07 February 2005

Sleepless in Garden City, Kansas

Quang Nguyen owns the Garden City Specialty Cleaners. At night, he prepares federal tax returns for Vietnamese and Mexicans who do not know English well. He files the returns electronically on his laptop computer. I met him for breakfast at a franchise restaurant. In a part of America where people dress informally, he wore a pin-striped shirt and tie and had a collection of newspapers under his arm.

Nguyen was born in 1959 in South Vietnam, the son of a businessman. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, he escaped with hundreds of others on a rickety fishing boat. They drifted with little food or water for three days in the open sea before an American vessel rescued them. Nguyen and the others were sent to a refugee camp in Thailand. In 1981, after years of delay, he arrived in Oakland, California, then flew to Wichita, Kansas, where he knew a Vietnamese family. He soon learned that the new pig-raising plant in Garden City had jobs to offer. "So I came here and never left.

"I came with a friend, another Vietnamese I had met in Wichita. I was young, thin, and short. I was one of the first Vietnamese to come here. The people at the plant wouldn't hire me. They said I was too small to hack pig meat all day with a knife. My friend and I slept in an old car we had--we had no money to rent a room. We slept all winter of 1981-1982 in the car, by the highway and in the park. We came back to the plant every few days, begging for work. Finally, one of the foremen felt sorry for us. I started working nights at the pig plant and immediately registered for school during the day. I had studied electrical engineering in Vietnam. but I knew that I was not in a position to continue that here: I had to learn proper English.

"I saved money to sponsor my sister to come, and I always studied. I tried never to sleep. I got together with some other Vietnamese to start a restaurant. and I worked there for two years after quitting the job at the feeding plant. But the restaurant was not really a success. So I read manuals about fixing cars and in 1985 opened a body shop. In 1987, I sold my share in the body shop and bought the Rainbow Laundry, then the Specialty Cleaners. After I became a citizen. I studied the U.S. tax system and started preparing tax returns for the other Vietnamese. In 1991, I married a Vietnamese. My wife and I met at a bowling alley.

"My youth was all work and struggle and cold and heat and lonely with a strange language. In this country, if you don't work hard you either sink or stand in place, which is just as bad. You always have to calculate to get ahead. You know, I have to pay $250 each month for health insurance, and then there are the mortgage payments. I have four children; two are in Head Start programs. If I didn't have to sleep, I could make more money, though." He smiled.
SOURCE: An Empire Wilderness: Travels into America's Future, by Robert D. Kaplan (Vintage, 1998), pp. 259-260

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