Tim Tran is quite the jokester.
“Old professors never die,” he told an otherwise serious meeting at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon. “They just lose their faculties.”
And then there is the strategy he uses in teaching his university finance classes, Tran likes to say he avoids the “burqa” method of his alma mater, the University of California, Berkeley, (“They cover everything”) in favor of the “bikini” approach (“Just cover the essentials”).
Or consider his report to a stockholders’ meeting when asked to explain how interest rates can fluctuate: “Sometimes they fluc down, other times they fluc up.”
His sense of humor is hard-earned, and may also provide a key to what helped him survive a treacherous escape from his native Vietnam and prosper as an American business executive.
Tran, born in 1950 in a village on Vietnam’s northern coast, did not have a lot to laugh about in a childhood marked by war and displacement.
His name then was Tran Manh Khiem. Following Vietnamese tradition, the family name comes first. His given name, Khiem, was pronounced “Kim.”
A Family on the Move
Rather than accepting his expected role — running the family rice farm — Tran’s father became one of countless young men in his country who joined up with the Việt Minh, the Vietnamese nationalist movement that was seeking independence from France. The group’s leader was Hồ Chí Minh, known throughout his country as Uncle Ho, and so beloved that his embalmed body lies in public view in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi.
Eventually, Tran’s father became disenchanted with the Việt Minh, viewing the group as little more than a front for communism. Leaving that guerrilla group put him at personal risk, so he changed his name from Nguyen Dinh Muu to Tran Duy Tinh. The decision to quit the Việt Minh came back to haunt him in 1954, when the Geneva Accords divided Vietnam into two parts: the North, controlled by communists with support from Russia and China, and the South, backed by the French and the United States.
Still fearing retribution, his father felt he could only ensure his own safety and that of his family was by heading south. Khiem, as he was known then, was just 4 years old when he and his parents boarded a crowded boat in the North Vietnamese port of Haiphong. The journey was rough, and Khiem was so violently seasick that the family disembarked before their intended destination of Saigon, arriving in a fishing village in the southern half of the country called Nha Trang.
“The very first memory I have was the trauma of leaving North Vietnam to settle in South Vietnam,” he said.
The family was part of an immense exodus from the north region of Vietnam. Their first home in Nha Trang was a tent in a refugee camp. Propaganda in the north had warned potential evacuees that the Americans would storm their boats, rob them of their possessions and then push them into the sea. Instead, little Khiem found himself eating from tins marked “USAID,” the U.S. Agency for International Development. He tasted something alien to traditional Vietnamese cooking called cheese, and found he liked it very much. His wealthy paternal grandfather had owned water buffalo, but in Vietnam, those beasts— along with cows — were used for labor, not milk.
(And now a pause for another burst of Tim Tran humor: “In rural Vietnam, we didn’t butcher a cow until the odometer read 100,000 kilometers.”)
While her husband took whatever odd jobs he could find, his wife Noi rose every morning at 2 o’clock or 3 o’clock to prepare food she sold around Nha Trang. Her specialties were che, a sweet dessert soup, and xoi, a sweet rice dish. By 5 a.m., she was balancing a bamboo pole called a don ganh on her shoulders with a basket of each dish dangling from either end. A year after they arrived in Nha Trang, Tran’s sister Thanh Binh was born. Her name translates to “calm and peaceful,” reflecting the serenity the family felt after their hasty move from the north.
Like most boys in his home village, Tran’s father had not gone past fifth grade. But what he lacked in formal education he made up for through voracious reading. The training he gave himself paid off when he landed a civil service job that prompted another move, this time to Tay Ninh, an inland province near the Cambodian border.
Teach Your Children Well
It was in Tay Ninh that Tran’s father began drilling the boy rigorously in mathematics, writing and reading. Tran’s father set high standards, insisting that his son finish his daily homework before taking on anything else. As a result, Tran was already a year ahead of his classmates when he started school.
The following year, his father won a promotion that took the family to Saigon. By now the family also included a second sister, Xuan Thao, or “springtime shoot of grass.” It took just two suitcases to accommodate all their possessions.
Saigon, the capital city of South Vietnam (known as Hồ Chí Minh City since 1976) had a population of just over 1 million when the family arrived in 1958.
“But everyone in South Vietnam had the same logic, viewing Saigon as the safest city,” Tran said. “The population grew and grew.” By 1975, Saigon had a population of 2.3 million. Today, that figure is just under 9 million.
Like the city itself, the family continued to grow. Tran’s brother Khoi was born in 1958. Another brother, Khoa, came along in 1959. A baby sister named Mai completed the family in 1961.
Tran’s elementary school was so crowded that students attended in shifts. His school day began at dawn, and after classes each day he went home to tackle the homework his father continued to give him. Along with reading, writing and mathematics, his father added lessons in science and rudimentary English.
“Everybody in Vietnam at that time was studying French,” Tran said. “But my dad saw that the French influence was over.”
Battles, skirmishes and incursions between north and south had been going on for years. But guerrilla attacks by the north increased markedly in 1961. In the U.S., Kennedy made the decision to send helicopters and military advisers to Vietnam. The rumblings of war were everywhere in that country.
“I was 10 years old,” Tran remembered. “Life became worse and worse.” Terrorism was rampant, he said: “The communists put explosives inside bicycles and parked them in front of key sites, including the U.S. Embassy.”
Riding his bicycle to school every day, his parents urged him “to go fast when I went by the U.S. Embassy.”
Tran did so well on the state-sponsored public high school entrance exam that was required for admission by Vietnam’s top schools that he won a spot at one of South Vietnam’s two most prestigious high schools. His high score and strong record also ensured scholarship money to help pay for supplies and uniforms. By his sophomore year in the all-boys high school, he was awarded a national scholarship from the South Vietnamese Ministry of Education.
No Fun, Few Games
“The only fun we had was kicking a soccer ball in the street,” Tran said. His family was large, and though his father’s government salary was not meager, there was little extra for luxuries, such as the Canadian athletic shoes — a brand called Bata — that Tran coveted. So he played barefoot.
“Also for fun,” he said with no trace of irony, people in South Vietnam watched government propaganda films in the city soccer stadium. These films stressed what a great job President Ngo Dinh Diem had done in kicking out the French and rebuilding the country’s economy. Not only that, the films pointed out, but now the Americans had arrived to help defeat the communists.
It never occurred to Tran and his pals to question this portrayal.
“We didn’t know any better,” he said. “We were kind of like blank sheets of paper.”
In November 1963, Tran’s father heard on the radio that Kennedy had been assassinated. He sent his oldest son out to get a newspaper so he could read about what happened. Tran was shocked. But he found some small reassurance when he read the name of the man who would succeed Kennedy in the White House because of what had happened two years earlier when Tran had joined his schoolmates to greet the visiting vice president. Tran, then a 11-year- old student, waving an American flag in one hand and a Vietnamese flag in the other, swears that Johnson looked directly at him from his open limousine, waved and smiled.
Unrest continued. In a successful coup attempt, President Diem and his younger brother Nhu were assassinated. In a year of instability marked by the formation and fall of several South Vietnamese governments, more coups followed. “The situation got worse day by day,” Tran said. “The economy of South Vietnam went from bad to worse.”
He was “about 13” when, perhaps unwittingly, he joined in a high school protest against the government. Older students had organized the demonstration, featuring a large anti-government banner. It did not go well.
“Every student was grabbed, me included, and taken to police headquarters,” Tran remembered.
There, one by one, a police officer gave each student a swift smack on the face. Standing near him, Tran’s friend challenged the officer. “Don’t you dare slap me,” Tran said his friend told the policeman. “My father works at the presidential palace.”
The policeman looked at his superior officer, who shook his head: No, don’t slap that one. When the officers told the boy to go home, he said he would not leave without Tran.
“So we were sent home,” he said.
A Family Business
Ever industrious, his mother set up a small gray-market enterprise. The Vietnamese girlfriends (and sometimes wives) of American GIs received goods that their soldier friends purchased at PXs (public exchange markets) on U.S. military bases. Along with cases of Coca-Cola, there were cartons of Pall Mall cigarettes, cans of Dole fruit cocktail and multi-packs of Wrigley’s chewing gum. Khiem’s mother bought these products from her Vietnamese friends, then sold them at a comfortable profit to Saigon citizens eager for the comforts of U.S.-made merchandise.
As her transport assistant, Khiem piled his schoolbooks on top of the Coca-Cola in his bicycle basket. Usually, officials waved him through as just another kid on a bike. One day, crossing a bridge, he was stopped.
“They checked my ID and military deferment card, then asked ‘Why are you carrying all that Coca-Cola?’”
Tran thought fast and replied: “‘We’re having a party at my high school.’ So they let me go.”
It fell to his father to transport the adult beverages.
“Same deal,” he said. His father was stopped by officials wondering why he had so many bottles of Johnnie Walker Black and White. Equally quick with an answer, his father explained that he worked for a very thirsty judge at the Ministry of Justice.
A Star Student
Even as the war was raging, about 200 South Vietnamese students per year won scholarships sponsored by the western nations ( the U.S., UK, France, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and also Japan) that enabled them to study abroad . Khiem had been among the top scorers on his country’s national baccalaureate exams. His grades were strong and his English was competent. He had supplemented his school work with trips to Saigon’s Abraham Lincoln Library, run by the U.S. Information Service, where he pored over U.S. maps and periodicals such as Time magazine.
“I spent a lot of time at the Abraham Lincoln Library,” he said. “The first thing I noticed about it was, wow, it was so cool. They ran the air conditioner 24/7. For a Vietnamese, it was very, very cold.”
He also visited the British Library in Saigon. Big difference: “It was very small, like a two-bedroom apartment, and there was no air-conditioning.”
There was also the contrast between the hulking U.S. Embassy in Saigon and the smaller outposts of countries such as New Zealand — “just a brownstone, really,” Tran said. “So you could see nobody was as wealthy as America.”
He wanted nothing more than to study in the United States, and thought he had a strong shot at a USAID scholarship.
“The best dream of any high school graduate is to study abroad,” he said. “Preferably in the United States.”
Still, he checked the list of winners over and over, just to make sure he hadn’t imagined that Tran Manh Khiem was among the winners.
“America,” he thought. “Here I come.”
He left Saigon on March 12, 1970. After an orientation in Honolulu the students were sent to different U.S. campuses for intensive English-language training. Tran was sent to Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
At first, he had trouble falling asleep without the sound of bombs dropping nearby. The silence kept him awake. He was perplexed by U.S. breakfast foods. Sometimes, the speed at which Americans spoke their language overwhelmed him.
Gradually he grew more bold. He explored the capital’s museums and national monuments. He took in the pink floral sea that is the city’s annual National Cherry Blossom Festival. He hung out in the periodical section at Georgetown’s library. He discovered scrambled eggs.
One day, he was summoned to a meeting with the USAID official overseeing his scholarship. An attractive young student named Thuy Trinh, also from Saigon, caught his eye. The official told them they would both be attending a school called Pacific University in some place called Forest Grove, Oregon. Unsure just where Oregon might be, Tran pulled out a map at the university library so he could find out.
If he had been hoping for the Ivy League, he did not pause long enough to feel let down.
“I didn’t know enough to feel disappointed,” he said. “I thought this is just another adventure, and adventure is good for me.”
Thuy and Tran sat next to one another as they flew across the country. Imagine their surprise when they were greeted at the airport by Ken Meyer, then the dean of admissions at Pacific University. The two were even more impressed when this high-ranking school official drove them to his home in Portland, served them a home-cooked dinner and installed them in separate bedrooms at either end of his large house.
On Campus, In America
On campus, Tran was an instant curiosity. Fellow students asked him if he had been in the war.
“There were no problems,” he said, no one assailing him about the ongoing conflict in his country. “A lot of Americans of different races took an interest in me when I introduced myself from South Vietnam.”
Even one of his professors, “a wonderful, kind, mild-mannered man with shoulder-length hair” named George Evans, peppered him with questions about what was actually going on in Vietnam. Tran’s first assignment from Evans was to read Philip Roth’s “Goodbye, Columbus,” and write a paper on it. Slowly, holed up in the campus library and using his English-Vietnamese dictionary, he plowed his way through.
His lessons continued outside the classroom. For instance, he learned the rules of American football. A Black student named Cliff Wood patiently answered his questions about Black culture in America. One memorable conversation centered around lynching. Another discussion focused on busing.
Tran worked so hard at becoming a typical American college student that he joined a fraternity. With two fraternities on campus, he opted for the more academic house, Gamma Sigma, not the one whose members streaked naked across the campus. It was his fraternity brothers who taught him slang, along with swear words. They also took him to J.C. Penney, where he found that the blue jeans in the boys department fit him just fine. With his new tie-dyed T-shirt, he said, “I fit right in.”
In short order, he formed three opinions about Americans: “One, they are very open and direct. We Vietnamese could not be as open as Americans. With Americans, what you see is what you get. They mean what they say, and they say what they mean.
“Number two: The overwhelming majority of Americans that I met were college-educated people. They were absolutely against the war — very opposed to American involvement in Vietnam.
“Three: America is a very free society. You can say anything you want, including (verbally) attacking the sitting U.S. president.”
The more fluent he became in English, the easier his schoolwork became. After asking one of his professors to recommend the best undergraduate business program in the country, he decided to transfer to the University of California, Berkeley.
Meanwhile, his friendship with Thuy had turned to romance. Thuy, too, felt she needed a greater challenge. When she told Tran that she was planning to transfer to the University of Oregon, they agreed that the distance between Eugene, Oregon, and Berkeley, California, would provide a good test for their relationship.
With the proceeds from a summer job teaching high school math, Tran put down $375 for a white Volkswagen Beetle decorated with flower decals. It was a model from 1967, the year of the famous Summer of Love in San Francisco. Tran was ecstatic. Once again, he fit right in.
Sure enough, at Berkeley he found the academic challenge he had been seeking. He declared a business administration major and spent long days and nights at the cavernous campus undergraduate library. He made new friends, including a former Marine with a Vietnamese wife. Stopping by their apartment for a meal became a regular event.
In the fall of his senior year, he decided to have some fun. He and his friends headed across the Bay Bridge to see The Who perform. It was his first rock concert, memorable equally for the police presence and the clouds of marijuana smoke. The sound from dozens of giant loudspeakers rang in his ears for days. After that, deciding classical music was more his style, he used his student discount to buy a season pass to the San Francisco Symphony’s concerts on the Berkeley campus.
Denizens of the 21st century — a generation that communicates both instantly and electronically — will find this hard to fathom, but in those early years of the 1970s, Tran stayed in touch with his parents via the post office. Sometimes it took a month for a letter to get from one country to the other. His notes home did not dwell on politics, for he knew the Vietnamese censors might block the letters from going through. But on campus, the war in Vietnam was a nonstop topic of conversation.
While his classmates were struggling over what to do if they were drafted, Tran had to decide what to do once he graduated. A stipulation of the USAID scholarship was that he would return to his home country. Tran had always dreamed of using his education to help Vietnam grow. But all around him, friends said he would be crazy to go back to a country in such disarray. Several friends even offered to let him live secretly in their parents’ homes in the U.S.
When Thuy finished her degree at Oregon and told Tran she was returning to Vietnam, that sealed the deal. He would go back to Saigon. But first, he decided, he would enjoy one last summer teaching math in Oregon.
All the while, the U.S. was going through its own domestic upheaval in the form of the Watergate scandal. As Nixon resigned and was replaced by his vice president, Gerald Ford, Tran was amazed that there were no military tanks in the streets of Washington, D.C., or any other U.S. city.
In late summer, 1974, “The culture shock began as soon as I stepped off the plane,” Tran wrote in “American Dreamer: How I Escaped Communist Vietnam and Built a Successful Life in America,” the memoir he authored with Tom Fields-Meyer.
He had forgotten about how heavily the humid air could weigh in Saigon. He had become so Americanized that he was shocked to see armed soldiers all around him. He was appalled when the official who examined his passport retained it to send to the Ministry of the Interior “for safekeeping.”
In other words, there would be no future travel abroad without government approval.
He and Thuy began meeting each other’s families. Thuy started with a job in the Saigon office of USAID, and soon switched to a position as a financial analyst for Esso, Standard Oil’s outfit in Vietnam. Tran pounded the pavement, sending resumes and seeking contacts before landing a job as an auditor at one of South Vietnam’s largest companies, Shell Oil.
The couple’s professional good fortune took place against a backdrop of rising political tension. North Vietnamese troops were moving steadily into the southern part of the country. Communist forces claimed Hue, South Vietnam’s second largest city. South Vietnamese President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu resigned and found exile in Taiwan. In late April of that same year, North Vietnamese soldiers surrounded Saigon.
As the North Vietnamese presence grew more ominous, Tran and Thuy explored options to leave the country to which they had so hopefully returned. He had focused his early life on attaining an education abroad. Now his American university degree branded him as an enemy of the communists. Not only was he an intellectual, but he wore eyeglasses, a sure badge of elitism in the North Vietnamese playbook.
His goal was to evacuate with his entire family, as well as with Thuy. In case that was not possible, he gave each member of his family the name of his boss and friend at Pacific University. If any one of them made it to the U.S., he told them to contact: “Paul Hebb, Pacific University, Forest Grove, Oregon.”
On April 29, 1975, Tran and his two brothers left their house before dawn and walked to the U.S. Embassy. Tran was certain he could find some means of escape once they got there. But he was not alone in this opinion. The crowds around the embassy had grown impenetrable.
Nearby, Tran spotted a U.S. Army bus crammed with passengers. The driver was American, and Tran asked in English if he and his brothers could board. The bus was headed to the Saigon airport. Tran believed they could find a spot on a U.S. military plane if only they could get to the airport. But halfway there, the driver received a message that the airport had come under rocket attack. The bus stopped abruptly and turned back to downtown Saigon.
Feeling more hopeless than ever, Tran and his brothers walked home. That evening, South Vietnam’s government issued an unconditional surrender as the North Vietnamese took control of Saigon.
After the Fall
That night, as communist victory speeches blared over the radio, Tran methodically destroyed any evidence that he had lived in the U.S. Document by document, he set fire to every paper he had saved, any correspondence and his treasured diploma from UC Berkeley.
As a souvenir, he had brought home a small American flag given to him by a Berkeley friend who was active in the Berkeley Young Republicans and who had encouraged him to return to Vietnam. He burned the flag, too.
Into the backyard conflagration went letters of recommendation, admissions documents from U.S. graduate programs he had never pursued and the USAID certificate that marked completion of his study abroad.
“The communists believed that having spent four years in America, I must be some kind of spy for America, or I got some kind of espionage training, or I was pro-American and anti-communist,” he said. “All of these were reasons to arrest me. Every day, I worried that they would imprison me.”
If his arrest was not imminent, he knew it would happen soon. The communists, he understood, had their priorities for elimination.
“First they had to take care of the South Vietnamese army, then the South Vietnamese journalists, then the heads of the South Vietnamese political parties,” Tran said. “I was only 24 years old. The only thing they had against me was that I had studied at an American university. I knew when my time comes; they would come for me.”
He also knew that once the communists took over an essential corporation such as Shell Oil, he would be fired. Sure enough, that’s exactly what happened. He pieced together some accounting jobs. He stayed silent.
“In a communist country, if you are wise, you keep your mouth shut,” he said.
Quietly, he focused his attention on a single goal: “Every waking moment, I tried to get out.”
An air of desperation overtook the city. People — such as Tran’s own father — who had ties to the South Vietnamese government were terrified. With that kind of anguish comes a sense of urgency. Tran and Thuy decided that if they were ever going to get married, the time was now.
There was no formal wedding, just a small gathering where everyone present recognized the couple’s union.
Tran became more and more intent on finding a way out of South Vietnam. Through a former Shell Oil colleague, he connected with a former Air Vietnam pilot who was secretly building a boat. He wanted to sail to Malaysia, but he needed a map to get there. Tran remembered his afternoons at the Abraham Lincoln Library when he was a teenager. He also remembered the maps he had pored over in back issues of National Geographic.
The library was closed to the public, but a librarian he knew still worked there. He arranged to have coffee with her and asked if she could find him a map of Southeast Asia that included the Gulf of Thailand. He offered to pay her 50 dong, more than she made in a month.
The next time they met for coffee, she was beaming. As agreed, Tran handed her the newspaper he had been reading. Politely, she excused herself and stepped into the restroom. When she returned, she handed Tran the folded newspaper that concealed the map.
“She hid it in her underwear,” Tran said as he told this story many decades later.
Months passed. The ex-pilot kept demanding more and more gold in exchange for safe passage. Finally, Tran realized he had been duped. There was no boat. When he tried to confront the former pilot one last time, even he had disappeared.
A second route brokered by a friend of Thuy’s brother also brought disappointment, not to mention further loss of funds.
“Everyone was bribed,” said Tran.
The next attempt had Tran posing as a Filipino in order to obtain fake citizenship papers. That did not end well, either.
Escape effort No. 4 put Tran in touch with a tough guy in his 20s named Song who said he represented the owner of a boat that could take them to freedom. Tran’s mother wanted to stay behind to make sure the communists did not commandeer the family home. After much back and forth, Tran negotiated a price to transport himself, his father, and Thuy.
Under cover of darkness, the three of them rode their bikes through Saigon. They boarded a ferry across the Saigon River, then rode three kilometers more to their designated departure spot.
“It all made sense at the time,” Tran wrote in “American Dreamer.” “The moonless night, the remote location, the middle of the night departure. Clearly, Song and his crew were doing everything possible to avoid attracting attention and raising the suspicions of the communist authorities.”
They boarded the small boat intended to take them to the larger escape vessel. When it docked, Song told the passengers he and another smuggler would escort them to the ship, one passenger at a time. Following the Vietnamese tradition of honoring one’s elders, Tran urged his father to go first.
Minutes passed. When the escorts returned, Tran saw that Song was carrying a large knife, which he dipped with blood-covered hands into the river. When Tran asked where his father was, Song said he was already on “the big boat.”
Shuddering, Tran understood that his father had been killed.
In a cold voice, Song told Tran and Thuy that they needed to move to a different spot on the boat.
He started the motor and ordered his passengers to stand.
He tied their hands .
Then he shoved them into the dark water.
Suddenly, the survival skills they had learned during a P E swimming class in their freshman year at Pacific came back to Thuy and Tran. They managed to loosen the knots tying their hands. They squirmed out of their pants and knotted the bottom of each leg. They blew air into the pants and waved the pants-balloons above them.
To their astonishment, they looked up to see Song’s boat returning in their direction. The crew men extended their arms and lifted them back onto the small craft. Thuy and Tran wondered if they would be taken someplace to be killed, just like his father. Instead they were dropped off where they had originally boarded the boat. They retrieved their bicycles and rode home. But they knew the smugglers would be back to demand more money for not reporting Tran’s and Thuy’s attempted escape to authorities.
Tran achieved some small measure of justice when he reported the murderous smuggling ring to the local police. He knew Song would come back for more money; that was how the gangsters operated. He also knew he was putting himself and Thuy at risk by admitting that they had tried to leave. It was a tradeoff he was willing to make. The local police set up a sting, and Song was arrested.
“Under communism, they make sure that people understand that if you confess to your wrongdoings and help them catch the bad guys, you will be treated fairly,” he said. “And that is what happened.” Song was sent to jail.
But without a body as proof, they could not be charged with murder. Song refused to tell the police and Tran where his father had been killed. To this day, Tran anguishes over the fact that he could never arrange a proper burial for his father.
A Last-Ditch Escape Effort
“That was the fourth attempt,” Tran said. He is a slight man, and at 71, his hair has turned silver. As he described those days of despair and treachery, he sat in his study in his comfortable home in Camas, Washington.
“After that I almost ran out of funds,” he continued. “I ran out of self-confidence. I felt guilty. Obviously it was my fault that my father was murdered.”
No one else blamed Tran, least of all his mother. While she wanted to remain in Vietnam to safeguard their property, she worried daily that Khoa, her youngest son, would be drafted, then sent to fight for Vietnam against Cambodia. Through her gray-market work, Tran’s mother Noi had established relationships with a number of ethnic Chinese merchants in Saigon. After the communist takeover, some of those merchants had set up side businesses of building ships to carry refugees away from Vietnam.
Officially, of course, this kind of venture was illegal. But generous payoffs persuaded Vietnamese officials to look the other way. Noi called in favors from a Chinese merchant friend, handed this friend an agreed-upon amount of money and sent Khoa out to sea. Their own experience had taught them how dangerous this could be, and horror stories abounded about the risks of fleeing on these overcrowded vessels. Boats capsized. Pirates trolled the South China Sea, robbing passengers of food and valuables. Sometimes the bandits even caused damages to the boat’s engines, leaving the passengers to drift without food or water.
Later, the family learned that Khoa had made it safely to Malaysia.
As word circulated that communist leaders intended to quash the wave of refugees leaving Vietnam, Tran’s mother once again visited her Chinese merchant friend. She negotiated a price for her 20-year-old son, Khoi, and for Mai, 18. Tran and Thuy paid for their own passage. Noi and Binh, Tran’s oldest sister, elected to remain in Saigon to protect their home.
On the morning of March 18, 1979 — five long years after they had returned to Vietnam — Tran and Thuy climbed on his moped and waved at any spies who might be watching as if they were going to work. A circuitous route took them to a truck festooned with the label “Construction Company of Southern Vietnam.” As they had agreed in advance, the driver handed them papers identifying them as his employees. Mai and Khoi joined them as they slipped under a green tarp for the ride to the port.
Sometimes the world can be a disarmingly tiny place. The following day, as they waited on a dock for the next phase of their getaway, Tran spotted Quang, a Vietnamese friend from UC Berkeley. At Cal, Quang had earned a Ph.D. in mathematics. His wife was a pharmacist. Now, with their two children, they were making the same attempt to leave as Tran and Thuy.
It was too dangerous to speak. As they passed each other, they made eye contact but said nothing.
A short boat ride took them to the home of a Chinese family, part of the network that helped people leave Vietnam. Tran, Thuy, Khoi and Mai slept in a thatched-roof lean-to in the family’s backyard. Weeks passed before they were escorted to a rickety fishing boat designed for perhaps 50 passengers. Hundreds of men, women and children of all ages crammed their way onto the deck.
“We must have been 350 people,” Tran said, “packed like sardines.”
The boat lurched its way into the choppy waters of the open sea.
“I thought about all I had endured over the past five years,” Tran wrote in “American Dreamer.” “I had lost my career, lost my father, lost my hope and nearly lost my life. But at this moment, I felt optimistic.”
For the first time in many months, Tran allowed himself a smile.
That glimmer of hopefulness was short-lived. As predicted, bands of pirates attacked the boat. First they confiscated gold, jewelry and foreign currencies from the passengers. They took Tran’s eyeglasses, even his Levi’s. Then, seeking possible hidden loot, they slit open the boat’s bags of rice and used their sharp knives to pierce water jugs. After she was raped by a pirate, a teenage girl threw herself into the sea to die.
The May sun in the Gulf of Thailand was brutal. The boat drifted, seemingly without destination. The passengers sat in numb silence, until finally someone said, “I see a mountain! I see land!”
They suspected they had landed in Malaysia, though at first, no one knew for sure. When they spotted a large SUV emblazoned with the letters UNHCR — for United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees — the bedraggled group heaved a collective sigh of relief. An official-looking man emerged and asked if anyone spoke English.
Tran’s was among several hands that shot up. Pointing at Tran, he asked “What are your credentials?”
Tran did not hesitate. “Khiem Tran,” he said. “University of California, Berkeley. Class of 1974.”
The treacherous, eight-day voyage had taken them to the island of Pulau Bidong. The tiny land mass, less than one square kilometer, lay about 17 miles off the coast of Malaysia. The refugee camp run by the United Nations housed about 30,000 people. Astonishingly — but again, proof of just how small this vast world can be — Tran’s brother Khoa was among them. On a tiny speck of an island, the siblings were reunited.
It took no time for Tran and Thuy to be drafted as interpreters. “Half a year in the refugee camp, I made myself useful, interpreting for the English-speaking delegation: America, Great Britain, Canada, Australia,” Tran said.
His accounting skills also proved valuable. New refugees arrived daily. Each family group had to be interviewed and classified according to, among other qualities, their desired destination for immigration. Each country had different entry requirements and preferences. Tran helped keep track of the various categories.
To the enjoyment of the officials he was translating for, Tran also displayed his sense of humor. After an interview with a Vietnamese man who said he had no living relatives anywhere, but wanted to settle in the United States, one of the American team leaders remarked that the poor man must be very lonely.
“He’s even lonelier than J. Edgar Hoover,” Tran joked. “At least Hoover has his mother.”
The team leader laughed hard.
As a graduate of a major U.S. university and a former Shell executive, Tran enjoyed a status that extended beyond his language skills. Along with interpreting, he became the camp’s unofficial press secretary. This meant he met with dignitaries who came on inspection missions, such as a New York Democratic Congressman Stephen Solarz. After Tran briefed him and walked him through the crowded, makeshift housing at Pulau Bidong, Solarz told Tran he thought conditions were dreadful.
But Tran protested, explaining that after what they had all been through, residents of the refugee camp were happy to be there.
Tran also met journalists from around the world. His picture appeared in Life magazine. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation taped an interview with him. A reporter from the German magazine Der Spiegel interviewed Tran in English and was impressed when he concluded the interview by saying “Auf Wiedersehen”–German for “farewell.”
His work as camp press secretary also brought him in contact with journalists from Time magazine, Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post.
There were side trips, too. With English as their common language, he served as the translator for a French surgeon from Medecins San Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) during an operation on an offshore medical ship. For Tran, the highlight of the experience was the croissant and café au lait he savored in the ship’s mess hall after the procedure.
“Fantastic!” Tran said as he described the buttery pastry and steaming coffee so many years later.
On another occasion, he translated for a Malaysian court trying a Vietnamese man for sea piracy. This time, the standout features involved sleeping in a cushy hotel bed and relishing a beer with lunch.
Finally it came time for Tran and his family to be interviewed for resettlement. Tran was stunned to discover that his friends in Oregon had organized a campaign on his behalf. His file bulged with letters from the state’s two U.S. senators at that time, Robert Packwood and Mark Hatfield, both Republicans. The file also contained a letter from then-Rep. Les AuCoin, noting that Tran had worked on his campaign while attending Pacific University. His friends from California had contacted then-Sen. Alan Cranston, a Democrat, who also wrote on Tran’s behalf.
And so they set forth to the life they had longed for. A UNHCR boat took them to the Malaysian coast. From Kuala Lumpur they flew to Tokyo. Next came a nonstop flight to Seattle, then a puddle-jumper to Portland. The war felt far behind, and so did the horrors of their escape.
Back in the U.S. of A
“Part of my life was that boat trip,” Tran said. “The better part was looking forward, making things better.”
Once they learned that Tran and his family would actually be coming to Portland, the same friends from Pacific University who had lobbied on his behalf sprang into action. They found the family an apartment and furnished it from garage sales. They got him a job as a math tutor, the best thing they could find in the sluggish American economy of late 1979.
With characteristic determination, Tran set about finding more suitable employment. He sent out resumes, and without fail received responses informing “Ms. Tran” that no positions were available. So now, on top of the war, on top of the boat trip, on top of the murder of his father — there was gender discrimination, as potential employers falsely assumed he was female by his first name Khiem.
He revised his resume, adopting the name Timothy Tran. He sent the new resumes to the six companies who had rejected him as Khiem. All six invited him for interviews.
Thuy, for her part, had preceded her husband in this renaming effort. In high school in Saigon, her first English teacher had given her the name Cathy. Cathy Tran quickly found a job as an accountant at U.S. Bank. Rising through the ranks, she stayed at the bank until 1990, then moved to an insurance company.
For the newly-christened Tim Tran, the best offer came from Johnstone Supply, an international distributor of heating, vacuuming, air-conditioning and refrigeration products that has its roots in Portland. Tran started at Johnstone as an accountant. Twenty-three years later, he retired as a Chief Finance Officer (CFO) and vice president of finance, the number two person in a multibillion-dollar company.
Since they had never had an official marriage ceremony, Cathy and Tim decided to renew their vows before a Multnomah County judge. At the party afterward, a friend playfully asked if Tim had married for love or for money.
Here comes Tim the comedian, as recorded in “American Dreamer”:
“When we married the first time, Cathy did not have a lot of money, so I call that marrying for love,” he said. “This time, Cathy has a job that pays well, so it must be marrying for money. I’m looking forward to using that money to buy a lot of love!”
Tran took up golf. Once again, his wit served him well. In his golf club’s locker room, a player glanced at an Asian man and assumed he was the attendant. The player told Tran to get him more towels. Tran’s golf partner started to object, but Tran shot a crafty smile and said, “Right away, sir.”
“Being accepted as a refugee in America, it is never a right, but it is a privilege,” Tran said. “The privilege creates indebtedness.”
As he retired from Johnstone and started teaching at the University of Phoenix, Tran took a long look at his net worth. From a refugee who arrived in the U.S. with scarcely a penny, he had become a wealthy man. It was time, he decided, to give back.
Starting with the day he discovered the air-conditioned sanctuary of the Abraham Lincoln Library in Saigon, Tran had always loved libraries. He and Cathy also felt a special tie to Pacific University. It was where, after they met in Washington, they launched their American education. They decided to create an endowment that would support the library in perpetuity.
In return, Pacific University gave its library a new name: The Tim & Cathy Tran Library.
The Trans are inveterate travelers. They have visited most of America’s national parks and nearly all the presidential libraries. They have made many trips to Europe, cruised the Amazon and admired the art at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. By careful design, they have not returned to Vietnam.
“Too many sad memories,” he said.
With great pride, he explains: “I am from Vietnam. My country is the United States of America.”