Me at the refugee camp in Thailand.
Born in Gia Kiệm
From Vietnam to the Central Valley: Steve Tran
Mr. Tran was born in Gia Kiệm, Vietnam where he lived until he was around three or four years old. Growing up, his family was very wealthy, but after the war when the Communists took over, they lost all of their power, properties, and money. So, seeking a fresh start and new opportunities, Tran’s father escaped to a refugee camp in Thailand. Following him was Tran’s older brother and older sister who escaped a few years later. Then, another few years later, Tran, his mother, and two of sisters finally made the journey.
This story was collected by Alexa Tran in 2022 as a part of her Girl Scout Gold Award Project.
Alexa [00:00:00] Hi, everyone. My name is Alexa, and I'm a high school student from the Central Valley of California. I'm currently pursuing my Girl Scout Gold Award, the highest honor a Girl Scout can earn, and for this project, I'm collecting and sharing the stories of Vietnamese boat people from all over the Central Valley. So today, I have Mr. Tran with me, and just to do a quick introduction, can you talk a little bit about who you are and what you do?
Steve Tran [00:00:25] I'm Mr. Tran. I'm 45 years old, and I work for the State of California. And I work for the State of California for fifteen years now as a correction officer, and I'm considered one of the boat people.
Alexa [00:00:44] Awesome.
Steve Tran [00:00:44] And got in here when I was pretty much around four or five. It's been a while.
Alexa [00:00:50] Awesome. Thank you. So where were you born and where did you grow up in Vietnam?
Steve Tran [00:00:58] As far as I can remember, I was born in Vietnam in the city called Gia Kiệm. I was, stay in Vietnam probably only like three or four years before. I still have memories of the boat ship of how we got to the U.S., and I think I was around three or four years old when we made that trip at nighttime. And my, first my dad came over here on the first trip that these boat trip is kind of like a secret connection trip that if you have connection, and they meet you up like in the middle of the night and basically you just trying to get away from the security, the Border Patrol out on the shore. So, the boat maybe the boat is probably designed to, like, house a whole, like, fifty people. But once you on the boat, you gonna have like two or three hundred people on that boat. Because after the Vietnam War, basically the Communist Party took over everything. If you fought against the Communist Party, they take over your house, take over your bank account, you lose everything. So from what my dad told me is that my family was like considered millionaire. We have like power, hotel, bank account. Even my dad say when he go to like school, my grandfather would have like the military escort my dad to school. So we considered wealthy and powerful back then. But, most my family member, uncle and grandfather and stuff like that was against the Communist Party, so they fought against them. So after we lost the war, basically they lost everything. They lost the hotel, the money, and bank accounts. So basically we were, basically dirt poor again. But we always fought in the Vietnam War, even though after we lost, they have to serve prison time. So prison in, from this is a story from what my dad told. Prison in Vietnam a communist country is completely different from the prison in the U.S. Because in the U.S. you have so many rights and you can sue and all that stuff. In Vietnam and your family don't bring you food, you starve in there. That's how it works. So after Vietnam War, we start out with nothing. So, my dad saw like we lost everything. We had to start our brand new again. So, what's the best country to look forward to, which is the U.S. So my dad made the first trip and luck, basically trip is basically for you go on and hop on a boat, basically sail straight out to the ocean. Hopefully, if one tanker ship will come and pick you up. If they don't pick you up and take you to refugee camp, basically you without water, diesel, whatever you just float in the middle of the ocean and die out there. So, my dad got lucky and got pick up by another foreign tanker ship or another merchant ship, and they basically took him to a refugee camp in Thailand. From Thailand, that's when you do all the paperwork and during back in those days, the U.S. was accepting refugee from the Vietnam War. So my dad stayed there for a couple of months and then they flew him to a United States. So the second trip was my older brother and sister. They did the same way and they made it. And the third trip was me, my mom and my other two older sister. I still, we have remember exactly that night. So, we had to go out to the ocean and hide away from the Border Patrol because if they catch you, you going to serve prison or jail time 'cause if, they're not, they don't allow you to leave the country. So, we have go out to the beach and then the ship was out there. So I was so little that one of the adult had to put me on his shoulder because the water was so high. And then before you can go in the boat, you got to, because money is useless, you got to give them gold and gold plates. Because gold is universal you can use it anywhere else. So, you have to give them gold plates and how many people to give them how many plates. So, once you give them gold plates you're on a ship. So, what my mom told me is that after a couple of days of sailing straight out to the ocean, we were ran out food, water, and diesel. Basically, we just floating out there, hope, praying for, hoping for a miracle. So, regardless of what religion you are you can pray to Jesus, you can pray to Buddha, you can pray to Allah. So, hopefully somehow answer your prayer. So, for us, we got lucky that American tanker ship came by and picked us up. So they pick us up and my mom told me that the first movie that they put on for us to see was Jaws, the shark, shark movie. That was not what they want to see, but that's what they show. So same thing, we they sent us to Thailand refugee camp over there and after a couple of month, my dad, did paperwork and then we flew to the U.S. We flew to Texas because most of the boat people back then, we either moved to Texas, Louisiana, Florida, or California all of the coastal areas. So I grew up in Texas. I didn't know English, so basically we started everything brand new. And we had government assistance like food stamp and certain programs like that. But when I was growing up, food stamp my family was like, for me, it's like kind of like embarrassment. Because it kind of describe your financial status like low income. While other people are spending cash, your mother is spending food stamp. I told myself that when I grow up, we will never be on food stamps, and we got to succeed in this country. As a Vietnamese family, growing up, your parents, there's only three choice that your parents want you to become. Either a doctor, a lawyer or a pharmacist. But I like the outdoor, so I didn't listen to my parents. I want to be a police officer, a fireman, or in the military. So, in high school, I'm one of those students that's I could say gifted in a way. I could slack off all week, all week and then the last days I just studied the study guide or whatever, and I could get a A or B with no problem. I graduated high school as Cum Laude with honor distinction, and I was ranked like thirteenth out of my whole class. So, I could basically go any college, basically. But I told myself, 'cause growing up, I always wanted to be a U.S. Marine, I think, and my mom wanted to be a pharmacist. So I was like, either listen to my mom or follow my dream. With no regrets, so I joined the U.S. Marines. So I served in the U.S. Marines for four years. You know, four years I managed to bee promoted throughout my rank. So I picked up the rank of sergeant in two years. Most people would take them four or five years, but I pick it up in two years. So I stayed a Marine for four years and my superior, my lieutenant was like, "Hey, why don't you just make this a career?" But I told myself, just four years and that's it, no matter what happens. So after Marine, I moved back to Texas for a couple of months. Then I was like, "Do I really want to go back in this kind of lifestyle anymore? Or do I want to try something different?" So I moved to California while my older sister is already over here. So I was staying in Texas til 2001 and then I move my way to California, Sacramento, Elk Grove area. And once I was in Elk Grove area, I went into customer service for children insurance, and then I spent another five years in retail, so for high end furniture. And after the stock, after the recession, the economy was going down so I applied for the State of California. So I worked for the State of California, Department of Corrections for the prison system for the last fifteen years. And I've been in Fresno ever since.
Alexa [00:09:56] So.
Steve Tran [00:09:58] I have, I am married, and I have two daughters. And like my mom always wanted me to be a doctor or pharmacist. But since I didn't, I did marry my wife who is a doctor. So that should even it out. But if you have any question feel free to ask me anything.
Alexa [00:10:18] Yeah. So you covered a lot of the stuff I was going to ask, but I'm going to go back a little bit. What do you remember about living in Vietnam? I know you were very young when you came to the United States, but do you remember anything or did your parents tell you anything about what life was like?
Steve Tran [00:10:39] Mom worked in the hospital like a LVN nurse, and I was raised by my grandmother's sister. And she raised me like her own and that's because in Vietnamese culture, like when you are a boy in Vietnam basically they take care of you better than a female. Somehow that's just the Asian culture. They like the male better. And I can remember that they send me to school but I remember I always skip school and go to the farm to raise the chicken and the cow with one of my buddy. And I remember in Vietnam, basically you might have like two pairs of clothes for the whole week. That's what you wear because we were so poor. And as a child, I just remember going to school, skipping school, and just hanging out with my grandmother's sister. But back then, we were poor, so we didn't have much to eat.
Alexa [00:11:54] So what year did you leave? And from what city do you leave?
Steve Tran [00:12:00] I can't remember the exact city, but I can still have a picture of the ocean and a beach. And I left like in 1981 or '82, somewhere around there.
Alexa [00:12:13] Okay. And what was the motivation for leaving? What were you hoping to get out of leaving?
Steve Tran [00:12:21] Me and my family, I think we trying to have a new life accomplish because we heard from what we understood that the U.S. was a land of opportunity. And no matter what your financial status or income status or whatever, you can achieve anything. And as long as you put in the work and the effort, basically you can do anything. That's why we left. The land of opportunity. But people from other countries want to go to the U.S. as well.
Alexa [00:12:59] Did, was, did you have like the goal as in "I want to go to America" or were you just trying to leave Vietnam? Like, did you have a America in mind specifically?
Steve Tran [00:13:13] Yes. I think my family the main goal was go to the U.S. If you got to go to the best country in the world, that was it. And I don't think, I don't think there was a second choice for us.
Alexa [00:13:28] Mm hmm. And you mentioned that there were multiple trips. Who did you, like, leave with? And did you leave anybody behind?
Steve Tran [00:13:39] The first trip was my dad. He went alone. The second trip was my old, one of my oldest sister and my older brother. And then the third trip was me, my mom, and my other two older sister. So all three trips, we all made it.
Alexa [00:14:02] Was there a lot of time between those trips? Like how spaced off where they?
Steve Tran [00:14:08] Ask far as I can recall it was probably like three or four years apart from each trip.
Alexa [00:14:14] Oh, wow.
Steve Tran [00:14:16] Yeah. And my aunt, she went on her own separate trip, and she's the only one that I can recall that didn't make it.
Alexa [00:14:25] Oh, I'm sorry about that. Did she leave after you or before you?
Steve Tran [00:14:32] She left after us.
Alexa [00:14:35] And what was it like being separated from your family?
Steve Tran [00:14:44] It suck because Asian culture, the family's always tight, and all close. And we would do anything for each other. It's just the Asian cultures is completely, is kind of different from American culture.
Alexa [00:15:04] Oh, yeah, for sure.
Steve Tran [00:15:05] Yeah, because the Vietnamese I can only say the Vietnamese family, like my brother and sister, I would do anything for them. And money is not something I can give it to them, and I don't expect it back. That's how tight the Vietnamese family is.
Alexa [00:15:26] And can you talk a little bit about what the journey was like if you remember, like on the boat?
Steve Tran [00:15:33] I can recall the boat, we were out there for like a week, and I was told from my mom that we were out of diesel. We were basically almost out of food and water. The water they have to like filter and boil it and drain it and basically, our fresh water is gone so they use the ocean water and filter it slowly. And basically, we were just floating out there and basically just waiting to die. That's how it is.
Alexa [00:16:12] So how did you feel when you were finally rescued? Was there like...
Steve Tran [00:16:18] It was a big relief for everybody because I still remember when the tanker ship came, they were throwing food off of their ship to us and some of the food landed in the ocean water, and people were jumping off the ship just to grab food because everybody was hungry. It was a desperate time, but we, it was a great joy that we got.
Alexa [00:16:48] Mm hmm. And so you mentioned that you stopped at a camp in Thailand. Is that the only stop you made before making it to the U.S.?
Steve Tran [00:16:57] Yes, because as I can recall, that that's the main camp is when you left Vietnam most of the refugee that's the foreign tanker, foreign merchant ship pick you up, that's kind of like the destination for the Vietnamese refugees.
Alexa [00:17:14] And what was it like at the camp? Can you describe it a little bit?
Steve Tran [00:17:19] The camp, basically you got to meet a lot of stranger, but then everybody speak the same language so it's kind of like, you know, what they call it Thailand it's kind of like a little Vietnamese camp site. And basically everybody's kind of had the same attitude, like, I can't believe we made it, and we about to have a new opportunity in the U.S. pretty soon. And at the camp, basically, they provide you with food, clothing, shelter basically. Basically, they provide us more than what we actually have back in our own country, in Vietnam.
Alexa [00:18:00] And so after that camp, you came to Texas, right?
Steve Tran [00:18:05] Yes.
Alexa [00:18:06] And do you remember what year that was?
Steve Tran [00:18:11] I went to Texas I think around like 1982.
Alexa [00:18:14] Okay. And what was life like for you and your family adjusting in this new country as an immigrant?
Steve Tran [00:18:22] Oh, it was, back then people were being more, I would say, more racist to you. 'Cause they see you as a foreign person coming over to their country is like coming into their house. And I would say most of people treat you pretty good, but only if you, only if they kind of talk to you and get to know you, then they treat you a little bit better. But growing up like in Texas, we were on food assistance, food stamp, and government assistance, and I can remember the five of us living in one room, two mattress. And growing up, because we didn't have money, so the cheapest meat product is chicken. So, basically we would eat chicken like five or six times a week, and we would also grow our own vegetables. And basically, I can remember that I wear the same pairs of shoes for the whole year and maybe two outfit going to school. While you see all the kids wearing different outfit, whatever. We were, we just had to make things work. And I kinda understand that growing up. That's what encouraged me to do better later.
Alexa [00:20:01] And during these difficult times, where did you find strength?
Steve Tran [00:20:09] I found strength because when you see other kids have a new clothes, their parents take them out to like McDonald's, Burger King or whatever and they go to this place and that place and they have a new car. Okay. That discouragement also give you strength to do better because they give you a goal and a drive to succeed in life. Because in the back of my mind, I always tell myself, one day I'm going to be like them. Like one day, I'm going to be better than them. That is giving me the drive to do better in life.
Alexa [00:20:52] And so you ended up in Fresno because of your work, correct?
Steve Tran [00:20:58] Yes.
Alexa [00:21:00] What has it been like as a Vietnamese-American here? Do you find that you have a good Vietnamese community to connect with?
Steve Tran [00:21:11] First of all, I think there was, there's a bigger Vietnamese community like up in Sacramento. In Fresno, when I came here to Fresno like in '07, I don't think there was much Vietnamese around here. Only maybe a couple of restaurant here and there. But Fresno is getting bigger, and I think the Vietnamese community is growing in Fresno. And I think most, Fresno is still good because the housing market is still good for people to come here and raise a family instead of in the bigger city.
Alexa [00:21:53] Oh yeah, for sure. So that's all the questions I have for you. Is there anything else you want to say? Like any messages that you want to share with the people who will listen to this?
Steve Tran [00:22:10] Yes. In life, if you want to have a better life, you got to work hard for it. And that's, the U.S. is the land of opportunity. As long as you put in the effort and the work, you can achieve anything. I was saying, you know, I didn't become a lawyer, pharmacist or a doctor. But now with the career choice that I'm in right now, I make way more money than a doctor, right now, than a pharmacist working for the state. Even though me and my wife, our income is pretty high, and basically we we can buy anything for our children, but I always put a, let my daughter know that money doesn't grow on trees, that you have to work hard for it. And even though I can buy my daughter basically anything that she wants, but then I'll, once I buy something for her, I always tell her that, hey, if you want certain things, you got to work hard for it. And that's in life, nobody's going to give it to you for free or just because. And education is very important. Between my job, which is very dangerous compared to what my wife do, I told my daughter, don't be like your dad. Be more like your mom work wise in the field. And don't, also don't play like you're a victim. Always try to succeed in life. And someday life might kick you or put you down. But remember tomorrow is always a new day and a new beginning and keep on marching.
Alexa [00:24:21] All right. Thank you so much for sharing.