After two failed attempts, the Nguyen family arrived at the shore unnoticed. The six children were sedated and hidden beneath fruit to ensure their silence and safety. Then, in darkness, they were carried to a small fishing boat.
Victoria Nguyen’s father had been imprisoned after both failed attempts, but it did not prevent a third try. As more people arrived, they crowded closer together, standing straight, unable to move—like pencils bound tightly by a rubber band.
The vessel, loaded well beyond capacity, bucked and swayed toward international waters, and the passengers’ dreams turned quiet as they gave themselves to the mercy of sea and sky.
Hundreds of thousands South Vietnamese attempted to flee communist ascendency after American troops were withdrawn during the early 1970s. As the country became unified under communist rule, the perilous journey began, and those who fled became known as the “boat people.”
Thousands died. Storms claimed many of them, as most boats were ill suited for high seas. Others died from illness, malnutrition, or at the brutal hands of pirates laying in wait along the route.
When the sedation wore off, the Nguyen children found themselves in the midst of unbroken horizons. Victoria was 6 years old in 1978 and remembers little about their journey, unable to distinguish between memories and her parents’ late night whispers overheard throughout the years.
When Nguyen, director of diversity development, looks back on her life, she still marvels at the sacrifices her parents made and the reasons they made them: to prevent their sons from becoming child soldiers and to allow all their children to receive educations. Her mother had only a third grade education, her father even less. They wanted more for their children, believing that education was the key to freedom.
In time, it paid off. All six children are OSU graduates.
Her parents grew up poor, her father on a farm, her mother on the streets selling flour or fruit or anything else she could find to sell. From such poverty, they rose to own a flourishing business selling building materials to contractors. They lived a privileged life with nice home, nannies, chauffeurs and housekeepers.
But they left all traces of their lives behind except for her mother’s wedding ring, and that, too, was given up in exchange for potatoes to feed the passengers, who drank from the rain and went long stretches without food.
They waited months on the water before they were rescued and placed in a refugee camp, where they stayed for a year before a church in Arizona sponsored them to come to the far side of the ocean in 1979.
They spoke no English, didn’t know the customs—didn’t know the feeling or limits of freedom. From running his own business in Vietnam, her father went to work on the sponsor family’s ranch in exchange for housing and modest wages. It was a struggle, but they were in America, and that was what mattered most.
The children, not used to American food or the dry heat of Arizona, were prone to illness; and, after a year, her parents saved enough money to buy an old station wagon big enough for six children and everything they owned.
They drove until they happened upon Oregon and its cool, lush offerings. Settling in Salem, her father bussed tables while her mother cleaned houses. At night, they both worked in a cannery leaving Victoria, the eldest daughter, to take on the responsibilities of cooking and caring for her siblings.
During summers, the Nguyen children did migrant work, picking berries from field to field to help support the family.
When their parents opened a restaurant, the Saigon Café, in downtown Corvallis in 2005, they could not afford to hire employees, so, again, the children helped.
Her father also worked at Garmin manufacturing navigation equipment during the day, working at the restaurant at night.
Gaining a foothold required a long, shared struggle, and the children learned to do without new clothes, new toys. Her mother always ate last to make sure there was enough food for the children, and at times they relied upon public assistance. Since then, their stories have taken on a sort of nostalgia, romanticism, but there still are bruises of melancholy.
“I never had a doll,” says Nguyen.
What she did have, however, was a family determined to find its way, parents who never lost sight of their goals. The words, “I love you,” were rarely spoken, but the children know now that their parents’ determination and hard work were an expression of love.
"How do you pay someone back for that?” Nguyen asks. “They sacrificed everything for us. That’s why we owe them so much. Everything we have is because of them.”
At OSU, there are similar stories, and that is what drives Nguyen.
“I know what it’s like to be first-generation Vietnamese American to go to college especially on this campus. I had to navigate financial aid, all the transition issues that students of color have to go through. I’ve been through it at this institution.”
In 1992, when Nguyen began her undergraduate studies, the separation between Vietnamese students sometimes resulted in violence on campus.
“There would be brawls,” she says. “There’s still an undercurrent of that. If there’s a gathering, and a song is played that is identified with either north or south, people are offended. There’s still that sensitivity.”
But Nguyen’s life demonstrates the changes in relations since then. Her ex-husband’s family was from North Vietnam.
Her parents are retired and are as frugal as ever. It’s difficult for them to receive gifts from their children, who try to make their lives as comfortable as possible. Both have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Her mother has had two leg surgeries caused by their journey on the boat. With little room to sit or lie, passengers had to stand for most of the trip.
They had always said they wanted to be buried in Vietnam. When they left the country, they said no goodbyes, taking every precaution to avoid being captured a third time. Her mother’s father searched for years before he died, not knowing whether they were still alive.
They wanted to be buried alongside their family members, but that has changed.
“They bought cemetery plots here in Oregon,” Nguyen says. “They want their children and grand children to be able to visit them. That’s how close we are. Family means everything.”
She understands that many students see college as the far side of the ocean, and their journeys, like hers, are life-changing. Creating a sense of family and home on campus plays an important role in her work, which is shaped by her parents’ wisdom: “Education is freedom.
Story and photo by Duane Noriyuki