Viterbo College Strides Magazine Winter 99
My unbelievable journey
by Nguyen Thi Oanh
Editor’s note: Her name is Nguyen Thi Oanh. People remember her as that “charming, petite, brave, enthusiastic” young woman who traveled over 8,000 miles from her homeland, to Viterbo, a distant and unknown destination. The year of her arrival was 1951.
Indeed, this young lady from Vietnam was special. She was the first lay foreign student to attend Viterbo and after graduating from college with a degree in sociology, she returned to Vietnam, helping her people as a social worker.
Today, nearly a half century later, we hear from Nguyen Thi Oanh again. This time her voice is contained in a manuscript. At age 67, she is no longer the young innocent from abroad. Living in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), she possesses the wisdom gained from witnessing war, reunification, and reconciliation —the cumulative struggles of her people and a nation, grappling with hardship. Her story is called, “My Unbelievable Journey: Memoirs of a Social Worker in Vietnam.” We were first alerted of the activities of this remarkable woman, by Tom Fox, former editor and now publisher of the “National Catholic Reporter.” As a journalist and social worker, Fox was in Vietnam from 1966-72 and he married a Vietnamese social worker who was a student of Ms. Oahn. “Ms. Oahn is a caring and beautiful and incredibly able person,” he writes, “She tells the story of Vietnam from the time of the French through a generally uncaring anti-communist regime to a dogmatic communist regime. Through it all is this woman who is trying to understand Vietnamese society and social forces and organize them to make life better for ordinary people.”
“My Unbelievable Journey” is a 30,000-40,000 word autobiography. Excerpts pertaining to her reflections of life in America and her early years at Viterbo are shared in this “Strides” version.
IN THE BEGINNING
Vietnamese of my time do not celebrate their birthday. Instead, the anniversary of a death is more important. However our birthday—mine and my twin brother’s, is so special that nobody can forget it. It was on Christmas day, December 25, 1931 that we were born in Gocong, then a little southeastern province of Vietnam.
Though Vietnam is a non-Christian country, Christmas during the French era was celebrated with sports activities. My father and brothers were watching a football game when we came into this world. My mother was playing Vietnamese traditional cards when the pain came. And I came out quickly, easily, because mother had had enough experience. It was the 13th childbirth in our family.
Around fifteen minutes later, mother was surprised to have pain again. At the time, my uncle, who was also our family doctor, was returning from the football game with my father. He told my mother that another baby was to come! She laughed out loud and said: “They think I am Mr Khiem !” Mr Khiem was the richest man in the province.
My father started as a teacher. Although from a poor family, he and my uncle were sent to Saigon for studies. He was one of the very few young men who came back to Gocong with a degree in pedagogy; that was the reason why my maternal grandparents, who were richer, decided to accept him as their son-in-law…
The first United States consular office was opened in Saigon in 1950 and offered evening courses in English. I joined them right away and there I learned that there were scholarships for Vietnamese to study in the United States. I applied without much hope because there were many smarter applicants. Meanwhile, my family heard of a Catholic scholarship program sponsored by the council of Vietnamese bishops. My father worried that going to a state college in modern America, I would “lose my soul” because of so much freedom and individualism. He urged me to join the latter program.
So I left Vietnam in May 1951 to study at Viterbo College, La Crosse, Wisconsin. The school was so small that even many Americans had never heard about it. Several months later, I was informed that I had won a government scholarship, and that if I wanted to, I could transfer to a state University. I refused—being used to and enjoying the courses at Viterbo College.
I always wondered why I got such a rare scholarship when there were so many smarter applicants. At that time, young people were very shy and dependent on their families. My father hoped that by not going with me to the consular office, he would discourage me from applying, so I went by myself and spoke on my own behalf. And I guess this helped me win a scholarship.
Some Vietnamese went to big universities like Fordham, Loyola, Georgetown: I was sent to a tiny college, the name of which was even strange to local people. The college was run by Franciscan Sisters; Viterbo was a village in Italy, the home of their patron St. Rose. The college was first only for religious students. When I arrived in May 1951, it was only the second year the college was open to lay people. We comprised 100 female students and all were female too. The majority of teachers were female and religious sisters although all possessed academic titles.
As I was Viterbo’s first foreign student, all the teachers tried their best to contribute to my education. Students living in town took me home and I became the point of exotic attraction of the whole town. Besides a Chinese family running a restaurant and myself, there was a Japanese war bride who was lonely because she did not speak English. Some good-will ladies wanted to bring us together, not realizing that we spoke three different languages. At the time, all Asians were considered the same for Westerners and vice versa. A year later, three more foreign students arrived: a mainland Chinese, a Venezuelan, a Puerto Rican girl. Then came Lillie, the first African?American student from the South. I was deeply touched by
Lilllie’s stories on racial discrimination. As Lillie was more at ease with us, we incorporated her into our little international family of which I became the big sister. Forty years ago this international experience was quite an event for our tiny college. Personally I learned much from sharing with people of different cultures. We were all the more close to one another since we spent the summers together.
At Viterbo, my English classes for foreign students were so much fun that I picked up spoken English very fast. After the summer, I was ready to sit in regular classes. Studies suddenly became an easy game.
At first I was completely lost with the lengthy group discussion in sociology where the teacher no longer dictated what should be done. Worse, in a social problems course, the teacher just took up the introductory part and each of the students had to choose one problem area, read materials and lecture to the class. I cried so much because I just could not understand such a strange role reversal. Why didn’t the teacher do her work, and how could I go to her desk and teach at her place? And I was still so limited in English compared to the American students that I feared I would have low grades. With much understanding and patience, the teacher said I could be the last to report so that I could have a longer time to prepare. To everybody’s surprise, at the end of the course I did well, because during the whole semester, I was always concerned with the problem assigned to me and, as a result, I collected a lot of material and devoted much thinking to it. Now I can’t teach my students in any other way than with those participatory methods. Even in 1997 in Vietnam, these techniques are considered great innovations in education.
And why did I choose sociology as a major? I left Vietnam determined to become a diplomat, but a special meeting changed the course of my life. I and three other students went to America via Paris. Mr. Tran Huu Phuong, a member of the Catholic Scholarship committee, met us at the Orly airport. He asked us what we planned to take up. My three friends replied education. When I said I wanted to become a diplomat, Phuong said, “Vietnamese people will need you in Vietnam, not outside the country. Why don’t you study sociology, a new science that could help Vietnam’s development?”
I hadn’t the slightest idea what sociology was but kept his suggestion in mind. The college advised me to take time to try both sociology and education and make up my mind later. It did not take me long , however. I didn’t know if this was due to the course content, methods, or the teachers’ personalities. In education classes, we seemed to have to fit our mind into a ready-made frame, while in sociology, the more we asked questions, explored and analyzed, the more the teachers seemed to be pleased. I still remember one education teacher getting cross when the students asked too many questions.
I quickly made up my mind for sociology, which made my father unhappy because he thought the major was “for priests and nuns doing charity work.” Poor father who dreamt about my becoming a doctor, a pharmacist, a lawyer, then an agricultural engineer. He was once more disappointed. Still, becoming a diplomat was even better than a sociologist! And it was impossible, from America, to explain to my father what sociology was. I felt lucky to have decided to remain at Viterbo because studying sociology there was the turning point for my present career. The head of the Sociology Department, also in charge of Student Affairs, was an exceptional person. She became one of the important actors to have shaped my personality. Her name was Sister Mary Roderick Chisholm.
Sister Mary Roderick had received her Ph.D. at the Catholic University of America, and she was more than a teacher of sociological theories and concepts. She was also a great practitioner as well as an educator and counselor.
Sister Mary Roderick had drawn up a well-rounded educational plan for me. Besides the required courses, she advised me to take music (choir), art (ceramics) and home economics as electives. Then they were relaxing; now they help me enjoy aging.
I was put on committees for extra curricular activities like any American girl. I was taught to plan my work yearly, monthly, weekly, daily and I became a planning addict even in these later years of my life. Thanks to that training, I have helped many young Vietnamese to organize their work more effectively.
Because I had a good background in French literature, the sophomore English course, world literature, was too easy so I received credits for it without attending classes. Instead, the English Department encouraged me to write articles for Touchstone, the college magazine. I did several, and to the joy of the whole college and the Vietnamese student community, one of my articles won the first prize in the 1953-1954 Catholic Press Association writing contest for students. My article “Getting Back to the Roots,” dealt with uniformity in thinking and in everyday life as a result of mass production and commercials. It was no big effort for me because I was literally shocked by American consumerism and the lack of originality. One time I bought a dress in La Crosse and when I wore it to take a walk I met three other people dressed exactly like me. What astonished me more though was the fact that my classmates had such a hard time with essay type exams because they were so used to the objective true-false tests.
The most humorous fact is that right now in Vietnam, my articles do not differ much from what I wrote in that article some 40 years ago. Writing for Touchstone became the starting point of partial occupation for me throughout my life and work in Vietnam. I’ve collaborated with different newspapers, magazines and organized our own professional magazine from the mid fifties until the present.
Speech was a required course given by a beautiful and elegant lay teacher. I also enjoyed it. But again Sister Celestine Cepress, the English Department head, did not let me stop there. She coached me for radio broadcasting and public speaking outside the college. At another international school event, she helped me to prepare a talk on Vietnam. In the middle of the speech, just looking at the audience full of important looking and smartly dressed people, I got into a panic. My knees started to shake, but luckily they were covered by my long Vietnamese tunic. Suddenly, I saw Sister Celestine in the audience, pale and tense, moving her lips to remind me of what I should say next because she knew my speech even better than I. The situation was so funny that I started laughing and got over my panic. And I am also thankful for this experience.
The first five years after the 1975 Revolution were really hard. The great majority of Saigon University graduates were unemployed. The most painful feeling though was that one could not do anything useful for society. When the Youth Cultural Center asked me to train young people in public speaking, I accepted right away and was thankful for having been so systematically trained before at Viterbo.
Belonging to a rather well-to-do family, I never did any house work. I didn’t even wash my own clothes. Although the scholarship covered everything, Viterbo arranged for me to do part-time work to get my pocket money. I first worked in a hospital dressing room. I also got some money by going along with my friends to do babysitting. I recall a big story about a young high school girl who was kidnapped while babysitting (Evelyn Hartley, a Central High School student). From then on, the La Crosse families always paid for two people, and I became a regular babysitter assistant.
Only once I had to give up my job. It was when I worked in the hospital cancer ward. Every day I had to feed three or four dying old ladies. I became so depressed that I could no longer eat and sleep. Everytime I closed my eyes I saw the dying faces. It was too overwhelming for my age.
I was transferred then to the college library where I learned to do things from scratch: dusting the shelves, putting borrowed books back in at the right places, managing the library desk, typing library cards, classifying books.
I left Vietnam without any practical skills and came back completely changed: I could clean the house, wash dishes (I used to wash dishes at summer camps with 60-70 people), care for the sick, do library work. People around observed with much admiration: “She can even type with her ten fingers.” My father seemed to be quite satisfied with these changes besides the degree in sociology!
When the first batch of American trained graduates returned to Vietnam, they were mocked by their French trained predecessors and colleagues as people having only practical skills and no theoretical knowledge. We replied that the French trained people only talked, but did not know how to work.
For myself, I am lucky to be a mixed product of both French and American education and most of all to have fallen into that tiny, unknown school, Viterbo, where everybody concentrated their efforts on me. In a larger university, I could have never attracted so much attention and care.
Ten years later, when I sent my niece to Viterbo there were already 500 students and I felt lost when I went to visit her, although I was received like a homecoming queen. My relationship with the college was interrupted only in 1975 when the Revolution broke out.