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Poor Again, but Feeling Grateful

Times Staff Writers

The last time Mai Hang and Tim Nguyen had to flee their homes, as refugees from communist Vietnam, they were used to being poor, to scrounging for everything. This time around, they no longer bear the calluses of everyday hardship.

Before Hurricane Katrina, Hang and Nguyen were middle-class Americans. They owned a Chevron gas station and mini mart. They lived comfortably in a New Orleans suburb in a two-story, four-bedroom, 2,800-square-foot home, with a marble fireplace and Italian leather couches.

They were a world away from their lives years ago in Vietnam, where she earned change selling fruit and nuts in a market stall and he hawked zippers on trains.

But their secure suburban life ended Aug. 28, when they joined the traffic jam on Interstate 10, heading west out of New Orleans in the cream-colored Lincoln SUV they’d bought just a month before.

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All they brought with them was a cooler full of milk and water, $2,000 in cash, some shrimp chips and two days of clothing for their three small children -- who thought they were going on holiday.

Hang and Nguyen assumed they’d be back home in a few days. Now they’re in Houston, where many of the 30,000 Vietnamese living on the Gulf Coast have fled. They are camped in a stranger’s bedroom -- dressed in donated clothes and shoes, eating donated rice and cereal, and grateful for the $572 in food stamps they waited in line at a government office for hours to get.

And right now, at least, they say they don’t feel that they have it in them to return to Louisiana, where the future seems so precarious. After all, they ask, how many times in your life can you start from scratch?

At the home of Tho Nguyen, a 55-year-old Vietnamese American who signed up through his temple to house hurricane victims, Tim Nguyen, 48, often wanders around fretfully, tears in his eyes.

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“I can’t believe I have to go through this again,” he says over and over. “I don’t know how many times I can do this. It takes a toll.”

“We came here with empty hands and now we have empty hands again,” said Hang, 40, a petite woman whose hair is cut in a perfect bob. “We worked so hard, risked our lives, so that we can be like Americans and send our kids to good schools. Now we’re unemployed and uncertain about our future. Everything we saved for is gone.”

Five years ago, Nguyen, Hang and Hang’s brother, Tho, used sizable loans and their life savings to build the gas station and food mart in downtown New Orleans. It cost them $1.5 million.

Now it is totaled, they say. Water also flooded their home in Kenner, covering the designer carpets in muck. Last Sunday, Nguyen drove six hours back from Houston to see the house again. He spent several hours in the backyard, burying maggot-infested food from the dead refrigerator.

Hang and Nguyen met only nine years ago in New Orleans. At the time, he was a cook. She was working two jobs -- seamstress at a shirt factory by day, cashier at a gas station by night.

Nguyen had started out life in luxury, in the Vietnamese beach town of Nha Trang, where his parents owned a lucrative wholesale business. They sold rice and coffee and distributed Tiger Beer. Their home, he said, was 15,000 square feet, with multiple wings. His father was an officer in the South Vietnamese army.

Nguyen, whose Vietnamese first name is Tuan, was a student when the communists took over in 1975. They took over the business and the family house. Nguyen was reduced to selling rice, coffee and zippers on the trains between Nha Trang and Saigon.

Over and over, he made plans to leave the country. But in 1978, he was jailed for a year after being caught trying to flee. He finally left Vietnam in 1983, setting out for the Philippines one night in a 12-foot wooden boat with 59 other people. They were on the water for six days and nights, he said, before they were rescued by a Filipino fishing boat.

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“If we weren’t rescued, we’d be dead,” he said. “Everyone was limp from starvation.”

He spent the next year in a refugee camp in the Philippines, where conditions were rough. He made what little money he could walking a mile to the nearest source of water and carrying it back to sell to other refugees.

In 1984, he came to the U.S., landing first in Long Beach. He still proudly remembers his first American address, on Pacific Avenue. Three days later, he was hired as a busboy at Pho 79, a Vietnamese noodle restaurant, where he started at $3 an hour.

Other jobs followed, and he counted pennies. He worked for a gardener, then started his own business -- saving up to buy a leaf blower, a tree trimmer and a lawnmower. In the mid-1990s, he moved to Houston, where he’d heard there was a big Vietnamese community. He became a cook, working 14-hour days. Then he followed his sister to Louisiana, where they opened a restaurant called New Loon Moon, which failed shortly after he met Hang.

Hang, too, had been born into money -- which disappeared when the communists came. Her parents had owned a dry goods store in Quang Tri, she said. They’d had a three-story house, a housekeeper and a nanny. But in 1972, they fled and for the next six years, bumped from town to town, their circumstances worsening as they went.

They earned money as laborers, cutting down trees and weeding in the jungle. They sold fruit, vegetables and nuts. Hang’s sister left Vietnam in 1979 by boat; she wasn’t able to bring Hang and the rest of the family to the United States until 1991.

Hang arrived in New Orleans with nothing. She worked bagging groceries, then as a seamstress and gas station cashier. She labored seven days a week, at least 10 hours a day, saving everything she could.

Even after the couple married in 1997, she would buy clothes only when they were at least 75% off, she said. They mostly survived on stir-fried vegetables and rice.

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They had always been proud to be in the U.S. On Monday, in line at a government office in Houston to get food stamps, they looked like they would rather be anywhere else on Earth.

“I never wanted to be in this place,” Nguyen said.

He also didn’t want to be seen there, but he was -- by a regular customer at his gas station in New Orleans.

They knew the woman at the food stamps office as Mrs. Busch, for the six-pack of 24-ounce Busch beers she bought there every day. She hugged them, and they hugged back. Then they asked her where Mr. Busch was.

“I can’t find him. I don’t know where he’s at,” said Rose Lee, 47, of her husband, Gregory.

Nguyen and Hang know that, by comparison, they’re lucky. Their first few nights in Houston, they spent nearly half their cash on hotel rooms. But thanks to the generosity of the city’s Vietnamese American community, they didn’t need to move to a shelter, a prospect that scared them.

Their three U.S.-born children -- Kevin, 6, Jason, 4, and Michelle, 2 -- are doing well, even though they’re beginning to ask when the vacation will be over. Not, they fear, any time soon. On Tuesday, they enrolled Kevin and Jason in Houston public schools.

Meanwhile, they are trying not to impose too much on their host, Tho Nguyen, who has made no complaint as the kids run up and down his stairs, jump on his elegant, white-cushioned dining room chairs, and wheel toy cars up and down his black marble coffee table.

An avid tennis player, he was a little annoyed when Hang moved his tennis rackets from the foyer, to make room for piles of donated goods -- blankets, pillows, a 25-pound bag of rice, bags of noodles.

“Sometimes I can’t go in and out,” he said quietly of the mess.

Still, “as a Buddhist, I believe in doing good deeds,” said Tho Nguyen, who left Vietnam in 1975 and now owns a grocery store. “One of these days, I might need help.”

To that end, he offered Hang a job at his store. She starts Monday.

She won’t be her own boss. She’ll be his employee. But for this family, at least it’s a start.

Tran reported from Houston and Lelyveld from Los Angeles.


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