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Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month: VanTrinh’s Story

May. 3, 2021
 
Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

VanTrinhOne morning, my mother stopped me before I left for school. She told my sister and I to go with a family friend on the bus. My mother kept telling my sister and I to keep an eye out for each other, to be careful, and that she loved us very much. She put the photo I took in front of the Virgin Mary statue outside of the cathedral into my shirt pocket—to keep me safe since she could not come with me. I kept telling her, “It’s alright, Mom, go home.” But my mother stayed nearby until the bus left. 

I was 12 and my sister was 17. That was the last time we saw our mother for over ten years.

The bus took us out of the city into the countryside; we had many stops and it took all day before we made it to Vietnam’s southernmost province. I had left my hometown of Saigon for the first time in my life. In the dead of night, we went out in a tiny fisherman boat on to the river that took us to a slightly bigger boat filled with 53 other people. We were escaping Vietnam.

In the year of 1979, after the Fall of Saigon, this was an act of treason. And those who left were no longer allowed back into the country. My sister and I became one of the Vietnamese Boat People: political refugees seeking sanctuary. For every ten boats that left Vietnam, three boats would make it to a refugee camp. If you made it past the Vietnamese navy and pirates, you would have to survive the endless ocean. We became people without a country to return to.

As a high ranking officer in the South Vietnam Army and a part of the American Air Force, my father was put into a concentration camp when South Vietnam (Republic of Vietnam) fell to North Vietnam (Socialist Republic of Vietnam). Anyone with previous support for South Vietnam and its ideals were punished harshly: their children could not go to school, families lost their homes, people could not work, and everyday, the atrocities continued to get worse. Knowing this, my mother weighed the kind of life her children would have in Vietnam versus looking for freedom and opportunity in a new country—even if it meant sending them out to sea with little more than prayers. She decided the risk was better than a life with no future.

My journey at sea started out poorly. Right before I left home, I was hospitalized for one month after two surgeries. Once my sister and I got to the boat, we were pushed under the deck with everyone. There was no room to move or breathe. We all had to stay silent and still until we reached international waters to avoid the Vietnamese Navy. 

By the second day, I became very sick because I could not breath, drink, or eat. Luckily, there was a doctor sitting next to me. He knew that I was dying, so he carried me to the deck for air and tied me to the mast of the boat so I wouldn’t fall off. He whispered to me, “We have to leave this up to fate now.” 

I was terrified! It was the first time I was seeing the ocean and how tiny our boat was in comparison. At the time, I heard a voice from the Virgin Mary photo in my shirt pocket to pray for my Hail Marys, so I did. I teetered back and forth. On the third day, I cried out, “Mom, I’m thirsty!” And as if answering my prayers, it began to rain.

I was still tied to the mast and terribly sick when sea pirates arrived on the fourth day. They made us board their ship before taking our valuables and stole our boat engine. The son of the pirate captain saw me and stood between me and other pirates so that no one could touch me. While they took everyone else’s hidden jewelry and anything of value that had tucked away, the son only took one thing from me: the photo of me in front of the Virgin Mary statue that was still in my shirt pocket. The pirates left us adrift at sea without an engine. We eventually landed in Thailand where I saw the United Nations and Red Cross flags. We made it to the Thailand Refugee Camp. 

My mother made sure I remembered my uncle’s address in America by heart before I left. During my interview with the Red Cross, I told them right away: My uncle was a Catholic Priest in Denver, Colorado. Because of that and since both my sister and I were minors, we were granted entry into America after staying six months at the refugee camp. I recall spending  months in the refugee camp, where people were trying their best to build a community and keep hope alive until they were granted refugee status to go start their new lives in America, Australia, Canada, or anywhere that would accept them. 

In 1980, my sister and I met up with my uncle in Denver. My uncle performed mass at Presentation Church in southwest Denver in English, Vietnamese, and Spanish. But since he was a priest, we could not stay with him. He requested help from his archdiocese to find us a foster family. Eventually, we were adopted by an Irish-American family in Genesee, Golden. They didn’t speak Vietnamese and we did not speak English. My uncle thought it was a good opportunity for my sister and I to learn English and American culture. I started 7th grade at Alameda Junior High.

 

School in America was completely different from school in Vietnam.

 

I remembered on the bus to school, it was exactly like that scene in Forrest Gump; all the kids scooted in their seats toward the aisle, so I wouldn’t sit next to them. Instead of Jenny, I walked to a boy with a mohawk in the last seat at the back of the bus. I asked him, “Can I sit here?” And he answered, “I don’t care.” I was still learning English and was very confused by his answer. So I asked him, “Does that mean yes or no?” He didn’t answer and just moved his backpack out of the way for me to sit. After that, every day, I sat next to him in silence on the way to school.

VanhTrinh in High School.

Due to Vietnam’s mass exodus, I had a lot of Vietnamese refugee students as classmates. I often helped translate between English and Vietnamese for my classmates, even while I struggled with the language. My classmates and I flipped between dictionaries and different textbooks to learn what came easily to fluent English speakers. We persisted in our studies to attend college because we knew it was important to build a better life. Education was always important to my family and attending college was another opportunity that would have been denied to us had we stayed in Vietnam. I later graduated from the University of Colorado Denver with a Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering and computer science.

After ten years in the concentration camps, my father was thrown into the jungle to die because he was too weak to work. Fortunately, a couple of hunters found him and brought him home to my mother. Thanks to the Humanitarian Operation (H.O.) under the Orderly Departure Program (ODP), my father left Vietnam by airplane with his family on the condition that he leave behind all of his property. 

After all this time, I was reunited with my mother and father in Denver. Nearly one year after arriving in America, my mom’s heart failed. She passed away at 56-years-old. 

During my senior year in college, the daughter of my Vietnamese neighbor asked me to come to her school. My little friend took me to Brown Elementary to help her and her classmates to write their story on the computer.

 

When I saw the large group of Vietnamese students trying to write their story, I remembered my own experiences as a student and how I needed additional support that was not available. In some ways, my story was quite unique. And in other ways, this was the same story as all the Boat People from Vietnam, of these refugees. This time, I could help them.

 

After graduation, I was presented with an opportunity to work on an engineering career or continue working at Denver Public Schools. To my family and me, education was the foundation for a person’s life. I could not knowingly leave these students without a guide, so I chose DPS. I wanted to continue paying forward all the opportunities I had by helping Asian American students and communities in America. 

I started working for DPS in 1989 at Brown Elementary, and later moved to the Central Admin building where I can support all the Vietnamese students in DPS. In 1997, many vicious fights broke out between Vietnamese and Mexican students, sometimes involving baseball bats. DPS requested me to be housed at Abraham Lincoln High School so I could support the Vietnamese students and their family closer to Southwest Denver, the heart of the Vietnamese community. 

One memory from the early years was a student calling from the jail. He was crying when he talked to me. He wished I would have arrived at Lincoln HS sooner so he could talk to me and maybe not end up in jail. During this time I attended several expulsion hearings with Vietnamese families, asking for a second chance so their children may stay in school. I also have traveled around the district to talk to Vietnamese students, counseling and finding the programs that fit career interests. 

Asian Culture Club.

To avoid all the trouble from fighting and truancy, I started an DPS Asian Culture Club around the district where the Asian-American students from Lincoln HS, South HS, John F. Kennedy HS, George Washington HS, and College View Elementary can build a community and promote their Asian culture by learning cultural stories and performing folk dances. We’ve been celebrating Asian Lunar New Year collaborating across DPS at Lincoln High School for 20 years.

With the Vietnamese-American population increasing in Colorado, I have an opportunity to guide and support many Asian-American families and build their trust in the community and in DPS. I’ve had the honor of serving as the Commissioner of Education for Vietnamese Community of Colorado Board of Directors and also become an anchor for Vietnamese TV network.  For the last 15 years,  I have connected the Asian American communities and DPS to set up Saturday classes at Lincoln HS for Asian American families to learn English, computers, and U.S. Citizenship classes. In addition to the classes, there are martial arts lessons open to anyone who is interested—regardless of age, heritage, and background. The martial arts classes are for improving health, removing tension, and teaching discipline and ethics to only be used for self-defense.     

Now, after 30 years in DPS, I am sitting here writing down my story. Looking back at the beginning when I was in my early 20’s wondering whether to choose a career working in  Education or a career in the Engineering field, I am happy that I made the right decision and chose education. 

I married my college classmate, who came to Denver from New York to attend UCD; we met in a Computer Science class. My three daughters continue to carry my dream and pay it back to America, my new country where I found peace, freedom and opportunity for the future. My first daughter has fulfilled the career that I have given up. She has a Ph.D. degree in Computer Science. My second daughter earned a BA in International Relations and MPA at University of Southern California (USC) and now works at the United Nations in New York (because she knows of the relief I felt when I saw the United Nations flags at the refugee camp). She wants to continue to make the world a better place. My youngest daughter had earned 3 majors in four years at CU Boulder: neuroscience, psychology, and biochemistry. She now has two years left in medical school! 

Thank you, DPS, for giving me an opportunity to change the lives of many Vietnamese students. 

 

VanTrinh Tran 

Denver, April 21, 2021