By The-Anh Nguyen
For Northwest Asian Weekly
My name is The-Anh Nguyen, I have been a Seattle resident for the past 23 years. My family settled here under a Humanitarian Operation Program for Viet Namese people.
Like most newly arrived families, my folks immediately went to work and school. I thought my parents were remarkable and amazing in how they found the courage to move across the world, to a new country, with three young children, and a few hundred dollars to their name, in hopes of a better future. Their bravery inspired me to share this story with you. Oh, by the way, the actual correct spelling for Viet Nam is not “Vietnam.” We would like it to be seen as two words.
My parents met just right before the Viet Nam War ended. My dad spent an indeterminate sentence in a re-education camp (prison camps for political prisoners, operated by the Communist government of Viet Nam following the end of the Viet Nam War). My mother stayed true to her husband for six straight years — two of those years without any news of his well being.
My siblings and I were born after his release. Prior to leaving Viet Nam, our house was burned down to the ground. Most of our suitcases were destroyed in the fire and what we had left to carry was light. The United States of America appeared colorful in the comics of “Tintin,” but in reality it was not. Seattle was so dark and gloomy upon my first sighting through the back seat window of a Toyota Camry one rainy day on June 10, 1993. The sky was gray and the seemingly unfriendly mood of people matched their dark clothing and buildings. Where were the vibrant colors that my Viet Nam was painted with? The people of Viet Nam smiled more and our buildings were painted in many bright colors.
Let’s fast forward a few months after we moved to Seattle. In 1994, our rent was $300 and our family could barely afford it. Miraculously, we managed to fit six people into a living room, divided with shower curtains, makeshift bedrooms and we rented out one bedroom in our two bedroom home to a single working man who we called “uncle Thanh.” Uncle Thanh was rarely home. He hardly spoke any English and chased one restaurant job after another. The jobs that were available came through referrals or provided by other Viet Namese. This is a great case for why we should strengthen ethnic minority owned small businesses in Seattle. These places absorbed the unskilled and non-English speakers.
It was not a bad thing to have a full house growing up. I came from sleeping on the floor with 25 other cousins in Viet Nam, to having my own curtain in a private section of the living room. When I look back, I miss those days because someone was always home, and we used space efficiently. Both my parents worked multiple jobs in Seattle they also attended ESL classes in between jobs and I would see them only on the weekends. My grandmother was the primary caregiver so my parents didn’t have to worry about the monthly day care bills. My folks focused on learning just enough English to become teacher assistants in the morning. In the afternoon, they were janitors for the 5th Avenue Theatre, in Seattle, and on the weekends, they worked at a friend’s laundromat. They also made time on the weekends to attend church with us.
In 1997, my parents bought our first family home for $70,000 — four years after arriving to America and even before we earned our citizenship! It took them till 2003 to pay off that home, then they purchased their second home, and paid it off in 2008.
With the gentrification of Columbia City’s neighborhood, the new developments, foreign investors, and roughly 19 cranes filling the city’s skyline, this city is growing out of control and is now overwhelmingly unaffordable. The once-diverse 98118 zip code is losing its footing.
In 1997, my dad had to quit college to get a full time job, so my mother could continue college. He was a public official prior to the war, and after the war, he became an attorney. He is also fluent in English and French. I have no doubt that my father would’ve had a successful career if he was able to finish college. However, I believe that he chose to become a janitor because of the benefits that came along with having full time job. He wanted better security and ensured that we had medical coverage. My parents shared many sacrifices, for our better future.
Their blood, sweat, and tears were eventually rewarded by all of their children graduating with at least a bachelor’s degree. We are now all career oriented people and homeowners. My parents have worked their entire lives and contributed greatly to the City of Seattle, but with the increase of property taxes and utilities will they be able to afford a retirement here? By themselves, no! The City of Seattle it is now a congested and an expensive city that favors millennials and gentrifies the rest.
As for my parents, my siblings and I have their backs because of the “Asian Retirement System.” There are no true retirement systems overseas, so parents invest heavily into their children, so when the parents are unable, their children are.