Tears of shame and sorrow have forged furrows deep into Steve Nguyen’s soul. They resurface and overflow as he recalls childhood degradations, a dangerous escape and journey to America.
Nguyen’s Saigon childhood ended abruptly in 1975 when his Vietnamese father was incarcerated in a Chinese concentration camp.
“I was only 9,” he says. “Every day from sunrise to sunset I searched through street trash cans and garbage to find things to trade for two kilos of rice to feed my family.”
This activity stopped when Vietnamese began attacking Communists in 1976. His mother, unable to feed them, sent Nguyen and his seven siblings to live with an aunt in the countryside.
“We were slaves in my auntie’s coffee shop,” Nguyen says. “We earned our food and bed by working from 4 a.m. until sundown.”
When the Chinese Army began enlisting 14-year-olds, his parents hatched plans for their children’s escape from Vietnam and promised they’d follow later.
“My father (released from captivity) made me choose,” he says. “He said I could stay and die or go to America, the generous land of opportunity. He told me I could be successful there.”
His mother earned his free boat place by selling seats (4 gold ounces each) for the boat owner.
“I’ll never forget May 15, 1981,” he says. “The tiny boat was crammed with 53 people. No daylight between us. Some were told to unload because boat would sink. I thought, ‘Better to drown than go back.’ I’d promised my father. Three days my feet sat in water. I was afraid to move in the tight space.”
The exhausted escapees were overjoyed to arrive in Thailand and expected to find shelter at a refugee camp. Instead, they were packed into police trucks, driven to the station and dumped on sidewalks. Police regularly swished them with bamboo sticks.
“Sometimes passers-by threw us food,” Nguyen says. “One day American pastor came and moved us to refugee camp for four months. There was much corruption. Government supplied food and water, but we received very little. My blue shorts had two holes. You could see my bare butt.”
He eventually transferred to a Filipino camp, where raw food was distributed twice weekly. Refugees created makeshift coffee shops where bartering occurred.
“I couldn’t go to America in blue shorts with holes,” he says. “I earned two pesos (under a cent) daily for chopping wood. I saved one every day for four months to buy blue jeans and shoes for America.”
He reached America on Jan. 29, 1982, at age 16, and worked endless 14-hour days in various states. He saved all his earnings and purchased Jade Mongolian BBQ restaurant, 1511 23rd St., in 2002.
His father, older brother and sister perished sometime after Nov. 20, 1981, when their escape boat vanished. His mother survived a seven-year prison sentence (for selling boat passages) and lives in Saigon with her two youngest children in a new tri-level house her “fine American son” bought her in 1997.
Nguyen still worries about losing everything but says, “I came here with only blue jeans and two hands and made it. I can do it again.”