Interview of Nhan Ai Simms by Amanda Gautier and Megan Osborn on November 1, 2015 for the Elizabeth V. and George F. Gardner Digital Library. The interview focuses on the Simms family and experiences in Carlisle and Cumberland County after Vietnam.
K = Kim Du
V = Van Du
A = Amanda Gautier
M = Megan Osborn
M: Is it ok if we are recording this call, this Skype session?
M: Ok, perfect.
M: Ok, so you guys are in Virginia right?
M: How is the weather in Virginia?
V: It is very good today.
M: Yeah, my grandparents live in Virginia and they love the fall weather there.
K: Yes, it is beautiful.
M: Are your children in Virginia as well?
V: No, they live in the other states. You know: New York, one in Georgia, and one at home.
M: How many children do you have again?
M: Do you mind introducing yourselves again because this might go up in the historical society.
V: My name is Van Du and my wife is Kim Du.
M: Thanks. I think we are just going to get the Skype session started and the interview started because it took us a little while to figure out the sound and everything. So, this is Amanda she is my partner for the sociology project. She is going to start asking you guys some questions about your experiences. Ok.
A: Can you describe your experiences during the war while you were still in Vietnam?
V: Yes, terrible (he laughs). I don’t know what to say. I don’t know if you have watched the movie Dr. Zhivago?
M: Dr. Evil?
V: No, Dr. Zhivago?
M: About Russia?
K: Have you seen the movie?
M: Yes, I have seen the movie!
A: I haven’t.
(Van and Kim laugh)
M: Was it similar to that movie? Is that what you are saying?
M: In what ways?
V: In the way, you know, they come in and they took over the government and they kicked the people out of their house. It depended upon…
(Van becomes upset and begins to cry and passes the phone to Kim)
M: We understand if this topic is difficult. We apologize.
K: (she laughs) It is just emotional, he remembers and when you ask about when the communists come and they took over his parent’s house. They took his parents to prison, all the family go to prison…
V: It is difficult to understand because the communists before are different than the communists right now. They are more open. Before they were very strict. When they come in they take everything. That is sad to say because the education level of the North and the “VC” is different from what we had in the South. They didn’t have a good education and they listened to propaganda and they took over. They taught that everybody would be equal. They took over everything. They….
A: Take your time.
K: His family and his parents were put in prison because they were capitalists. The women they put in a different area. It’s difficult and I don’t know if you would understand or not. It is difficult. My parents in law were in their seventies but they were put in prison for over three years because they had money, that is the reason they gave you and you would listen. My husband was in the army and in prison too for the Saigon government. Economically it was very difficult. We didn’t have money anymore, we didn’t have a house to live, and they took over everything. It was very difficult for us.
M: We are very grateful for the time you guys are giving us and to talk to us about this because we don’t understand what you went through but we understand that it is very difficult to talk about and we defiantly appreciate it. So, what it sounds like is that your family was split up during Vietnam and that the community was divided, that is why it is similar to Dr. Zhivago. I remember that the communities that were once so united were immediately split up, and I understand how that would be amazingly difficult to go through. I can ask you a question that might be easier, why did you settle or were resettled in Carlisle, Pennsylvania? Why did you go there? Was there family? Is that the place where the United States government put you? So if you could tell us a little bit about how you ended up in Carlisle.
V: When we got out of Vietnam we didn’t know where we would go. Because I was in the army it was amicable for me to go to the U.S. then because my cousin was in Carlisle and she looked to sponsor us. That is why we came to Carlisle.
M: So did an organization in Carlisle give you aid? You said you were sponsored. Or was it just by your cousin?
V: No, it was sponsored by the church in Carlisle.
M: Which church?
V: St. Johns Church, Episcopal Church.
M: Can you describe your experience working with them? How they helped you settle into life in Carlisle, can you describe some things that they did for you?
V: Oh, well when we came I remember that the apartment was ready, everything was ready, so we just moved in. It was very nice yes.
M: So they found a place for you to live?
V: Yes, they found the apartment everything was ready.
M: Did you have children at that time?
V: We had two children in Vietnam and one in a refugee camp.
M: How was their experience resettling in Carlisle with school and with learning English?
V: Oh yes, when my son was born, five years before, and my daughter was four years old and the youngest one was six months. So luckily we came to Carlisle in May 1980 and school didn’t start until September. So my son he went to kindergarten right away. He had a little problem for the first few months but after that everything was normal.
M: Could you tell that it was easier for them to learn English because they were younger?
V: Oh yeah, it is easy particularly for children. First of all, when we were in Vietnam we were concerned about children. Now I understand with children that they adapt to environments very easily.
M: In contrast with your adaption to a new way of life in the United States, how was that for you guys? Can you describe your experiences, how it felt to move to Carlisle and be in a new community.
V: I lived in Saigon capital and I was surrounded with material things and when I went to the U.S. that was no more to me, you know. Less than what I had before. So that was a big deal to cope with.
M: Did you find a job easily when you got the United States?
V: No. During that time it was difficult to find a job. They tried to help me find a job, but they couldn’t find one either. I tried to find a job at MacDonald’s, but didn’t get it.
A: Do you think the language barrier was a big problem, that English wasn’t your first language?
V: Yes, although I learned English in high school. It was my second foreign language, French and English. I also learned English in college. When I came here it was different, but I picked it up quickly.
M: Did Kim work when she first got here?
V: No, she didn’t. So the thing is because I couldn’t find work, but luckily I have a friend who went to the same college with me. He came before me, he came in 1975. I came in 1980. He came and said I want to go back to college. He told me about the community college, you know Harrisburg. So that is why I went back to school in Harrisburg.
M: So you were raising kids and going to community college at the same time?
V: Yes, when I went to college I had a job with UPS. It wasn’t easy. When you are in college it is hard to find a job to work on the side. So yes, I found a job with UPS and I worked part-time. My life lived with the children, but we received public assistance during that time.
M: Did you like your job with UPS? Did you enjoy that job?
V: Yes, uh well, I didn’t enjoy it but you know you need to work for a living and do whatever. We came to support the family to get by.
A: How long did you work for UPS? Did you work for them for a while?
V: I just worked for about 6 months or something. Then I studied at the community college for just about a year. Then I transferred to Shippensburg to continue to study and I had a work-study in the library. My wife, while we received the public assistance, worked jobs like cleaning up houses for friends or whoever.
M: What were you studying at community college?
V: I studied computers. When I went to community college I tried to work with a job, but I needed to be fulltime. I needed to apply and be qualified. So to be qualified I needed to study full time. I studied English as a second language; I studied math, and computers. For the first semester it was very difficult because you know we went to class and we talked English. At that time my English was very limited, so the whole thing I didn’t understand much about computers. But then I went home and translated page by page to understand the books. It was hard.
M: Did it help you get a job later on? Math and computer sciences?
V: No, not yet. During that time I met another Vietnamese student and he introduced me to Shippensburg. I only studied at Harrisburg, you know HACC, for a year. Then I transferred. It is a couple miles south of Carlisle. When I was there I met the director of admissions. I said I wanted to study for the Bachelor degree. He looked at my records and said I had a Bachelor degree already he let me continue with a Master’s degree not a Bachelor degree. He said he would let me try for one semester and you now to study for a master’s degree in computer science I was in the Master’s program, but I needed to finish prerequisites. It was hard to be in college and to meet the requirements such as level 100, 200, 300, 400, and finally the Master’s degree.
M: Did you end up getting the Master’s degree?
M: Wow. Awesome. Did your kids go to college?
V: Oh yes, yes. All of them finished college.
M: That’s amazing. Where did your kids go, and what did they do in school?
V: I spent two years at Shippensburg College for a master’s degree in computer science. At that time my wife also went back too she did the same thing like I did. She went to Harrisburg community and then she transferred to Shippensburg because she had a Bachelor’s degree from Vietnam, like me. Finally she got a master’s degree from Shippensburg.
M: I was asking before where your children went to college.
V: Oh yeah. I have one daughter who lives in New York City and she went to Cornell.
A: That is a great school!
M: So with your kids going on to continuing education, college, do you believe they gained opportunities once you moved to the United States? Ones they might not have gotten in the Vietnam that existed after the war?
V: Ok yes, that’s the main reason we left Vietnam. Because of my children didn’t get a life because of me. I worked in the South Vietnamese military, so my children cannot, during that time; get a job or whatever because their parent worked for South Vietnam. The same thing is happening right now in Vietnam. If they don’t want the communist party they cannot get further in the government or anywhere.
M: So you are saying if you did stay in Vietnam none of your kids could have gone to college or gotten good jobs?
V: No I don’t think so. My nieces and nephews, when the communists took over they were around ten-eighteen and they couldn’t go to college at that time. All of my nieces and nephews they stopped going to school at that time.
A: So do you still have family in Vietnam now?
V: Yes, I still have some. But you know some moved to the U.S. and Canada.
M: Where in the U.S. does your family live?
V: My oldest brother lives in New York, one brother lives in Pennsylvania, one brother lives in Oregon, and two brothers live in Florida.
M: Do you see your family that lives on the East Coast a lot?
V: Oh yes! Once a year or something.
A: Have you been back to Vietnam since you left? To visit?
V: Yes, two times. The last time was 25 years ago or something. I would like to go back next year.
M: What makes you go back? Is it family?
V: Yes, I still have friends and family in Vietnam.
M: What have your experiences been like going back? Do you ever see large differences? Do you ever feel like you want to move back there?
V: In Vietnam right now the economy is better. If you look at China they are open for business. Same thing with Vietnam, they are open for business. If you go and don’t get involved with politics you are ok.
M: Socially as well? Is it socially similar to when you left? Are traditions and costumes different or anything like that?
V: In the material things, probably better than before because the economy has improved, so it is better than before. There is lots of corruption though.
M: Because the political atmosphere is corrupt?
V: Yes, more than before. Like China, you have to bribe to get things done.
M: But they let people like you, who left during the war, the government still lets you come back and visit?
V: Yes, they don’t have a problem with me coming back because they need money (he laughs).
M: What does your family think that is still there, do they ever think about coming and living in the United States? Or do they have no plans on ever leaving?
V: No, because now they can earn a living in Vietnam. They don’t think about coming to the U.S. except for a visit.
M: Have any of your nieces or nephews who still live there ever think about coming to the United States for education?
V: Yes, probably but it depends whether or not they can afford to go to the U.S. To go to college and study you need money.
M: With your daughter, who you said went to Cornell, what is she doing now in New York?
V: She works on Wall Street. She works for a hedge fund. She is doing pretty good.
M: How old was she when you guys immigrated over to the United States?
V: Just four years old.
M: Does she remember anything?
V: Not much.
M: Does she remember anything from growing up in Carlisle? Do you know what she would think about growing up in Carlisle?
V: Yes, she remembers.
M: Did she enjoy living in Carlisle? Did she enjoy going to school? Did she go to the public school?
V: She went to public school yes. But children they don’t know anything. They are just four or five years old. They don’t know much and they didn’t remember much. I had a job for them because it is better for them to live like normal children. My children after fourth or fifth grade I had a full time job already, after that one we lived normally. When I finished college I worked for IBM, so salary wise it was a bit better then.
M: So it seems since you worked for IBM you kind of influenced your daughter a little bit going into finance and going into banking.
V: Yes! Probably so. Because when they grow up around four or five years old I was studying and my wife was studying and they picked it up.
M: You also said you came to the United States mostly because of your children and for opportunities you wanted them to have, has the United States lived up to that? Is there anything you didn’t expect that you experienced when you moved here? Is there anything that you wish the government or the Church helped you out a little more?
V: Really when we came to the U.S. we didn’t know anything. We didn’t know about social services we just thought okay we would go somewhere and help ourselves, not with the help of the government. Luckily, when we came to this country a lot of social services that benefit the poor they helped us. I think that is the best the government can do.
M: Then it seems like you were able to give your children a normal life once you had the job with IBM. You were able to allow them to live like other children were living in Carlisle, which is pretty impressive.
A: How long did you live in Carlisle and when did you move to Virginia?
V: We lived in Carlisle for about 10 years; I worked for IBM for about four years. Then my wife was granted a promotion and she got a job in Virginia. I transferred to Virginia and continued to work for IBM for 3-4 years.
M: Can you compare what it was like living in Carlisle verses Virginia?
V: The first thing we recognized that it was warmer living in Virginia than Carlisle. We live in Fairfax County and they have very good schools and that is where my children were brought up.
M: So they went to the majority of their schooling in Fairfax County?
V: Yes. My daughter she got into Thomas Jefferson School.
K: Do you know that school?
M: No, is that a private school?
V: No, it is a public school, but one of the best in the country.
M: Is it something she had to apply to?
V: Yes, they have to get in.
M: It is like a charter school?
V: No they call it a magnet school for gifted children.
M: How old was she when she entered Thomas Jefferson School?
V: I remember eighth or ninth grade.
M: Ok, so for middle school and for high school.
M: Where did the rest of your children go to school?
V: They went to high school in Fairfax County. My youngest daughter is also very she is doing very good.
M: Yes, it sounds like they did really well! It is pretty amazing from leaving somewhere you guys obviously love so much, which was really difficult, and then watching your kids grow and do really well because of sacrifices and choices you made.
V: Yes, I think so yes. Particularly they grow up.
M: Do you think that was a motivation at all for them? Them watching what you guys went through, was it motivation for them to do well or were they just always gifted?
V: Yes it was motivation. Because the experiences.
M: Is there anything else you guys want to share with us? Kim is there anything else you want to share with us? Anything else you want us to know?
V: Do you plan on talking to my daughter? Is there anything else you want to ask us?
M: Lets see…we have a questions about how the government handled the large amount of Vietnamese refugees that were entering the United States, do you think that they had programs to resettle refugees? How do you think the government handled the war and people who were displaced? What are you thoughts, feelings, or emotions?
A: Do you think America handled it correctly? It is kind of a difficult question to answer, but do you think America handled the large influx of refugees coming to America correctly?
V: Yes they handled it pretty good, not the war in general but with the Churches and the services. There was opportunity to do whatever you wanted to do and achieve and I think that is great.
M: Do you feel like you were given that opportunity to do whatever you wanted to do, along with your children? Like your masters and working for IBM?
V: Yes. I didn’t have any problem with employment. I understand whatever you had the skill in you had the job. I didn’t see discrimination against us. I look at the statistics and somehow the Asian population they do pretty good economic wise.
M: So you feel like friends and family who also came over from Vietnam did pretty well in the employment parts of their lives, finding a job and getting back up on their feet once they came to the United States?
V: Oh yes. The majority did very good. I don’t know if you had a chance to visit California or Washington D.C., or Orange County, and that is a big Vietnamese community over there. The same thing in Virginia. So yes the majority did pretty good, but other immigrants somehow you have…
M: So when your wife found the job in Virginia, were you looking there because you knew people who were already in Virginia? Or did it just happen to be you found a job that fit your skill?
V: She needed to take the test; it’s not an easy one. With AT&T she needed to pass a test, and she passed the test. When she passed the test she worked in training for three months and then she got the job with AT&T.
M: That is amazing. I think that those are all the questions that we had for you, or prepared for you guys, unless there is anything else you would like to share with us?
V: Uh, no that’s it will you talk to my daughter? She will talk more to you and give you more information about our children.
M: Do you have your daughter’s email? Do you want to email that to me?
K: I already gave it to you!
V: My wife said she already gave it to you.
M: Did you give me your daughter’s email?
V: Oh! Sure yes. Forward to Megan right?
M: Yes! You can send me your daughter’s email and we will get in touch with her.
V: Oh, ok. When you talk with her she will have answers about children growing up.
M: Ok, perfect! Maybe just a last question, what are you guys doing right now? You both are retired in Virginia.
V: Yes, I retired over a year and a half ago and my wife retired only 2 years ago.
A: How are you liking retired life?
V: Oh, very good.
A: (laughing) relaxing?
V: We took a photography class. We just finished two years in photography. Now we like to travel and take pictures.
M: Where did you take your photography class?
V: Oh, there is a Vietnamese group in Virginia and we also joined the PSA, the Photo Society of America.
M: Where have you traveled to take photos?
V: We travel in the United States, particularly in the West. We traveled to Las Vegas, California, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming.
M: I want to be retired!
V: This year we go to Vietnam and then we go to Australia, New Zealand….
A: Wow, that sounds amazing.
M: Are you going with the group or are you just going with yourselves?
V: We go with friends who were all in the same college in Vietnam. Sometimes we get together every two years. We travel around the country to see our friends and visit and the same thing for them.
A: That sounds great.
M: And this is your third time back to Vietnam or your fourth? How many times have you been back to Vietnam since 1980?
V: Two times.
M: Oh, so this is your third time!
V: Yes, third time next year!
M: And your plans are just to visit friends and family?
V: Yes. And visit family and then visit the country because I didn’t get to the North because of the communists before. Now I can go and see the whole country.
M: That’s awesome. So you are able to travel throughout the whole country there is no dividing line anymore?
V: No, no there isn’t right now. We can go back and do whatever I want to do. Except politics (laughs).
M: Yes stay away from politics (laughing).
V: Yes, stay away from politics.
M: Have your children ever been to Vietnam?
V: Yes, all of them at least once.
M: Were they old enough to remember it? Was it recently?
V: No they weren’t too young, they know now, they went back during college.
M: Well, we want to thank you again for your time and we really appreciate you guys talking to us and we apologize that we asked some tough questions, but we really appreciate that you answered them as well as you could and we were excited to talk with you guys.
V: Ok, you are very welcome.
M: If you send your daughter’s email to me we will be getting in touch with her.
V: Yes, she will like to talk with you guys.
M: Ok perfect, what is your daughter’s name?
K: Nhan-Ai Du.
A: Thank you!
M: Have a great rest of your year, and I hope you have a great time in Vietnam.
V: Thank you very much!
A: Bye guys, thank you!