Alex Tran’s dark eyes get big when he remembers the South China Sea. The memory conjures many stories, 30-year-old stories where hope and horror hold hands. Stories of fear and faith as his family joined the first wave of refugees to flee South Vietnam by boat when the North Vietnamese Army came swooping down.
They took to the sea in desperation, the only direction they navigated was away. They left their homes, possessions, everything that was familiar with a vague hope of being rescued by Americans.
“We prayed to America,” Tran says.
But that was a long time and another world ago.
Standing on the deck of his north Lincoln home on an October afternoon, Tran takes in a sea of gold that shimmers in the sunlight. It’s a sea of prairie grass growing along a golf course that borders his property.
Unlike most of his neighbors, Tran refuses to install a privacy fence.
“And lose this view?” he asks.
He may not have it much longer. A few days ago, he stuck “For Sale By Owner” signs into the yard.
Why would anyone sell his dream house?
The answer lies 30 years in the past, when Alex Tran was a boy named Chuyen — a 10-year-old who entered a pact and now has a promise to keep.
v v v
On April 30, 1975, the president of South Vietnam, Duong Van Minh, delivered an unconditional surrender to the North Vietnamese. The South Vietnamese Army began its retreat and the American military evacuated Saigon. The populace fled as if the country was tipped on its side, spilling people into the ocean.
On the same day, Nhu Tran, a fisherman turned soldier in the South Vietnamese Army, returned to his family in the town of Cat Lo. He, too, delivered a proclamation, to wife, Quang, and their seven children: They were leaving Vietnam.
Chuyen, the soldier’s 10-year-old son, was shocked by the thought of leaving the only home he’d ever known. Cat Lo sat in the shadow of Vung Tau, a southern, coastal city of nearly a million people. Compared to farming villages of grass huts in the countryside, Cat Lo was modern. The Trans lived in a house. At night, when the electricity was on, they gathered outside a neighbor’s window and watched American TV — “I Love Lucy” and “Bonanza,” professional wrestling or “Star Trek.” Chuyen played tag with his friends, using Dr. Spock’s patented Vulcan grip.
For kids Chuyen’s age, the United States seemed omnipotent.
“It’s like America was next to heaven. Everything was big,” he says.
During the day, he and his playmates watched American helicopters cross the sky, but their town was insulated from the war. Now the helicopters fled, as did his family. It didn’t make sense.
Soon, the plan for escape included his father’s extended family of 26 — three households led by his father and his uncles, Do and Vinh. Most boarded a cousin’s fishing boat, but Vinh took the grandparents — Thung and Le Thi — on a separate craft.
They took nothing — except a 2-foot tall statue of Jesus that Thung strapped to his back. Years before, the grandfather had escaped North Vietnam with the statue. Now the old man was partially paralyzed from a stroke, so he rode piggyback on Vinh.
Anarchy ruled the streets. Gunshots echoed. People panicked.
The cousin’s 40-foot boat held nearly 100 people as it moved slowly toward the South China Sea. No one knew which direction led to safety, but their rally cry was “Freedom or death on the high seas!” They refused to surrender to the communists.
As they entered the sea, Chuyen became more frightened. The fisherman’s son couldn’t swim. All around him, the boy saw only dark waves that pitched the boat and, along with it, his family’s fate.
v v v
The days on the boat passed as endless hours of sea mist and doubt, hunger and fear, sweat and confusion. A plank off the side of the boat was the bathroom. Pirates cruised the waters, hunting the vulnerable.
Although his parents were Catholics, young Chuyen never had prayed. On the sea, he prayed as many as five times per day.
On the third day, they spotted a ship flying an American flag. Refugee boats tied together in desperation flocked around the ship.
The American sailors dropped cargo nets and skids. Women and children climbed into the nets. Chuyen scaled in with his two younger brothers while his mother clutched the three of them. His father waited with the other children for a second net.
As the net rose, refugees below panicked, uncertain if another cargo net would drop. They yelled and waved. They grabbed and hung from the legs of those in the net. Quang screamed for her children to kick, so they struck at groping hands until the clinging refugees fell.
On the ship, they felt safer, but they were hungry and tired. The trip had punished them physically and spiritually. And they felt lost. Away. Everything was gone.
Chuyen’s uncles and brothers stole some uncooked ramen. The boy refused the dry noodles, watching as the others crunched and swallowed.
As night approached, the family climbed the tower at the center of the ship to escape the hot, crowded deck. But it was the beginning of the monsoon season and they got drenched by heavy rains.
Freedom or death on the high seas.
v v v
When the sun rose, so did their hopes. The pirates would not attack an American ship. The refugees were hungry and stinking, but the rain had stopped.
Chuyen saw his first dolphins, jumping from the blue water and into the air, their bodies slick and seeming grins on their faces. Seeing the “flying fish” gave him hope.
Later from the high tower, he spotted his first whale. If the dolphins symbolized hope, surely the whale was strength. Even the whales befriended the Americans.
Then, in the distance the sky darkened — a black sheet fell to the sea’s shifting surface. Rain, thunder and lightning followed. The ship began to change direction. The black sheet receded as the ship avoided the storm. To young Chuyen, it was a miracle. Only the Americans could avoid a storm.
They rode the ship for four days. Other boats transported the refugees from one destroyer to another. More waiting, more hunger, more dehydration. And worst of all, the fear that Vinh’s family and the grandparents lost for good.
Finally, after another night and day, they landed in Guam. American sailors bustled about. After cleaning up, Chuyen joined his family in bread lines, where they feasted on scrambled eggs and sausage, foods he had never tasted.
Chuyen and his best friend and cousin, Tuan, watched and listened. The boys had never heard so many s-sounds. His cousin joked that the Americans sounded like chickens crossed with snakes.
There was little to do in the refugee camp, so Chuyen and Tuan ran around, gathering worthless Vietnamese currency they sold to the souvenir-hungry American GIs. The barefoot boys fashioned sandals of cardboard and string.
And then a miracle: They found Vinh’s family and the grandparents.
The Tran family made their pact to stay together. They survived the war, the high seas and now they would survive together, whatever the future held.
n n n
Soon, they discovered that sponsorship programs helped refugees relocate and start new lives. Families of five found sponsors easily. Even families of 10.
But the Tran family pact had its price: No one wanted to host a group of 26.
After three months in Guam they were flown to Hawaii, and then to Fort Chaffe, Ark. They had made it to mainland America, but they remained in a refugee camp.
At the camp, firsts filled Chuyen’s life. He began to study English and received his confirmation, a Christian rite that confers the Holy Spirit upon the candidate. Chuyen and Tuan found a squirrel, which they initially thought was a “really nice-looking cat.” They fed and tamed it.
Four months had passed since they fled Cat Lo. They had adopted a pet, but still no sponsor would adopt the Trans. The three families were raising their children in a refugee camp, and Quang was pregnant with her eighth child. To make matters even more urgent, the U.S. government was about to close Fort Chaffe.
But then they heard from a sponsor who was willing to help all of them. It was time to leave the camp, to start life anew, continue their American journey. They had made good on the pact. They would all live in the same place, a city called Lincoln, Nebraska.
n n n
“We wanted to take the hardest-to-place family,” says Glenn Frazier, a Lutheran pastor who grew up in a family that sponsored Dutch-Indonesian refugees.
It didn’t seem right to put 26 people in a house together. “But they said that they wanted to be in the same house until they knew what they wanted.”
So Frazier, his wife, Mary, and his congregation got a house ready at 30th and U Streets in a working class neighborhood noted for its racial diversity.
Do’s wife, Luong, who now lives in Atlanta, remembers that each family lived in one room of the three-bedroom house. The grandparents made their bedroom in the dining room.
Although they were together, their future was uncertain. They were in a foreign country, where almost no one spoke Vietnamese. They had no documentation. They lost proof of their birth dates and names so they created new ones on their arrival.
And that’s when Chuyen became Alex.
One day after Mass at Sacred Heart Church, Father James Benton followed the family home. They invited him in for tea.
Although the priest spoke no Vietnamese, a friendship ensued. Benton helped with their transition to American life. He used puppets to communicate with the kids and he played soccer with the teenagers.
“They’ve been very good to me,” he says. “They’ve kept me young.“
By the time winter approached, the Trans were a neighborhood fixture. Jenny, Nhu’s oldest daughter, remembers the first time it snowed. She ran outside with her cousins and uncles. The snow was up to their knees, yet they were barefoot. They jumped, laughed and screamed.
“Glenn came over and was shocked,” Jenny says.
n n n
By 1983, Alex’s immediate family had moved to a house at 29th and R streets, a neighborhood he remembers as “The Combat Zone.”
His father built shipping crates at Mapes Industries, and his mother raised the children. In 1979, the Trans had helped start Immaculate Heart of Mary, the second Vietnamese Catholic church in America and the first to have its own building. As the Vietnamese community grew in Lincoln, the church became a spiritual and social hub.
Despite the hardships and adjustments, life in America had been good to Alex. That would change.
Alex attended Lincoln High, where most of his friends were other kids, including his cousin, Tuan, whom he nicknamed Billy the Kid. In 1983, Lincoln High was a racially diverse school. When problems arose, Alex and Billy would translate for Vietnamese students who spoke little English.
One afternoon, Alex and Billy got in the middle of an argument between Vietnamese friends and some white students. A fight broke out and a white kid pulled a knife.
The incident snowballed. Soon there were posters on the school walls: “Be a Link; Kick the Chinks.” Alex’s friends got jumped. Vietnamese students had their tires slashed and windshields broken. The police began to patrol the campus.
“I didn’t feel American,” Alex says.
Uncertain of school and law enforcement authorities, the Trans sought Father Benton’s advice.
The next thing Alex knew, he was living with Benton, who had been assigned to a parish in Nebraska City. Two of his cousins also made the move. Benton believed getting away from the racial tension in Lincoln and attending school in a smaller town would benefit the boys.
“I think that’s when my life changed,” Alex says. “No one knew me, and I could start over.”
At Lincoln High, where class sizes numbered in the hundreds, he wasn’t involved with school activities. There was too much competition and he was too scared to assert himself. Things were different at Lourdes Central Catholic, where he was one of 17 students in his class. He played football, basketball and track. He talked to girls he never would have dreamed of talking to at Lincoln High. His confidence grew.
“It changed his faith,” Benton says. Catholicism in Vietnam is authoritarian. “In Nebraska City, he learned about a compassionate God.”
Alex stayed for three years and graduated from Lourdes, then moved back with his parents and attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
n n n
Twenty years later, Alex Tran, his daughter in tow, walks into his wife’s restaurant, Phô Nguyênn. The 7-year-old Mickey has drawn a “welcome” sign with a steaming bowl of Vietnamese noodle soup, chopsticks and a spoon. She tapes it to the counter at the register, next to a flyer advertising her family’s house for sale. She eyes the flyer and touches the image of a swing set.
After a day of computer programming at Ameritas Life Insurance, Alex waits tables while Tuyet, his wife, cleans the kitchen. From the kitchen flows the scent of beef broth and the sound of women speaking Vietnamese.
Out front, Mickey, in a pageboy haircut, greets hungry patrons in both Vietnamese and English. Vietnamese music plays in the background as customers dig into spring rolls and phô, a traditional soup garnished with bean sprouts, basil and jalapeño slices. The couple started the restaurant at 27th and T streets in 2003, and it draws good lunch and dinner crowds.
Tuyet, whose name translates to “Snow” in English, immigrated from Vietnam in 1992 with her mother. She is the only one who knows the restaurant’s soup recipe, and she guards it like a state secret.
“She’s a great cook,” Alex says. “When we got married (in 1997) I gained like 35 pounds.”
At 8 p.m., the Trans close the restaurant and Alex stops at his parents’ house to pick up his son, Jonah, who is 4. While both Alex and Snow are small in stature, Jonah, at 70 pounds, looks like a future Husker lineman.
“Jonah has crazy genes,” Alex says, grinning.
He returns to the dream house he and Snow designed with an oversized kitchen for the chef, more bathrooms than people and walk-in closets. In the living room stands an altar, like the one found in many Vietnamese homes. On the mantel, next to a statue of Jesus and Mary, is a photograph of Snow’s father, who died when she was 12.
“I’m a gadget guy,” Alex says, pointing to a big-screen TV. He shrugs and rolls his eyes.
“Except I’m the only Vietnamese in America without a karaoke machine.”
Across the street is Highlands Golf Course. Alex is an avid golfer and plays tennis, volleyball and soccer.
“The restaurant is killing my golf game,” he says. The smile returns, the smile of a man whose burdens are his pride.
While Alex gives a tour of the house, the kids play, hamming it up for the guest. Mickey runs away and frantically cleans her room and Jonah holds a plastic bucket. “Cars!” he says.
Despite having been born and raised in the United States, Mickey and Jonah get plenty of exposure to Vietnamese culture. The Tran family speaks Vietnamese at home. Mickey attends Vietnamese classes, where they speak the language, learn about their heritage and celebrate cultural holidays.
“The American part is good, but we want to maintain both cultures,” Alex says.
One way to do that is by staying connected to his parents. He sees them every day when he drops off and picks up Jonah, but soon he will see them even more. Three years ago, Alex’s father had two mini-strokes and his parents could use some help.
Nhu and Quang’s other children — spread from California to Texas — have offered their parents a choice of where to live. They could move from house-to-house if they wanted. But Nhu and Quang have traveled lifetimes to get where they are. Their friends are in Lincoln and so is their church.
They could move in with Alex and Snow, but Alex has decided it would be easier on his parents to sell his house and move in with them.
“They feel more comfortable.”
Nhu clearly approves. He believes the love of a big family and the closeness to share and communicate is part of what it means to be Vietnamese.
“I can’t imagine that a family wouldn’t want that,” he says.
n n n
The aroma of fried rice, egg rolls and duck permeates Nhu and Quang’s home on the day after Thanksgiving. People crowd the staircase, kitchen and sitting room, embracing, laughing and smiling. Children run back and forth, between legs and up the stairs. Babies sway in their parents’ arms.
A pile of 80 pairs of shoes blocks the front entryway.
“The great thing about Vietnamese parties,” Alex says, “is you can always leave with a better pair of shoes.”
No one has on shoes, but everyone wears a nametag. Although most of the adults took Anglo names, they wear stickers with their Vietnamese names. The children’s tags reflect their American upbringing: Diana, Kevin, Anthony and Nathan.
A Jesus and Mary altar on the far wall of the sitting room has been converted into a buffet table and dining room. Portraits of the patriarch and matriarch —Thung and Le Thi, now deceased — look down on the festivities.
Alex quiets down his relatives and turns the floor over to his father. In Vietnamese, Nhu addresses the family and honored guests Glenn and Mary Frazier and Father Benton.
He finishes to applause and then his youngest child, Loan, translates the speech into English. She begins to cry as soon as she says “Do,” her deceased uncle’s name. Do’s son, Thao, finishes the translation.
The speech honors the family’s 30th anniversary of arriving in Lincoln. Nhu thanks God for giving the Trans the Fraziers and the Fraziers for providing them a home. He thank Benton for ministering to the grandparents at their home when they were too ill to get out.
It feels like the original Thanksgiving.
As the translation ends, Mary and Glenn Frazier wipe their eyes. “God sent us the most wonderful family,” Glenn Frazier says.
The priest then offers his own prayer of thanks and people cross themselves before digging into the steaming food.
Some steal naps after the feast — the visitors have been partying for several days. Later, they crowd the front lawn for a group photo. Well into the afternoon, Quang kicks the men out of her kitchen and they head to the basement, where Alex, his brothers and cousins sit around a big-screen, cheering a Nebraska upset of Colorado.
These Vietnamese pilgrims are right at home.
In a guest room behind them stands the grandfather’s Jesus statue from North Vietnam.
A crack runs down the middle now, but it remains a monument of everything a family can achieve by staying together.
Tyrone Jaeger is a student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Journalism and Mass Communications.