By Catherine Spangler
Northwest Asian Weekly
When he first arrived in America, Peter Chu did not speak one word of English.
Now, as he tells his story, he speaks in a concise and direct manner. Chu is economical with details as he tells his remarkable history. However, his equanimity does not undermine the most important elements of how he got to where he is today.
In 1979, Chu’s family arrived in the U.S. as one of the boat people — Vietnamese refugees who sought asylum abroad following the Vietnam War. He was 11 years old when his family settled in Dundee, Ore., under the sponsorship of a Quaker community. Chu remembers their immense kindness to his family during a difficult time and cites it as one of the reasons he was able to eventually master the English language and earn a degree in law.
Chu breaks into a wide smile as he recalls a memory of his sponsors offering him coconut cream pie. He had never been confronted with such a decadent, sugary treat in his life. It was his sponsor’s attempt at making him feel more comfortable with reminders of the tropical home he left behind.
Chu’s unfamiliarity with aspects of American culture caused some initial confusion. On first meeting the son and daughter of his sponsor family, he called the son by the sister’s name, Shauna. His unfamiliarity with a new world soon gave way to a sense of belonging.
By making use of the local library, Chu began to pick up the English language. Every week, a student from the local college came to his sponsor’s house with a binder full of pictures. He learned to match the images with their sounds.
Tantamount to his education was his curiosity. “If you are not curious, which enables you to find out the truth of the situation, you can never gain full insight into what is going on,” Chu said.
Today, Chu is a partner in a Seattle law firm, specializing in patents and trademarks. He earned his degree in electrical engineering, as a Magna Cum Laude, from the University of Portland, and attended the University of Washington School of Law.
Scholarships, Pell grants, and student loans financed his schooling. While his list of credentials is impressive, community involvement is where his heart lies.
Chu is the founder of the Vietnamese American Bar Association of Washington (VABAW), a group organized to provide support for Vietnamese lawyers in the area and to foster a better community understanding of the legal system.
The VABAW has grown rapidly since its inception in 2005, beginning with a $1000 grant from Chu’s law firm. Among its greatest achievements, he is most proud of the Hong Duc program.
Named for an ancient code of Vietnamese laws that advanced women’s rights among other modern concepts, Hong Duc sends young lawyers to practice in a Vietnamese law firm for the summer.
“We want to help the community feel more comfortable with the legal system, to exercise that right,” Chu said.
Chu talks passionately about building a bridge between the land he left behind and the country he now calls home. In May 2007, he returned to Vietnam for the first time since leaving, as a delegate with the Washington Secretary of State’s Trade Mission.
“I was curious to understand the growth of Vietnam, how it has changed politically, economically, and culturally,” he said. The difference between the absolute regime he remembered and the Vietnam of today was astounding to see.
“What makes up a Vietnamese [person] is derived from thousands of years of history. Communism was just a snippet,” Chu said.
Chu’s biggest message for others is one he embodies as he is living proof of the American dream. Work hard, be curious and innovative, and reject negativity. “It is so important to find out who you are in order to do that,” Chu said. ♦
Catherine Spangler can be reached at email@example.com.