to the parents, and to be very
respectful. I don't think that [was] true with me when I was back in Vietnam.
T: Do you think you were more aggressive when you came back to Vietnam after
your schooling because of the American culture? Did it influence you in that way?
C: It's hard to answer that question because I don't know what I would have done if I
had stayed in Vietnam during my growing-up years. If I had gone to school there,
I might have developed the same way, so I don't know if there's an effect. I think
there is, but I'm not sure. I think that I was more open, I was more matter-of-fact
than most Vietnamese people working for the government at the time. That could
be because of my training in the United States, my life in the United States as a
student, [or] it could be the way I was brought up. It could be many things, but I
like to think that maybe there was an effect there, there was some influence
there. Yeah, there was.
T: When you returned to Vietnam, you were pretty much in the midst of the war.
How did the war affect your family life? Did it touch you personally?
C: Yeah, it did. Of course, movements within the country were very limited. We
couldn't go [to] a lot of places because of safety reasons. Even in Saigon, there
were rockets of mortars at night sometimes, so life is kind of iffy because we
don't know where the rockets [were] going to hit tonight or not, that kind of thing.
Every time you travel, there was always the possibility of a land mine, so you
never know. Now looking back, I [would] say that I should have been more
worried when I was in Vietnam. But back then, everybody was in the same boat
and people sort of adapt, they sort of accept it as part of life. It'd be just like in
this country, people accept the fact that you may be hit by a drunk driver. I mean,
that's part of society, the way it is now, right? So people don't get as upset as
they should about these things, and back then it was the same way. We sort of
adapt to life in war and we do whatever we need to do. In a way it affected us,
but I don't think that it made us miserable because we still had to have a life. Life
goes on. I don't think it was terrible. That's one of the things that I do very well,
that's my personal characteristic-I can adapt very well. I can adapt to any
culture, any situation, anything. I really can. In that respect, I think I can handle
things better than most.
T: At what point did you realize you had to leave Vietnam? Was there a defining
moment, like, this is it, we have to go?
C: Things were going very fast. The last week before the fall of the city of Saigon,
things were happening very, very fast. We were losing town after town because
they [North Vietnamese] were coming down from the center part of Vietnam, and
I lived in the South, and they were moving south very fast. The whole thing
happened in about ten days, about two weeks, or something like that. It was very
quick. I'd say within a week, or less than a week, we knew we had to leave. It
doesn't matter, [but you were] finding a way to get out.
T: What did you have to do in order to leave the country, because I know there is a
lot of people who went illegally. Was it very dangerous? What was your method?
C: Actually, we were lucky in many ways. My wife worked for the Chase Manhattan
Bank. That's another reason we had to leave, because my wife was trained in the
United States [and] I was trained in the U.S. My wife worked for the Chase
Manhattan Bank, so according to the Communists, we are the enemy and we are
the capitalists with a capital C. So working for the Chase Manhattan Bank-Chase
Manhattan Bank is like the symbol of capitalism.
T: Everything they're against.
C: You don't survive under Communism, so we had to leave. The Chase Manhattan
Bank was organizing ways for their employees to get out of the country, and I
could go with my wife as a dependent, but we didn't go out that way. Actually my
wife went to school in Sacramento, California, and at the time there was a
professor who used to be her advisor at Sacramento. He was at the University of
Guam at the time, and he came to Vietnam to try to bring all his former students
out. That's how we got out. Somehow he got a letter from the governor of Guam
saying that he's a personal representative of the governor of Guam and whatever
he says, the governor of Guam will back him up; whatever he promises, the
governor of Guam will make it good.
C: He had a letter signed by the governor of Guam, so he took the letter through the
American Embassy in Vietnam. He got us on a manifest on all the planes leaving
Saigon to get out. We were legally allowed to get out because our names were
on the manifest to get out through this professor and through the American
ambassador to Vietnam. Anyway, the biggest problem was how to get to the
American plane at the airport, because Vietnam [was] still a sovereign country,
but there were American planes at the airport. See, if I can get to the American
compound where the Air Force planes are, I can get on that plane because my
name and my wife's name are on the manifest. But how do I get there, because
there were checkpoints. At the time, nobody could leave the country, it was still
illegal to leave the country, and the airport is a civilian airport controlled by the
government. The American base is inside the airport-it's like an island inside this
civilian, Vietnamese controlled airport-so the biggest part was how to get to the
So we send my wife and my son out early. She left about two or three
days before I did because at the time it was easier for women and children to go
past checkpoints. They wouldn't let the men through. She got into the airport, into
the base, and at the time we didn't know where she was going because all I
knew was [that] she had to go. She packed her bag, and she had like half an
hour to pack her bags. [She] took our son and left. I figured if I was by myself I
could move a lot easier and I can get around a lot easier. There [were] ways for
me to get out, but with a wife and kid it's harder. So that's how we [did it]. When
she left the house I had no idea where she was going. I knew that she was going
to get out of the country, but I didn't know where she was. Anyway, so later on,
about two days later, things were getting very desperate. Finally I figured it out,
and it was easy to figure it out. Inside the airport there were still government
officers because it's a Vietnamese airport, so they have all kinds of officers at the
airport. I was working for the Department of Agriculture at the time. I was on loan
from the College of Agriculture to the Department of Agriculture, and I was, in
terms of position, way up there. I was the second-highest career official in the
administration of agriculture. My boss is the Secretary of Agriculture, and he is
my direct boss. I can sign mission orders to send people to go to offices in the
airport, but I couldn't send myself because I cannot sign my own mission order.
Only the Secretary of Agriculture could sign the mission order. The mission order
is an official document with the flag and letterheads and everything saying that
you are instructed to go to that office for some business on a certain day, certain
hour, and all that. Then it dawned on me that the police officers, nobody knows
who the Secretary of Agriculture is, let alone the signature. So I took the
mission order that I normally signed for my subordinates, and I signed the name
of the Secretary of Agriculture to send myself to the airport. I get my black
sedan-because I was a high official-I get my driver, and I had my Samsonite
briefcase, and I got in. I sat in the back just like a regular high official, and my
driver, every time at the check point, he showed the mission order, they'd salute
me, and they'd say please go. So I went in.
T: So you had no problems at all because you had that job.
C: There was no problem at all. It took me awhile to figure that out because at the
time I wasn't thinking very straight because of the pressure.
T: Did you have any way to contact your wife, like when she left did you say, we're
going to meet in a certain place?
C: No, at the time, everything was very, very rushed. Everything was happening
very quickly, and like I said, she had half an hour to pack and leave. When she
left the house I had no idea where she went. Anyway, we had our name on a
manifest for an Air Force plane to take us out of Vietnam, but we don't know
where that plane is going to land. In my case it landed in the Philippines, in Clark
Air Field in the Phillippines. After that it went to Guam to Orote Point -it's a naval
base in Guam. In Guam there was a sign that [says], Chase Manhattan Bank
employees and dependents, please call the general manager of the Guam
branch of the Chase Manhattan Bank. I called him and the general manager
came out. Actually the general manager of the Saigon branch was in Guam at
the time, so he came, he went to the Navy base, and took me out. I don't know
whether I'll get into trouble saying this, but the Chase Manhattan Bank is very
powerful. You don't know how powerful the Chase Manhattan Bank is. See, at
the time, legally, I was under the umbrella of immigration because they had
control over us, and I was [on] an American naval base. The general manager of
the Chase Manhattan Bank came [onto] the naval base, put me in his car, and
drove off to the hotel in Guam. That's it-no signing, no papers, nothing.
T: No questions asked.
C: No questions asked. My wife was out there at the hotel. People [refugees] stayed
days in the tents waiting for a flight to the States; we were in a big hotel in Guam
because my wife [worked for] the Chase Manhattan Bank. They [had a] public
health doctor [that] came and just made sure we weren't sick or anything-just get
a quick medical check up and all that. When there was a flight to the States, we
had to join the refugees because we had to fly in on their plane, so then we went
to Camp Pendleton in California. We spent one night there and then the Chase
Manhattan Bank sent another plane to take us out.
T: So they separated you.
C: They separated us there and we went to Chase in New York. Now let me tell you
this. We went there about eight o'clock that night, and David Rockefeller came
out and shook hands with us. It was real nice. The next day at three o'clock in the
afternoon, this is [in] less than a working day, all of us had a Social Security card.
T: That quickly.
C: That quickly. We didn't sign anything, we didn't do anything. All of us, my son, my
wife, and myself, got a Social Security card that says "work authorized." We
could work right there. Even immigration didn't know that we were in the country
because they took us out of the refugees camp in Pendleton, bypassing
everything. You don't know how powerful the Chase Manhattan Bank is. Even
American citizens who want a Social Security card, it takes twelve weeks and
you have to sign a lot of papers; we didn't sign anything and we were foreigners,
we just came into the country. We weren't even legal at the time and we got a
Social Security card. It's the same card I'm using now, it's legal.
T: Did the Social Security card make you a citizen?
C: No, but it allowed us to work if we needed to work. It's very hard to get a Social
Security card, especially for a foreigner. In fact, after that, in 1975, I got a job at
the University of Florida, and the following year, in 1976, I needed to do
something that requires immigration. So I went to the immigration office and they
said, we have no records of you coming to the country. [They said], we have
records of you coming in as a student, as a freshman and as a Ph. D. student,
we have records both times to Clemson and to California, but there was no
record of you coming in 1975. [That was] because the Chase Manhattan Bank
bypassed everything, and they could do it. How can you bypass the federal
government agency like immigration? But they did.
T: Now this was for their employees in Vietnam, right?
T: Employees and all their family members, is that what you're saying?
C: Yeah. So anyway, I told them, I've been here working as a professor at the
University of Florida for one year, I pay my taxes, but they said, we have no
record of you. So we called up the Chase Manhattan Bank in Vietnam, in Saigon,
and in New York, and they wrote a letter to them and somehow [worked it out].
Now, according to the immigration office, we came in this country in 1976, the
day that I went to Jacksonville and the day the Chase Manhattan Bank sent them
a letter. So legally I was here in 1976, even though I was teaching here in 1975.
So again to tell you how powerful some of these companies can be.
T: That's amazing.
C: A lot of people don't know that a private company like a bank can bypass a
federal agency. It's just connections. He doesn't have to do it, he can get people
to do it for him.
T: The people you mainly left with, not counting the refugees, were they generally of
the more educated and elite class?
C: No, there were all kinds of people There was a mixture of people. See, on the
plane we'd see people-like my wife worked for the Chase Manhattan Bank-but
there were people working as a contractor for the defense department, and their
dependents. It's really a mixture of all kinds of people.
T: Okay, so it wasn't like one person had an advantage over another because of
C: No, at the time, there was a matter of luck involved, and also if you had some
sort of connection. If you worked for an American company, they tried to get you
out, and if you get your name on the manifest, you'd get out.
T: Did most American companies try to help Vietnamese people get out of the
C: Yes, they did.
T: Okay, we're going to backtrack a little. You said that you only had a few days to
think through about, yes, I'm going to leave Vietnam. So you only left with your
wife and your son, correct?
T: What about your family members?
C: None of them could get out. All of the others, my brothers and my sister,
eventually got out, but they got out as boat people. My wife and I and my son
were the only people who flew out of Vietnam, but all my other brothers and
sisters eventually made it out as boat people.
T: So you didn't face the difficulties of the refugee camp and whatnot?
C: No, we were lucky enough that we didn't have to go through any of that.
T: Once you're in America, what kind of life are you hoping for, because you realize
you're no longer under the Communists. You had to start pretty much anew in
the U.S.; was that a very daunting task? How did it affect you mentally?
C: Mentally I was prepared to do anything. When I left the country I said, I'll do any
job, I'll take any job, I'll do anything to survive, because whatever it is, it's a lot
better than life under the communist regime. I was happy with the decision and I
wasn't really concerned about whether I'm going to make it or not, because I was
sure I was going to make it. Compared to other people, I had three degrees from
American universities, my wife was trained here and she worked for the Chase
Manhattan Bank. I mean, that's probably as American as you can get. We
weren't really concerned about that. In fact, she started working for the Chase
Manhattan Bank right away in the head office in New York while I was looking for
a job. So we really didn't have a lot of time to think or to worry about anything
because, like I said, when we came to Camp Pendleton, the next day they flew
us to New York. In two or three days my wife was working for the Chase
T: How long did it take for you to find a job?
C: It wasn't too long, because we came in May and I got a job in September. In fact,
I was in New York and every year there's a professional meeting. The meeting
was in Davis, California, and Davis, California, is where I graduated with my Ph.
D. degree. Actually, I got my bachelor and master's degree at the University of
Florida. I went to Clemson for about two years and then transferred. So at the
time the University of Florida was looking for a professor, but I didn't know that,
but I knew that you can go for job interviews during the personal contact session
at the annual meeting. At the time I didn't have a lot of money, in fact we had to
borrow some money to go out to California, and one of my former professors said
that I could stay at his house so that I didn't have to incur the expense of hotels
and all that. So that's what I did, I went to California, stayed at his house, go to
the meeting, went to the meeting and went to the interview, then I got the job in
Florida at that. It wasn't too bad. My wife had a job and then after two or three
months I got a job down here, so we moved down here.
[end side Al]
T: How old were you when you left Vietnam?
C: When I left Vietnam I was twenty-five.
T: Did you receive any government aid when you came over?
C: No. We had an income, so we didn't receive any aid nor did we need any
T: How did you get housing in the beginning? Who provided it for you?
C: They asked volunteers to sponsor a family coming from Vietnam. We stayed
with a family that works for the Chase Manhattan Bank for like three weeks, and
after that we went to a place in New York. In fact, we rented an apartment from a
professor at Columbia University. He was on sabbatical and he went to Ithaca,
[New York] Cornell for the summer, so we rented his apartment for about two or
T: Because of the controversy that the Vietnam War caused in the United States,
did you think it affected the way you were treated in any way?
C: No. You have to realize that I'm not really a typical refugee in that sense because
of my training and my background. Also, because my wife had a job right away
and I eventually had a job, we didn't go through the hardships and all that. Also,
both my wife and I went to school in this country so there was no cultural shock.
We knew how to adapt and we know the customs and all that. The
misunderstanding and the relationship with the American society that's typical of
refugees might have, we don't have a lot of that. In fact, I cannot think of any
instances where we had a problem. We were lucky. Well it's not really luck, it's
training, it's the background.
T: So did you have a lot of interactions with the Vietnamese community when you
first came over?
C: Yeah, and we still do. We have visits with them and they come to our house and
these kinds of things, and we still do on a regular basis even now.
T: So let's say when you interact with the Vietnamese community, do you try to
maintain that Vietnamese tradition? Is that part of the reason you have that
C: Yeah, it's kind of like regardless of how adapted you are to this country, you're
still Vietnamese, so there's always [a piece of that with you]. Especially, when
you get older, you sort of look back and you tend to go back toward your roots,
so you try to maintain that, and also maintain for the children. I guess everybody
in the entire Vietnamese community is doing that because of these reasons.
They're trying to hang onto some of the things that they're afraid may be lost
because they are in a different society. The way of life, the expectations, and the
way of doing things are completely different. So they still have to, every so often,
go back to their roots, in a way-I hope this comes out right- to maintain their
sanity, to have a certain continuity in their life. In a way, deep down we refuse to
accept the fact that now we are uprooted and we are to live somewhere else.
T: What is it about the Vietnamese culture that you really miss? What is it that you
reminisce about the most, and you're like, I wish I was back over there?
C: It may not be so much the culture, but the things you're used to when you're
growing up and for some reason you like them better. Just like the food, for
example, you grow up on a certain kind of food. Even though the food is not very
good, just because you had it as a child, you always like it. It's not that the food is
better, but it's something that you like to have because you had it as a kid. These
are the things that may not be necessarily better, but it's something that we like
to relive. That's one of the reasons that we want to hang on to these things. But
there's some things, the friendship and the level of comradery-but it's more
In the Asian culture, relationships are deeper and they have more
meaning. In the Western culture, people tend to be more shallow in their
relationships, and there's a reason for it. In the old days in America it was more
closely to the way things are done in Vietnam now. The reason is in Vietnam we
cultivate the relationship and we have a more meaningful relationship because
we need that. We need the support because these people are our support
system [both] moral[ly] and financiallyy. For example, if something
happened-you know somebody gets sick or somebody dies-the whole
community would get together and try to help out, and you need that help. Here
in this country you don't really need that help because you [have] the insurance
company, you [have] the lawyers, you get everybody. You really don't need your
friends and relatives to help as much because you can call your doctor. Even
when someone dies, the funeral services take care of everything, you don't have
to do anything. So there's no need to cultivate the relationships because you
don't need them. Whereas in this country forty or fifty years ago, when they
needed that support system, they needed to cultivate their relationships. Vietnam
is the same way. In Vietnam you need to rely on your neighbors and your
relatives to support you morally and financially because basically your friends
and relatives are your insurance company, because everybody chips in when the
time comes. Here, we have the insurance company who is kind of a stranger, but
they take care of you. Because of that, people tend to not want to get involved as
much, and they tend to be more casual in their relationship because there's no
need for it. So they don't work at it as much as we do as Asians.
T: It's more community based?
C: Yeah, [it's] community based. Like I said, normally people don't think in these
terms, but I don't think people consciously think, I need to be nice to this person
because later I'll need this person. But it's part of the culture, so it's natural that
they do it. What I'm telling you is there's a reason that that has evolved that way.
I think that, what I'm afraid of, one or two generations from now, the Asian people
will be just like the rest of America because they don't need their support
systems, so they'll be just like the rest of people in society here now.
T: Do you try to keep that kind of community based need in your family, that kind of
C: Yeah, we do, because I think it's good to have that because life can be more
meaningful. One of the things that I feel bad for the people in this country is that
deep down they're very lonely, especially the older people. They're very lonely
and they have nobody to turn to, and that is really sad.
T: They have no one to look after them.
C: Yeah, they have nobody to look after them and their kids don't look after them,
they don't call, they don't come and see them or anything. My wife's a CPA, so
she deals with a lot of these old people, you know they have a lot of assets, and
some of them say flat out, I don't want to give money to my children because
they don't come see me. They don't talk to me, they don't do anything for me. It's
T: So the family ties are much more stronger [in Vietnam] than it is in the United
C: It is, it's stronger, and that's the way it should be.
T: Would you say that would be one of the major distinctions between both
C: Yeah. Weddings, for example, that's another thing. Asian weddings always have
a lot of people. Typical American weddings don't have a lot of people, they just
invite very close friends and relatives. It's not like a community affair, whereas a
Vietnamese wedding is like the whole community. In a way it's good because the
wedding provides a good service because it brings people together. Every time
we go to a wedding I see a lot of my friends. It's like a gathering, a get together.
Actually, the wedding provides the venue of this gathering, which is a good thing
to have happen.
T: One of the authors, his names is James Clifford, he wrote Travel and Translation
in the Late Twentieth Century. He said that many Vietnamese believed that they
were staying in the host country-say the United States-until the Communists in
Vietnam fell, and therefore [they] did not have to assimilate. Did you see a lot of
that mentality when you came over to the US, or did a lot of people believe that,
yes, we have to stay here, we can't come back?
C: I say that he was wrong. I say that when the people came here in 1975,
especially the boat people, the boat people know for sure that they'll never come
back. The people in 1975, there may be some, because they didn't know what
Communism was because they have never experienced it first hand, but the boat
people, that's the reason why they risked their lives getting out. They know that
there was no way they could stay. For them, I [would] say that ninety-nine
percent of them know that they aren't going back. The people who came in 1975,
there may be some who think that way, but I would say that it's a very small
percentage. I don't think I agree with him from that perspective. I think people
knew at the time. You have to remember that this is not the first time that the
Vietnamese people fled Communism. Back in 1954, when the country was
divided [into] Communist Vietnam and free South Vietnam, there were over a
million people from the north who came south to flee the Communists. People
[have] had that experience already either through the eyes of the refugees that
came south or [as] refugees themselves. Like my wife, she came south because
of that-my wife is a northern Vietnamese-and she came south in 1954.
T: Due to Ho Chi Minh and the government.
C: Yeah. So she knows very well, her mother knows very well, that you cannot do
that. There's no hope of going back and living under the Communist regime, or
[is] there any hope of the Communists going away. We knew back in 1975, most
of us who had grown up there knew that there was no way that anybody can
throw them out. Basically the United States, which is probably the most powerful
country in the world at the time and now couldn't do anything about it, so who
else can step in and throw them out? So there was no way.
T: Do you think the United States government was welcoming to the refugees?
Were they giving their best efforts to help the refugees and other immigrants that
came over to assimilate?
C: I think in general they do. Of course, there are people who think they haven't
done enough, but what is enough? I think that in general, the people in this
country are very nice, they're very decent-there are always a few bad apples, but
as a people, the American people are really, really nice and welcoming. I don't
think that there's really a problem. Of course, if you read the newspaper or you
check back with the history of the people who came to this country in 1975, there
were several instances where there was conflict with the local people, especially
with the people who owned shrimp boats in the Gulf of Mexico, in Texas and
Pensacola. Basically, there were a lot of conflicts, a lot of problems, with the local
shrimpers and the Vietnamese fishermen. A lot of that is the fault on the
Vietnamese side, some of that is the fault on the American people's side.
Basically you're looking at two groups of people trying to make a living, and they
had to compete for the same shrimp in the ocean, so that was a problem. You
have to understand that these shrimpers had been fishing this area for
generations and generations, and now this new group of people come in and try
to catch the same shrimp they're trying to catch. Also, I'm sure that the
Vietnamese people being refugees, they're willing to work a lot cheaper and
longer hours and do anything to survive, so it would make things worse because
they can get up very early in the morning and go out there and try to have a jump
on [the American fishers].
T: Yeah. Asian work ethics are very high.
C: Also, the language barrier, because most of these people don't speak English
very well, and the local shrimpers probably have never seen a foreigner in their
lives, so that is a problem. There were problems, I grant you that, but I don't think
that there are problems now. I'm sure there are still pockets of [problems]. Right
now, if you go to Chiefland, for example, and set up a business or something,
you'd probably get some problems. Most of the time people would be okay with
you, but still, I'm sure there's a percentage of people who live in Chiefland or
Citra for example, and they probably don't like it. It's not because you're
Vietnamese, it's just because you are not from Chiefland. That's the way it is. As
long as people understand that, it's not so bad. In a way it's nothing personal, it's
just they don't like outsiders. They don't even like people from New York, for
example. For the people who don't understand that, and this is when my
background would come in. I understand the American culture and American
people-I studied the Western civilizations and American history, so I understand
these things and I tend to be more forgiving. I understand these things a lot
better. But a person who is not exposed to these things, when they are
confronted with this, they may take a completely different take on this. They may
say, this is very personal, these guys just despise me, they're out to get me, and
a lot of these things. They make things worse because of that perception. People
always make fun of me because I like to listen to country music, but actually, you
learn a lot from country music. You see, if you like country music, then you
understand the people who listen to country music and you understand where
they come from. You tend to deal with them better, really. But if you say, I don't
want any part of that, then you get a problem.
T: I know you had a lot of experience with the western culture, so you didn't have to
do that much adjusting when you came to America, but what did you find was the
hardest thing for you to get used to in the U.S.? Was it the food? I know the
food is a big thing with some people.
C: To tell you the truth, you may not believe me, there isn't anything that is really
hard that stands out. Like I said, I can eat bread or American food ten years in a
row and it doesn't bother me. I can eat rice ten years in a row, it doesn't bother
me. No, really. I can adapt because that is not important to me. I like to eat good
food and all that, but I don't have to eat a certain kind of food or a certain type of
food, so in that respect, I don't see anything that is really difficult to adapt to.
There may be, but offhand I cannot think of anything, because I can adapt to
these things better than most people.
T: How do you maintain your Vietnamese identity living in the United States, where
the influence is everywhere, from TV, to music, to everything? How do you
maintain that Vietnamese traditional core?
C: I get together with friends quite a bit. I read a lot and I listen to Vietnamese music
just to remind me. I do a lot of these things consciously to make sure that I'm
doing the right thing. We get together with friends and eat Vietnamese food and
all that. It's not so much that I like Vietnamese food, but it's a reminder of who
you are. [That's what I do] to maintain a bond with the other Vietnamese people. I
see Vietnamese people-Gainesville is not a big Vietnamese town-but I see
Vietnamese people at least every week outside of my family.
T: You say your son left Vietnam when he was around seventeen months old. How
do you teach him about Vietnamese traditions?
C: I don't think that I teach them per se, it's mostly through examples. It's mostly
through-this is not a good choice of word-but osmosis-because it's not actually
osmosis. It's just the way we do things, and the kids understand. We never say
that you have to do this because you are Vietnamese, we never say that, but
somehow they know that Vietnamese do things a certain way, and it's probably
worth it to do it. But like I said, I never said, these are the rules, these are the
Vietnamese ways of doing things, and these are how you're going to conduct
yourself. We never do that. I think that the all the kids know-somehow they
know. I guess the way that we act, they can see that and the way you make
decisions and things like that, they can see.
T: Do you ever find yourself making comparisons like, back when I was young ...
C: Yeah, but that's not a Vietnamese thing, that's a parent thing. Parents of all
cultures will always do that. My American friends always say, when I was a kid it
was different. You read things and they always talk about the good old days
when everybody was nice and proper and no one danced to the crazy music and
all that. That's parent talk-all parents talk like that regardless of whether they're
Vietnamese or American or Japanese or French, it doesn't matter.
T: When did you apply for American citizenship?
C: When I was eligible, which was about six years after I came here?
T: Was it a hard process?
C: No, not really. I know American history better than the average American, so I
had no problem passing the exam or anything like that. In fact, this is kind of a
funny story, there's a lawyer who asks you questions about who [are] the
Supreme Court justices. How many years is the typical presidential term and how
many terms he can serve and all that. At the end of the session he asked me,
there are five American presidents who are not buried on U.S. soil, do you know
who they are? I couldn't think of anybody and he started laughing and he said,
Reagan and Carter, and all these presidents who were still living. [Laughing] He
started laughing and he said, you did so well that I had to ask you that question.
That was funny. But it was no problem in that regard.
T: So once you got your citizenship, did you feel differently at all? Were you like, I'm
an American now?
C: No. I was glad that I got citizenship. It had an effect on me, but it's not in the
same sense that maybe you're thinking of. It made me realize how lucky I was,
and I tried to be nicer. For example, I consciously let people pass or I consciously
give people priority when I drive because it's kind of a payback. When you leave
Vietnam, you leave everything behind. When I left Vietnam, we had basically
$900. We had $900, and we had to give my wife's sister $400 because we went
to New York and she went to California and she was like eighteen at the time-so
we split the money. We get $500, so when we went to New York, we had $500,
that's it. But hey, right now I've got a garage full of junk just like everybody else.
The thing is, when you think about when you come to this country, the people in
this country don't have to accept me, they don't have to give me citizenship, they
don't have to let me in. Why should they, they don't have to. Some people look at
it [and say], you have to because you're rich and that's the people who have
trouble, because they expect things. I don't expect anything because, to be fair,
look at the Japanese, how many people do they accept? Nobody. They accept a
few hundred, but that's all, and they made a lot of money in Vietnam during the
war because the Japanese are very good in business. They sell a lot of Hondas
and Yamahas and all that. They made a lot of money, but they didn't accept too
many people. A lot of other countries, England, Germany, all of them, how many
have they accepted? Not too many. And yet the people in this country took in a
lot of people, and deep down they don't have to. There are people who are
saying that they have to, but I am saying why? When we were in Vietnam, for
example, how many refugees had we accepted? None. The people in
Cambodia and Laos, they probably could [have] used some help back even
before we had the war and everything, [but] we didn't do that. You have to be
fair when you're dealing with people, and that's why I said the American people
as a group are really a nice bunch. They treat people fair and treat people nice.
T: Have you ever visited Vietnam since you left?
C: No, I have never done that. In fact, last year we were thinking about going there,
and then the bird flu hit, and my wife said, maybe we better not, let's wait awhile.
So we haven't done that, but we were going last year and didn't go.
T: Do you still get updated on the status of the country? Do you still have family
C: My youngest brother is still in Vietnam. He's the only one left in Vietnam. I don't
think he wants to leave. He's doing okay. In fact, he's doing a lot better than I'm
doing here now financially. He's happy where he is so he doesn't want to go. I
don't think he can either, but he's happy the way he is now.
T: In your eyes, do you see yourself as American or do you feel like a Vietnamese
person living in a foreign country?
C: I don't know. I'm sure that I feel like an American, but I still cannot forget that I'm
Vietnamese, so it's kind of both. I guess it depends on which context we are
talking about. When I go to a Vietnamese gathering, I'm one hundred percent
Vietnamese, but here, for example, in this building, I'm one hundred percent
American. I'm not a Vietnamese professor teaching at UF, I'm a professor
teaching at UF. I don't think in these terms.
T: What do you think makes an American in your eyes? What is American culture?
What is an American citizen? Do you think you can define something like that?
C: I guess what you're asking me is to see if I can define what an American is.
T: Because like you said, when you're in the Vietnamese community you're one
hundred percent Vietnamese, and when you're at work you're an American
professor. Do you think there are definable traits? How do you separate the two?
What makes you Vietnamese or American respectively?
C: I think we're talking about two different things. For example here, I don't feel that
being Vietnamese matters, it doesn't matter if I'm Vietnamese or not, and I don't
feel like I'm Vietnamese in that sense. If you feel like you're Vietnamese, that
means you either expect different treatment, bad or good, because you're
different, or you expect that there are certain allowances. I have a friend, and
maybe it's kind of along the same line, and he said, they have to make allowance
for the fact that we're Vietnamese. I said, why, do you expect them to pay you
less because you're Vietnamese? You don't expect them to pay you less, so [you
can't expect them to make allowances]. [I told him], you have to understand, this
is a capitalistic country, so if they have the money they hire whoever they want
and they hire the best person for the job. Why do they have to hire you and still
make allowance for the fact that you are not like other people? You're
Vietnamese, there's nothing wrong with that, but you still have to function like
everybody else. You cannot expect people to think that because you're
Vietnamese you can do some things that other people cannot do, or if you expect
somewhat different treatment-they have to be nicer to you or maybe they have to
defer to you or they have to treat you with kids gloves because you're
Vietnamese? No. Why should they? If you take that attitude it's hard, because if
somebody does something you're always are saying, did they do it because I'm
Vietnamese, or maybe he doesn't give me enough allowance because I'm
Vietnamese. There's no end to it.
It makes life very complicated and it creates situations where you think
that you are a mystery, you think that you're not treated fairly. Basically you open
yourself [up] for this kind of situation. So I said, I'm no different from anybody
else in terms of expectations and the way I do things. For example, this may be a
bad example, but people type their own manuscripts. In this country you have to
do the same thing, even though in Vietnam, for example, you ask your wife to do
it or you have secretaries who do it, but [because] that's not the way things are
done here, you have to do it that way. You cannot say, well because I'm
Vietnamese I'm not going to do this, I'll let my wife do this. No, you cannot do
that. That's what I meant when I said at work I'm not Vietnamese in that sense.
T: Is that something conscious in your mind whether you are one or the other?
C: In the beginning, I was conscious, in the sense that I wanted to make sure that
didn't happen. I had to work at it and make sure that I don't think in these terms.
But now it's second nature to me, so I don't think about it. I'm sure there are a lot
of people who still haven't reached that point. I sort of see that and I force myself
to not let that happen. Now I'm at the point where it's not a problem anymore.
T: How do you do that?
C: Basically you remind yourself that's the way it is. It's a competitive world. That's
one thing that's a difference between Vietnam and America, it's very competitive
here. In Vietnam, for example, if you get a degree, especially if you get a Ph. D.,
you're set for life. Even though you're a bad Ph. D., people respect you and they
let you get away with murder. Here it's not that way. Here, if you don't deliver,
you are out. The problem is, UF alone graduates more than five hundred Ph. D.'s
a year; Vietnam, the whole country may have one hundred Ph. D.'s. So here,
we produce five hundred Ph. D.'s a year at UF alone. If you count all the other
universities, look at how many Ph. D.'s we produce a year. I think we produce
probably twenty-five to thirty thousand Ph. D.'s a year for this country, so it's no
big deal, so you have to produce. That's maybe one of the things that is different,
because in a way life is harder because you're always on edge, you always have
to compete. In Vietnam you don't have to. There's no competition, especially if
you come from a good family, you're rich and all that, so life is easy. You can
have no talent, not know anything, and you still get to be at the top.
[end side A2]
T: You were talking about the lifestyle.
C: Yeah, I think it's more stressful here than in Vietnam, for example. See in
Vietnam you may not have a lot of money, but you somehow you feel more
relaxed and you're not stressed because you know that there are friends and
family, people that you can go to to help out. See here, for example, I know a lot
of family that basically kick their kids out when they're eighteen and they cannot
come back. They get into trouble and they say, you are eighteen years old, it's
your problem. Here we always worry about what's going to happen in the future,
and something bad could happen to us, whereas in Vietnam I think somehow we
feel that when something happens we [will] get help. For one thing, for example, I
think it's easier to borrow money in Vietnam than to borrow money here; not from
a bank, but from relatives and things like that. Here I don't think it's very hard to
borrow from relatives, I'm talking about American people in general. Family, for
example, my wife's sister and my wife, they are very close. Basically, she can
borrow money from my wife and my wife can just loan it without asking me, and
vice-versa. You have that security that when something happens, I [can] get
help. In this country, you are on your own. If you cannot go to the bank and
borrow money, it's your problem. It's very difficult to go to your sisters, brothers,
or even your parents to borrow money once you're grown up, but in Vietnam it's
different. I guess there are fewer people who go crazy or commit suicide that kind
of thing, because they are not under a lot of stress as people of this country are.
T: With the issue of family ties and how you can rely on them, what makes you think
it's different in the United States? Is it because we have so many other
institutions that are there to provide for us?
C: I think it started that way, and then it got to the point where people are more
selfish. You have to understand, I probably have to admit it, that the Americans
know how to live. They know that life is short; you get like eighty years or
whatever, and they try to maximize the level of happiness during those eighty
years. Asian people don't know how to live in that sense. They always work, save
money and try to, hopefully, get a better life toward the last part of their lives, like
when they are fifty or sixty, but they basically sacrifice the first thirty or forty years
of their lives. So that is not good, but it's good in the sense that they don't make
the requirement to be happy all the time so paramount that they sort of ruin their
lives. For example, the reason you can borrow or have that support is because
everybody owes so much money to the bank that they can't afford to loan you
money, typically. Most of us live in houses that are way too big for us, and I am
guilty of that. We have too many cars and we have too many things, and in order
to have all these many things we borrow a lot of money or we don't have a lot of
savings. We always worry [that] if we lose our job, we [will] lose the house, we
[will] lose the car. It's terrible, and we [will] not have health insurance because
usually the health insurance comes through the job. If you don't have a job, you
don't have health insurance, and then what do you do? So people always worry
about losing their job or worry about not having enough money, and the reason is
because they spend too much money and they buy things that [they don't need].
You don't need three TV's in a house, but people do. You don't need a CD player
that cost $500; you can buy a CD player for $100 that is almost as good. Or you
can buy Gucci shoes for $1,000, but they do. Of course people say, I don't buy
Gucci shoes, but still, in their own way they do these things. In other words, they
buy the car, the BMW for example, which costs like $45,000. What's wrong with
a Honda? It takes you wherever you want to go and it's very reliable and all that,
but people don't do that because somehow they feel they're happier that way. So
in the pursuit of happiness, they sort of ruin their lives. They have to worry all the
time about not having enough money. I think that is the thing that I don't like
about this society.
T: Do you think a lot of Vietnamese immigrants adapt to that kind of culture once
they're over here?
C: Yeah, I know that the kids do [Laughing]. I think the older generation don't. In
general, you take a Vietnamese couple and an American couple. Suppose they
have the same job, they both work as an engineer for the same company. I can
guarantee you that at least 90% of the time the Vietnamese couple will always
have more cash, more money in the bank, than the American couple. They do
because they don't spend as much and they save money and they sleep better. I
can tell because all my friends and my wife's [friends] are the same way. They
know that their American friends don't have a lot of money. I mean, they have a
lot of things, but they are all heavily mortgaged or they borrow a lot of money
from the bank to get all these things, and they're always in fear of losing these
things if they lose their job, which is a terrible way to live. But somehow, society
forces people into this path of behavior. It's something that I don't like about living
in this country. My son is going that way and I try to slow him down, but it's very
easy to pick that up because it's, in a way, you have to enjoy life, so how can you
be against that.
T: And it's all around you.
C: Yeah, it's all around you, so it's hard.
T: Does your son speak Vietnamese?
C: Very little. That's one of the big things that I regret the most is that my kids are
not fluent in Vietnamese. Because my wife worked and I worked when they were
kids, we always hired American people to look after them. After awhile it's a lot
easier, it's quicker and faster, to speak English to them. That's a problem with
me. If I had to do things over again, that's one of the things I would change.
T: Do they have a desire or curiosity [to learn] about their Vietnamese culture?
C: Yeah, they do. In fact, my daughter took Vietnamese when she went to the
University of Florida. She took two semesters of that. [Laughing]
T: What did she think? Did she like it?
C: Yeah, she likes it, but now she's losing that again because she's working in
Atlanta so she doesn't have the opportunity to practice it.
T: So in general you're glad you came to the United States?
C: Yeah, it's a no-brainer.
T: Do you have any closing remarks that you would like to say?
C: Not really. I'm happy the way things are and I think I have no problems. Like I
said, I'm kind of atypical and I was lucky in many ways. It's just because of my
background, so I have a lot less trouble with adapting. Also it's my nature. For
example, I didn't do things when I was young, I consciously didn't smoke
because I didn't want to be dependent on a cigarette to make me happy. It's not
for health reasons, it's just for that. See if you smoke and then if you don't have a
cigarette, then you feel unhappy. So I said, why do you want to put yourself in
that position, why can't you be happy all the time when you don't smoke? So
that's why I didn't smoke. A lot of things I do, I prepare myself for these things so
that I don't get into trouble or get into situations where I'm unhappy. I force
myself to do these things to make sure [that] I don't get into these traps. So a lot
of that is not because of the background influences, but it's personal. Like my
son bought a brand new BMW, and I said why? He said, if you have the money,
why not? I didn't buy a new car until I was fifty. I bought used cars all the time
because I need to have the cash in case I need the money for [my] children or
whatever. I don't rely on the fact that I have to be working all the time in order to
keep the house or to keep whatever.
T: There's something I forgot to ask you, you said that you went to a French school
in Vietnam, and that's where you gained most of your western ideas?
C: Yeah. I went to a French boarding school, so the teacher was French and the
classmates were French. I took Vietnamese as a foreign language. I took English
as the first foreign language and Vietnamese as the second foreign language,
and French is supposed to be my mother tongue because that's a French school
C: Before you came to the United States, had you ever gone out of the country?
C: So the U.S. was the first time you went out of the country.
C: And the school had a big effect on helping you adjust?
T: Yeah, because like I said, I'm used to westerners and the way western people do
things and I'm used to French history. I think I know French history better than
most French people because that's all I learned as a kid.
C: Were there mainly Vietnamese people in the school?
T: Yeah, there were Vietnamese people, but these schools are basically designed
for French people living in Vietnam like diplomats They're designed for French
people. It's a French school. My diploma is issued by the Department of
Education from France, it's signed by the secretary, it's not stamped, by the
Secretary of Education of France. There is nothing Vietnamese about it; it's a
regular French diploma, and if you look at it you don't know that it's in Vietnam. It
basically is a French school that's located in Vietnam.
C: What made you decide to attend that school? Was it a better education?
T: It's a much better school than anything. You're familiar with the IB program here
C: Yes. The IB program here is patterned after the school that I went to. So
basically I did the IB program in French. It's patterned after the French
T: So that gave you a big advantage in adapting.
C: Yes, in many ways, because I was way ahead of my Freshman class when I
came. Just like if you take an IB kid; that kid is supposedly like a year ahead of
his or her counterpart coming out of regular high school. Basically I had the
western exposure, plus I have the advanced training in intense academics. So
when I came to Clemson, for example, the first year I was at Clemson I watched
TV every night. I didn't do anything and I could always [do well]. School was so
easy. That's another thing: the French school and the American schools, there's
no comparison. The American schools are so easy, and I know because I'm
teaching them right now. It's really so easy. I go to Portugal and Brazil to teach
there, and I can see that the schools here are so easy. The kids here don't know
it, but school here is very easy.
T: Why do you think they make it easier?
C: The society, for one thing, and also, usually, when a country's rich, typically rich
kids have it easy, that's the bottom line. When you come from a rich family you
have it easy compared to a poor family. So if you come from a poor country, they
make it harder because they don't have the facilities, they don't have the
manpower, they don't have a lot of things, so you have to do it on your own. Over
there the professors don't provide as much help as they do here. Here the
professors do a lot for their students. You go to Japan and you go to Korea, to
Brazil and you [can] even go to France, they don't do much at all, the students do
all the work. Here the professors do most of the work for the students, and the
students just show up in class and sometimes they listen and sometimes they
don't. But in a lot of countries that's not the case. So schools in this country are
really easy. But the thing is, the way the system is set up, that's funny because
all society needs is a few top people who do everything and the other people just
sort of follow orders and do the routine work, which is fine.
T: Do you have any last remarks?
C: No, not really.
T: Well, I guess this marks the end of the interview.
[End of Interview]