Crowded into the bottom storage compartment of a fishing boat were 10-year-old Thinh Nguyen and his 15-year-old brother, Thang, along with many other Vietnamese families.
Panic set in when the first big storm wave hit the boat, and nearly flipped it. But eventually everyone sat quietly in the dark just waiting for the next big wave — watching as each one sent water pouring down through the compartment lid. Many started praying.
In the morning, when they spotted the shore, the Nguyen brothers first thought they reached their destination in the Philippines.
Then they heard gunshots.
Local police in a small seaside village in Vinh Chau, a southern province of Vietnam, had spotted the boat. The brothers ended up in jail for a month, eating just one small bowl of rice a day until their mother could pay their bail.
“We found out later that most villagers were very poor and hardcore communist followers. They reported anyone who looked strange to them. So virtually nobody was able to escape — since we were from the city our clothes made it easier for them to spot us,” Nguyen says.
The year was 1983, and they were among many who were trying to get out of Vietnam in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. The new communist government dealt harshly with those who had supported the government of the South — often sending them to prison or “re-educations camps.” Nguyen’s father was a colonel in the fallen South Vietnam army (listed as missing in action), so the family had been blacklisted.
“My mom kept telling us that the reason she sent us away was so we would have a good education. We would never be able to go to college with our background if we stayed in Vietnam,” Nguyen says. “Also, she was a literature teacher, but she couldn’t teach anymore because her romantic literature expertise was viewed as degenerate by the communist regime. She ended up making money by selling bicycle parts. So, freedom to pursue one’s desires in life was what she wanted for us.”
It took multiple attempts and a lot of bribe money, but she was undeterred — sending her five children out again and again in ones and twos.
Now that Thinh Nguyen is a professor in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Oregon State University, where he is able to pursue his many interests including networking and communications, he can say the sacrifice was worth it.
But it took another perilous journey to get him here.
Three years after being imprisoned, Nguyen had another chance at escape. His older brother had already escaped in a separate attempt, so this time he and four other people swam from the shore to a boat that would take them to the Philippines. Nguyen used an inner-tube from an old truck to keep him afloat on the kilometer-long swim.
It was a September night, and the South China Sea was calm. The group safely reached the boat that would take them to the refugee camp in the Philippines, where Nguyen’s brother was living. The boat was about 25 meters long and 5 meters wide, with 128 people crowded aboard. More were in the water, yelling for the boat to stop as it pulled away.
“There was really no place to lie down to sleep — I remember sleeping while sitting up,” Nguyen says. “The boat was so full that from where I sat at the edge of the boat I could reach down and touch the water with my hand.”
After losing some of the drinking water to a storm and having trouble with the engine, the mood on the boat was pretty dismal — until the fifth day, when an American merchant ship stopped and gave them some food and water and directed them to the Philippines.
The next day, the elated passengers reached the island of El Nido in the Philippines, the first stop on their way to the refugee camp. In their exuberance many jumped out of the boat to swim to shore, but as they got closer their emotions turned again to panic when they saw knives in the hands of the islanders. It turned out the knives were just to cut down coconuts, and eventually the confusion was sorted out.
“That story gives you some insight into the psychology of the boat people,” Nguyen says. “Many of the refugees were afraid of pirates and the like. So it was not surprising that people were very nervous seeing the local people with knives.”
Yet Nguyen would not describe the whole experience as scary or even challenging. For a 13-year-old, it was an adventure. “But tell me to do it again, and I would say, ‘No!’” he laughs. “Now I understand the consequences — one big wave and you’re gone.”
Finding a Home
At the camp Nguyen was reunited with his older brother, who had arrived several months earlier. Reaching the Philippines
meant freedom for all the refugees, but for two teenagers living in the camp without parents, the experience had even further
meaning — freedom, for sure, but also becoming self-reliant.
Letters from his mother would remind them they needed to study and prepare for their life in the U.S. So, with no school available at the camp, Nguyen spent much of his six months there studying physics and calculus on his own.
Although many refugees were stuck in camp for years, the two brothers were able to get out relatively quickly and traveled to Seattle, Wash., where their brother and sister were already living.
“I remember feeling very happy and excited,” he says of arriving in the U.S. “My first thought was everything was so clean and green.”
Initially they all lived with a friend of their family, but when his older sister turned 18 they moved into an apartment in a housing project.
“We also received government checks for a few months, but my older brother hated it, so he got a job while going to school. In my sophomore through senior years in high school, I had different part-time jobs — dishwasher, newspaper delivery, assembly line, programmer, typist — while going to school, and worked full-time in the summers,” he says.
And even though his mother was far away, she still had a strong influence on the family. Through letters she would remind them of the sacrifices she made to make sure that they would take advantage of the life she was able to provide for them, urging them to study hard to be successful. Nguyen had no trouble with high school and went on to the University of Washington, where he studied physics and math.
“Somehow, it just worked,” he says of growing up essentially without parents. “I never really thought about it.”
Finally, when Nguyen was out of high school and in his second year of college his mother was able to escape with his youngest brother and join them in Seattle. At that time Nguyen switched his major to computer engineering, which was more practical for supporting his family. But after completing his degree and working three years at Intel Corporation, he realized that his family was fairly well settled in their lives and he no longer needed to be a breadwinner.
“I thought what the heck, I should do something I like,” he says.
A Career that Fit
His love of science led him to look for an area that was theoretically driven but had a practical application. He settled on electrical engineering and specialized in signal processing and transmission, receiving his Ph.D. in electrical engineering and computer science at University of California, Berkeley.
Now, at OSU, his research encompasses information representation, processing, and transmission — the processes involved in streaming a movie to TV. His undergraduate courses focus on the mathematical underpinnings of signal processing, communication and networking; and his graduate courses on information theory, a branch of applied mathematics and electrical engineering. He also advises several graduate students whose projects range from implementation to theory.
“I’m curious about what information is, fundamentally, and how to represent it. Deep down, I really like something that is theory driven,” he says.
Although he has accomplished much in his career, his achievements like Best Paper awards stay turned over on his bookshelf rather the hung on the wall.
“I’m just doing what I like. Maybe someday I will do something I’m really proud of. That’s what keeps me going,” he says.
His biggest lesson in life, however, was self-reliance, which he now tries to instill in his three children, as well as his students.
“I encourage my students to constantly learn new ideas, to be independent and in the end do it your way,” he says.
All of his siblings were able to achieve the success they were hoping for when they embarked on their journey to the U.S. And although they are spread across the country from Florida to California, Nguyen describes them as “very close” and every year they get together for a family reunion.
In 2006, Nguyen returned to Vietnam and saw what his life could have been — he witnessed the daily struggles of his childhood friends and relatives and the lack of opportunities there.
“I really feel blessed and thankful to America, and grateful to all the people who helped my family escape and who contributed to our lives in America. It still amazes me that four of us kids living in a housing project without our parents, turned out okay. We all finished college. My two younger brothers are medical doctors and my older brother and sister have electrical engineering degrees. I am probably more optimistic than an average person, but I think America is still a land of opportunities,” he says.
-Story by Rachel Robertson