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A photo of me and my family.

A photo of me and my family.

Just My Sister and I

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From Vietnam to the Central Valley: Kevin Nguyen


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My Story

00:00 / 01:04

Kevin Nguyen was born in Huế, Vietnam and grew up there until he left at thirteen years old. Nguyen’s father saw no future for him in Vietnam and did not want him to serve in the military once he turned eighteen, so he sent Nguyen and his sister to escape in 1986. 

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 Kevin Nguyen with me, and just to do a quick introduction, can you talk a little bit about who you are and what you do? 

Kevin Nguyen [00:00:23] Okay, hello, my name is Kevin Nguyen. Originally, I'm from Portland, Oregon. I moved to Fresno like 1999 because I got a jobs. I'm currently working for Department of Transportation and my position is engineering. I have two kids. One of the oldest one, they're sixteen. The second one is thirteen. 

Alexa [00:00:45] Okay. Thank you so much. So just to go all the way back, where were you born and where did you grow up in Vietnam? 

Kevin Nguyen [00:00:54] Actually, I was born in Hue, central of Vietnam. 

Alexa [00:00:58] Is that where you grew up too? 

Kevin Nguyen [00:01:00] Yes. 

Alexa [00:01:01] And what do you remember about living there? Like, what kind of memories do you have? They can be positive or negative. 

Kevin Nguyen [00:01:09] Actually, you know what, honestly, I don't recall that much. 

Alexa [00:01:16] Mhm. 

Kevin Nguyen [00:01:16] But the thing is like, you know the reasons like, you know, I escaped because, you know, my dad he's thinking, you know, I mean, like, I have no future if I'm living in Vietnam. So that's why he just send me, you know, to go somewhere. 

Alexa [00:01:34] So how, how old were you when you left? 

Kevin Nguyen [00:01:38] By the time I was like, about like thirteen and a half. 

Alexa [00:01:41] And what year was this? 

Kevin Nguyen [00:01:45] Can you say that again? 

Alexa [00:01:46] What year did you leave? 

Kevin Nguyen [00:01:49] I left Vietnam 1986. 

Alexa [00:01:53] Okay. And what city did you leave from? 

Kevin Nguyen [00:02:00] Actually, I escaped from Hue to Hong Kong. 

Alexa [00:02:01] Okay, so you left because your dad saw no future for you there? 

Kevin Nguyen [00:02:09] Right. 

Alexa [00:02:10] Did he go with you? Did he escape with you? 

Kevin Nguyen [00:02:13] I escaped with my sister, she's like two years older than me. 

Alexa [00:02:17] Okay. And who did you leave behind in Vietnam? 

Kevin Nguyen [00:02:23] My parents, my sister, my brother. Actually, you know, we have, like, eight brother, I mean eight, eight, eight siblings. So basically, you know, me and my sister left, so we have like six, I don't know, six brother sister left. 

Alexa [00:02:41] Why did you just, why did you choose for the two of you to you and your sister just alone? 

Kevin Nguyen [00:02:50] Well, actually, I didn't choose. That is my parents. 

Alexa [00:02:53] Or why did your parents choose? 

Kevin Nguyen [00:02:56] You know what? I have no idea, because I am the oldest son. 

Alexa [00:02:58] Uh huh. 

Kevin Nguyen [00:03:00] So if I didn't go, so most likely, you know like when I turned eighteen years old, I supposed to go to join the military. 

Alexa [00:03:08] Mm hmm. 

Kevin Nguyen [00:03:09] And, uh, yeah. And then I don't know why my sister, you know, my parents let my sister go with me. I have no clue. 

Alexa [00:03:16] So did, did your parents ever come to the U.S. or did they stay in Vietnam? 

Kevin Nguyen [00:03:21] No, actually, they, they came here for visiting but, they don't want to stay over here. 

Alexa [00:03:27] Okay. And what do you remember about the journey when you escaped? 

Kevin Nguyen [00:03:33] Oh, actually my journey kind of like, ah, let put it this way I escape, right, take, it took me like more than thirty-two days in on the oceans. 

Alexa [00:03:45] Oh, wow. 

Kevin Nguyen [00:03:46] Yeah, boat, the boat we escaped is the boat like you consider, like, the one without cover. 

Alexa [00:03:54] Mm hmm. 

Kevin Nguyen [00:03:55] As we escaped with how many people, I mean, the thirty-five people on the boat. So, basically, we don't, we have no room. 

Alexa [00:04:04] Mm hmm. 

Kevin Nguyen [00:04:05] You know, we just sit still. But at that time, you know, I was like seasick so most of the time, I just pass out, you know, I didn't know anything about it. 

Alexa [00:04:13] Mm hmm. What was the most difficult part for you about leaving? 

Kevin Nguyen [00:04:21] Can you say that again? 

Alexa [00:04:22] What was the hardest part about leaving? 

Kevin Nguyen [00:04:24] Oh the leaving is because we don't have enough water. You know, ran out of fuel and somehow that night, you know, we have, some have the storms. So the engine's broken down. So basically, we didn't know, you know, direction where to go. So had to be floating on the oceans like, I believe like two or three days. And suddenly we just saw the big cruise that just stopped by and they gave us some food and fuels, you know, oil, whatever it is, and water, whatever it is. And they tell us, they point us which direction we have to go and that's it. 

Alexa [00:05:02] So how, how did you finally end up in Hong Kong? 

Kevin Nguyen [00:05:09] That's what I'm saying, because they point us, you know, tell us you have to go that direction. To be honest by the time, I was a baby, young, so I would pass out all the time. I didn't, you know, so I don't know exactly what's going on. 

Alexa [00:05:24] So you weren't rescued, but instead, like, your boat went to Hong Kong itself. 

Kevin Nguyen [00:05:31] Actually, they don't rescue us, but they just did provide us some food and water. 

Alexa [00:05:35] Okay. 

Kevin Nguyen [00:05:38] Yeah, but the thing before that, my cousins, I have two cousin and the oldest one have married, have kids like only three months old. They escaped one month, I mean, one week ahead of us. But they, they could not make it. So basically, you know, the boat is like sinking, and they all die. 

Alexa [00:06:02] How did you find out about this? 

Kevin Nguyen [00:06:05] When I came to Hong Kong and then I contact my parents. So that's why, you know, they told us about, you know, my cousin couldn't make it. 

Alexa [00:06:15] So what was it like in Hong Kong, and how long did you stay there? 

Kevin Nguyen [00:06:19] Oh, Hong Kong I stayed there three years. Yeah, I think it's more than three years. I stayed in the refugee camps. 

Alexa [00:06:30] What were those refugee camps like? 

Kevin Nguyen [00:06:34] Just like prison, I mean, they just provide us food every day like, you know, three meals a day. You know, we have some activity. And I think that much. Yeah. 

Alexa [00:06:47] Was it ... 

Kevin Nguyen [00:06:48] It was like. 

Alexa [00:06:49] Oh, sorry. Go ahead. 

Kevin Nguyen [00:06:50] Yeah, I feel like, you know, just like prisoner, you know. You have actually, we have no light because they put us on the buildings. No light though. So basically, you know, we don't see, you don't even see the sun all year round. 

Alexa [00:07:06] Would you say it was better or worse than your life back in Vietnam? 

Kevin Nguyen [00:07:12] Well, to be honest with you, I didn't expect things come out like this, you know? 

Alexa [00:07:17] Hmm. 

Kevin Nguyen [00:07:18] So I was shocks, you know? 

Alexa [00:07:21] Yes. 

Kevin Nguyen [00:07:21] And, uh, crying all day long, you know. Thinking, I want to go back because life here is not like the way, you know, I imagine, like, how it's going to look like, you know? 

Alexa [00:07:34] Mm hmm. 

Kevin Nguyen [00:07:36] Yeah, but the thing is that, you know, over a period of time you get used to it, and then you have to, you have to deal with it no matter what, you know, because this can be too late to go back anyway. 

Alexa [00:07:47] Mm hmm. 

Kevin Nguyen [00:07:48] Yeah. 

Alexa [00:07:49] So after Hong Kong, where did you go? 

Kevin Nguyen [00:07:53] And after Hong Kong and then I flew to a Philippines. I stayed there almost more than six months. The reason I stayed there, flew to Philippines because we have to study American culture. 

Alexa [00:08:07] Mm hmm. 

Kevin Nguyen [00:08:08] You know, learn some English, whatever it is. And after six month, I flew back to I mean, I flew to United States. The original, the first destination I went there is going to be Portland, Oregon. 

Alexa [00:08:27] And how old were you when you arrived in Portland? Kevin Nguyen [00:08:32] Oh, I believe I was sixteen. 

Alexa [00:08:35] Sixteen. Okay. 

Kevin Nguyen [00:08:35] Yeah. Sixteen. 

Alexa [00:08:37] And you were still with your sister at this time? 

Kevin Nguyen [00:08:41] Yes. 

Alexa [00:08:41] Okay. 

Kevin Nguyen [00:08:42] Actually, yeah, we came, we came together. 

Alexa [00:08:45] What was life like for you and your sister trying to adjust in the United States? 

Kevin Nguyen [00:08:50] Actually, it kind of take me for a while. I believe about six, seven months to adapt the American culture. And that's it. I mean, like after six, seven months you get used to it, you know. To me, I mean, I'm really easy to adapt American culture, you know, this kind of thing, because, you know, they thought I were young kids, you know? 

Alexa [00:09:11] Yeah. 

Kevin Nguyen [00:09:14] Hang around with American kid, you know, that kind of things. So, it very easy for us to adapt it. 

Alexa [00:09:20] What were some challenges during the six, seven months that you were trying to adapt? 

Kevin Nguyen [00:09:25] Yeah, the, the only thing the culture shocks is I still recall like when I get sick because back home, you know, when you get sick, you see a doctor right away, right? 

Alexa [00:09:37] Uh huh. 

Kevin Nguyen [00:09:38] Here, you have to make appointment sometime, you know, take about a couple of days. 

Alexa [00:09:42] Wow. Yeah. 

Kevin Nguyen [00:09:43] So, as I said, what I said, I said what, you get sick so that's why you need to see a doctor. But you, you have to wait a couple of days, so what do I do with that? I mean like, like kind of thing, you know, it's like that the culture. You know, I still remember that, you know. So, so slowly, you know, I mean you have to get used to it. 

Alexa [00:10:09] How about language barriers? Did you have, like, a lot of trouble in the beginning or did you already know a good amount? 

Kevin Nguyen [00:10:16] Of course we all, at the beginning you have to learn they call it ESL, English second language. You know, yeah, thing is like, but you know, most of a time I hang around with, you know like Vietnamese people because I don't know much about English. You know, but when I, when I go to school and then, you know, start hanging around with American kids, kind of like foreign people, you know, all kind of stuff. 

Alexa [00:10:43] Uh huh. 

Kevin Nguyen [00:10:44] And then we go from there. 

Alexa [00:10:47] So how did you end up in the Central Valley? 

Kevin Nguyen [00:10:52] Actually, I finished high school in Oregon, and then I went to Oregon State University. I studied four years over there. My major was civil engineering. So when I graduate, you know, Caltrans Department of Transportation, they hired me, and then I moved down here. So, they hire, I have been living here almost twenty-three years. 

Alexa [00:11:19] Mm hmm. And what has it been like being Vietnamese-American here? Do you feel that you have a strong sense of, like, community? Are there a lot of Vietnamese people you can relate to? 

Kevin Nguyen [00:11:32] Oh, to be honest with you, I don't head out, do too much, you know, so I don't know much Vietnamese people around here though. 

Alexa [00:11:40] And do you, do you still carry on any Vietnamese traditions with your family? 

Kevin Nguyen [00:11:45] Yes, I do. You know, the things is like we normally just celebrate Vietnamese New Year. 

Alexa [00:11:51] Mm hmm. 

Kevin Nguyen [00:11:52] What do you call. Yeah, or whatever the event, you know, I'm still participated, but not in Fresno because, you know, Fresno Vietnamese community over here is so small. 

Alexa [00:12:02] Yeah. Was it bigger in Portland? 

Kevin Nguyen [00:12:05] Yes. Bigger than Portland. I mean, actually, sorry Portland is bigger than over here. But every time we participate, we normally we go to either San Jose or Orange County. 

Alexa [00:12:17] Oh, yeah. That's about all the questions I have for you. Is there anything else about your story you want to share? 

Kevin Nguyen [00:12:26] Not much. Really appreciate American. You know, without American, I don't know how, how my life will be end up. So, yeah, so whatever, you know, I can pay back whatever I can. I will do that. 

Alexa [00:12:42] Awesome. Thank you so much for your time.

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