Speaking of America: 'Here, you have the freedom'

After a tumultuous year, a reporter took a cross-country journey to sample Americans' views of their country. Today, how a man escaped war on a boat, and then found a new life as a Louisiana fisherman. Part 4 of 5.

Doug Struck
Phong Robert Nguyen and his son Bobby Nguyen, aboard Phong's 'retirement' boat, the Princess Kim, named for his youngest daughter in Buras, Louisiana.

When the communists came to his Vietnam town, Phong Robert Nguyen fled to a fishing boat, jammed already with 50 of his wife’s family.  As they cast off, they saw a barge filled with refugees sink, “and I saw a couple hundred people die in the water. We pulled about 50 aboard our boat, but we were about to sink then.”

That started Nguyen’s odyssey in 1975 from a country riven by war to a summer-sultry fishing village in the country that lost. Forty-two years later, he is a man content to see his sons and daughters make their own way as citizens here, even if they do not follow their father back to the sea.

He made it here, he says, through exhausting days and nights, pulling shrimp aboard his trawler at sea for a week until the hold was full, and returning to port only long enough to unload and set out again.

He made it here, he says, because “here, you have the freedom.”

He made it here, his son says, because “he had the drive.”

Nguyen’s story is the well-worn template of newcomers in this country, washed ashore by choice or circumstance, who toil relentlessly to succeed, and now watch their sons and daughters seize that freedom in their own way. That template is being questioned by opponents of immigration, but not by those who lived it.

“When I was younger, I really did not know their story, or their struggles,” says Bobby Nguyen, one of three sons and three daughters. “I was resentful. But then I opened my eyes and I said, ‘Wow, my daddy did all of that with nothing.’ That gave me a drive: Well, if he could do that, why can’t I do that – I mean, I was born here.”

Nguyen’s story is also the reflection of the often-uneasy American accommodation of the next wave of newcomers. Nguyen landed in Guam, was taken to a refugee camp in Arkansas, and sponsored by a Catholic priest in Rochester, N.Y. He was offered a training program at American Can Company there, and worked in Rochester for nine years until his wife, Lien, learned her family had also survived and had resettled in Louisiana.

Many Vietnamese, accustomed to the Mekong River and their own long seacoast, found the steamy Mississippi Delta familiar. At Lien’s insistence, Nguyen moved there in 1984, found himself a part-owner of a steel 68-foot fishing trawler with double 48-foot booms and nets, and then abruptly owned it all. He had been a municipal worker in Vietnam; now he had to learn how to fish.

“The first year, I didn’t make any money. By the third year, I had paid off the bank,” he recalls.  

But the existing shrimp fleet of American captains was unhappy at the Vietnamese competitors. The two groups could not speak the same language. The Vietnamese did not understand the customary courtesies on the water. The Americans were hostile; shots were fired.

“We were working harder to make a living. They thought we were stealing,” Nguyen says.

“There was fault on both sides,” says Bobby Nguyen, who now works as a translator and liaison for federal fishing agencies with the fishermen.

A change began in 1986, when Nguyen came across a white fisherman stuck, with his engine disabled, as bad weather rolled in. The man was waving a white T-shirt for help. His crew “told me not to go close, we would get shot,” Nguyen recalls.

But “fishermen should look like brothers. I figured I could work for my whole life, but this was only one day.” He raised his nets, gave up his income for the day, towed the man back to port, refused his offer of cash, and hustled back on the water the next day. He took two bags of apples as payment.

But the reward was more: The rescued fisherman spread the word of the good deed among Anglos, and Nguyen coached his fellow Vietnamese fishermen on the rules of the road for the water. Gradually, the two groups began working side by side.

Nguyen eventually sold his big boat and became a middleman for the shrimp trade. He still trains fishermen at Coast Guard safety courses in a large shed he built beside his double-wide trailer in this lowland town 60 miles south of New Orleans. He constructed a 48-foot fiberglass boat that he and his wife use to work together to shrimp in shallower coastal waters.

He works because “I want to have something for my grandkids when I retire.”

None of Nguyen’s children is a fisherman. Bobby Nguyen is the closest, working on training and conservation policy with the Vietnamese fleet. “Shrimping is very, very hard work,” says Bobby Nguyen. “By the time I was 14, I could handle the boat. I am glad I know how to do it. I know it’s there if I need to fall back on it. But it’s not my favorite job.”

Nguyen says that is OK. “There is too much danger on a boat,” he says. Besides, the younger generations “don’t have the spirit for catching shrimp. They are not thinking about the wind and tide.”

He is pleased his children have found other occupations: physician’s assistant, Air Force serviceman, audio technician, dental hygienist, Bobby, and one still in college. And they have provided five grandchildren, including Bobby’s 4-year-old boy.

With their lives shaped by political forces, the Nguyens keep an eye on the politics of their new country. “All the political stuff worried me at first,” Bobby Nguyen says of the current climate, “but now I think it’s almost funny.”

His father is focused on the bigger picture:  “In Vietnam, you had no choices. But in the US, there is so much freedom. You can choose where you live and what you do. Right now, I am very, very happy we came to the United States.”

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