If you would like to learn more about perspectives on immigrant experiences through different forms of art, check out Shift from 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday in the Pendleton Room in the Michigan Union.
One day in 1975, 21-year-old Giang Lê decided to skip class for the first time. He sat outside his dormitory at Van Hanh University in Saigon with a few friends when a car suddenly braked in front of them. Giang’s mother signaled from the car and told him to pack — a choice that would change his life forever.
It was the spring of 1975 and the Vietnam War was coming to a close, with a northern communist victory in sight. Giang’s family of 10 had lived through most of it, including the Summer of Flames, a series of communist attacks in 1972.
“It wasn’t unusual to go to school and hear someone had gotten killed,” he said. As class president, Giang organized strikes, but was wary of classmates who were “undercover informants for the communists. They would try to drive demonstrations away from our goals, turning into anti-American protests.”
Three of Giang’s brothers were studying abroad in the United States while Giang stayed in Vietnam. Only students who passed the Baccalaureate with top honors could apply to college overseas, something Giang credits to school shutdowns. Failing students were drafted.
Staying behind was an enlightening experience for Giang.
“It allowed me to see the real Vietnam,” he said. “I had the opportunity to participate in leadership with my fraternity and do a lot of charity work. My brothers, who lived only in Huế and Da Nang, didn’t know what the rest of the country was like.”
However, Giang’s mother, Nhan, knew the family had to flee the violence and destruction. To persuade her adamant husband, she said they were just going to visit their sons abroad. “She was very street smart,” he said. At the airport, Nhan carried Vietnamese embassy papers with the family’s identifications. She folded the letterhead to make the papers look like official American documents and waved them in front of police, who were overwhelmed with hundreds of desperate people. “This was a turning point,” Giang revealed. “We left and I had $1 in my pocket.”
Leaving Vietnam also presented a complexity of emotion. Initially, Giang’s family was ecstatic to escape. But, “It was a very sad day. I felt like I betrayed my country and my friends. They were giving students guns, preparing for bloodbath. I knew we were losing the war to the communists. They were barbaric; I was sure many friends would die. I had organized funerals for their families. I can’t believe I did that. I never cried until the end. After we landed in the Philippines, I couldn’t speak for days.” The Vietnamese government announced surrender to the North soon after.
From there, Giang went to Guam for a few months, then a camp near Panama City. He barely knew English. He contacted his brothers and stayed in Middletown, Conn. After settling down, Giang graduated from Central Connecticut State University with a bachelor’s in accounting.
Embracing America, Giang’s late parents gave back to the community and created cultural touchstones for the Vietnamese population, opening a local grocery store, video store and establishing Hai An Pagoda, a Buddhist temple, where Giang is now president.
Today, Giang lives in Darien, Conneticut with his wife and daughters. He is a corporate vice president at New York Life. Though Giang leads a very successful life, he never forgets his past and how hard his parents worked.
“I will always try to do community work and help others. My mẹ always said it doesn’t matter if you go to a big school and get prestigious degrees, it’s what you do for society that counts.”