100th OG CC shares personal story of family sacrifice, leap of faith as immigrants from Vietnam to US

  • Published
  • By Karen Abeyasekere
  • 100th Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs

Born in Saigon, Vietnam, Col. Van Thai immigrated in 1981 with his family to Toronto, Canada, when he was just 5 years old. At the time, they spoke no English, but his parents wanted to provide a much better life for their sons, after having been through the Vietnam War.

Now a colonel in the U.S. Air Force, and the 100th Operations Group commander at Royal Air Force Mildenhall, Van shared stories of his roots and culture, which he still holds dear to this day, as part of Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

“We lived in Canada for two years, and that’s where my dad’s family planted roots,” recalled Van. “We then immigrated to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, which is where my mom’s family planted roots, between there and Texas. That’s where I call home, and I grew up there until I went to the U.S. Air Force Academy. My family didn’t want to be communists – they wanted a new life with opportunities for my younger brother and I. My dad and uncle went off on a boat as refugees, then later on he did the paperwork in Canada to bring us over to start our new life that was not inhibited by a communist government.

“They sacrificed a lot; when you leave a communist country you leave everything behind,” he said. “At most, you’ve got the shirt on your back, like my dad and my uncle did. Being from a tropical country, when they got off the plane in Canada it was snowing; my dad had never seen snow before, and he just said, ‘We’re gonna die…’ But they sacrificed everything they owned to take a leap of faith for a new life for themselves and their family – that shows the repression of a communist regime of the times there.

Van described how although he was too young to know what an immigrant was at the time, he was aware that nobody else spoke “his” language.

“As a kid, you adapt, but it was a learning process. When we were in Canada, I’d just started kindergarten and my mom packed me a sandwich. I just kept thinking to myself how awesome my lunch was going to be. My teacher pointed to a cubby hole to signal that’s where I had to put my lunch – I didn’t know any English at the time, but I was beginning an English as a Second Language class. The teacher told me that they were doing other lessons and I had to go to my English class with kids in another room. As I didn’t understand anything she was saying, she pointed me in the direction of the other class and teacher.

“So I figured that I’d take all my stuff with me, and went to grab my lunch from the cubby hole. But the teacher said no, I couldn’t take it with me. As a young kid on my first day, I didn’t understand that it was just going to be for an hour then I would come back – that was my home room – so when she said I couldn’t have my lunch, I cried! But then in the ESL class we started playing games and communicating with each other, and I had a good time before they released us back to our home rooms. I was so happy to be reunited with my lunch!”

Van described how, when he and his family arrived to a new country, on a completely different continent, they worked hard to assimilate to a new culture.

“My parents were always pushing for us to speak English, both in Canada and Oklahoma. A lot of immigrant or refugee kids are a-cultural, or lost between two worlds. What I mean by that is they’re trying to fit in to the new ‘world’ they’re coming to, while also trying to retain where they came from – that was definitely a bit of a challenge growing up. So I tried to capture and cherish some of the heritage where I came from.

He added that when the United States uses the term “Asian American,” or for him personally, “Vietnamese American,” the bottom line is they are all American.

“America’s origins mean it’s a country of immigrants, and as immigrants we each bring our little piece of the puzzle in many ways – including culturally, with different foods and events – to make and form that beautiful red, white and blue mosaic that is America,” remarked Van. “With our different perspectives, backgrounds and heritage, we bring that color to make the picture shine through our diversity. That’s why America is so awesome! Without our different pieces of the puzzle, that picture can’t be formed; but it continues to grow in variety and perspective – I cherish that about America. I tell my parents that we’re not perfect, but we’re still that beacon on the hill – the light that shines brightly and gives hope for a lot of other countries. That’s why other folks want to come to America, because of that hope and the “American Dream” – but it’s not given to you. My parents showed us that it's a lot of hard work – you roll up your sleeves and do the dirty jobs, not for yourself, but more to make a better life for your kids and your grandkids.”

Van continued that a lot of immigrants go to the US and make sacrifices.

“They do it purely for that hope that is America – nothing is guaranteed, and that’s what makes America special compared to a lot of other countries. You can change your stars in America with hard work, and a little bit of luck never hurts either,” he said. “When I first came to Oklahoma, there weren’t a lot of Asian-American or Vietnamese-American kids in my high school. But now that high school is probably quarter to half Asian-American – as immigration flows, people do well. Things like discrimination do happen, because people sometimes don’t understand or are afraid. But the people in Oklahoma were very kind and overall, we were very lucky.

He explained that he decided to join the Air Force Academy, although growing up being very stereotypically Asian-American meant generally having two choices – either being a doctor or an engineer.

“I did well at school and got selected to go to the Air Force Academy Summer Scientific Seminar. I didn’t know anything about the military back then, and my parents – having lived through the Vietnam War – didn’t want anything to do with the military. I went there on a scholarship and saw the equipment and labs, and I was fascinated, especially as they were going to pay me to go to school. I just thought to myself, ‘This is winning!’

Van also had other scholarships, which mattered greatly to him because having grown up poor, he didn’t want his parents to have to pay for anything. Out of all of the offers he received, he chose the academy.

“It was far enough, but close enough and a little different. I took the plunge, and I was fascinated, especially not knowing anything about the military,” the 100th OG commander recalled. “That culture around the Air Force Academy was awesome! It was a culture of air power and service. Another reason I wanted to go was that America has given a lot to myself and my family, so I wanted to give back a little bit, and that piece blossomed and grew. At the time I still wanted to become a doctor, but after seeing some of my friends fly and do some cool programs, I got curious. I got to jump out of airplanes and fly gliders, so decided I would give it a shot. After finishing at the academy, I got picked up for grad school, then went on to do flight training.”

As a freshman in high school, Van and his brother became naturalized citizens, and he said he cherished the blessing that was his citizenship in the United States.

“Back when we were in Vietnam, my parents were in the education industry, which is why they’ve always pushed for education for us. When we got to Canada and the US, even with the language barrier, my mom and dad worked any job they could get their hands on – it was all about paying the bills and putting food on the table for us. I remember some really good times; my dad worked three jobs and one of his last jobs of the day was as a dishwasher in a Chinese restaurant. We would wait up until he came home, and he would bring leftovers with him – they were the best! Whether fried rice, egg rolls, noodles or whatever, it was the best because we just had each other and our time together.”

His parents continued to work and eventually earned themselves manufacturing jobs in a big US technology company. Despite their lack of being able to speak English, they had the ability to do the job, and continued working there for many years until the economic disaster happened in 2000 and the bubble burst.

“My mom and dad were flexible though, and worked at other companies and factories, moving around just to keep busy and put food on the table. Even at the time when my brother and I were gone – I was at the academy and my brother also got a masters and PhD scholarship in Boston – they were still always supportive. Their constant hard work meant that we were able to use that as a springboard to focus on our education and careers.

“My dad’s last job was working in sheet metal at Tinker Air Force Base on the KC-135 Stratotankers. At the time, I was the commander of the 340th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron in the Middle East. We had the largest flying squadron of KC-135s, composed of up to 70 aircraft, during the time of ISIS and Syria. I flew a flag over Iraq and Afghanistan, and sent it to his department at Tinker, with a letter saying that my dad worked for them and I wanted to say ‘thank you’ to the military and civilians in his shop. Their hard work at the depot helped us to ‘rock the mish’ and take care of business in the Middle East. I wanted them to know I appreciated them. It’s neat that before he retired, my dad got to work on the aircraft that I now fly.”

Van said his wife is Japanese and his children are first-generation American, all born overseas. This month (May 2022) marks his 24 years of service in the Air Force – 28 years including his time at the academy – with more than 20 of those served overseas. He is currently preparing to head to Japan, on his 17th tour of active duty service, 12th abroad.

“Thinking about Asian-American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I feel everybody should be celebrating their differences and diversity of their history, and sharing that. At the end of the day, whether Vietnamese-American, Japanese-American, Asian-American or other, yes, we’re highlighting the differences but at the end of the day we’re all American – it’s all that uniqueness which comes together and makes America awesome.”