Dr. Binh Truong

As Interviewed by Patrick Connor, March 28, 2015

Dr. Binh Truong: In His Own Words

Things were not turning out very well for my family and the majority of other people living in Vietnam. I lived in a large city called Saigon. My uncle fought with South Vietnam’s army in the Vietnam War. He lost his life in the war…. I have another uncle who was active duty, but he is still living. My dad was a conscript as well. All the men in my family were participants in the Vietnam War. I remember running to shelters when we heard the shells hitting the town… I remember the sirens in the middle of the night…I was 4 years-old. It was a scary thing; we didn’t know what was going to happen next. We ran to the shelters a lot towards the end of the war.

[After the fall of Saigon] there were a lot of new programs being implemented, things we had to do especially in order to fit in. Extra labor times, on Saturdays, I had to go to school and help out. [We] had to participate in government-run “kids clubs.” Kind-of like organized scout activities of communist propaganda. [The government] tried to get the youth to rally together and do what the government wanted them to do. I had to really careful what I said -- it could have been misinterpreted as anti-communist. I would get my parents into trouble. I had to act like I really wanted to belong. [Communism] succeeded only on the surface, most people knew what it was all about.

[Fleeing Vietnam] was the best decision my father could have made for the family. The 1980s was the worst time in Vietnam. Things got really bad before they got better. [If I stayed in Vietnam] there would have not been opportunity for me to do anything else. I would not have become a doctor; I would have to do some odd jobs just to make ends meet. I probably wouldn’t have raised a family. My extended family stayed behind; they found ways to make ends meet. Their lives were still limited compared to what we can achieve over here. They went through a very tough time. Things are still bad for people over there. It’s just that the people who have found a way to make ends meet -- it’s gotten better for them.

I was scared [the weeks before fleeing Vietnam], I had never been out in the open sea before… I didn’t know how to swim… If the boat was to sink, I would not be able to save myself. I was scared of...sharks. I didn’t want to leave my friends behind because I didn’t know what kind of friends I was going to have after leaving the country. We all got into a boat.

the boat was traveling down the river, through the mouth of the river and eventually out to sea. My family and the boat owner actually didn’t have to sneak out in the middle of the night like some people did. The boat was packed from stem to stern. There wasn’t any room for a hiding place. There were about three hundred people [on my ship]. My ship had a number: 2222.

Modern day pirates came at us in their motor boats. Being out in the open water, not knowing where we were going, while being chased by pirates [was the scariest experience of fleeing Vietnam].

We only had enough space to sit -- we were packed in like sardines. There was bread, but that was about it. Nobody had an appetite. Everybody on board became very seasick. The boat was small and toward the end of five days we were dangerously running out of water. I thought my parents [knew where we were going]. We were heading towards a refugee camp in Malaysia. We headed further south than we wanted to and ended up in Indonesia.

A boat encountered us in the area and gave us directions to an island on which we were able to land. [My boat ride] happened so fast, all I can say is I felt extremely fortunate that the pirates never reached our boat. Some of my friends who were Boat People as well had worse experiences…. Some of them were rejected from ports such as the Philippines, Hong Kong, and Malaysia. Some of my friends went to Australia, France, Germany, Canada. There were different choices available.

I was very thankful when we got to land in Indonesia. The five days we were out at sea were not a pleasant experience. We were treated very well by the Indonesians for the year we stayed there. They let us use one of their deserted Islands. I was not [mistreated] as a youngster. We didn’t really mingle much with other natives. [Coming off the boat] I was Buddhist, the majority of [the Boat People] are. My parents knew of a Vietnamese friend who had been a fellow teacher with my father back in Vietnam. He had settled in the United States five years before us. We had kept in touch with him ever since he left in 1975. He was a big help with the paperwork on the [United States] side of things. We had made an application from our refugee camp with the world organization involved. We went from our refugee camp to Singapore, which had an airport, for a week. It was very clean, nice and exciting. In my time in Singapore, I got to see how the Singaporeans lived. We stayed in a secluded camp that was shady, nice, and rural, but it was kind of like staying in a garage. We then took a Boeing 747 from there to the United States. Awesome! I had never seen an airplane that big before.

[We I got to the United States] … it was cold… it was April. We went to Louisiana, which was where our friends were. When you come over here there is a whole new set of worries you have to think about: … the language, and where to go for what. Resettlement here is always challenging. We didn’t know the language. It took us a long time to learn it. I was very awkward when I first came here. I had finished fifth grade when I left Vietnam, but when I came over here, I could only go into the second grade. I eventually caught up within three years. I do think it helped me, but it was very embarrassing. I was tall, all the other second graders wondered why I was there. It took me five years [to become a U.S citizen].

My parents had a lot tougher time than I did [finding work]. It was very hard for them to learn the language, my father especially. My father had the largest burden -- he had to provide for the family. He was a teacher back in Vietnam. When he came to the United States he couldn’t teach anything because he didn’t speak English. He had to work as a janitor just to bring home enough to put a roof over our heads. He had to go to school at night to learn a new trade. He was juggling lots of different things. In the United States, teaching was in the past for him. He became an electrical technician. I don’t think he enjoyed it as much as teaching.

My friends that helped us immigrate to the United States were Catholics. We went to a Catholic school. I was introduced to Christianity then -- it was a pleasant experience for me. [The first few months in the United States] I was very nervous ... to say the least, I was worried about not fitting in … I looked different... I couldn’t speak the language … I didn’t know how to make friends because I couldn’t speak to anybody. I felt left out, but it was not as bad as I thought it would be. Actually, a lot of students in the school were very curious about me. They asked lots of questions and were very friendly. I didn’t really have close friends at that time.

My family kept to themselves, we had to learn the language and do homework. It took us a lot of time to do our homework. If it took you thirty minutes to do an assignment it would take us over twice as much time. Halfway through high school is when I finally started feeling more confident about myself and more at home. Our friend helped our family a lot. We were able to stay with them for about a month. Then we moved to an apartment. I started school the following August. I went to primary school in Shreveport, Louisiana, all the way up to medical school. Then I went to Richmond, Virginia, and Seattle, Washington to train before coming here to Austin.

My family “stay put.” We did not have that much money then. I now travel a little bit more. This is a wonderful country … it is a big country … it has lots to offer… and I still haven’t had the chance to see all of it yet. I want to see more of it. Vietnam is always beckoning me to come back and visit. I want my kids to see where I came from. It has changed a lot since I left. Construction, roads, people have moved around a lot -- things got a lot busier. I plan to [make that trip soon]. I feel like this is the best country I could ever be in … so many opportunities and resources are available.

I started learning about the Democracy government in school. I could see how much different it was than the way things were in Vietnam. This is a very open society… the government here is run by the people… people are being elected… elected officials are chosen by the people. The government over there … government officials, they choose themselves. If they had a big part in the war, they would have more status and commonly a higher place in the government. [In Capitalism] I didn’t have to think about what I said anymore, that’s for sure. [Voting] was nice, I felt like I had a responsibility to do what a lot of people had fought all these years to give me. This opportunity, I don’t take it for granted at all.