Pacific University alum writes book about escaping Vietnam
To most people, the Tim and Cathy Tran Library on Pacific University's wooded campus in Forest Grove is just like any other building.
But for Tim Tran, who the library is named after, it's a symbol of hope. His new book, "American Dreamer: How I Escaped Communist Vietnam and Built a Successful Life in America," details his journey from studying in the United States to then having to flee his home country during a war.
Tran was a top international student from South Vietnam who was awarded a scholarship to study in the United States in 1970. His wife, Cathy, was also among the cohort that studied at Pacific University.
For Tim Tran, completing his schooling in the United States was an honor, he said.
Tran was only 4 years old when his parents fled communist North Vietnam on a U.S. landing craft going to South Vietnam, due to ongoing conflict in the region.
"I was very fortunate to receive the scholarship," said Tim Tran. "My parents were very pleased, and they knew that this was a dream come true for every parent."
But the dream soon faded.
After graduation, Tim and Cathy Tran were required to return to South Vietnam. Tim Tran was hopeful that the area wouldn't be overrun by the communist government controlling the northern part of the country.
The Vietnam War pitted the communist government of North Vietnam, backed by the Soviet Union, the People's Republic of China, North Korea and other communist neighbors, against South Vietnam and its allies, led by the United States.
For the Soviets and Americans, it was just one of many battlegrounds during the decades-long Cold War. For the Vietnamese, it was the sundering of an ancient nation, torn apart by political machinations and then reassembled at gunpoint.
Life became difficult for Tran when South Vietnam fell to the communists on April 30, 1975. At the time, he landed a dream job with Shell Oil in Saigon, which was renamed Ho Chi Minh City after the war.
"They did a check on the biography of every employee," explained Tran. "When they discovered that I spent four years in the U.S., they immediately suspected that I was a Central Intelligence Agency agent. I was interrogated and finally fired."
Tran realized he wasn't safe in Vietnam. With his ties to the United States and his family history as emigres from the North, if he stayed, he could be arrested, imprisoned or worse.
"I regret it," Tran said, reflecting on his decision to go back to South Vietnam after studying at Pacific University. "After my return, I was living in hell, and I almost lost my life a couple of times trying to escape."
When Tran fled Saigon, he went with his wife and father. They left Tran's mother behind.
Over the next four years, Tran and his family were met with many failed attempts to reach freedom. One of Tran's worst memories is of his father dying in a senseless act of violence.
"We fell into the path of a notorious murderous gang," he recalled. "In that (escape) attempt, my father was murdered, and Cathy and I were dumped into the Saigon River and left to drown."
Tim and Cathy Tran did manage to escape Vietnam, though. They eventually arrived in a coastal province of Malaysia. They carried fake IDs and travel documents, paid bribes in gold, and finally boarded a rickety, overcrowded boat with 350 other people. The boat was designed for a 50-person capacity.
On the open seas, the boat came under repeated attacks from pirates, Tim Tran said. He remembers they robbed him of his Levi jeans and prescription glasses.
Tran recalls jumping out of the damaged boat for higher ground and ultimately finding himself in a makeshift barbed-wire prison on the beach, followed by months in a Malaysian refugee camp.
"There was no cleaning or sanitation," he said. "People simply in terrible condition."
Tran's sister was living in Oregon at the time. She and his friends filed papers to sponsor him for immigration to the United States through the United States Catholics Conference. The United States at the time had a policy of bringing in refugees with family connections in America.
Tran's friends at Pacific University also asked prominent politicians to write letters to the Naturalization Service and the American Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to advocate for his application.
"Later on, I learned that my file contained letters from U.S. Senators Bob Packwood and Mark Hatfield and U.S. Congressman Les AuCoin," said Tran. "Finally, I was interviewed by the U.S. delegation and approved for asylum and resettlement in the U.S."
When Tran arrived at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, he couldn't contain his joy after the hardships he suffered.
"As we made our way to immigration services … (an official) said 'hello' to me," said Tran. "And he said, 'Welcome to the United States of America.' And then my eyes were filling with tears."
At first, Tran took a low-level accounting position with Johnstone Supply, a Portland-based distributor of heating, ventilation and air conditioning equipment. He went on to become the chief financial officer of the company.
Tim and Cathy Tran became major donors to Pacific University. The library that now bears their name was renovated last year.
Tim Tran hopes his new book can help inspire others to keep their head up during tough times, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, ongoing racial injustice and economic disparity.
"My story is a ray of hope in this terrible time," Tran said.
He added, "We cannot wait for inclusion and diversity and equality to be done by everybody else. We need to help ourselves by getting a better and more effective education so we can get a better job and better pay to live a better life."
The 390-page book is available on Amazon, Powell's Books and Kobo.
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