A journey left untaken
Vietnamese refugee Tran Anh-Hung overcomes his search for freedom with a college degree
Published: Wednesday, August 28, 2002
Updated: Thursday, September 4, 2008 14:09
Tran Anh-Hung has done it all, from traveling 10,000 miles to find his freedom to defeating the odds as a Vietnamese refugee and getting a college degree. Yet Anh-Hung says his first years in America were overshadowed with apprehension and distress.
“I felt like a fish out of water,” Anh-Hung said. “It was total culture shock.”
Not speaking English or being accustomed to the American way of life made it tough on Anh-Hung to adjust.
“I really didn’t understand what was going on,” he said.
Anh-Hung, a man of Vietnamese and Chinese descent, lived his first 22 years in Saigon, a bustling city near the southern tip of Vietnam. There, he attended traditional French schools established during the colonization of the land by France from 1887 to 1954. These schools, though not nearly as prevalent as they once were, still exist in the south of Vietnam despite the 48 years since the expulsion of French occupiers after the battle at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.
Anh-Hung’s journey to freedom began in 1995, when, under an agreement between the United States and Vietnamese governments, four members of his family were able to come to America as political refugees. A brother and sister had to stay behind because of family issues. His father, Tran Hao, had joined the U.S. Army in 1962, while the civil war in Vietnam raged. After the fall of Saigon in April 1975 to its communist captors, Hao was sent to a “re-education camp” for about three years. After Hao finished his term in the camp, which was similar to a political prison, he then returned to life as a citizen of Vietnam.
The agreement that was made by the U.S. government and the Vietnamese government allowed the family several years later to make their first stop in New York.
“People looked at us like beggars. Nobody even spoke to us. I felt really bad,” Anh-Hung said of his first impression of America. “It was really scary when the customs officers asked me information about myself.”
Just staying in New York long enough for processing, the fractured family headed to Maryland, where a sponsor at a Lutheran church helped them to become more acquainted with their new life, basic daily tasks and American culture.
“They were very helpful, and they did a lot of favors for our family,” Anh- Hung said of his sponsors.
With only a brief stay in Maryland, the family came to Florida, where Anh-Hung’s mother’s cousin had lived for some time. Even after arriving in Florida, Anh-Hung, the oldest child in the family, felt a strong language barrier, especially when it came to applying for a job.
He wanted to work in a restaurant. His friends encouraged him to apply at an Asian restaurant, but he felt it would help him learn English better if he worked in an American one. He was hired as a waiter at a South Tampa steak house, but the manager felt he was not proficient enough in English, and he was demoted to a dishwasher.
“This really hurt me a lot,” Anh-Hung said. “I didn’t apply for a job as a dishwasher, and I didn’t like the idea to be a dishwasher; I wanted contact with people so I could learn to speak English. I decided to get a job somewhere else.”
So he did something about it. Anh-Hung quickly enrolled in the English as a Second Language (ESL) program at Hillsborough Community College.
From this point, Anh-Hung began to assimilate to his new life. He made a lot of friends and got along well with his teachers and classmates.
“The teachers there were very caring and so helpful,” Anh-Hung said.
Leslie Eckstein, an English teacher who works with foreign students, especially stood out during Anh-Hung’s experience.
“She really had a big impact on my life. She even encouraged me to become a writer,” he said.
Eckstein started part time with HCC in 1996 and was hired full time in January 1999. She formerly taught at the University of Toledo and Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
“Anh-Hung was a very dedicated and very persistent student,” Eckstein said. “He was very inquisitive. If you gave him an answer that didn’t jive with his understanding of the material, he would ask further, very minute questions to get it clarified.”
Anh-Hung and Eckstein quickly formed a bond.
“As a college instructor, you don’t always have a lot of lengthy personal contact with students,” Eckstein said. “Sometimes they pass right through your fingers, and you never see them again.
But with Anh-Hung, I’ve been able to see how far he’s going.”
Working with Eckstein allowed Anh-Hung to understand the value of learning the English language.
“Communication in this country, just like everywhere, is very important,” he said.
After completing the ESL program, Anh-Hung continued his studies at HCC, where he graduated in 1999 with a 3.5 grade point average, placing him on the President’s List, the highest honor for an HCC graduate.
Freshman English teacher Cathy Werner described him with one word: driven.
“He was never satisfied with his own work. Wherever I went on campus, every time I turned around, he was there, asking for help or advice,” Werner said.
Werner had Anh-Hung as a student her first semester of teaching.
“He rather spoiled me, having a student like Anh-Hung my first semester teaching. He was very charming, in every way a pleasure to teach,” she said.
Werner said her favorite memory of Anh-Hung was when she planned to take a trip to California for Christmas.
“He came to the classroom early and turned my whole chalkboard into a Christmas card,” Werner said.
Upon graduating from HCC, Anh-Hung transferred to the University of South Florida, where he majored in both management information systems and business management. While attending USF, he made the Dean’s List and began writing for publications.
He received several scholarships to study abroad, which took him to Wales, Mexico, Ireland, Vietnam and England.
He utilized this knowledge and in the past has written stories which have been published in The Oracle.
“If I had to describe him with just one word it would be ‘persistent,’” said Jay Lawrence, Oracle adviser and director for student publications at USF. “He always came looking for assignments so he was very eager to write.”
Anh-Hung took the opportunity to use writing as a way to improve his new language ability.
“He really worked hard when he was here to become a better writer in his new language,” Lawrence said. “He took criticism from the editors very well. I’m sure it couldn’t have been easy for him, especially when he first started writing.”
Anh-Hung’s interests include writing, photography, traveling and computers.
“I like the combination of these things because during my travels, I can take pictures and write an article afterward by using my computer skills,” he said.
His future plans include earning an MBA while continuing to improve his writing skills and producing more articles for publication. He also wants to produce a video documentary on Asian refugees who have come to America.
“I would like to do something productive with my new skills, and writing is the most important of them.”