If you met Phuonglien Nguyen like I did, in the spring of 1995 when I was looking for a roommate, you would have assumed she was like any other multi-tasking, hard-working Harvard undergraduate. But this government major with a steady boyfriend and a list of extracurricular activities longer than her arm was literally living the American dream.
Forty years ago last week, her mother Tung Nguyen, fled Saigon with only a purse in her hand, shortly after the American forces pulled out. She had been selling soup on the side of the road to help support her mother and six siblings in the countryside. She remembers being told by a friend that Viet Cong soldiers were coming.
Tung, who was 28, followed a crowd toward one of the thousands of fishing boats leaving the country. “I didn’t really think about the decision. I was running for my life,” she tells me. The boat was pulling away from the dock as she arrived. She had one leg in the boat and the other one dangling over the side when one of the other passengers pulled her in.
The boat had no food or water, and Tung had to throw her purse overboard so there would be less weight. Nine days later, an American ship found them adrift; most of the passengers were dead. Tung had survived only by opening her mouth when it rained.
The survivors were taken to Guam and spent three weeks at a military camp while the US government figured out where to send them. All Tung remembers is telling the agent that she wanted to go someplace warm. Eventually Lutheran Services arranged for her to go to Miami.
When she stepped off the plane, she was introduced to Cathy Manning, a 30-year-old school teacher who already had several refugees living in her house. “I scared, really I scared,” says Tung, whose English is still far from fluent. She had no friends and knew nothing of America. She had never been in a car before. And she was six months pregnant.
Even so, Cathy recalls, “Tung was so skinny. She had so many scars on her face from small pox.” And she was different from the other refugees Cathy had helped. “She was always working — either cleaning the house or cooking.”
Cathy later understood that Tung was at the bottom of the pecking order even among the refugees, because she came from a rural part of the country. But Cathy remembers how amazing her food was. “I had eaten Vietnamese food in restaurants in Miami and in Washington, DC, and hers was better.”
Cathy recalls that more than one doctor asked if Tung wanted to abort Phuonglien. “She told them as long as she had some rice, she was keeping the baby.” At home with the baby, Tung would sew and sell her soup to make a living. When all the other refugees had been settled elsewhere, Tung stayed, and the three became a family.
In 1977, it occurred to Cathy that Tung might be able to make use of her talents. “I was jumping between jobs. I had been teaching and driving a taxi and every time I came home there was always delicious food waiting, which Tung had cooked.”
And so was born the idea for Hy Vong. Cathy and a friend from church put in the plumbing and electricity themselves, and they opened with four tables in 1980. Today Hy Vong is one of the top restaurants in Miami — Zagats recently put it at No. 11 — and Tung and Cathy still go in most days, working from noon until 2 or 3 a.m.
But their greatest accomplishment is Phuonglien, who now goes by Lyn. After she graduated from Harvard and got an MBA from Cornell, Lyn and her husband became successful tech entrepreneurs. Interestingly, Lyn recalls never feeling like she came from an immigrant family because Cathy, who became a second mother to her, “helped give me the American experience and fully integrated me into American culture. She introduced me to Pilates to help me with ballet. She found science labs where I could do research because I loved chemistry.”
Tung and Cathy recently went to Vietnam to visit Tung’s family. Her sister asked Tung whether she was an American now. “Total American,” she told them. “I vote!”
“Had I grown up there,” Lyn tells me, “it is highly likely I would not have been even able to go to grade school.
My life is so different. People take for granted that you can become anything and do anything here regardless of your background.” But Tung and Lyn never do.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.Twitter: @naomisriley