Leaving his childhood home for an unknown country
Denver Water is very proud of our diverse workforce. We asked a few of our employees to share their culture and experiences for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, which occurs in May and celebrates the achievements and contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States.
Tung Nguyen grew up in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon.
His family of six lived in a small, 500-square-foot home on a riverbank in District 3, a crowded, poor neighborhood on the fringes of the city.
He had just graduated from a Vietnamese high school when his family learned they’d been approved to move to the United States after a 15-year application process.
At 19, on the edge of adulthood, Nguyen left all that was familiar to come to an unknown country.
He’d have to go back to high school. He’d struggle with English. But it was the start of a journey that would lead Nguyen to manage cybersecurity for Denver Water, charged with the safety of the critical networks that help deliver water to 1.4 million people in the Denver metro area.
But first, he had to graduate high school. Again.
The Vietnamese culture places tremendous emphasis on education.
“We were pretty poor, and my upbringing was extremely focused on education. As a result, I was very sheltered from the world around me. I shared a room with my three siblings, and we didn’t spend a lot of time playing sports, socializing with friends or doing extracurricular activities,” he said.
“There is a Vietnamese saying, ‘không thầKhông thầy đố mày làm nên’ (a young ox learns to plow from an older one) to emphasize the important role of teachers in the success of students. My job as a child was to go to school, and 100% of my focus was on my education,” Nguyen said.
Nguyen had assumed he would get a job in one of the most respected fields in Vietnam: architecture, engineering or medicine.
He had tinkered with computers in what little spare time he had, but a information technology career wasn’t on his radar.
“Growing up, we didn’t have internet because it was expensive. It was only for the rich kids in Vietnam,” he said.
Nguyen was very young when his uncle moved to the United States and settled in Seattle Washington. It took a decade to get all the necessary approvals for the extended family to join him.
“We had no idea what to expect. I didn’t know a lot about the U.S., and I knew very little English. I was excited, but also very uncertain. I was apprehensive to start a whole new life in a foreign place,” Nguyen said.
Nguyen remembers the day he and his older brother took a bus to enroll in a Denver area high school in order to improve their English and learn more about their new country.
When they arrived, the admissions office told them they were too late. The school year had already started. They would have to wait until the following year to enroll.
Nguyen remembers the ride home with his brother, their heads held low, their hearts heavy.
“I remember that day so clearly. I still get choked up thinking about it,” said Nguyen. “Education is so important in our culture. The thought of coming home to tell my father that we wouldn’t be able to go to school for an entire year was devastating.”
The family accepted the school’s decision, but Nguyen was desperate to start learning.
Nguyen enrolled at the local community college while he waited for the next high school year to start. He knew he’d be 20 years old and back in high school. He felt like he was falling further and further behind.
Then, a few months later, Nguyen’s father met a friend in an Asian grocery store. The friend told the family the school was required to accept the boys and helped them enroll for the second semester.
Nguyen was once again a high school junior, taking classes in English, literature and history. He took math and technology courses, where language wasn’t as big a barrier, at Front Range Community College.
“I was already behind having to go back to high school again, so it was a huge benefit to gain some college credits to help me catch up with peers my age,” he said.
After graduating from high school a second time, Nguyen went to Metropolitan State University for his undergraduate. He later transferred to the University of Colorado Boulder, graduating with a degree in electrical and computer engineering.
Nguyen returned to Metropolitan State University to pursue a master’s degree and work full time in its IT department.
Nguyen credits his drive to get an education to his parents and culture. It’s a value he is instilling in his own children, ages 5 and 7.
“Education is still very important to me, as is my family and my Vietnamese culture,” he said.
Nguyen’s parents live a block away from his family.
“I stop by my parents’ house every morning on my way to work to pick up the lunch my mom has made for me,” said Nguyen.
“I know it sounds silly. I’m a grown man. I can make my own meals. But this is how my parents show their love for their family, and I accept it out of respect for them. In the Vietnamese culture, family takes care of each other, no matter what,” he said.
Nguyen’s wife’s family is also from Vietnam, although she was born in Colorado. The couple blends Vietnamese and American cultures in their home.
“We celebrate Vietnamese holidays, like the Lunar New Year and death anniversaries, and my wife is Catholic, so we also celebrate Christmas. We eat traditional Vietnamese meals as well as American foods, and we enjoy gathering with family to recognize special occasions,” he said.
“American kids are taught independence at a very young age, which is very different in Vietnam. My wife and I are raising our children with the Vietnamese values of family, but with American ideals of independence.”