Her husband and the children were allowed to board the ship, but Hoang was left standing amid the chaos on the dock. Finally, a rope ladder was lowered to her, and she climbed until she saw her children again. "My husband was pretty intelligent person," she says. "He was ship's electrician, and until we were all on board he turn off power so they can't go without us." The ship left just before dawn on April 30, floating down the Saigon River toward the South China Sea. The family had brought nothing but some Vietnamese money with them, and as soon as the ship left the dock, that became worthless. At 10 o'clock that morning, word came over the radio that the communists had captured Saigon.
There was little choice but to turn for the Philippines. From there the family was sent to Guam and then on to Camp Pendleton in California, where they languished for six months until they were sponsored for residency by a man from Oakland, Ore., a town of slightly fewer than 900 people in the southwest part of the state. He found Hung a job as a gardener for a wealthy elderly woman, and Hoang became the woman's maid—in return for virtual slave wages of $150 a month for both, and the use of a one-bedroom house.
Their jobs lasted until Hoang was ready to give birth to Melissa, their younger daughter. "When I was in hospital in labor, that lady decided to kick my husband and our children out of our house," Hoang says. They were then aided by a Lutheran pastor in Roseburg, Ore., who arranged for them to receive donations of food and clothing and helped the family find a new house. "That was the first time our life began to look up," Hoang says.
Portland is one of the largest refugee centers in the United States, mainly because its churches have encouraged parishioners to sponsor Southeast Asian boat people. There are more than 13,000 Vietnamese refugees in Oregon now, but when the Nguyens arrived in the state 15 years ago, they could not find the most basic Southeast Asian foods. When Hoang wanted to serve her family noodles, a staple of the Vietnamese diet, she had to use spaghetti instead.
Under the circumstances, it's hardly surprising that Mike's favorite food is Italian. Like many children of immigrants, he speaks little of the language of his parents. He calls his friends "dude" and knows as much about the Vietnam War as do most other 17-year-olds in the United States, which is to say practically nothing at all. "I know the way we left Vietnam was a real scary and dangerous situation," he says, "but I really can't comprehend how bad it was. I've basically been raised as an American, and a lot of times I don't realize I'm Vietnamese. But then my mom reminds me that I'm doing well for the Vietnamese community."
"Most Asians work twice as hard because they learn from their parents that they can't take anything for granted," Hoang says. "You must be an asset to your family and to your community." Despite the stereotype, not all the children of Vietnamese refugees are brilliant mathematicians headed for MIT or Cal Tech. Some struggle with a sense of dislocation that they try to resolve by becoming members of Vietnamese gangs. But as one teacher at Franklin High says, "Whether they're geniuses or juvenile delinquents, if they're Vietnamese, Mike Nguyen is like their patron saint."
Mike can't remember his grandparents—though those on his mother's side are still living—just as he has no memory of the village in the Mekong Delta where he was born. The war has erased a part of his identity so completely that it is as if it never existed. "It would be great to be close to all those people," he says of his family in Vietnam, "but I can't really say my life has turned out bad."
Hoang and Hung worked all day and went to school in the evening to learn English. Until he was 10 years old, Mike went to a babysitter's house every day after school, and from there he was picked up at night in time for dinner with his parents, who often fell asleep while studying. "I've had to be more independent because my mom couldn't spend as much time as she would have liked with me," Mike says. "I missed having my parents around. When you're growing up, you want them there all the time."
Mike's sense of loss grew far worse in 1982, when Hung was critically injured in a motorcycle accident. For the next 2� years he could neither speak nor move, and finally, at the age of 39, he died. Less than a year later, Hoang was in a serious auto accident. But six months after undergoing back surgery, she was on her feet and had started her own business, an employment agency and translation service that specializes in assisting Southeast Asians. She has taken off most of this year to spend time with her son before he leaves for UCLA.
Mike will probably play wide receiver for the Bruins, although Stanford and Oregon worked hard to recruit him as a defensive back. "He's a monstrous hitter," says Frank Geske, the football coach at Franklin High. He's also not bad at avoiding hitters. In the face of constant double-and triple-teaming, Mike caught 54 passes for more than 800 yards as a senior. In his final two seasons, he accumulated 3,800 yards in total offense, and five times gained more than 100 yards rushing, often lining up in the backfield, and 100 yards receiving in the same game.