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Vol. 55, No. 7 April 4, 2003
[Sandia National Laboratories]

Albuquerque, New Mexico 87185-0165    ||   Livermore, California 94550-0969
Tonopah, Nevada; Nevada Test Site; Amarillo, Texas

'Mine is a typical American story': Yet the challenges Tan Thai overcame on his way from Vietnam to Sandia were anything but routine

By Iris Aboytes

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The "Fall of Saigon," "Sea Pirates," and "Suicide Missions" could be titles of novels. They actually are incidents in the life of Sandian Tan Thai (5902).
With the fall of Saigon to communism, the life Tan enjoyed while growing up in Vietnam changed drastically. His father, a businessman, lost everything. His younger brother, Loc, was drafted by the communists to carry ammunition -- no weapons, just ammunition. Tan, a teacher in a middle school, could not see past a bleak future.
[Tan Thai]

SANDIAN TAN THAI at his church in Albuquerque, NM

Tan says the strength and love of his mother motivated him and his older sister, Mai, to escape Vietnam. "Don't cry," she said, as they left. They were captured on their first attempt but were successful on their next attempt.
"Successful" meant they arrived on Pulau Bidong, a small island off the east coast of Malaysia, after three days and nights at sea. Their journey included being robbed on three separate occasions by Thai sea pirates. The pirates robbed them, threatened their lives, and terrorized them. "Only by God's grace did they let us go," says Tan.
The boat was a typical small, wooden Vietnamese fishing boat. It was packed, overcrowded with 40 or 50 people of all ages. All healthy bodies, including Tan, were jammed into the lower deck. "People vomited all around me. The odor was horrific," says Tan. "My sister and I had some water but no food."
Their arrival in Pulau Bidong was traumatic. But a surprise awaited them. As Tan and Mai sat on the dock, from nowhere appeared Loc. Tan's family had not heard from Loc in a very long time. He also had escaped. Loc told them he had gone to the only dock on the island daily in hopes of seeing family members. That was a joyful day for them.
There were 6,000 refugees in Pulau Bidong when they arrived. Refugees built their own houses. The house that Tan and Loc built was small, l0' by 8'. The walls were made of plastic sugar bags, and its roof was a blue, thicker piece of plastic. Pieces of trees harvested from the hills in the island formed studs.
Beds were constructed out of tree bark, later "upgraded" with wooden planks. "For a while, we shared our house with three others, girls, friends of my sister. At night the ladies slept on beds, while my brother and I slept on hammocks," says Tan.
They all received food rations supplied by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. Each ration bag included a small bag of white sugar, artificial orange drink mix, salt, a bag of rice, three cans of sardines, a can of chicken, and three cans of green peas. Food was not a problem, but water was. It had to be brought to the island. However, many of the refugees used water from self-dug wells. Tan's family used water from an underground source off a hill nearby. "My brother and I would each carry two 10-liter water cans on our shoulders, racing down the hill barefooted," says Tan.
The rainy season posed a different hardship. Prolonged rain during the monsoon months created torrents of water that could crush the flimsily constructed houses. "Our stay at Pulau Bidong lasted about six months," Tan says.
Delegations from different sponsoring nations like the US, Canada, Australia, France, and Germany could come and interview refugees for final settlement. Some had to wait for five or six years if they didn't have relatives or friends in any sponsoring countries.
"We were fortunate. My sister's husband had escaped in 1975 and lived in Dallas, so it took us only half a year of waiting in Bidong," says Tan. However, because of Loc's health problem, Tan and Mai ended up waiting another three months in a transit camp instead of a week or two as they had hoped. As for Loc, it took him another six months to reach the States.
The transit camp offered no privacy. "We [refugees] all slept next to one another in long barracks," says Tan. "The days were long and dull with time waiting in long line for food, water, and toilets."

[Tan Thai]

SANDIAN TAN THAI with his mother on his foirst visit back to Vietnam after becoming a US citizen.

Once in Texas, they all lived together, but marginal English made their lives lonely and tough. Tan's first English teachers were a dictionary and a copy of the Reader's Digest.
Tan worked as a laborer with hopes of going back to college. Not going back was not a choice especially because of the sacrifices made by his family. About a year and a half after arriving in Dallas, he moved to Arkansas to live with his aunt and uncle who offered him a place to live while attending the University of Arkansas.
His mother's love, back in Vietnam, was what gave them strength. "I deeply love and respect my mother," says Tan. "She was a pillar of strength as she wanted the world for her family. Her deep love and quiet demeanor as she insisted we leave was an example for all of us to follow. We know that a little piece of her heart died as we left." His mother died before the paperwork for her to come to the United States was completed.
Working at a gas station one summer while going to college, Tan came across a grieving old man who had lost his wife. The man talked about seeing his wife again and offered Tan a gift, a leaflet containing the Gospel of John. Tan's interest in religion had been almost nonexistent. He took the leaflet home, put it aside but came across it one day. His dad, an atheist, believed once you died that is it. The Gospel of John offered him a different option.
It was at Bible class that he met Lan, his wife. Her brother had become his roommate and she attended the same class they did. They all went to the same church.
Tan's degrees in electrical engineering brought him to Sandia in 1987 by way of AT&T. Today at Sandia, Tan does research and development for computer security applications. He was promoted to DMTS in 2001.
"Tan is absolutely a superb person," says Ricardo Contreras (5936). "He is quite remarkable in how he solves very difficult technical problems as a member of Center 5900. For example, he was on a couple of projects I managed, and he was the energy behind the technical success of each of those projects. Tan, as he goes about his daily business at Sandia, exhibits those rare qualities of modesty and appreciation. His broad smile and twinkle in his eye broadcast loud and clear how proud he is of being a citizen of the United States of America."
His director, Patricia Gingrich (5900), says, "It is an honor to work with Tan. He is creative, technically brilliant, and leads a very dedicated team. His team respect and admire each other. It works like magic."
Today, Tan's life is full. "I don't want to be a busy person, I want to be a useful person," says Tan. He and his wife Lan, a Vietnamese interpreter at UNM, have three children, Hannah, Nathan, and Stephen. Tan also serves as a biovocational pastor at a Vietnamese church. His nights and most of the weekend are filled with church work and family activities. Recently Tan has joined many of his colleagues at work to build a radio-controlled sailplane for fun.
Loc works for Boeing. Mai works for an electronics firm. They both live in Texas.
Tan became a US citizen in 1986 in Arkansas. "Much is given," says Tan. "Much is required. It has certainly been a privilege and an honor to be a naturalized citizen." Although he is glad that his children did not have to experience his quest for freedom, "I do hope, however, that they value what they have in this country," says Tan.
"To me, mine is a typical American story," says Tan. "It is a story my mother would embrace with humility."

Last modified: April 7, 2003

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