Vietnamese Interpreter, Food Demonstrator, Rock Climber

My Journey to America – Life is a Journey not a Destination

After three years of the cold weather in Illinois, my parents were ready for a warmer climate. It didn’t take much persuasion from my aunt who lived in Seguin, Texas. She said the weather was much warmer and there were more jobs with better pay. Living in the icy snow winter of Pekin with barely $3 per hour as a dishwasher and a cook, Texas seemed promising. In the summer of 1981, my parents decided to take a road trip and visit Texas.
In this article, I would like to share a little about my dad, my mom, and my own characteristics of who we were shaped by our journey in life. Looking back at my life, a phrase rings true in my head “Life is a journey, not a destination” by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

My Dad, a Simple Man

Tuong NugyenMy dad was a very systematic, methodological, and simple man. He was quiet, reserved, conservative, and did not like change. Moving to Texas was not his idea of an adventure. If it was up to him, he would put up with the freezing weather and minimal pay. With a big nudge from my mom, not only were we planning to move to Texas, but he also had to learn directions and drive from Illinois to Texas. After only less than a year of driving ever at the age of 47, my dad had to learn to drive on the gigantic freeway. He was very nervous.

It was 1081 miles from Pekin, Illinois to Seguin, Texas. We did not have GPS, mobile phones, or internet available in 1981. The only thing available was the atlas map. In his first year of driving, my dad only drove in the small city of Pekin. We had not yet experienced driving the freeway. My mom challenged my dad with no options. It was do-or-die – figuratively of course. Thankfully, my dad took the challenge.

My dad weighed all of us and the luggage to balance out the yellow station wagon. My older sister, Hạnh, and I were assigned to a very important job. We were the navigators. We guided my dad through the freeways. The best part for me was I got to be in the front seat with my dad and saw everything. It was an exciting and adventurous opportunity. My two younger sisters and my mom sat in the middle row while my two younger brothers got the back row all to themselves.
My dad drove in the right-hand lane for slower cars at first. Several times, he unintentionally followed the exit off the ramp thinking that it was still the freeway. The exit ramps were sometimes as big as the freeway. We quickly learned that if there was an exit then there was also an entrance. Later my dad built confidence and began to pass slower cars. Of course, my mom was the voice of reason in the back seat. She occasionally caught him speeding and quickly reminded him to slow down.

There was a big traffic incident that scared the pants off my dad and me. We were driving at least 60 miles per hour and came to a big halting stop on the freeway. We were going so fast and had to stop so quickly that we did not know if we could stop in time. My dad pushed hard on the brakes and I also instinctively pushed hard with my feet against the carpeted floor of the car. We luckily managed to barely kiss the front car with our bumper. My dad and I looked at each with relief. That was the most heart throbbing moment of our drive. I am not sure if anyone else in the car noticed. Finally, we all got to Seguin, Texas in one piece.

My dad loved to tell us tales and we all believed him when we were little. I remembered that he would say “I like it better when you guys were little, you believe everything I said. Now you are grown up, you no longer believe in my tales.” My father had strange humor. Whoever I brought home to meet my parents, my father would ask “why do you like her, she is Vietnamese. She is different.” I know my friends felt uncomfortable with those questions. They would only reply. “I like her because she is nice.”

When we first arrived in Texas both of my parents worked at Holly Farms now known as Tyson. They both hung chicken in an assembly line. Their minimum wage was $7 an hour. In ten years they would make $9/hr. The wages doubled the amount in Pekin, Illinois. However, the job on the assembly line was tough. Every night, I found my dad massaging his swollen arms with Ben Gay®. My parents were Ben Gay®’s best customers.

My dad often shared with me how strong and young his co-workers were. The co-workers would last several months hanging chicken. They either quit or were let go. At age 47, my dad stuck with his job and surpassed any youth and muscular young men. In the back of my dad’s mind “I have a family of 6 children at home dependent on me. I can’t let them down.” As he got older, they transitioned his position from hanging chickens into cleaning up buckets. His highest pay was $10.00/hour. He worked at Tyson for 19 years until he retired on his birthday in 2001 at the age of 65.

My dad smoked most of his adult life. With the whole family nagging on him to quit smoking forever, he refused to listen. Just one day, a comment was made by my brother that challenged my dad. He decided to quit smoking cold turkey after 40 years of smoking and never looked back. My dad had a stroke and passed away a year later in 2007 at the age of 71.

My Mom, a Risk Taker

Phuong NguyenMy mom was a risk-taker and an adventurous strong woman. She was not shy by any means. Other people tried to take advantage of her and she gave them what for with her broken English. My mom was the instigator of our journey to America and our move to Texas. My dad had the final say.

When we moved to Texas, my mom worked with my dad at Tyson for 5 years. She packaged the left chicken wings in an assembly line. It was not as hard as my dad’s position but it required quickness, focus, and patience. Because they have to keep the chicken fresh, the room temperature was constantly in the 40s. Both my mom and dad had to wear layers and gloves to keep warm.

My mom was not happy with her job. My aunt, Dì Ðuốc, introduced her to a fabric manufacturing company. Dì means aunt in Vietnamese. My mom applied for a position and got a job with a starting salary of $9 an hour and an opportunity to make up to $12 per hour. However, there was one obstacle. The company was 30 miles away and she did not know how to drive.

Everyone including myself feared for her safety. At this time, there was only one car in the family. She cannot rely on anyone to drive her. She wanted to learn to drive. My mom was adamant about taking the job for better pay and perhaps less strenuous labor. Every weekend, my mom practiced driving around the block with my dad. At night, she studied the driving manual for the written test. She took the driving test twice and passed it the second time. She passed the written test on her first try. My mom got her driver’s license in 1985.

My mom accepted the job at the fabric manufacturing plant and worked on an assembly line connecting threads. Every opportunity for overtime my mom was there. My mom started out working the third shift from 12 am to 8 am for 7 years. She then moved to the second shift from 4 pm to 12 am while my dad worked from 3 pm to 11 pm. She retired at 63 years old.

My parents’ goals were to make enough money to feed the family and pay the expenses. There was not enough for all 6 children to go to college. I told myself that I was going to do well in school and receive scholarships so that my parents did not have to worry about my education. They can be proud. My parents sacrificed their lives so that their children have an opportunity for better education and a better life.

My Accomplished Goals – Seemed like Miracles

I had four major goals when I was in high school:

  1. Attend and graduate from a college of my choice. I wanted to make my parents proud.
  2. Visit my godmother in Vietnam after I graduated from college.
  3. Find a great-paying job after I graduated.
  4. Find someone to share the rest of my life with.

The goals did not have to be in the exact same order. Almost every night, I gazed upon the star and made my 4 wishes.
Having 6 children to raise and with minimum wage earnings, I knew that my parents will not be able to afford college tuition for all their children. In my junior year of high school, I applied for almost every scholarship and grant I could find. I received scholarships from Walmart, LULAC, the Lions Club, and government grants. I was very appreciative of their kind contributions. Their contributions carried me through my 4 ½ years of a college education.

The first 2 years were at Southwest University in San Marcos, Texas so I could be close to home. I transferred to Texas A&M in my third year with the goal of becoming an architect. Even though, I loved learning about architecture and its history, being an architect was not practical at the time. I had to pay my way through school so there was no time to work on extensive projects. In my second semester at Texas A&M, I changed majors to computer science.

While scholarship and grants paid for my tuition and fees, I worked two part-time jobs to pay for rent and living expenses. Instead of living in a dorm, I bought a travel trailer. I rent a plot of land in a trailer park and lived there for two years. My monthly expenses were minimal.

my travel trailer
I held several jobs. At one time, I worked as a newspaper delivery person for two semesters. It was good money but required early morning delivery from 3 am to 5 am. It was hard on my truck as well. I had a small accident where I ran into a brick mailbox. The mailbox was totally demolished. All I did was reach down for the paper and then looked up. It was too late. I smashed into the mailbox. It was an embarrassing moment. Even the policeman laughed at the incident. Luckily, he didn’t give me a ticket.

After the newspaper job, I worked as a waitress for an Asian restaurant for one semester. It was a fun experience and I get Chinese food for free. My main job was as being assistant at the Visualization Lab in the architecture department. It was part of the pell grant for the University. I worked at this job for at least 2 years.
For my last 1½ years at Texas A&M, I co-opped or also known as an internship every other semester to gain experience in the computer industry. I moved my trailer back home and lived in an apartment with a roommate.

I met Chris Roda at the Visualization Lab. Chris was the turning point of my life. When I first met Chris, I thought he was very handsome perhaps too handsome for me. Chris had a pair of beautiful baby blue eyes. His dark and short blonde hair complimented his eyes and skin tone. His sharp facial trait with a slightly squared chin featured his masculinity. Chris was very bouncy and upbeat.

“He probably won’t even notice me.” I whispered to the viz lab receptionist, Linda.

I was wrong. He noticed me and more. Our first date was watching “Beauty and the Beast” right before Christmas of 1991. In January 1992, I moved to Dallas to start my internship. It was 5 hours drive from College Station, Texas A&M. Chris and I kept in touch for several more months. We finally dated after a few more months of me humming and hawing “does he like me or does he not like me?” Most of our relationships were long-distance. When I moved back to Texas A&M from my internship, Chris graduated from Texas A&M with his master’s degree in computer science. He took a job in Houston so he could wait for me to graduate. Chris’ goal was to move to Los Angeles, California to pursue a computer graphic career in the film industry.

Chris applied and got a position as a technical director at Boss Films Studio in Los Angeles. I helped Chris move to Los Angeles. On our drive to Los Angeles, we detoured to Las Vegas and serendipity decided to elope on September 12, 1993. I promised to join Chris after I graduate. In addition, we were planning our wedding for our families on March 12, 1994. In the fall of 1993, I received a bachelor’s science degree in computer science at Texas A&M.

Two goals were accomplished. I graduated from college and got married within the same year. I moved out to Los Angeles to join Chris and I landed my first job in Los Angeles at VIFX as a freelancer in the film department at the beginning of 1994. I worked my way up to be a technical director just like Chris within a year.

I shared with Chris my wish of going to Vietnam and visiting my godmother. We both came up with the date in October 1994. We visited Vietnam for a month. I accomplished all my wishes by the end of 1994. Wow! It was like a miracle. Everything lined up just perfectly as it was meant to be.

My Childhood

I was a quiet child while in school. I did not make a lot of friends or join in school activities. I always felt that I was a boring person and that I don’t have much to contribute so most of the time I would listen and not talk. I was oblivious to the latest trends, music, or fashions. My siblings were my friends. After school, I went straight home. For the longest time, we had only one car in our house so we stayed at home a lot.

At home, I was an active young lady. I often walked several miles to the library and borrowed many books. I loved to read. I love to explore the creek half a mile from my house. I often ran errands with my dad on the weekends. I kept myself busy most of the time.

When I was growing up in Texas, I had mixed feelings about my own nationality. I was teased and watched other Asian children were teased by other kids. I didn’t want to be an Asian. I didn’t want to be different. I was ashamed of who I was. Why do my eyes slant? Why is my skin yellow? Why is my hair so black? Why can’t I be like everyone else? I found myself more in isolation from friends and seek friendship with my family and siblings.

Life is short. At a young age, I decided to not allow myself to be bothered by criticisms or name-calling. I remembered when I first went to a middle school in Seguin, Texas. As the bell rang and we were entering the school, a girl made fun of an Asian boy. I took it personally and stood up to her. That was the first time I was so angry that I shook. I was angry at how the kids were making fun of others who were not like them. I asked myself why am I different? What can I do? I ignored them. I focused on my family. My sisters were my friends. However, my sisters had their own lives as well. They don’t have the same interests as me. Am I forcing myself on them??? Not sure. It was quite a journey growing up.

Self-acceptance is the key to my success. I love who I am today. I love to be different and unique. I am very lucky to be born and raised in Vietnam and I am proud to be a Vietnamese American.

My Personal Reflection

Ordinary people become super ordinary under circumstances. My family is not any different from any other family in this whole wide world. With a passion and a goal, we conquered our fears. My grandparents and my parents both have a passion for being free. To achieve that freedom, their goal was to come to America. Through the hardship journey, they succeed beyond their wildest dreams.

My dad like any other father who loved his family very much stood strong for his family and what he believed in. He believed in family and that we all stick together. I can never forget his words before we left Vietnam. “We are a family. If we live through this journey we will live together but if we die we shall die together as a family.”

We came to a country where the language and culture were foreign to all of us. We lived with our grandparents for three years in Pekin, Illinois. The weather was too cold and jobs were scarce so once again we migrated to Seguin, Texas in search of a better living. Once again circumstance pushes our family to explore the unknown. We are no different from anyone else. We settled in Texas and there we stayed until my siblings and I went to college.

We led our lives like many Americans and occasionally need a reminder of what life is all about when we tell other people about our journey. That was one of many reasons why I wanted to share with you my journey to America. I invite you to reflect upon your life – what can you do to make a difference in your life?

I am only one sample of many other immigrants that came to this free country through many means and ways. Think about yours, now that you are here, what can you do to make this place even a better tomorrow than before. What can you do to create a new adventure for yourself and leave behind a legacy for your children? These are questions you don’t have to answer now. They are questions to ponder upon. My hope is to inspire you to create your own adventure and make America or where ever you are even a better place to live for your children, grandchildren, etc…

My parents raised 6 children with a combined income of $30,000 before taxes. They were amazing. They left a legacy of their way of beings and their actions behind for us to follow. We live an American dream. I hope to pass it on to others through my journals.

In my next articles, I will share about my trip back to Vietnam and complete my circle of appreciation. I also collected interviews with my siblings regarding their perspectives of our Journey to America. It was quite interesting to learn their viewpoints.

I love to hear your thoughts and your journey. Please leave your comments below.

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