Strength in the Journey

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| This is the 380th story of Our Life Logs |


A great journey begins in the heart,

It is realized in the mind,

But can only prevail by way of the feet.

—CSW

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My parents were both originally from the northern region of Vietnam but fled south to escape communist rule. They met each other in Saigon in 1954, fell in love, and married shortly after that. I was born in Gia Dinh, a suburb of Saigon. My family moved around a lot when I was a child due to my dad’s job at the Center for Disease Control. We spent short periods in Quy Nhon, Di Linh, and finally settled in Saigon in 1965.

Me as a baby
Me as a baby.

I should clarify that I came from a traditional Vietnamese household, with my father being the breadwinner and the head of our family. He was always strict and punitive, whereas my mother was kind and nurturing. We were a full house with seven children, so, as the eldest child, it was expected that I would be the most responsible role model for my siblings.

Because of that, my father used to tutor me at home to make sure I’d do well in school. I had always wanted to pursue college and establish a career, but while I enjoyed these extra lessons, my father was conflicted. On the one hand, he wanted his children to get a higher education. On the other hand, he believed women should stay at home and fulfill household duties rather than having a career outside.

My family
With my family (I am on the top left).

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When communist rule came down to southern Vietnam in 1975, we received a 24-hour notice to leave the country. This was because of my dad’s association with the South Vietnamese Government and the American Embassy. We left three days before the war ended. The government settled us in San Antonio, Texas.

And so, by the time we left Vietnam, I was 19 and a first-year law student. But when we arrived in the United States, I couldn’t continue my education because my English was very limited. Because of that, my father wanted me to marry a successful man instead of pursuing a career of my own.

I could not have imagined what my new life in the US had in store.

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Things didn’t go smoothly for me after we moved to San Antonio. In 1976, the church where my mother volunteered put together a New Year celebration. Knowing my love for the arts, she encouraged me to participate in the event. My performance was a catwalk in traditional Vietnamese outfits.

After the event, a young girl my age approached and befriended me. She introduced my family and me to her uncle, former Colonel Nam from the South Vietnam army. Nam was also a refugee, though he was wealthier than my family. Nam was around my dad’s age, which I didn’t think much of; I thought Nam wanted to be friends with my family.

What I didn’t know at the time was that Nam intended to approach me. He saw me at the New Year’s celebration and had his niece befriend me. Later, Nam asked my family for my hand in marriage and flaunted his wealth to impress me, thinking that I wanted to marry into money. I was disturbed by this and rejected his proposal. But my family thought Nam would be a good man for me, despite the age difference.

One day, my dad asked me to accompany Nam to take care of some insurance-related paperwork. I remember that day like it was yesterday; we were driving on I-410 when Nam threatened to kill me if I didn’t agree to marry him. I was petrified but didn’t give in to his demand. Soon after, we exited the freeway and arrived at a traffic light, I attempted to open the car door and escape, but Nam grabbed my arm and ordered me to shut the door, to which I refused. Unfortunately, back then, people didn’t want to meddle in domestic matters. So, despite me keeping the car door open and shouting for help, no one was willing to interfere. Eventually, Nam drove to an empty parking lot, the passenger door swinging as we moved. My heart sank. I thought my life was about to end.

Luckily, someone had called 911, and the police arrived five minutes after we got to the parking lot. Nam lied to the police that I was his wife, and this was a little fight between a married couple. With a few English words, I tried to explain what Nam had done and showed the bruises he’d inflicted on me. The police arrested Nam and returned me to my family.

Things got worse after the incident. Nam would make threats toward my family and blame everything on me. My family, new to this country, not knowing much about U.S. customs and laws, were terrified at the scandal their daughter encountered. They pled with me to drop the lawsuit against Nam, but I refused.

Nam became even more obsessed with me. He started to stalk me after my work; I couldn’t go anywhere alone. I was living my life in fear and anxiety. Soon, I realized I’d had enough and needed to get out of that situation. I decided to move away. My parents were against this decision, a part of which was because I was supposed to stay home and to help support the family. But I told my mom, “If I can’t help myself, I can’t help you.” My father was very unhappy with this, so much that he didn’t speak to me for years; I was entirely on my own when I moved out.

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I left home for Wisconsin in the spring of 1976 and took English-learning courses at a community college. After I passed the TOELF exam (Test of English as Foreign Language for non-native speakers), I enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, in the winter of 1977. Because of the language barrier, I chose to major in mathematics, as it is a universal language.

The first few years in Wisconsin were so, so hard. Because I’d lost contact with my family, I had to navigate everything on my own, all while developing my English. Getting through the winters was especially tough for me; I used to cry every time I walked to class because I couldn’t stand the cold. Although I did receive a small amount of financial aid, I needed to work 30 hours a week to pay for my tuition and living expenses, all the while trying to acquire 16 credit hours. I fainted several times in class out of exhaustion, and my professors had to send me home to rest. But, in return, I was able to support myself through college and send money back to my parents to support the family.

Like anyone else, I also made few mistakes along the way; though only one of which I wish I could reverse, and that is my first marriage.

I met Paul in 1975 in Fort Smith outside of Fort Chaffee, where he worked as a placement counselor. Paul was a nice man who supported me through that unfortunate event in 1976. But our personalities didn’t match; Paul wanted a traditional wife who’d stay at home, raise the kids, and support her husband. I suppose he didn’t know I wasn’t the wife he wanted because we couldn’t communicate well due to the language barrier. I always knew our relationships wouldn’t work out. Still, despite my intuition, I married Paul in my last year of college.

In 1980, I graduated from the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire with a Bachelor’s Degree in Mathematics. By this time, Paul was a high-school guidance counselor, but he was also working on a project which involved sailing a replica of a Viking ship from Duluth, Minnesota, to Oslo, Norway. He was away from home for months to practice, then several more months to sail the ship with other 11 crew members.

When he came back from the trip, he told me I’d changed because I was no longer the quiet, subordinate wife he knew. I told him, “I didn’t change; my English got better. Just because I couldn’t speak much English doesn’t mean I couldn’t talk back!” We continued drifting apart, and after a few years, we split.

After that, I never allowed myself to do anything that I didn’t want or that would compromise my independent and determined personality.

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Later, I moved to Minnesota for work. With my skills, experience, and a can-do attitude, I got a lot of opportunities to develop my career, and surprisingly, other areas of my life as well.

I met Robert Pollock in 1981; he was a rising star in the same company I worked at in Minnesota, though we didn’t start seeing each other until later. Rob was not only ambitious and hardworking, but he was also easy-going. Most importantly, he always accepted me for who I was and let me be my own person. Although I never thought I’d marry again, Rob was persistent and patient. Even after I took a job assignment with my company in 1988 to work in the Netherlands, Robert waited for me with a smile. He wanted me to say yes, willingly.

Over ten years later, in 1993, Rob and I got married. We had a small ceremony along the Mississippi River in St. Paul with a judge and three other witnesses.

Me and Rob
Me and Rob.

In 1994, I completed my Master’s Degree in International Management at the University of Saint Thomas, Minnesota. Rob and I relocated to Kansas City where Rob ran a subsidiary company whose headquarter is in New York. I became IT Project Manager/Director at the headquarter and frequently traveled between several cities for work. In 1999, Rob accepted the CFO position at the headquarter, so we moved to New York City. By this time, with our current financial situation, I decided to retire early and start giving back to the community.

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For now, I will keep enjoying pursuing my passions for arts and traveling. Nonetheless, my love for my family is the most important passion of my life. I lost my 27-year-old brother to cancer when I was acquiring my master’s degree, and my mom followed him due to broken heart four months later. I was busy studying and working, all the while coping with two deaths in a short period. The experience has a substantial impact on who I am today; it helps me value the time I spend with my family.

Within my ability, I want to help my nieces and nephews receive the education they deserve–the one I struggled to acquire when I was young. My advice to my nieces and nephews, as well as other young people, is to embrace opportunities, overlook the negativity, and have a glass-half-full attitude toward all situations. It is very easy for people to go into a downward spiral. But, if they utilize the opportunities nearby, they will be met with success and more opportunities. Education is a continuing journey, and so is life. Do your best with what you have; work hard, but enjoy the process rather than the outcomes.

 

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This is the story of Anh-Tuyet Nguyen

Anh-Tuyet Nguyen moved to the United States with her family in 1975, right before communism took over South Vietnam government. From an immigrant with broken English, she used her courage to support herself through college, build her career, and become successful in her unique way.

Anh-Tuyet has been a retiree since 1999, but she remains active on several non-profit boards. Her first non-profit work was at The Westfield Symphony Orchestra, which is now The New Jersey Festival Orchestra. Anh-Tuyet is currently the Vice Chairwoman of The Joyce Theater, President of Dance to Unite organization, Non-Profit Consultant and Philanthropist of Film Forum, and Chair Emeritus of New York Society Opera. Besides her countless non-profit works, Anh-Tuyet has also been a mentor to many young professionals who seek her advice and recommendations. Anh-Tuyet has received the prestigious Alumni Distinguished Achievement Award from the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire on May 19, 2018. On May 8, 2019, The Joyce Theater Foundation honored Anh-Tuyet for her work as Vice-Chair at their Annual Gala.

Anh-Tuyet discovered her passion for travel when she first visited Europe in 1982. She fell in love with learning about different customs, people, and languages. Besides her mother tongue and English, she became fluent in Dutch, knowledgeable in French, and picked up Italian in the late 1990s. Anh-Tuyet continues traveling to explore different cultures and practice her motto, “seek first to understand, then to be understood,” a principal from Steven Covey, which she learned in her 20s.

 

 

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This story first touched our hearts on June 26, 2019.

| Writer: Linh N.W. | Editor: Colleen Walker |

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6 thoughts on “Strength in the Journey

  1. I’ve known A.T. for many years and now that I’ve read this heartwarming and honest story about A.T.s life journey, I feel honored to know her even better. Thank you A.T. and Linh for sharing!

  2. Inspiring article Linh. Thank you for sharing your life journey co A.T. Best advice I’ve learn from you. 👍🏻🙏

  3. “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”…..
    Yet that first step is the most difficult!
    AT gives inspiration to us all—especially to women who have to work twice as hard to accomplish what should be equally theirs and to break out of traditional norms…. Great writing, great story❤️

  4. Hi Linh,
    You did a great job capturing the essence of AT! I’ve known her for over 30 years, and I learned much I didn’t know about her. I teach English-as-a-Second language, so I’m familiar with the angst one can experience as an immigrant. It’s so impressive that she moved to Wisconsin and without any friends or family started on her journey.

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