Twin Cities World Refugee Day is a volunteer-run organization that works to celebrate new Americans and showcase their experience.
This week’s refugee America is Thuyet Nguyen, 35, of Brooklyn Park.Project Manager at a health & wellness company. He is the oldest of three and he and wife Alicia have a 2-year-old cocker spaniel (Dexter) and are expecting our first child this spring.
AAP: What do you do for a living? Why did you choose this field?
Thuyet: I’m a project manager with a background in 6Sigma methodology (process management/improvement). I honestly have no idea how I ended up in this profession. I graduated from the University of Minnesota with a Bachelors of Science in Architecture and minor in Design. I worked in non-profit with pre-school children following college and slowly transitioned into the corporate world. I love using my creativity and project management is just another way of saying “creative problem solving.”
AAP: What else do you do that’s important to you? Hobbies/interests, community work?
Thuyet: The people who surround me are the most important thing in my life – my family, friends, and the APIA artist/activist community here in the Twin Cities. Any time I get to spend time with them is a blessing and such an enrichment to my life. They are the inspiration in my creative process when I’m seeking new mediums to express myself whether it’s through writing, painting, or even cooking and creating new recipes. They are solely responsible for my growth as a person and continually challenge and raise my social, cultural, racial, and economic consciousness through the art that they create and the conviction of their activism in addressing issues facing our ethnic communities.
AAP: How would you describe yourself and your personality?
Thuyet: I’m curious. I think I have way too many interests and hobbies and not enough energy nor time to devote to be any good at any of them. And despite what my wife may say, I think I’m hilarious. Laughing makes life worth living, even when it’s at my own expense.
AAP: What country are you and your family from originally? When and how did you end up coming to the U.S., and what kind of conflict was happening in your country that you needed to leave?
Thuyet: My parents and I immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam in 1982. We were part of the second wave of refugees leaving Vietnam following the Fall of Saigon in 1975. I was born in 1978 in a small fishing village and (according to my parents) was always sick as a young child. Poor and with the little money they had, they spent it on medicine for me and fearing that I would die at a young age in my homeland (along with increasingly oppressive policies from the local communist magistrate). They made the decision to leave Vietnam by way of a small gas-engine ferry boat that snuck off in the middle of the night into the Pacific Ocean in 1981.
AAP: How did you end up in the Twin Cities? Is your whole family here, or are they spread out among several states or countries?
Thuyet: It was really through fate that we ended up in United States. While at the refugee camps in the Philippines, my parents applied for refugee visas for Norway, Australia, and the United States. Because we were the first in either my mom or dad’s family to leave Vietnam, we would immigrate to the first country that would have us.
It so happened that it was the United States. We ended up landing in Oakland originally and then Seattle and eventually decided to move to Minnesota, hearing that the schools here were great and my parents knew of a distant cousin that moved here several years before we arrived. (What they failed to mention was the winter here!)
To this day, the majority of our immediate families are still in Vietnam. My mom’s youngest brother immigrated to France a few years after us and my parents have a few cousins in California as well.
AAP: Do you and your family still speak your first language? What is that? Do you think maintaining your first language is important?
Thuyet: Both my wife and I speak Vietnamese pretty fluently. It was a requisite growing up in our households that we only speak Vietnamese at home. Both our parents instilled in us a sense of pride and value in maintaining our culture and the easiest way to do that was never forgetting our native tongue. Our parents’ generation sacrificed so much to carve out a life for us here in this country and it’s not something that we take lightly nor for granted. It’s this reason I made a conscious decision in grade school to never change my legal first name to honor my parents and my heritage. It’s something that my wife and I will continue to try to instill in our own children.
AAP: When you or your family first came here, did you speak English? If not, how did you learn, and what was that experience like?
Thuyet: At the age I was at (pre-school) when I came to the U.S., I was learning both English and Vietnamese concurrently. English at daycare/pre-school and via public television (Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street) and Vietnamese through my parents. I developed a perspective of American life and the English language through the lens of television, which wasn’t a good thing once I got to kindergarten. Teachers couldn’t understand me because I often spoke using “television jargon.” Looking back, it’s funny but at that time it was difficult to communicate to anyone besides my family and Vietnamese friends. I was required to attend ESL classes at my public school well into the 3rd grade.
AAP: In your opinion, is being a refugee in the U.S. different from being an immigrant?
Thuyet: I think the distinction between being a refugee vs. an immigrant can be different given the circumstances. I think it boils down to history and the forces that would make someone leave their homeland to start a new life elsewhere. War, famine, persecution, genocide are some of the things that force people to seek refuge in foreign countries that immigrants may not have to face when choosing to live in another country. Race and ethnicity also play a factor and has a huge role in the social mobility of certain groups when coming to this country, especially en masse which is typically associated with refugee groups.
AAP: What kinds of special challenges do refugees face when they come to a new country? What kinds of issues has your family dealt with?
Thuyet: Besides racism, xenophobia, and general bigotry/ignorance (both explicit and implicit), we struggled with the same things a lot of poor people struggle with… Keeping our family safe, fed, and healthy. Working blue-collar jobs at 60 hours a week because the hours after 40 are worth so much more than the ones before it, was not uncommon. Behaviors that were acceptable in your home country but could be met with condemnation here like being a latch-key kid at the age of six and learning how to make dinner for yourself because your parents are working a double-shift, required us to be secretive and distrustful of the government and the police. History has shown us that any given moment, these institutions can come and take our livelihood, our homes, and even our families away are experiences that we carried here with us and made us skeptical and reluctant to divulge too much of ourselves to people who were not like us.
AAP: Is it important for you to stay connected to your country of origin or culture? Why or why not? How do you do this, if you do?
Thuyet: My culture, yes… My birth country, not so much. I find it as difficult to identify myself as Vietnamese as much as I would identify myself as American. Neither country would look at me as one of their own and that’s part of the refugee experience, the Vietnamese American experience. We are creating our own culture here and it’s something that is unique and beautiful and something all Vietnamese Americans have a part in that process.
AAP: Have you ever been back to the country or region of the world your family came from? What was that like?
Thuyet: I haven’t had the opportunity to visit Vietnam since we left, although my parents and both my brother and sister have traveled there. I’m hoping to be able to go in the next few years and bring my children.
AAP: What do people in the Twin Cities need to know about refugees and their experiences here?
Thuyet: The Twin Cities is rich in its immigrant and refugee history. From the Scandinavian and German immigrants to the Vietnamese, Hmong, and Somali refugees, Minnesota has been a place that has accepted and is home to so many migrant communities.
Despite the differences in geographic origin, customs, language, timeline of pilgrimage, the struggles within each community are very similar. I think it’s important for not only those who have been here a while to recognize the similarities between our experiences as refugees but also for those in the respective “newer” communities as well to be able to identify with one another across cultural lines.
I’ve celebrated St. Patrick’s Day in six different states and four countries, including Ireland.