Pittsburgh’s New Immigrants / From Vietnam War refugee to Pittsburgh doctor: Nghi Nguyen's journey



When Nghi Nguyen finished his American medical residency in the 1970s, he had two job offers — one in Oregon and another in Pittsburgh.

A fellow doctor at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center warned him that Pittsburgh’s pollution was so bad that it would cover his medical jacket with soot when he went outdoors, but “the employer from Pittsburgh offered me a good package and invited me to visit. The city itself reminded me so much of Dalat [a picturesque city nestled in the central highlands of Vietnam], so I decided to stay.”

Like many other immigrants to Pittsburgh, he never left.

Now in his seventies and semi-retired from his last job as head of anesthesiology at Alle-Kiski Medical Center, Dr. Nguyen has raised four children — all of whom are doctors, lawyers or hold master’s degrees — and spends much of his time baby-sitting his eight grandchildren.

He was part of the first wave of Vietnamese immigrants who came to the U.S. at the end of the Vietnam War.

When he arrived at Camp Pendleton in Southern California in 1975, he and his family were exhausted by the long flight from Guam to California and by living in tents at the refugee camp, where it was hotter during the day and colder at night than they were used to.

Still haunted by the horrors of war and overwhelmed by the imminent collapse of South Vietnam, they also were wracked by uncertainty over their future in a new land.

But he had the good fortune to be sponsored by William R. Rassman, an American doctor who had known him during the war when Dr. Nguyen was in the Medical Corps of the Republic of Vietnam and remains his close friend to this day. Dr. Rassman sponsored him and his family, which allowed Dr. Nguyen to move to Vermont.

There, he studied for the two tests that all international medical graduates need to pass to enter residency or fellowship programs in the United States — the Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates certification and the Federal Licensing Examination.

While American medical students get to take the equivalent tests sometime during their years at medical school, Dr. Nguyen had to take them on two consecutive days in a language he still was not fluent in.

“That was really stressful to me,” he said. “You are allowed around one minute for a question, and because I wasn’t a native speaker, I had to take some time off that allotted limit for translation before I could come up with an answer. The test itself was long and hard, and to a foreigner like me, the language barrier made it much more challenging.”

Despite those difficulties, he passed the tests and got into Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, one of the most prestigious medical schools in the country.

“Because I had no way back, I just kept pushing ahead,” he said.

He began working at Alle-Kiski Medical Center, then known as Allegheny Valley Hospital, in 1979.

“For 30 years, I worked like 100 hours per week. I worked even on holidays, whenever they called me in. My children hardly ever saw me home.”

Recalling those years, he looked affectionately at his wife, My Hanh, and said, “She was the educator of our household. Thanks to her, our children all grew up to be good and successful. And in some sense, I would say that she has brought me up, too.”

Dr. Nguyen wasn’t prepared for how gloomy the city felt when the first snow fell. Like other expatriates, Dr. Nguyen longed deeply for the warmth of family connections in winter.

Watching Americans clean their homes and put out their Christmas trees, he craved the Vietnamese ritual of the whole family gathering in the front yard for New Year’s and wrapping the “chung” cake, a traditional Vietnamese dish that symbolizes the Earth, in leaves. He missed the laughter of his family members, who had been scattered around the globe after the war.

It was that sense of broken connections that encouraged Dr. Nguyen to get involved with the Vietnamese Association of Pittsburgh, where he now heads the board of directors.

Started as a gathering of a few expatriate families to celebrate the Vietnamese New Year of Tet, the association now has about 2,500 members and organizes both Tet celebrations and summer picnics as a way for Vietnamese-Americans to keep in touch with their culture.

“It’s important for Vietnamese-Americans to stay connected. A sense of community makes expatriates like us less lonely and eases the deep longing for our home country; and for the youngsters, events like these will expose them to a part of their cultural heritage,” he said.

The Rev. Dam Nguyen, chaplain of the Vietnamese Catholic Community at St. Boniface Church in Spring Hill, shared similar sentiments.

“Even though we have been here for most of our lives, somewhere in our hearts we still long for our home country,” said Father Nguyen, who is not related to Dr. Nguyen. “Being in a parish, I myself would like to be a bridge and bring these Vietnamese expatriates together.”

It’s a mission he shares with Dr. Nguyen, whom met him when he first arrived in Pittsburgh and let him stay in his own home. The physician’s “greatest gift to the people here is his availability, accessibility and approachability.”

But Dr. Nguyen gave credit for Vietnamese solidarity to the women of the community. He said the women have raised most of the money the Vietnamese association gets. “The VAP and the Vietnamese Catholic community, as well as the Buddhist community, could not be in high gear without them,” Dr. Nguyen said.

Now, more than a decade after his retirement, Dr. Nguyen still works two days a week at Premier Plastic Surgery in Pine, chairs the Vietnamese American Community of Pennsylvania board and spends time with his grandchildren.

Since his arrival, he has watched the Vietnamese population in Pittsburgh go through several changes. There were about 3,000 Vietnamese here in the 1970s, largely due to the steel industry and the city’s close proximity to the Fort Indiantown Gap refugee camp. The number plummeted to as low as 1,500 in the ’90s after the loss of local industry jobs. A push starting in the 1990s to offer refuge for Vietnamese people with connections to the former government of South Vietnam and to children fathered by American soldiers, along with a boom in the cosmetic nail industry, boosted the number here to between 2,500 and 3,000 in 2014, according to the Vietnamese association’s community bulletin.

“Vietnamese from all walks of life came here, with or without a college degree,” he said, “and while those who couldn’t find a job left, for those who could, they all decided to stay.

“I think Pittsburgh is the most livable city in the states, especially in recent years: It has a lot of employment opportunities, a good medical system, widely recognized universities, long-established religious communities, a history of immigration and a diversity of ethnic groups. People may make more money in other cities, but since living expenses here are much lower and the environment is more suitable for bringing up your children, they’d rather live here.”

He is grateful for the charitable and church agencies that have helped Vietnamese immigrants, including the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities and the Lutheran and Presbyterian churches. Dr. Nguyen and his wife have handed out food for the homeless as part of Maranatha Outreach, and each year since 1986, they have volunteered at a clinic in Carthage, Mo., during an annual festival for Vietnamese Catholics at the Congregation of Mother Co-Redemptrix.

Dr. Nguyen hopes for the Vietnamese community to be more involved in public life here. “We encourage Vietnamese immigrants to vote and get involved in the election process, we guide them through the process of U.S citizenship application, we help people with getting their driving licenses and so on,” Dr. Nguyen said. “But there’s more we can and need to do to make our community visible.”

Dr. Nguyen wants to see more Vietnamese-Americans running for office. “I have supported many Vietnamese-American candidates for public office nationwide, and I am actually looking forward to supporting a Vietnamese-American candidate, who would probably be second generation, for public office in Pennsylvania.”

In the meantime, he continues to rely on his wife, who teaches Vietnamese at the University of Pittsburgh. When they travel together in the city, he said, she is the chauffeur and he is the human GPS. Like most couples, they argue in the car, but having been together more than half their lives, they wouldn’t make it to their destination without each other.

Phuong Tran: ptran@post-gazette.com.


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