Tim Tran watched the United States’ chaotic exit from Afghanistan with alarm, disappointment and recognition.
It wasn’t very different from April 1975, when the U.S. withdrew from South Vietnam after a decade of war and citizens scrambled to get out before the communist North Vietnamese army arrived. Tran and two brothers managed to get aboard an American evacuation bus, but just before they reached the airport in Saigon, rockets started falling and their escape was blocked.
“That … was only the beginning of a nightmare that would last more than four years and result in multiple failed escapes, including one that cost my father his life,” wrote Tran, a Camas resident, in an op-ed published Aug. 24 by the Los Angeles Times.
He felt moved to pen an opinion piece after watching Afghans try to flee — or hide evidence of their American connections — as the Taliban overran Afghanistan in late August.
“It’s important for the U.S. to make every effort to help these people evacuate while there’s still time,” he wrote.
American generosity is a chief reason why Tim Tran, whose birth name is Tran Camh Khiem, was ultimately able to resettle and thrive as a Portland business executive after enduring desperation, hunger and brutality in the late 1970s in his native Vietnam, he said. He became an American citizen in 1986.
Tran’s remarkable memoir, “American Dreamer: How I Escaped Communist Vietnam and Built a Successful Life in America” (a 2020 Best Indie Book Award winner), shows how far his grit, smarts and unfailing integrity got him — and how American generosity helped make up the difference.
“I’m sorry that the general public’s opinion (about refugees) is not as favorable as it could be,” Tran told The Columbian. “My mission is to better that perception.”
Tran will retell his life-or-death refugee story and discuss his attitude toward America’s long and ultimately fruitless war in Afghanistan at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Vancouver VFW Post 7824, 400 N. Andresen Road.
The emcee of the VFW event is Vietnam veteran Bob Ferguson, a former Marine. He said his heart goes out to Vietnamese who were trapped in their newly communist country after the U.S. left, as well as over 1 million “boat people” who risked their lives to flee. (Approximately 800,000 made it to safety in another country; as many as 400,000 may have died at sea, according to the United Nations.)
“Everyone has heard of the boat people, but nobody knows anything about them,” Ferguson said.
If you want to collect Vietnam stories, Ferguson’s Vietnamese hairdresser told him recently, go hang out at an east Portland hot spot called Mekong Bistro. He started showing up with a little sign: “Tell me your story — After U.S. Left Vietnam.” It took a while for people to warm up to a stranger, he said, but eventually they started spilling their stories.
Those stories are why Ferguson wants to present Tran to the public. He hopes to follow this event with more live stories by local refugees.
“The guys at the VFW who complain about going to Vietnam — I want them to know what these people went through,” Ferguson said.
American dreams and realities
Tran was born in a small village in 1950, but his family eventually moved to Saigon, Vietnam’s capital city, where his father held a military office job precisely when the Vietnamese government was weakening and war was on the horizon.
That French-installed regime favored Catholics and discriminated against Buddhists, which prompted student protests in which Tran participated. But he never crossed the line into disobedience, he writes, and remained diligent about his studies. Even as Vietnam’s economy crumbled and regular citizens turned to the black market to make a living, Tran was excelling at a high school in Saigon and won a scholarship to attend Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore.
Tran flourished at Pacific and then at the University of California at Berkeley. He experienced the virtues and pleasures of American life, he writes in “American Dreamer,” from friendly informality to a live concert by The Who in their prime.
He also learned about America’s hard realities and imperfections.
“The United States had two different school systems: the black schools were poor, lacked facilities, and had mediocre teachers; the white schools had great libraries, nice football fields, and new equipment,” he writes.
In 1974, as his graduation approached, Tran had an agonizing decision to make: return to his family in what was now South Vietnam, as expected; stay without authorization in the U.S.; or flee to Canada. Although the Vietnam War was in its final stages and the country was in tatters, Tran decided he must go home.
What he found was a country in collapse, giving rise to a police state on its way to repeating the practices of the Chinese Cultural Revolution by persecuting and even eliminating anyone with an American education or ties to the West. People who merely looked intellectual because they wore eyeglasses could be sent off for hard labor — or worse.
“I quietly gathered whatever papers I could find from my years at Pacific University and Berkeley, every souvenir and memento from my four years in America,” Tran writes. “So many friends and neighbors knew I had spent time in America that I needed to destroy every piece of evidence. I carried the stack of documents outside to the kerosene stove in the back of the house, which my mother used for cooking. Standing alone in the darkness, I set my papers on fire, one at a time.”
Tran kept trying to escape to America with his new wife. But so did everyone else. The landscape was rife with criminals and scammers. Tran’s many risky attempts to secretly commission small boats, create new identities through false documents and flee with shady characters makes “American Dreamer” a suspenseful and dramatic read; his accounts of being seized and robbed by pirates at sea are appallingly brutal.
Ferguson said he and Tran are exploring how to get Tran’s story made into a documentary or feature film.
“I am like the cat with nine lives,” said Tran, 70.
The final third of Tran’s book recounts how he succeeded in the United States: by being hardworking, honest and moderate in all things, he said.
Young people who want to get ahead in business — and who’ve barely heard of Vietnam — might want to skip the adventure story and just read the final chapters of the book, Tran said. That’s where Tran discusses the principles and practices of his long, successful career at Portland’s Johnstone Supply Inc. — ranging from absolute honesty and trustworthiness to improving his golf game.
He wishes political leaders would also practice honesty and trustworthiness, he said.
The U.S. exit from Afghanistan “reminds me of the worst period of my life,” he said.
“Vietnam and Afghanistan share one thing in common: The U.S. came to do good,” he said. “But democracy is very messy, and public opinion turned against the war. Americans have no stomach for a long war.”
Refugees contribute to American life whether they are captains of industry or mowing lawns, Tran emphasized. And, he added, those who are allowed into the U.S. have an obligation to better themselves and give something back. That’s why, after his retirement, Tran provided a large endowment to the library at Pacific University, now named the Tim and Cathy Tran Library.
In the window of that library is a smaller but still important gift from Tim Tran: a makeshift cooking stove he used in Vietnam, when he was nearly destitute, to make his own coffee.
“Many successful people forget where they came from,” he writes. “I kept the stove … as a reminder over the years that no matter how high I rose in the corporate world, no matter how comfortable a lifestyle I achieved, I should always remember my darkest days.”