Dr. Quan Dong Nguyen’s first step toward becoming an American began when his father went in to report to the new communist government and disappeared for the next 42 months.
During the early 1970s, despite the Vietnam War, Dr. Nguyen’s family lived a relatively normal life in South Vietnam. But after the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, when Dr. Nguyen was 8 years old, things changed. The North Vietnamese communist army invited those who were working with the government of the Republic of South Vietnam, like Dr. Nguyen’s father, a physician, and his uncle, who was a provincial chief of police, to come and “meet the new government to learn about the new policies.”
They didn’t see his father again for three and a half years.
When the family finally reunited, they decided they needed to escape. They were among the millions who fled Vietnam during the decade following the fall of South Vietnam.
Dr. Nguyen, professor and McGaw Memorial Endowed Chair in Ophthalmology, and inaugural director of the Stanley M. Truhlsen Eye Institute, told his story as part of UNMC’s International Week.
To make their escape, the Nguyen family – Dr. Nguyen, his parents and his three brothers – piled into a fishing boat, filled mostly with the elder Dr. Nguyen’s patients, many of whom were Chinese. The Nguyens attempted to pass themselves off as Chinese, too.
They picked the stormiest time of year to make the journey. A time when even the murderous pirates they were hoping to avoid would rather stay on dry land. Only about two of every 10 boats making these types of escapes made it, Dr. Nguyen said.
“The ocean,” he said, “usually wins.”
He was seasick, and afraid. That first night, two of the boat’s four engines broke down. The next night, another engine, gone. They were all but drifting on the open sea.
People died on that boat. Dr. Nguyen was just a kid: “You just have to let it go in your mind,” he said. The bodies were released into the ocean so that the journey could continue.
At last, they saw land – an island in Malaysia. He can still remember the relief.
It was an uninhabited island. They didn’t know what would happen next. All they knew was, where they were now was better than where they had just been.
After three days, Malaysian police found them. They went to another Malaysian island, Pulau Bidong, which has been set up as a refugee camp, to live among thousands and thousands of fellow Vietnamese refugees. “The life was rough,” Dr. Nguyen said. “But for the first time, people felt like they had freedom again.”
At the refugee camp, emissaries from other countries came to see if they could take in some of the refugees. Germany, Dr. Nguyen said, would take engineers. Australia wanted farmers. Denmark welcomed orphans and kids who had left family behind.
Dr. Nguyen’s parents spoke French. Their educations were French. France would surely take them.
But, no. They wanted to go to the place which would be least likely, in all the world, to turn Communist.
“We didn’t want to escape a second time,” Dr. Nguyen said.
They applied to come to America.
When young Dr. Nguyen settled in the U.S., in northern Virginia, in 1980, he was going into the eighth grade. Though his father was a physician and his mother was an attorney, they were starting over, from scratch, with nothing. They were on food stamps and welfare for the first year, and that was difficult – but they were grateful for the kindness that they received.
“You always remember,” he said, “the first (secondhand) table that people gave to you.”
At school … how to put this politely? “Young teenagers are very nice,” Dr. Nguyen said, “but they also can be quite unfriendly.”
Looking back, the adult Dr. Nguyen forgives those kids. They were just young children, and their new classmate may as well have been from outer space.
But at the time, he thought to himself: how could he be on even ground with them? How could he be the kid in class who wasn’t behind everyone else? In learning a foreign language! And in that, he excelled.
(To this day, if he lectures in South America, for example, he’ll do some of it in Spanish as a sign of cultural respect.)
He went to Phillips Exeter Academy, Yale, Penn, Harvard and Johns Hopkins. He became a doctor.
Now he lives in Omaha, Neb.
He married another Vietnamese American, Dr. Diana Do, the daughter of his father’s medical school classmate. Dr. Do is also a professor of ophthalmology and visual sciences at the Truhlsen Eye Institute. Their three children are Vietnamese Americans. Dr. Nguyen and Dr. Do are teaching their children both Vietnamese and American cultures.
He will tell anyone who will listen that despite “many different things in this country that, yes, can make one feel angry,” we should also know this is the greatest country on earth, with many generous, philanthropic citizens and numerous opportunities.
So, after all of these years, does he consider himself truly, fully American?
Well, maybe not quite 100 percent: “I still do not understand all of the jokes yet,” he said (showing that of course he does).
But as a member of the audience said emphatically, “No, Dr. Nguyen, you are an American.”
Most of us are Americans through sheer luck, an accident of birth.
Dr. Nguyen earned his (red and white) stripes the hard way.
Langnas family also shared stories
Frieda Langnas, mother of Alan Langnas, D.O., professor and chief of transplantation, and Dr. Langnas’ sister, Susan Feber, also spoke via teleconference at the presentation. They told the story of how Frieda and her husband separately, as children, emigrated to the U.S. as their families were refugees who escaped the Nazis before and during World War II.