Metro-East Living

Vietnamese ‘boat people’ overcame rough waters

Fairview Heights sisters' duet is music to Grandpa's ears

Davis Nguyen, who left Vietnam in 1981, worked hard so his children and grandchildren would have a good life.
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Davis Nguyen, who left Vietnam in 1981, worked hard so his children and grandchildren would have a good life.

Avery Gallina wore her white sandals with heels to piano practice.

“I have two pairs,” the dark-eyed 6-year-old said proudly.

She and sister Addison, 7 1/2, come once a week for lessons with Amy Jo Sawyer, of O’Fallon. They sit down at a grand piano, one of three pianos in the busy studio, and wait for direction.

“Watch carefully so you don’t get going faster,” said their teacher before they played a duet, a piece called “Rainbow Colors.”

Their grandpa, Davis Nguyen, brings them and listens to them play from his seat on a folding chair across the room.

“I love music and I didn’t have a chance to learn music,” said Davis, 61, who grew up in Vietnam. “I taught myself to play guitar when I was young. It was a poor country. During the war, there was no piano. ... Like I told Miss Amy, without her, there’s no way they can learn to play like this. I help them a little bit. The main thing is have a schedule for them to practice. Kids, they don’t like practicing. They like to play.”

Four cousins also take piano lessons with Miss Amy. At recital time, it’s a family reunion.

Boat people

Davis and wife Mary live in a neat, light-colored brick home near a Fairview Heights golf course. He is retired, but helps his wife run Tiptop Nails at St. Clair Square.

The couple met in 1977 at an outdoor market in Saigon where she sold clothes. The Nguyens barely survived the country’s turmoil.

“After the Communists took over the country in 1975, they put me in jail,” said Davis, who had studied to become a helicopter pilot in the South Vietnamese Air Force. “I hid after I got out. I was a bus driver when I met my wife.”

In 1981, he and his family escaped Vietnam in a boat.

800,000 Number of boat people who left Vietnam between 1975 and 1995 and who arrived safely in another country

200,000-400,000 Number of boat people who died at sea because of overcrowded boats, storms, pirates and other dangers

“It was a tiny boat. The width is this big,” he said spreading his arms wide. The length was about 22 feet. “We made it from cedar wood. We learned from neighbors, from fishermen. It took us two or three years. The motor was modified from a generator. We prepared food and water. We thought we could fit about 20 to 30 on the boat. Unfortunately, it went up to 59 people, including children.

“We were the people called ‘boat people.’ My family and seven people related to me (including four brothers and a sister) were on the boat. The rest were strangers.”

They were among the close to 800,000 boat people who left Vietnam between 1975 and 1995 and arrived safely in another country. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, between 200,000 and 400,000 boat people died at sea because of overcrowded boats, storms, pirates and other dangers.

Davis knows all about that.

Their plan was to reach Thailand in three to five days, but the motor failed and the boat drifted.

I feel a little bit sad, but it is not like this happened a few years ago. Right now, I am very happy because I got a good family, grandkids and a new life.

Davis Nguyen

“On the first day, we came to the ocean,” said Davis. “We were chased by the Communist police. They shoot us by machine gun. Fifty caliber. By that time, a storm came up so they let us run. The Soviet Union caught us, but let us go. Fortunately, everything was OK after the storm. We got to international water, and while we were floating met about 40 big ships. They looked at us and did not rescue us. The last one was from the United States. Oil.

“We were on the boat almost a month. We were hungry, hungry, hungry, starving. It was a tragedy for my family. ... Nine children died, including two of my children. (Our son Tuan Duc Nguyen, born in 1981, was 8 months old. Daughter Uyen Phuong Thi Nguyen was 2 1/2.) My son was the last one to die on the ocean. My sister lost one child. My wife was paralyzed. We had to pee and drink it. My captain planned to eat human meat.”

The situation was dire.

“The people who are Roman Catholic, we pray to God. Mary. We knew we cannot do suicide. We pray, ‘Please help us. Turn over the boat so all of us die.’ I think we had a miracle. After we prayed about 4 o’clock, we feel the boat go sideways. We feel like someone pushed the boat. The boat goes the whole night. In the morning, about 8 or 9 o’clock, we see green far away. We saw a light flashing from the island. One of the navy big boats came out. We see the flag. China Navy. On our boat were two Vietnamese people who can speak the Chinese language.”

The boat had reached one of the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.

“After they come and rescue us, they explain to us. This is an island. Around it all is dynamite. There is only one way to go out and go in. If the boat goes to the side, boom, all of us die. I think that’s a miracle. They had come out and rescued us. They let us stay on the island one week.

“They put us out in the ocean again. A Chinese doctor came to our boat and gave us some medicine.”

A fishing boat pulled their boat by rope to Hong Kong, then a British crown colony, more than 800 nautical miles from Saigon.

“They let us on the ocean two or three nights while they go fishing ... When approaching Hong Kong, they cut the rope. They didn’t want to have a problem with Hong Kong goverment. We see a lot of tall buildings. The police come and rescue us. My wife goes to the hospital right away. She cannot walk. She cannot do anything. She stays in hospital three weeks.

“My brother-in-law had to stay in the hospital about a year. When the engine broke, he tried to fix it. The propeller hit his leg.”

Looking for a new life

Davis doesn’t tell his story often. Daughter Linda Gallina, 33, has heard parts of it two or three times in her life.

“He doesn’t go into detail,” she said. “One time, I remember, I was 18 years old. We were sitting around at the airport. We had time to kill. It was kind of sad, thinking of how he tried to find a better life for his family and what he lost. There is a lot of regret. He kept saying how he felt he was so dumb to risk the life of his wife and his kids. He could have just risked his own life. Sharing that impacted me. ... I think he tells us to keep us leveled a little bit.”

Here is the rest of the story.

The Nguyens arrived in the United States in 1982 with $40 to their name.

Mary recovered in Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Hong Kong. Davis got a job ironing. They lived in a refugee camp for eight or nine months.

“There were a lot of boat people in Hong Kong,” said Davis. “The United Nations contacted countries to find people to sponsor us. I was helped by Catholic (Charities) in the United States. The U.S. consulate had already interviewed and accepted me right away. I was a South Vietnamese soldier.”

More than half of the boat people went to the United States. Most of the remainder were taken in by Australia, Canada, France, Germany and the United Kingdom.

“Before I came over here, my uncle who came to the U.S. in 1975, sent me $100,” said Davis. “I gave $50 to my sister. We bought ice cream. It cost us 10 bucks in Hong Kong.”

The Nguyens arrived in the United States in 1982 with $40 to their name.

“My uncle sponsored me to Houston. We lived there with him about six or seven months. We got assistance from the government, welfare and housing. I really wanted to go to school to learn English but I cannot.”

He had family responsibilities and needed work. Daughter Linda was born in Houston.

“I don’t have a job right away. My friend’s brother introduces me to a company that makes shoelaces. I worked there for six or seven months.”

Davis and his family moved to Westminster, Calif., in the Los Angeles area where a sister lived. There was a large Vietnamese community. He went to school and picked up other jobs to make ends meet.

“I worked too much,” he said. “I worked three jobs a day. At 2 o’clock in morning, I would wake up and go to deliver papers. I would take a nap then go to auto mechanic training school from 8 in the morning to 2 o’clock. I’d go home, then go to auto repair to work until 7 o’clock.”

He scavenged expired food and collected boxes that he would break down and recycle.

“When I got a permanent job, (Mary) got a permanent job as a nail technician and manicurist.”

He had several jobs, including working for Goodyear Tire and as a fuel systems specialist for International Aircraft Tank Services.

When I first put my foot in the U.S., I know that this is the country where I will spend the rest of my life. I don’t miss anything about life there.

Davis Nguyen

Ten years and two more children later, the Nguyens moved to St. Louis, then to the metro-east where they have lived for 20 years. He and Mary own Tip Top Nails in Fairview Heights.


The Nguyens treasure their heritage.

“I am first generation over here,” said Davis. “I still keep my culture, but my kids are between. They keep both. We still speak Vietnamese at home. The lunar new year (Chinese new year), we still celebrate. We eat mostly Vietnamese food, but on other hand, my kids and grandkids eat mostly American food.”

On a recent afternoon, their granddaughters snacked on pizza before practicing piano after school. Davis had picked them up at J.E. Hinchcliffe Elementary School in O’Fallon. Their backpacks rested near the front door.

The Nguyens’ harrowing escape is far behind them.

“I feel a little bit sad, but it is not like this happened a few years ago,” Davis said. “Right now, I am very happy because I got a good family, grandkids and a new life.”

Linda and her siblings watched their parents struggle to blend two cultures.

“America is more do what you love,” said Linda, a human resources compensation manager at Centene Corp. in St. Louis. “Vietnam is more do what your family says you are going to do. It was a huge struggle for us. ‘This is the background you came from. You don’t know what we risked to be here.’ After they were rescued, Mom couldn’t walk for six months. She had to have physical therapy. They talk about it, but very little. It’s very painful for them.”

That’s why she gives it her best shot.

“I try to make sure we speak Vietnamese. I taught my kids Vietnamese. It gets difficult if you’re not using it every day. We’re still trying.”

They’ll get a chance to use it a lot in February. Linda, husband Chris and their two piano-playing daughters will visit Vietnam with the Nguyens.

“I’ve been there three times,” said Linda. “The first time they went back I was 10. It was a tearful thing for them. Now, they are super happy to go. Their dads are still over there, and siblings as well. We’re going for a month.”

“My dad is 90 years old,” said Davis. “We sponsored him to live here, but he doesn’t want it. He cannot speak English.”

He and Mary understand. Language was a challenge for the Nguyens who learned from co-workers and friends, and sometimes relied on their children to deal with billing problems or insurance claims.

“I really appreciate and thank the American people that helped me and my family for a new life and freedom. All my kids right now are good. They got a great education and good jobs.”

Linda graduated from University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign; Jane Riddehough and John, from University of Illinois-Chicago. Jane and John work for Zurich in Chicago.

“Jane has a boy, Chase, who is eight months,” said Davis. “John got married last year. ...”

“When I first put my foot in the U.S., I know that this is the country where I will spend the rest of my life. I don’t miss anything about life there. I still read the Vietnamese newspaper in California online and still wish the Vietnamese people (would) have freedom and no communism. We pray for them.”

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