Tim Tran and Tom Fields-Meyer
Pacific University Press
A debut memoir recounts life under Communist rule in Vietnam and a man’s daring escape to America.
Tran’s life was always shadowed by the political tempestuousness of his native Vietnam. Born in a small coastal village in 1950, he was later forced to flee with his family, transformed into a refugee at the age of 4. The author’s father, Nguyen Dinh Muu—he eventually had to change his name—joined the Viet Minh nationalist cause, but abandoned it after it took an aggressive Communist turn, compelling him to relocate out of fear of retribution. Tran and his family would have to move yet again, this time to Saigon, once the war between the northern and southern portions of the country finally caught up with them. But the author’s father, seeing promise in Tran’s aptitude, rigorously prepared him for academic success and a way out. Later, the author won a scholarship to attend college in the United States. He studied at Pacific University in Oregon and the University of California at Berkeley, and was confronted with a terrible choice, poignantly depicted here: return to Vietnam as required or defy the terms of his scholarship. He chose to fly back, confident that harmony and stability were achieved with the Paris Peace Accords in 1973 and committed to marrying his girlfriend, Thuy. But the minute he returned, his passport was confiscated, and for the next four years, he languished under Communist rule, always looking for a way out. Tran writes simply, even journalistically, describing in vividly powerful detail the horror of the despotism he survived. In the airport the day he returned to Vietnam, “the military presence was immediately palpable. All around me, I saw hundreds of sandbags, barbed wire, and soldiers armed with M-16 rifles….Within seconds of arriving, I knew I had gone from the Land of the Free to the Land Under Military Control.” Still, this is not a dour lamentation, but rather an inspiring story of personal triumph. The author not only fled Vietnam in a wooden fishing boat and made it back to the United States, he also ultimately prospered both personally and financially. Furthermore, Tran’s book—written with Fields-Meyer—delivers an astute synopsis of a chaotic period in Vietnamese history and an intelligent commentary on the perspectives of Americans during that time.
A candidly moving and historically thoughtful account.
American Dreamer: How I Escaped Communist Vietnam and Built a
Successful Life in America
Tim Tran (Tran Manh Khiem) with Tom Fields-Meyer
Pacific University Press, 368 pages, pdf
(Reviewed: February 2020)
In American Dreamer, a former refugee chronicles his odyssey from communist oppression to freedom and achievement in America.
This harrowing autobiography is inseparable from the war that engulfed Vietnam and scorched America’s psyche. “[Y]ou cannot separate yourself from your past,” the author writes, and his book makes the case with cinematic clarity.
Tran Khiem’s father had clerked for the South Vietnamese government and prodded the youth to apply his unusual intelligence to exceed his classmates. Khiem earned a university scholarship to study in the U.S., conditioned on his agreement to return to Vietnam upon graduation.
In America, he excelled in finance and became fluent in English. Although he loved American culture and made many friends who encouraged him to stay, he kept his word and returned to work for Shell Oil in Saigon until the communist victory in 1975. As life became intolerable, his family encouraged him to escape and try to get the family out later.
After several failed tries, he boarded a densely crowded boat that barely survived pirate-infested waters. Thai pirates struck seven times, robbing 300 passengers at knifepoint, stealing everything of value — even Khiem’s pants. Finally, in 1979, refugees found United Nations protection at the Malaysian island Pulau Bidong. Meanwhile, stalwart friends and associates wrote glowing letters that smoothed his re-entry to the United States.
The book’s title is most apt: Refugee Tran Khiem became citizen Tim Tran, a highly respected corporate executive with degrees from Pacific University and Berkeley. His wife Thuy made her separate journey to America and later became Cathy Tran.
The story arc in American Dreamer is not one of character—Tran’s essence doesn’t change— but rather of plot. That plot never lags and readers will remain riveted until the triumphant conclusion. Written in brief, easily readable chapters, this is a remarkable story of courage, determination and gratitude—one highly recommended for readers seeking an understanding of the risks refugees take to find freedom.
Tim Tran (Tran Manh Kheim) with Tom Fields-Meyer
Pacific University Press
American Dreamer: How I Escaped Communist Vietnam and Built a Successful Life in America is a thought-provoking memoir of Tim Tran, who spent years in Communist Vietnam trying to forge a life under impossible conditions before he fled to America to make this nation his adopted home.
His life story of how he moved from a poor Vietnamese child caught in a brutal conflict between nationalists and Communists that changed his life and forced his family to flee from North to South Vietnam when he was four to building a successful new life in America should be required reading for anyone interested in immigrant stories of struggle, survival, and rebirth.
(It should be noted that this is not a story about the ‘Dreamers’ who are caught between two worlds, their lack of legal status and their life as Americans. Despite its title, this is an immigrant’s memoir, not a story about a Dreamer’s uncertain status and future in this country.)
Besides being a story of personal perseverance, Tran’s is a tale of that adoption process and how America’s promises ultimately came true for him, imparting a value system based on hard work, achievement, and grasping opportunity.
Tran’s life was not destined to end via an old wooden escape boat designed for forty but holding three hundred, that faced Thai sea pirates and shipwreck. (Lest readers believe this event occurred early in his life story, it should be pointed out that it took place after he had earned his degree at an American university, returned to Vietnam and taken an executive-level job at a large petroleum company, and was engaged to be married.)
The decades that bring him to this point are explored in subsequent chapters that follow his early childhood, the change in Vietnam’s political and cultural makeup as foreign powers invaded and Communist struggles and occupation took over, and how he honed his dream of escape.
The juxtaposition of social and political observation from the vantage point of youth captures the sentiments of many of Vietnam’s younger generation: “In May 1961, the entire city was excited about the news that Lyndon Johnson, the American vice president, would be visiting Saigon to meet with President Diem and tour the city. What I didn’t understand at that early age was the reason for Johnson’s visit: a war was about to begin—a conflict that would change everything. With training and equipment from the American military, President Diem’s South Vietnamese army had been cracking down on the Viet Cong in rural areas. And North Vietnamese troops had begun to travel clandestinely on the Ho Chi Minh Trail to infiltrate the South and smuggle ammunition to the Viet Cong guerillas. Without knowledge of the looming war, my classmates and I found Johnson’s visit simply thrilling.”
As Tran journeys to America, absorbs its culture, and returns to Vietnam, he often experiences ongoing challenges with his ties to American interests when his arrival home results in countrymen and family treating him differently: “Phat knew I had worked for Shell and that I had money to spend—the USAID money I had saved for years by living frugally during college and money from my Upward Bound work. Having resources made me a prime target. In this case, I had been successfully targeted by my brother-in-law’s best friend.”
As he observes the worsening state of life in Vietnam under Communist rule and acknowledges his newfound vulnerability in the face of its changing social and political milieu, Tran effectively becomes a stranger in his own homeland, at risk and endangered by his position.
Tran’s story captures and contrasts life in Vietnam and life in America, emphasizing a sense of gratitude as it follows the journey towards his final goal of settling permanently in the United States.
Readers of immigrant stories will find American Dreamer stands out for its sense of purpose, achievement, and ability to capture the promise and opportunities America represents.
— D. Donovan, Senior Reviewer, Midwest Book Review