About Refugees, By Refugees
Hoang Mai Nguyen-Ton Nu
Hello, Mrs Nguyen.
Can you introduce yourself?
So, uh, I am Nguyen-Tôn Nu Hoàng-Mai, so I am a teacher, I am part of the French National Education system. I am 64 years old, I am of Vietnamese origin and I have been in France since uh, 1975.
And so you said you were a teacher. Can you tell us a little bit about how you spend your days?
So, uh, I’m a teacher, uh, of French as a foreign language, and also Vietnamese. So, I have more than a full-time position and so um, my days vary between giving Vietnamese lessons followed by courses of French as a foreign language or a break or alternating. And so I give classes from Monday to Saturday because Saturday is not for National Education but for another association to teach Vietnamese to adults or young people of Vietnamese or non-Vietnamese descent, who would be interested in the Vietnamese language.
Okay, it’s interesting. And other than that, do you have passions, hobbies, something you do in addition?
Yeah, uh, I’ve got passions. One of the passions is the humanitarian aspect, uh, to lead a humanitarian association in Vietnam to help 420 young people, uh, from first grade up to postgraduate education to continue their studies. So, uh, it’s volunteering by preparing classes, giving classes, uh, administratively taking care of the association because it’s a sponsorship system, so link with the sponsors, link with sponsored parties, interfacing. Also, generate activities uh, that can generate money to finance our activities. So, just recently, it’s uh working in the e-commerce business and uh, to introduce others to Vietnamese cuisine through the dishes I prepare myself.
And other than that, well, my passion is also, uh, planting, cultivating things and uh, so yeah. Right now, it’s taking care of my little mango tree (laughs), seeing its leaves grow to hope someday to plant somewhere in the South (laughs), so yeah.
Okay. And so, you’re talking about gardening, I assume you live in a house? An apartment, a house?
Yes, a house.
How would you describe your living conditions, are you fairly happy?
Well, you could say that now, I am in a very, very favorable environment. Uh, you could also say that well, I have had a uh, very privileged life compared to others, thanks to these primary conditions.
Okay. So you’re pretty happy today?
Yes, I am happy with the situation in which we are.
Okay. Do you live alone, do you have somebody, kids, or… ?
So, uh, I’m married and I have three kids. My two elders left home to start their families and uh, so I have a 21-year old child who still lives with us, uh, when she’s not at her engineering school.
Okay. Great. I just wanted to go back a little bit to your associative activities connected with Vietnam. Incidentally, how do you feel when you are engaged in these associative activities? What emotion does it stir in you?
Uh, I got involved in this humanitarian activity in uh ’94. So it had, uh, happened after we first came back to Vietnam in 1992 and through this trip, it opened up my eyes about many aspects and when I came back, for almost a year and a half, uh, I went into a form of depression. I can’t talk about Vietnam without crying. So, uh, it was during a contemporary history course on Vietnam that I described Vietnam as I just discovered it over a year ago. And so, in the face of this situation, this rather disastrous description of the economic and especially social and educational aspects, my students asked me the question, “But if the situation is really so catastrophic, uh why didn’t the Vietnamese revolt?” They were students of Vietnamese origin who came to my classes that I gave at the time at Louis-le-Grand High School. So, uh, I was a bit startled and I said, “Well, you can’t revolt like that in a communist country and, uh, above all, take up arms after 25 years of war, I don’t think that’s a solution. But there are other ways, I think, to help develop the country.” And then he said, “But in that case, what can we do?” So I tell him, “Well, when I was, I saw that there’s almost a generation, uh, of my loved ones, who I see are illiterate, illiterate because they can’t afford to go to school, even though it’s a communist system.” They did not go to school because there is also passive resistance. Families don’t want their children indoctrinated, uh, because it’s Southern Vietnam. So, uh, I said, “But, should this generation, uh, indeed become illiterate, what is going to become of the future of the country?” So, there are a lot of aspects, but there is one aspect which we must not forget; it is that either way, it is your people, it is our people, it is the future of the country as a whole and not a question of political divide. So, I said, “I can see something because, uh, I’ve inquired and now they’re accepting. Now, it is 1994, the government agrees that some foreign associations can intervene to give literacy classes to children.” And I say, “By being a teacher, for me, this is the way that could bring about change, so, uh, are you in?” Well, they said, “Well, why not?” So from there, well, uh, the following month, we had set up our association to, uh, fund literacy classes for street children living in public garbage dumps. We had collected them to give them, well, in complete illegality because we hadn’t made formal requests or anything at all. And so, uh, they came to become literate. In return, they were given, uh, 5 kilos of rice so they could come home, uh, because when they left the public garbage dumps, well, they weren’t working for their survival or for their families, so it’s a form of compensation. And because I, at the time, very idealistic, we had said, “Well, we just have to feed them at noon. But where and how they will eat? Here, already, we’re squatting to be able to do our lessons. Can you imagine us, preparing meals, all this?” And so, one thing leading to another, we had refined our system to be a place for beginner level, then we started six months later to raise the level, and six months later, raising the level and so on, we managed to make them literate um, because we thought of an intensive course every six months, and then recruiting others. Then we were told, “Well, it’s uh, it’s a little stupid what we do because after six months of literacy, maybe they know how to read, start writing, you put them back in the dumps! Six months later, there’s not going to be anything left! So, uh, it’s useless work.” So this is when we started to open up the upper levels and so on. So, uh, this is a form, if you can say, that allows me to feel, if you can say, useful, useful to my country, even if politically, it could be against it. But we cannot forget that behind all these aspects, there is a whole population suffering from it and that, well, caught between two fires, well, they are the forgotten ones. So, uh, that’s where we started working and uh, year after year, now we’ve been working for 26 years. And now, we’ve modified so, uh, we don’t have literacy classes anymore. We then put the kids in public school so they could graduate at the end of their school career and uh, so after, get their certificate. They then asked to go to high school. We agreed. After graduation, they asked to pursue university studies. We continued to fund them through the help of sponsors we can get uh, through our Vietnamese courses, because these are fee-based courses. But uh, the money received through the course fees is used exclusively for sponsorship, that is to say, to finance the tuition of the young people there, to fund their tuition fees which are very, very expensive, and uh, uniforms, school supplies, the whole panoply so that these children, through their schooling, are not a burden for their family. Because poor families, uh, when faced with tuition at the beginning of the year, well, have to make the choice between, well, survive that month or putting a child in school. So, we opted to completely remove this load. And a child who comes to Sauvage School (the name of the association) is almost sure to finish his studies up to where he wants to, with us. And uh, so, we hope it’suh, a form of oil stain, it will have an oil stain effect, because if he manages to make it through, he probably will, hopefully, help his family to make it through and so on, it’s going to catch on so that uh, on a societal level, Vietnam will be able make it through.
Okay, it’s very interesting, it’s a very beautiful project and associative and humanitarian activity. Can you tell us, because you’ve talked about when you returned to Vietnam, can you tell us about when you left your country and then applied for asylum in France? How did it all happen?
So, uh, initially, uh, when I left Vietnam, it was a voluntary departure. Voluntary because I had received my secondary high school diploma and my parents already have children who are in France to study, my big brothers and sisters. And so, uh, the plan was that I leave Vietnam to do a university degree in linguistics studies and then go back to Vietnam with my diplomas to teach French. It was the plan to leave Vietnam for only four years. And so, it was the beginning, uh, of 1975 and at that time, when I was leaving, we are completely unaware that Vietnam is going to swing and that the whole of Vietnam, Southern Vietnam, will also become communist. So, uh, I was gone, okay, hmm, it was voluntary, except that at the last minute, to take the escalator and then get off and then join the plane, get on board, well I didn’t want to anymore. It’s already uh, (laughs) a step back from this great future that was presented before my eyes. And then, when I arrived in France, uh, I didn’t want at all, if you can say, to pursue my studies. We had done – “we” because I was with my sister, two years older than me – and I was leaving to accompany her too, and well, we were on strike. We didn’t want to go to our classes even though it was already March-January. And so we had spent our month crying, asking to go back. And then, up until March, my brothers and sisters here had almost given in, uh, they almost gave in to our request and on the other side, well my mother was also asking for us, uh, there was echo, we almost won. And then, tired of fighting, they sent a telegram to my parents asking what should be done with us. And at the same time, in Vietnam, from March onwards, the provinces in the North of South Vietnam began to fall into the hands of the communists. And so, uh, an ingoing telegram, uh, it was, uh, succinct: no return, impossible. And so, uh, overnight, we took our suitcases (laughs) to go to Besançon and immediately continue our university studies. So, at that time, when I arrived in Besançon, I was still ignorant of the real situation because my brothers and sisters did well, voluntarily hid the situation from us, because it was still being reported on on television but we were put aside. Even my father, who was still writing to us quite regularly, didn’t talk too much about the situation, the chaos in Vietnam, because I think if they told us that, we’d be, uh, we would have flown back. And so, uh, the fall of South Vietnam on 30 April, and that’s only then that my big brother called us to say, “Come quickly, look what’s currently happening in Vietnam!” We were presented with a, one might say, a fait accompli, we can’t do anything anymore, we can no longer return to Vietnam to be with our parents and we are only witnessing this chaos in Vietnam. And so, uh, then we had to make decisions, uh, about our schooling. Uh, so I said, “Well, I’m carrying on with my project because in four years, we don’t know anything yet. I still have the hope of being able to return or that there will be a change” (laughs). And, uh, so my sister, she had branched off to studying as a nurse even though she was doing linguistics studies, just like me. So, uh, I stayed in Besançon to continue my studies. It was a determination, that is, uh, I’m thinking, “The sooner I finish my studies, the more chance there is to come home sooner, join my parents.” And so, from year to year, uh, there was a time when there was no correspondence at all. Uh, my father’s mail had to go through Eastern Europe, uh, had to go through the north of Vietnam, and then go to Eastern Europe to come back to France so it takes a lot of time, uh, that type of correspondence, when we were in very, very regular contact before. And so, uh, I was doing, I kept studying and that’s almost the goal for me, it’s to uh be able to succeed in my studies and thanks to that, I did my studies well, because it’s also a way of not thinking about the country, uh, forget myself in every class, so much so that I was pursuing two degrees the same year. And to take four certificates and pass them with flying colors with honors, and then study for two masters, that is, two M1 at the same time, get dizzy with all my studies and also doing work on the side to earn money and send it and help our parents in Vietnam. And when I finished my four years of study, well there had been an opportunity, I learned from one of my university professors that one can go to Hanoi, in the North, to teach French as a foreign language. So, uh, he told me about it and so, uh, I said, “Well, in that case it’s possible, it’s a solution, uh, even if it’s to go to the North, there’s always a way then that I can go back to the South, being in the same country.” So, uh, I made the request. Because of my origins (laughs), the answer of the Quai d’Orsay was very succinct, it’s uh, excessive but I know it’s because of my Vietnamese origins that I can’t come back, uh, teach in Vietnam at that time. So, uh, well, I came to terms with the possibility of coming back to the country. Uh, but I was still pursuing my studies and during my four years of study, I discovered a passion, my mother tongue, because uh, hmm, I had been in a French junior high school uh since uh kindergarten. So, uh, naturally, I spoke Vietnamese, like everyone else but, uh, the first words I learned to read and write were in French. And so then I continued my studies in this French high school and so, uh, I learned Vietnamese for the first time when I was in third grade. It wasn’t a big success, uh I didn’t really know how to read and write in Vietnamese. The following year, I learned in autodidact because I loved to read series (laughs), so I learned to read in autodidact, but it is my native language. And then, we had had Vietnamese lessons throughout high school. It’s only the year I did my bachelor’s degree that because a professor of philology asked us to work on the writing rules of uh, each of our native languages, that I immersed myself in Vietnamese and that there, I found that with such impeccable writing rules, it’s such a beautiful language. One could say that then, I fell in love with my native language (laughs). And so, the rest of my studies focused on studying the Vietnamese language and doing Vietnamese phonetics. So yeah.
Okay. It’s very interesting! And so, when did you decide to apply for asylum and stay in France?
So, uh, I applied for asylum through my mother because back then, you had to have, the age of majority was 21 years old and so, uh, I remained, uh, undocumented, since I didn’t want to take back my North Vietnamese passport, and then the Vietnamese passport because there was a floating period during one year when the two countries hadn’t yet be reunited and so, uh, to be legal, now we have to choose the North Vietnamese passport, which I didn’t want to take. Then, uh, when the country was reunited the following year, well, it’s having to choose for the passport of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, which I didn’t want to take either. And then, uh, my brothers and sisters had taken steps so that my parents could come join us in Paris through [the right to] family reunification. And in the end, only my mother and sister had been able to join us, my father having passed away before they left. Upon her arrival in France, she had applied for political refugee status since I was underaged, being not yet 21 years old, so through this, I also the refugee status. And, uh, France, all this time, accepted the fact that we were, uh, virtually undocumented.
And how did you feel as a refugee in the sense that, as you explained it to me, your country, as you knew it, no longer existed? What were you feeling back then?
It’s something very strange when the country, physically, is still there, and that physically, geographically, is still there, but we are under the impression that we had lost what made the soul of South Vietnam, that is to say, we feel that this country, South Vietnam, has been occupied and that now, we could no longer identify with the future of this part of the country. So, uh, these are very hard moments of disarray because we have, even though I have siblings here, well, I was still cut off from my parents. I was cut off from this possibility of being able to come back because be it as it may, it is important to say that I had agreed to part ways with that country for four years, but bearing the hope that it would still be there and that I would find it again, in due course, while now, with the fall of South Vietnam, it is almost as if that hope has disappeared into thin air and vanished. And that even when I did went through the process to come back to give classes as a French person (because in 81′, I was already naturalized French), the answer confirmed that, well, it would forever be a country that didn’t allow its people to come back home or we could never return. So, uh, we also know that there is a great cultural difference, too, between the North and the South, because of the political aspect that has forged people too. So, there’s that feeling where we don’t have anything and when you’re a refugee, I think there’s a feeling, that somewhere, you’re protected. You’re protected by what you have done for France, and uh, it’s important to point out that at that time, even though I had tried to apply for French nationality before, it was something granted to me quite easily because they feel a big empathy for the distress of refugees from Southeast Asia at the time. They knew perfectly well that we are, I think they understood, that we are in a terrible dilemma but at the same time, choosing another nationality, even though we know that it is a host country and that it is very generous of them, we still feel like we have disavowed our home country. So, uh, having the refugee status means you don’t feel like you’ve denied your country for another country, rather you’re protected. So it’s this empathy, it’s going towards others so as not to ask them to make a choice that remains a trivial, difficult choice. Turn your back, choose another nationality, uh, for me, it felt like I am turning my back on my country who needs help.
Okay. And do you think you can come back someday? Do you still have that hope? Because you had it when you were doing your studies, but at the time, did that hope vanish completely?
When the Quai d’Orsay replied, uh, that there’s no possibility for me to come back, I understood perfectly well that my Vietnamese origins would be a hindrance to my return. Yes.
And so, and that distress you’re talking about, the distress you may have felt, how could you have been able to fight that feeling in those years after you finished your studies? And what did you do to…?
So, uh, after my studies we set up through the associative activities, uh, groups, a group with young people, uh, to try to maintain, uh, that hope in us of one day going back to our country, one way or another. We could also talk about uh, guerrilla or anything, but we ought to still have that hope. And so, uh, we have worked with young people on musical aspects and texts, readings of texts, to remind us that this country is still there and that we should still have that hope of coming back, of retaking, one way or another. We don’t know how we will retake it, all ways come into question, some have pledged to take up arms, to resist, etc. Each had found their own path. And we have sought in the sense of still remembering uh, our country. Fortunately, at that time, immediately afterwards, I found an alternative solution that met my needs, in that I have been contacted to teach Vietnamese. And this really was a godsend for me because it allowed me to pass on all of my knowledge, all my culture, all the love I have for my mother tongue, I was able to pass on. And so, at the same time, I was able to train a whole generation of young Vietnamese refugees in Paris. Because I’ve been teaching classes to all class levels in Louis-le-Grand for 20 years, I have about 200 young people. So, I was able to teach the language, the culture, the literature and also the love for the country of their ancestors; because this is the first wave of children of refugees, so I kept in them this connection with their parents’ country. They left it young or at 15, and so they still need that flame. And I saw in them what I had experienced a few years ago. So, uh, I was trying, uh, we’re very close, uh, and so, we managed to create something real, we had built a library with exclusively Vietnamese books, uh, books that we first put with our own books, from each family, to create a common basis. Now, it’s become a fund containing thousands of books. But it allows to stay very close to Vietnamese culture, South Vietnam literature, because it is a whole other kind of literature. And this, being able to teach Vietnamese both to high school students in Louis-le-Grand and to university students in Olanso – I had been able to teach there for a few years – for me, it’s liberating because it renders me useful, it allows me to both serve both my culture, my need to connect with my culture, my language, my country, but at the same time, to serve the Vietnamese community by training these young people and train these young people to build French society because they are young now. Without a base, they could drift away and so this made it possible to build something that is well-rounded and right, uh, all the while respecting both cultures, respecting both countries. And now, they are part of the French societal landscape and they are responsible, educated adults who have received a good education and therefore, are very useful to French society. And that’s something I was lucky enough to be able to get involved in.
Okay. Great. Thank you very much, Mrs. Nguyen. You have said just a moment ago that every time you talked about Vietnam, you would cry. What is your relationship to Vietnam today? How do you feel when you think about the country?
It’s always the same thing (starts crying). I don’t know and yet, I think I had tried to do something but it’s still painful because the Vietnam I found in ’92, or just recently, is not the Vietnam I had known. It’s as if despite the fact that we say we haven’t lost it, deep down, we haven’t found the same. So I don’t know if it’s to do with the fact that I also lost my father and haven’t seen him since that it is still so painful.
Yes, sorry. Thank you very much Mrs. Nguyen, it’s very moving. I just wanted to know if there were any other difficulties you wanted to talk about in relation to your journey as a refugee and if there were strengths that you had found in yourself that you wouldn’t have thought you had in you, but that you’ve discovered over the years and you would like to talk about now?
I think the fact, uh, to be able to come back to Vietnam in 92′ and then come back again several times in a row after that and to realize over time that in the end, we can never live there again because of how Vietnam had changed and that ourselves, being in France, having stayed in France, we have evolved in another direction, makes that the hope to come back one day to live, spend our last days, is fleeting away. I do not know if it is that strength, that reality that makes us realize that perhaps, we will be more useful being far from the country than in the country itself.
Okay. It’s very interesting.
Yes. And so it’s uh, at some point, in 80′, in 85′, following the birth of my eldest [child], the Venerable [monk] Thích Nhat Hanh, maybe you’ve heard of him, who had written a book in Vietnamese, a booklet – few pages – in Vietnamese, uh, titled “The Future of Vietnamese Culture”. And so, I was already a teacher and so he had asked me, Can I get my students to read this booklet and have a meeting to discuss it? Uh, I did the reading. I also gave it to read to my most advanced students. We didn’t really understand what he meant. On the day of the meeting, he comes and we come too, and then we talked, we talked, but we were going in circles. What will become of Vietnamese culture? We couldn’t sort it out and he was just there, he did not give us any leads either. I understood very little and my students, even less so. I had arrived at the meeting with my daughter who was a few months old and my husband who was supposed to take care of our daughter. And towards the end, it was dragging on, we didn’t find out at all how to build Vietnamese culture even though we talk about Vietnamese culture while we’re abroad, and how to proceed? And then my daughter was asking for me, she was crying. And so by then, we’re in a dead end when suddenly, my husband came behind me, lifting up my daughter, lifted up like so, he said to me, “You’re looking for a land so that you can plant Vietnamese culture there. Here it is. Here it is. This is the land you need, that you need. You don’t know where to put your seeds. She, here!” So suddenly, everyone had understood that it is in the future generation that everyone ought to cultivate this crop in themselves to one day, plant it, sow it in a new land, on a new land that is the future generation. In that moment, I realized that I have a whole mission: to pass on culture so that these young people later can pass it on to other generations.
Okay. And incidentally, how do you feel when you see these young people grow up, learn, does that make you feel proud, happy?
I think that to some extent, we haven’t failed to fulfill our promise. In some ways, I have accomplished my mission, uh, because sometimes, I see the third generation of my uh, who already have grandchildren and who bring them back to take our beginners classes for kids. So, even though it’s not 100%, still, the message has gone through and we have fulfilled some of uh, our promise. So, uh, in some way, I think that teaching French as a foreign language, it also happened in a very, very special way. At one point, I was waiting for my job to teach Vietnamese, like every year, in Summer. And that year, I had already left Louis-le-Grand and then, uh, an inspector had contacted me on the phone to ask me to take a job that is not easy, that job was not an easy one, at a high school, to teach French as a foreign language. I replied, “I’m not interested. The only thing I’m interested in is teaching Vietnamese because if I had wanted to build a career as a French as a foreign language, I could have started 20 years ago.” So he said, “Don’t hope after your position as a Vietnamese. What I offer you is teaching French as a foreign language, which matches your skills.” I said, “No, I apologize but frankly, I don’t want it.” So he said to me, “Come to meet me anyway, we can discuss it further then.” So I went to the interview. And then he brought out my resume since the first time I entered National Education, a very old CV (laughs). “Where did you get this from? Is it in your archives?” And then, he told me about this very difficult position, teaching French as a foreign language, all of that. And then, uh, I kept repeating no. I am still hoping to get this Vietnamese position. He laid out to me impossibilities and I said, “No, I keep hope.” Then he looked at me and said, “Mrs. Nguyen, I don’t understand you. Look at your CV, you are bedecked with diplomas as French as a foreign language and I do not understand your refusal. You have been trained to teach French as a foreign language and now, you turn your back on this first training. Really, I do not understand you. And you only want to teach Vietnamese.” So suddenly, I looked at him and then I said, “Message received. I don’t know if that’s really what you mean, but it’s true, I was trained to teach French as a foreign language, and I turned my back on it. Okay today, I’m taking this mission. I have taught a whole Vietnamese community and I know that now, I will have to help train other young people to contribute to French society. I don’t know if that’s your message, but I understood this as being the message.” So then, uh, well, I took the job. It’s not an easy position at all! And, uh, well, I was successful in accomplishing my mission too because the young people I’ve trained for 17-18 years have good jobs, are good people and contributing here in France or in their own country.
So, uh, I think that’s what makes me move forward. Being able to pass on knowledge that allows others to move forward with their lives.
Okay. Congratulations, it’s very beautiful. Thank you very much, Mrs. Nguyen. You remember, I had told you the last question about dreams. I don’t know, if you could answer using a quote saying, “Before I realized that I could no longer go back to my country — because in your case it’s a little peculiar, you understood that when you were here, in France — before I could no longer go back to my country, my dream was to…”
My dream, before I realized that it was impossible for me to return to Vietnam, was to be able to teach French so that others could learn about this culture, this language, the beauty of it. This was my dream. And so to create a link, a bridge between the two countries. And this dream faded over time but in the end, the dream I had at that time, well, I think I have made it come true, even by staying in France.
Okay. And today, what would your dream be?
My dream is to help implement positive changes in Vietnam, to give Vietnamese young people the possibility to have a future, to be able to use their own minds to determine their own future.
Thank you very much, Mrs. Nguyen. This is the end of the interview. Is there something else you would like to add, or…?
No, I think I’ve been too prolific (laughs).
No, no, perfect, it was perfect! Thank you very much.
It’s not going to be easy to do the transcript! (laughing)
I’m gonna do that. Great. So Mrs. Nguyen, just one last question: you told me about another dream you have today, can you talk about it briefly?
Yeah, uh, I hmm, I was thinking about achieving something. But however, this is not something easily acceptable. So what I’m thinking about, after my retirement, it’s to be able to buy agricultural land in the south of France and plant mango trees – erm Vietnamese fruit trees – and even a flamboyant that I already got seeds for, uh, so I could realize a dream I had since I was very little because I really loved botany, nature. Even back in the days in Vietnam, when I was very little, I moved the blades of grass to gather them together to try to make a square of lawn. Of course, it didn’t hold together since with the heat and moving them around like that is not something possible. Growing up, I uh, I always made purchases of hibiscus from home or orchids with my father, every trip he made with me to Saigon. And so, uh, it was a dream that, to do something in botany and that I couldn’t finally realize since I was too weak in math, physics-chemistry, uh, and so, I was forced to change direction and follow the letters and languages path and it stayed with me, so much that I influenced my daughter in her choice of studies. She’s an agricultural engineer (laughs). And uh, but I wanted to create this mango grove, an orchard of mango trees in the south of France, and uh, it had raised terrible outcry in the family because they thought me really not very normal to dream of such an impossible thing. So yeah.
Okay. Thank you very much.