Like so many Vietnamese people, Joanne Nguyen has lived a life shaped by American foreign policy.
When she was born, in 1966, U.S. troops were already engaged in the ground war and her father, an English professor in Saigon, had been drafted into the South Vietnamese Army to assist U.S. forces. When America withdrew in 1975, he was among the tens of thousands of U.S.-backed fighters who, left behind, were sent to concentration camps under the new Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
“The communists come and tell him, Pack your bags. You need to go for re-education,” Nguyen recalls. “They said it would be 10 days. They took him for 10 years.” Ten days after his arrest, the youngest of his six children was born. Upon his release, in 1985, the little boy said, “Who are you?”
Nguyen is now writing a book, called Letters to My Children’s Children, to address a broader version of that same question. “It was a hard road for us, living under communism,” she says. “I want to leave for the next generation where I’m coming from, what this country means to me.”
I want to leave for the next generation where I’m coming from, what this country means to me.”
In 1990, Nguyen’s family had been among the first to leave Vietnam in the final wave of post-war emigres: The South Vietnamese soldiers, and their families, who had helped U.S. forces but who had been left behind 15 years earlier to face persecution. Nguyen’s family resettled in Sioux City, Iowa, where a cousin, one of the earlier refugee “boat people,” had ended up for college.
“My whole family worked at the meatpacking plant,” says Nguyen, who, after several career changes now works in a nail salon. Her father became a public school teacher; the cousin now owns several businesses in Oregon; and her daughter is studying to become a pediatrician and her son a mechanical engineer.
“I talk to my daughter a lot about Vietnam and the wonderful opportunity she has in this country,” says Nguyen, who also hosts events to honor Vietnam-era soldiers. “I know the price of freedom, and I don’t take this country for granted.”