by Matthew Masters.
Five foot two, a seemingly humble man speaking almost perfect English and always talking the day away with anyone any time, a very social and fun loving man. But who is this man?
Present day. A seemingly average American, Thinh Nguyen spends his Sunday afternoon working on a car, just fixing some bodywork for a customer. When Monday comes around, it’s off to work as the night crew manager for Stater Brothers; he loves his jobs, does them day in and day out, never frets. His only daughter is all grown up and off to college this past year, which was hard for him but he knew it was the right choice for her. It is just him and his wife living at home now enjoying each others company and what free time he does have, he spends with her. This seemingly average American is like a duck on a pond, for on the surface he is calm and reserved but under the water his little feet are moving a mile a minute.
Vietnam l975. Let me take you back thirty eight years. Thinh Nguyen was a simple Vietnamese boy who was just enjoying life, learning his culture and having fun with his friends, as all fifteen year olds should be doing. Life was great in Vietnam, there were no rules, just enjoy life and have fun, a very different world compared to the one he was thrown into. Thinh’s story starts in a harsh time of war and hate but through this comes a changed man.
His story starts in 1975 when Vietnam was full of corruption and war that had ravished the country, with communism being the dominant driving force. This era of the Vietcong will be something that Thinh never forgets; that he will forever hold them responsible for the pains and losses he suffered as a child. At age 15 Thinh had no choice when he was forced with his family to relocate to America, leaving his father to follow shortly behind them. This trip to America was only supposed to last three months but the Vietcong took full control over Vietnam and Thinh and his family were unable to return home.
This brought so many emotions. “All I wanted to do was to go home, but no they took it, they took it all from us and now we have no home, no friends; all we had was each other,” Thinh says. His friends, his home, his culture, all lost because of war. Not just the friends he left behind but all the other people unable to leave, it strained his heart so. The thought of his neighbors and friends being put in camps or killed was just too much to bare for his little heart. Over time the pain lessened but a scar like this will never truly heal.
I remember being a young man at age fifteen and having the world at my finger tips, no war ravished country or having to leave my father and the friends I grew up with. This must have been scary for Thinh. His story is nothing like the problems we face in America. Thinh’s story is one of true sacrifice and it has and will forever change him and his life.
Seeing that he was only fifteen, he did not truly understand why this was all happening but he knew he could not change or stop it, so he simply had to handle the situation as best he could. All he knew was that if he stayed in Vietnam he would have a curfew and violating it would be punishable by death; if he stole he also would be punished by death. Their entire world was changing around them and for Thinh it was a memory that would haunt him forever. Along his journey he faced many struggles, he came face to face with adversity. The first of which was that there were ten family members, so it was hard to keep everyone together on a relocation trip to America.
During the first part of their trip to America the family was separated unwillingly. A few boarded a plane and were taken to the Philippines, while Thinh and the rest of his family were taken to Wake Island, which is located in Guam. The day Thinh got to Wake Island, he walked out onto the beach. He recalled, “Staring out into the water I saw a tank sticking half way out of the water. It was shocking and humbling to know the past of this place.”
While they stayed on the island for a few months, three to be exact, they were given a condo for him and his family. He said the one thing that made the pain bearable was how beautiful the island was. Soon the three months were over and Thinh and his family boarded another plane and were taken to California, where he was stationed with his family at Camp Pendleton.
The other part of the family was relocated to Louisiana, where they have remained to this day. He sees them from time to time. How does a child handle having his entire life moved and then moved again. He never really felt able to settle down. With his family separated, he was never able to learn about the culture he had been born into.
While he lived at Camp Pendleton, he said his experience was pleasant although still he did not speak any English. “The people around me were so giving and caring it was a nice change of pace, warming to have people who cared around. There was food available day and night it never closed but the majority of our time was spent waiting for a sponsor.” A sponsor is someone or some place such as a church that takes you in and cares for you, giving you and your family food, shelter, and anything else that you might need. His uncle was able to get them a sponsor through a church, which allowed them to live with the church in Riverside for four to five months.
The only thing that Thinh had to his advantage was that he had been studying French; this later allowed him to translate French into English. And his English would be completely self-taught. After a while at the church he and his family were able to purchase a house, which was right off Vineyard and la Grande in Rancho Cucamonga, California. That house was located just across the street from where Thinh’s brother worked, a local farmers market. That farmers market is now currently a Stater Brothers grocery store.
So being that Thinh was still fifteen he had to find a high school to gain his education. He actually went to the same high school that I did. I thought that gave us some common ground but our stories are so different there is truly no comparison or even contrast. He had a horrible first year at Alta Loma High. How great could that the first year be, when he did not understand any English and found himself lost in every class. Through everything , everyone was really nice and understanding, Thinh remembers. Around his third year of high school, he finally started to comprehend English. He had mainly gained his understanding through interactions with class mates and teachers, talking and trying to talk as much as possible so he could grasp the language. He believed, because it was a part of his life now, there truly was no other choice.
We can only imagine his first day walking around hearing what sounds like white noise, not able to decipher what is being said or what it relates to. Thinh must have felt like an alien on a strange world where everyone is so nice but it is impossible to communicate because you do not speak their language. That in itself is simply over whelming. To feel like you do not belong and that you will never feel at home is just heart breaking.
As though he did not have enough on his plate, Thinh while in high school, also worked part time at the high school helping teachers out with whatever they needed– cleaning etc. Thinh did this so he could pay for karate lessons. Karate was his passion and nothing, not even language, could stop him from learning it. After years of prior training combined with his current training, he was a leather weapon and while taking karate, he was offered a job to help catch shoplifters at Stater Brothers, which was the local grocery store at the time.
After high school, he went off to college. With four years of college under his belt, he was able to get a job making speakers while still continuing his karate classes. At the time he was working 10-hour days, saving up as much as he could. While Thinh was in college he learned to do body paint and body work on cars. Soon after he had started karate, he got into semi professional bodybuilding, at the age of 21. Gaining the perfect physique, he was in peak physical condition and someone you did not want to be enemies with. After working as the security guard at Staters and catching shoplifters, he was offered a job working for Stater Brothers. He was working 40 hours a week and on the side he would paint cars in the free time he had.
It was just a few years after he had gained his ideal physique when he got into a horrific motorcycle accident and destroyed his shoulder. This caused him months in the hospital along with a pain and disadvantage that would last a lifetime; but not enough to hold him back from gaining the life he sought after.
After months and months of recovery, he had become severely depressed which was a recurrence from his initial transition from Vietnam to America. But he fought hard just to see the good in the world and tried his hardest to keep his head up and optimistic. He did suffer and he did break down but he built him self-back up into a fortress and built his ideal life upon it. This was a traumatic event for him because he lost his two passions in life, karate and bodybuilding. There is not a day that goes by that he does not wish he could go back and change his past in more than one aspect, but he has come to terms with his life and knows that his life is a gift.
Saving dollar after dollar over the years, at the age of twenty four he was able to buy his first house, which was located in Ontario CA, where he lived with his girl friend for seven and a half years. Thinh was able to sell that house and bought the house he currently owns. After all the pains and struggles of losing his father, his heritage, his culture he had made it in the land of opportunity.
So what does moving to another world do to someone’s culture? Well in all honesty it completely alters your reality, as it did for Thinh. The biggest struggle for him was changing his entire culture; having to change his entire way of living and not understanding why.
“I was in shock, my life was taken, my culture, my father, my friends. I did not understand and it was the hardest part of this life change.” Thinh said something to me and it really changed my perception on things, he showed me that even when you think all is lost, eventually you will find your way.
As we spoke about his fear and emotions during this time he said this, “I felt like a turtle when it gets flipped over, it can not breathe and feels like its going to die; until it adapts to the circumstances.” I find this quote to be so inspirational yet what does adapting have to do with living in California? Well In Vietnam there are only two seasons, sunny and rainy. So for someone who has never known winter or spring it is a very large adaptation to take on, changing your entire world because you have to.
Being taken from his home and forced into a world of uncertainty and fear is no life anyone should have to endure but this man Thinh Nguyen did, along with everyone in his family. There is so much more to know about Thinh but what matters is what he understands about himself and in reflection it makes me think into myself as well.
“I know that with sacrifice and motivation I overcame my obstacles and achieved my life goals. So if I can do it anyone can,” Thinh said. Then I truly understood what the difference between him and me was. When he came to this place where he was a stranger, learning how to speak the language and provide for himself was a way of adapting. He was forced to adapt to survive or he would die, which is something I have never had to do. “Life for me changed instantly going from fun and games to, work, work, work, I am grateful for my life but wish I could enjoy life more instead of spending it surviving in this world.”
At his current age of fifty-four, with a paid off house and an outstanding career at Stater Brothers for the last 34 years, he feels accomplished in his life, feels that he has done good with what he was given . For a boy who knew nothing to a man who has proved his worth in gold, Thinh Nguyen’s life is not one that many can say they have lived and to that I have the utmost respect.
He did confess to me that he still feels home sick from time to time, wanting to go back and see the places grew up in just once more, possible even find his father. Anyone might ask how is this man ok, after such a traumatic event. As he said it best to me, “I am numb to it all now, time taking its toll on my past, but I still feel it from time to time just depends on the day.” He also told me that even since he left Vietnam he feels as if there is a part of him missing and in reality he may seem fine but like I stated prior, he is a duck on a pond.
“I will never be fine, I lost everything, I was thrown into a world unknown and expected to adapt while I might look and act normal, honestly I am just a lost little boy hoping that one day I might wake up and be right where I was 38 years ago, home.” In a world so cold he has simply gone numb to it all. As many people have done, he has taken his demons and locked them up and thrown away the key for there is nothing else one can truly do but move on.
Thinh never really had a childhood bond with his father. “He was never around even when things were fine. If he was not working in the yard, he was at work or too tired to do anything with us.” Thinh says. So they never did father and son things and he always wonders what life would have been like if his dad would have been able to stick around. Still Thinh is happy about the turns of his life, although his father is unable to see his son’s accomplishments. I wonder if Thinh ever just wanted to make his father proud. The day he left Vietnam was the last day he ever saw his father. The whereabouts of his father are unknown; he has either passed away or still resides in a concentration camp. The last time the family went looking for him was 20 years ago. How did his father end up stuck in Vietnam? After the family left, he had stayed behind to wrap up family affairs and was never able to make it to a plane. He was locked up in a concentration camp for 7 years but not for crimes; he was a POW(Prisoner Of War). Knowing he will never see his father Thinh had only this to say about how he truly feels, “I honestly just wish I knew what he was like, I mean I would love to sit down with him for lunch and just talk, like a normal father and son can do.”
Having his father incarcerated by the Vietcong made him appreciate his life and his blessings. His brother was also in a concentration camp but was able to escape and make his way to America. He currently resides not too far from Thinh. His brother told stories about how the food ration for a three day period was a bowl of rice and a cup of salt water. In the camps you eat what you can or you die, anything from bugs to snakes, all raw because there was no fire. You had sponsors who would bring you food every few days perhaps family members. If they did not show up, you more than likely would die from starvation.
Hearing his brother’s story really brought to light how hard he had it, and how Thinh’s situation was so much more welcoming compared to living in a death camp. Due to the severity of his brothers treatment, Thinh came to a realization, “Coming to this country showed me how great everyone in this country has it. My brother now currently has Parkinson’s disease due to the treatment and malnutrition from being in the concentration camps. I am forever grateful for the freedom this country gave me and the right to control my own fate, I just wish that all my family had been as fortunate and not had to suffer, I would of taken their place in a heartbeat just because I care that much about my family. I work hard to this day to provide for my family, because they are my everything.”
To Thinh family is everything and his life has shown him immense struggles and put him face to face with some of the hardest obstacles anyone should ever go through, but he overcame them and because it was not a choice but an adaptation to survive. I have not been through something as traumatic as Thinh, but everyone no matter how extreme or minute has to faces their own demons. When your time comes will you adapt like him or will you be consumed by your demon?