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Thanh (Tom) Nguyen

Thanh (Tom) Nguyen

From South Vietnam to Oklahoma

As Told By: Thanh (Tom) Nguyen

Thanh Nguyen was born on April 4th, 1963, in South Vietnam. He recalls his childhood and the events leading up to their escape from Vietnam in 1980. He vividly describes the night they fled on a small boat, leaving behind family members. They encountered a larger boat that initially seemed like help but turned out to be a pirate ship. Fortunately, they were eventually rescued by a U.S. ship and taken to Malaysia. Throughout the interview, Thanh reflects on his journey, the sacrifices made by his family, and the impact of their experiences on future generations.

Thanh shares the challenges of settling in Oklahoma after arriving in the United States, including language barriers and financial struggles. Thanh emphasizes the importance of education and hard work in building a better life for himself and his family. He expresses gratitude for the opportunities he has had in the U.S. compared to the hardships faced in Vietnam. He also discusses the changes he has observed in Oklahoma City's Vietnamese community and expresses pride in being Vietnamese-American.


  • My Name is Thanh (Tom) Nguyen
  • I am based in Oklahoma City, OK
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  • Departure Location: Cà Mau, Ca Mau, Vietnam
  • Departure Year: 1980
  • Camp 1: Pulau Bidong (Malaysia)
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  • Resettlement Location: Oklahoma City, OK, USA
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    My Story

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    Thanh Nguyen [00:00:01] My full name is Vietnamese, Thanh Nguyen. Birthday April 4th, 1963.  Interviewer [00:00:09] And where were you born?  

    Thanh Nguyen [00:00:11] Yeah. South Vietnam.  

    Interviewer [00:00:15] And what do you do today?  

    Thanh Nguyen [00:00:17] I'm here for the interview, I guess, about the boat people. I want to share  my story, I guess.  

    Interviewer [00:00:25] So can you share a little bit about what you do for a living today?  

    Thanh Nguyen [00:00:29] Right now, the biomedical at the OU health. So what I do is mostly take  care of the medical equipment. At the OU health 

    Interviewer [00:00:45] Wonderful. And then what do you remember about your childhood?  

    Thanh Nguyen [00:00:49] My childhood? It's a long story before '75. Don't know much. Just  teenage kid. So. When Vietnam I mean, the noth took over the south, I'm still young. I remember  my parent that took me down to Cà Mau that another city in Vietnam. Because the economy, I  guess. So. They. I thought in their mind they thinking about my futures, my brother, my sister or  whatever. And they have a connection with somebody. Some people, I don't know. I remeber that  day, I think is on the, I think it's on the 11th, May 11th, 1980. We have a small boat. That's what  my parents have. So that they, me and my brother, they. He took me and my brother, I think it's  about like midnight, or from midnight to two o'clock, two in the morning. Took me out to the sea.  And that night. So in the boat, they have my mom, my father, my younger brother, and my older  brothers. And a couple of girls. So I don't know what's going on, you know. Until we come. Until  we go out to. I think they like give and to go out to, let you out to the sea. So it took about  probably, maybe half an hour. To the big boat. We're not big. Say big. It's about like the boat is  about like four feet wide and about twelve feet long. So. And that night is windy, it's cold. And my  dad ask me to jump to the boat with my brother. And leave my younger brother back. And then  they left. And still I don't. I don't. I don't remember what's going on like that thing. I just say bye.  That's it. So when we left on that day. At the night and with the boat going, like the whole night  constantly, I mean, the oceans. Until early morning that we saw another boat. Okay. Gosh, they. I  mean far away. And we thought that they have boat. So I know that we're going to be escape  from Vietnam. So. They all the people were up and say, hey, we have help , you know, it's in  Vietnamese, you know. tàu cứu.  

    Thanh Nguyen [00:04:42] So, but they follow us all the way and all a half a days and until from that  night, until the morning that they still follow us. And about noon they get close. So all the woman,  all the kid, you know, happy to see the big boat come over. So when they come over. You see the  people about like I think about like 12, more than 12 people on front of the boat and dressing like.  You know, a normal thing. But not from like what we want. So we trying to. Hitting the back of the  boat and they jump over with a knife. But somehow was the people that organized the boat that  

    we escaped from Vietnam, they have the weapon. They have a gun. Like M-16, AK 45 thing and  they fight back. So the fight back, they shooting the guy so somehow the boat is almost turn  around. And then we thought that, okay, you know, we get away from the pirate things. So we feel  good. So they turn around and they come back. So they come back again trying to hit middle of  the boat. But when they come to that point. So all the guy that jumping up to their boat trying to,  you know, to get that boat. And. So we've been fighting and suddenly we have see the big boat,  from I think is from American.  

    Interviewer [00:06:59] This is another boat that you saw.  

    Thanh Nguyen [00:07:01] Now big boat come over and they saw that. They saw that. And they  have us. And that time anybody jumping up into the big boat and a tie our boat. On the, behind  their boat. It's about like maybe about 20, 25 minute along and the boat starting sink. 

    Interviewer [00:07:29] Your boat?  

    Thanh Nguyen [00:07:29] But the people were already to the big boats already. So then they give  us some food, some milk. First time drink my milk.  

    Interviewer [00:07:44] What was like? What was that like for you?  

    Thanh Nguyen [00:07:46] Well its still. I mean, it's good because you hungry, you thirsty thing, you  know? But. And then they took us to Malaysia. All the way down. I think on the island it's name  Pulau Bidong. And I come in that Pulau Bidong on the May 13th, 1980.  

    Interviewer [00:08:12] So this is the U.S. ship that pulled you there?  

    Thanh Nguyen [00:08:15] Yes.  

    Interviewer [00:08:16] And how did they deter the pirate ship?  

    Thanh Nguyen [00:08:21] Well, they the pirate ships runaway. So, they didn't say nothing,  whatever, you know. The people happy. Survive. You know, we live. So. And then we went to the,  the island, and I stayed there. And. Me and my brother, all the people in the boat, when we come  up there in Malaysia and start to be searching us, make sure that we didn't. I didn't bring any gold  or money or whatever it is. And. And I stay there for, until the January 13, 1981. The end of '80.  1981 to come to Oklahoma. Because my older brother was here. And also have from the I think is  Catholic Church. That's one. So for me and my brothers here.  

    Interviewer [00:09:24] What was it like for you to see your brother again here in Oklahoma?  

    Thanh Nguyen [00:09:29] Oh it's great. It's great. I remember, things my father's always saying.  And now I know that that he changed my life. Though he passed away now, but one thing is it  make me to become what I am right now. It's better than. I mean, I don't know what to do right  now if I'm still in Vietnam, so. So now I have my career. I have my job. I have my kid. I have. Most  of the, you know, just the like normal feeling people. I do whatever it is that I, I can do.  

    Interviewer [00:10:16] How many siblings, do you have? Brothers and sisters.  

    Thanh Nguyen [00:10:20] I total have 12. Yeah. One. Well, most of them right now, is live here in  Oklahoma City. Only one that, I'm trying to we I to get sponsor for her. But she end up getting  marry and stay in Australia.  

    Interviewer [00:10:41] And where are you in the line for the 12?  

    Thanh Nguyen [00:10:45] I'm the fifth.  

    Interviewer [00:10:46] Fifth?  

    Thanh Nguyen [00:10:47] Yeah, I'm the fifth. So 

    Interviewer [00:10:48] Have you been back to Vietnam?  

    Thanh Nguyen [00:10:51] I've been back in, several time. I did. When I, but when I marry and when  I get three, my little kid. And then I took them to Vietnam, to have learn the cultures and then went  back there. I been there several time.  

    Interviewer [00:11:14] Can you share what your first experience back was like?  

    Thanh Nguyen [00:11:18] In Vietnam? It's sad because. Last time my father is ill. Well, in 1980,  when we when we here in Oklahoma and we tried to connect. To talking to my parents. That's,  that time is the. The communication between, I think, the United States and Vietnam, it's hard to,  you know, to get and talk on the phone or whatever. You have to connect to a different country, 

    you connect like maybe Canada or maybe somewhere have different second country. So you can  talk to the your family at home. So, and it cost a lot of money. It costs a fortune for money on that  time. But we. When we pick up the phone, we never talk much only we use to cry, because we  missing you know each others like too many years. You know. And so then when we first moved  back there with my kid and we saw my father, all my family, that time. We so, so happy, you know,  it's a family reunion things. But one thing, it because my father has being sick and I have no  money. I get no medication, you know, nothings. And that's why with my kids, why. He get worse  and we went back there to take care of him and and short term. Because I'm work here. You  know so I cannot be stay that long. I think it was time that we went back there when my father  was still alive. We went back there, we stay maybe about 3 or 4 week. We come back to United  States. But one thing is, is when we come back in Oklahoma. Oh, we're so happy to enjoy it back,  you know, back home. I mean, probably because I, I left the Vietnam too long and that's why. It's  just totally different, but.  

    Interviewer [00:13:35] Did your family share with you what life was like for them back in country  when the war ended?  

    Thanh Nguyen [00:13:45] No, we don't talk about much that thing because we don't much about  politics on it. Because my father used to be a police officer in the south side, so. So if you talk  about that at that time, they're going to give you a hard time because the communists, they may  be trying to I mean, get you this, do that or. I mean, like, it's hard for the people to stay back if we  talk about that. Okay. So that's why we don't talk much about that or the war is going on, you  know, it's just. To be, you know, family union, brothers, sister see each other. You know.  

    Interviewer [00:14:35] Who is all back in Vietnam right now? 

    Thanh Nguyen [00:14:37] Right now, we have nobody back in Vietnam right now. So anybody here  in Oklahoma City and one of them say, oh, it's in Australia, that's Melbourne. Yeah.  

    Interviewer [00:14:53] And by doing the interview today what is your hope. For those who do hear  the, the podcast or the story that we put on the website.  

    Thanh Nguyen [00:15:05] Yeah, it's. To me it doesn't matter. You can publish. It's good for. I get  my kids so they can know that their grandpa or the parent that went through and how they come  to, you know, United State. And how did the life be changing and you know, from a little kid to  now. So  

    Interviewer [00:15:32] Do they ask questions?  

    Thanh Nguyen [00:15:33] No, I have no question to ask. But I hope that the guy can share this  story, you know, with the boat people.  

    Interviewer [00:15:48] Do your kids. Do you have kids, do you have grandkids?  

    Thanh Nguyen [00:15:52] Yes. Right now I have. My older one have four, my middle one have two.  And my little one have one. So I have a seven grandkid right now.  

    Interviewer [00:16:04] And do the children or the grandchildren ask questions about your story or  their grandparents or anything like that? Great grandparents?  

    Thanh Nguyen [00:16:13] Well, they don't, but I look at the only grandson. But he went to the  military school, and he read all the books about the Vietnam War thing, and that surprised me,  you know and I said, as you read them that you understand, you know, all the thing. And they  said, yes and I. But they didn't ask me much. But if they do ask me about the war thing. I don't  have much to tell guys too, too young for that.  

    Interviewer [00:16:52] So what was, what were your first few months like in in America?  

    Thanh Nguyen [00:16:58] It's tough. It's tough because I don't speak English. When I remember  and when they start put me into school and I went to northwest class in high school. And that 

    time I think for 10th grade. So from the school to my house. Where we rent the house was about  maybe a few block from my school. And so even when with the day when it's when I had school  is I don't. I go in the front door, but I get lost. I don't get out. And. Around me anybody speak  English, and I don't. And it's very hard, very difficult, you know, to for that time. Also, we have no  car. And I think we have the government help. They give us, like, $167 a month for six month, and  we use the money to rent a house. And then we. Then I have a job. After that, I have a job. I do  the busboy at the steak house. So next to school. And, that's how much I still remember. We walk  the walk back and forward to school and after school, and we work until midnight. And we do that  for until I graduate from high school. So, it is tough with the weather from the 80 is not just like  now. It's so cold, windy. So chill. Snows too high. And it's not too late now. Now, is that a lot  better.  

    Interviewer [00:19:16] Do you feel like there's been a lot of change in progress with the  community itself here in Oklahoma?  

    Thanh Nguyen [00:19:24] Yes. Yes.  

    Interviewer [00:19:26] How so?  

    Thanh Nguyen [00:19:27] It's a lot of change now. We have. Actually downtime, we don't have  much Vietnamese community, we have much restaurant. If you go out there and you buy, you  want to get some, like, Vietnamese food, you can't get them. But now you have everything  everywhere. So, I mean, if you want, it's just. Go and jump to the car and go to the restaurants.  Right there you have Vietnamese. You have even grocery store and everything. It's nice.  

    Interviewer [00:19:57] So back when you were in high school and there weren't a lot of people  that spoke Vietnamese or, you know, how did you. How did you learn the language? Did you ever  feel like you wanted to quit high school and go back to Vietnam?  

    Thanh Nguyen [00:20:10] No, I, when I. The day that I left. The day my parents put me to the boat.  And I know that that you know, I don't know when I come back to Vietnam. And that's why I know  that I had to be my parent a change and want me to change in my life to become better life. And  that's why I never think to go back in Vietnam. And that's why I try to learn the best I can to help  myself and do better my life. So I go to school. And also on the weekend, I went to my brother  that took me to the nun. That's Catholic church. She's old, I think she passed away now. She is  the one is that teach me how to read, write, and also how to speak English. Every weekend on  Saturday and Sunday. So is. Well, I thanks for that nun. I don't remember, what her name is, but.  That's. That's how I speak English.  

    Interviewer [00:21:33] Do you have a picture of her?  

    Thanh Nguyen [00:21:36] Be. I. See that, that's a good thing, but I don't have it. I wish I can have a  picture that I can show you. I don't.  

    Interviewer [00:21:44] Is there anything else that you would like to share with us that we haven't  covered?  

    Thanh Nguyen [00:21:49] It's a lot thing that I still didn't say much. But. Right now, I don't  remember, but if I do, probably I will let you know, to share with you. And. Because it is my kids.  You told me this is a short time, and I didn't prepare for it. So to tell you what I remember right  now. So.  

    Interviewer [00:22:19] Wonderful. Well, we really appreciate you taking the time to meet with us  and share a little bit about your story. And I would love to invite you to maybe write a blog for us,  or somewhere down the line as, if you'd like to share more of what surfaces over the over the next  few months.  

    Thanh Nguyen [00:22:37] Yeah. Yeah. So just what I'm saying is, it takes more than. It's take more  than 40 years to discuss at least a few. In less than hour, so that's that's not going to be enough. 

    But, yeah, we have more time and I, oh and I, I will, you know, to discuss more to tell you more  about my story.  

    Interviewer [00:23:03] So one last question. What does it feel? What does it mean to you to be  Vietnamese-American today?  

    Thanh Nguyen [00:23:09] Great. I mean, I can't change anything, but that's what I am. What I am,  and I. I love to be, you know, to be a Vietnam people. I mean, but. To become, Vietnamese  American so that, I mean, that's a, that's a good thing because I. I'm. You know, it changed my  lives. And like, my futures are different. My next generation's better. My, I get my family. The whole  family, it's a lot better than a lot and then a lot of people with that still stay in Vietnam.  

    Interviewer [00:23:56] So let me ask you, what do you love most about Oklahoma City?  

    Thanh Nguyen [00:24:00] Oklahoma City is the best place for, how to, for education to have your  kid. It not you like. I went to see travel well, I mean, amost like 50 state to do inspector all the  electronic stuff. And, I think is better economy here, and it's a larger the Asian that can be  successful on the school. What can they. That's all they do. Just have no place to, I guess, to be  like. It's a big city. They have like club, whatever, they enjoy their life, things. Here in Oklahoma  what you do it's just school and home and work. School and home work. It's much better. I mean,  I think if I have a lot of friends that live on different state and I say, hey, come back in Oklahoma  because you can teach a kid, you can. How they're growing its a better life. Here than anywhere  else. That's why I think so.  

    Interviewer [00:25:17] Wonderful. And then. If you had to do it all over again, was there anything  that you would do differently in terms of coming to America and through the boat journey?  

    Thanh Nguyen [00:25:29] Well, do better I should be concentrating to my school because I don't  have enough English before to be carry on, to be what my goal is. So now if I have another  chance to go back. What I'm saying, I'd be ready for my education to become better what I am  right now. 

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