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WELCOMING ARMS : Decade of Separation Ends for Vietnamese Family

Times Staff Writer

It was a day of reunions at Los Angeles International Airport for a 21-year-old man who had not seen his mother since he was 14 years old; for a teen-age boy who had never met his little sister; for a college student who last saw his father in 1975 when he was taken away to be “re-educated” in a Southeast Asian prison camp.

All three were Vietnamese children whose last memories of home and family were soon-to-fade photographs, hurried goodbys and calls of good luck as they sailed away from their homeland toward America.

This is the story of one of them--Cuong Nguyen.

Ten years ago, Nguyen’s mother paid five ounces of gold so her oldest son could take the voyage out of Vietnam. Friday, his family was finally back together.

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With his young wife by his side, Nguyen, a 22-year-old college student, and the family he had not seen since he was 12 years old had a tearful reunion at LAX’s Tom Bradley International Terminal.

There had been no phone calls in all these years, no face-to-face conversations--only photographs and letters that took a month to get from one country to another. And the first words Chanh Nguyen said to the son he had not seen since 1975 were, “How are you?”

The tears followed soon after.

“I missed you very much, my son,” said the elder Nguyen, hugging Cuong, who was sent to America while his father was imprisoned in a labor camp. “I waited for you. I (did) not think we (would) see you again.”

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For many years it seemed that they never would, said Cuong, a senior at Cal Poly Pomona. His efforts to get his parents, brother and sister to the United States began when he was only 14 years old.

“My mom couldn’t afford to let anyone else go,” said Nguyen, who remembered leaving his parents’ home one March afternoon and boarding a boat that would take him and 353 other people to a Malaysian refugee camp. “She told me she’d wait for my dad to come out (of prison), and they’d all try to come to me.”

She did not go with him to the boat. Her last words were “Be careful,” he said. “That’s all.”

In 1981, the year his father was released from the labor camp, Cuong began the paper work requesting that his family be allowed to leave Vietnam.

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“It was basically a test of patience,” said Cuong, a student majoring in electrical engineering. Before long, “everything was ready for them to come, but over there it was up to the government to decide whether they could go or not.”

In the meantime there were letters. “I told them everything,” remembered Cuong. About life in the small Virginia town where he and the uncle with whom he had left Vietnam first settled. About running on his junior high school track team and making straight A’s in Spanish. About taking a test and an oath that in July, 1987, made him a U.S. citizen.

And for the last few years, while attending Cal Poly Pomona and working at a campus job that paid $7.22 an hour, he saved. It took two years of painstakingly putting away money in a savings account, but finally last September he had the more than $4,000 in air fare needed to bring his parents, siblings and a great-aunt to America.

There were more delays. A 21-day layover in Bangkok, Thailand, where the Nguyens stopped before coming to the United States. A canceled flight last week that left Cuong nervous and disappointed.

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But finally, shortly after 11 a.m., Japan Airlines Flight 66 landed. Nearly two hours later, the Nguyens and 72-year-old great aunt Thuong Le came through customs.

“I’m very glad to see my boy,” said Van Nguyen, the boy’s mother, crying and hugging her son.

Despite the tribulations of the last 10 years, Cuong said he realized that the hardest part may be yet to come.

“I’m worried (about) how they will adapt to a new life and how I will adjust to them being here,” said Cuong, who will support his family until they are settled.

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But before they worried, they would celebrate. There was the Vietnamese soup to be eaten that Cuong’s wife, Hoa, had spent 10 hours preparing the night before. And there were lifetimes to catch up on.

And it was time, Cuong said, to put aside the bad memories of 10 years spent without one another.

“We are going home now,” he said. “To rest.”


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